A Matter of Survival
The Bible is so readily available to us now in every conceivable format and in so many versions that we can easily overlook the marvel of how the Bible survived the centuries and the varied attempts to destroy it.
Acting on a decree by the mad tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC, his henchmen tried to destroy all copies of Jewish Scripture. The books of the law (i.e. Jewish Scripture) that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death.
The Roman emperor Diocletian instituted the "Great Persecution" against Christians in the year AD 303. He attempted to exterminate the church and decreed that every manuscript of the Bible was to be seized and destroyed. He had the words extincto nomine Christianorum ("the name of the Christians having been destroyed") put over the ashes of a copy of the Bible.
But the Scriptures have obviously long outlasted Diocletian and Antiochus and other rulers who tried to do away with the Bible.
Other obstacles also kept the Bible from the people, including illiteracy and cultural barriers. The church in the Middle Ages spread to diverse peoples who spoke different languages. The "barbarian" peoples over time were brought to Christianity. So the Bible was taught in different ways. The written word was still basic, and monasteries carefully attended to the copying of the Bible. They made illuminated manuscript copies, some most magnificent, reflecting the reverence the monks accorded to the Bible. And the Scriptures were preserved as civilization underwent major transformations. But these did little to feed the souls of the masses of common people.
This was before the advent of printing, so every copy was done by hand. A single copy of the Bible could take up to a year for a scribe to write. But even if the Bible had been available, most people would not have been able to read it. In 14th and 15th century Europe, for example, only ten percent of the population could read at all, and only two percent could read effectively.
The Bible Recovered for the Common People
So even in periods and places of illiteracy, the Bible was imaginatively given to the people through multiple art forms. But over the course of time, the church that was in so many ways a civilizing and spiritual influence, itself fell prey to lust for power and wealth. Corruption increased. Superstition infected and distorted the Gospel. Over and over, reform movements emerged from within the church. The most far-reaching movement--the Protestant Reformation--centered on the recovery of the Bible for the daily lives of the people. Key figures included:
A 14th century Oxford philosopher and priest in England, John Wycliffe was consumed with a burning passion to purify the church. Wycliffe and his followers began the momentous task of translating the entire Bible into English for the first time. Church authorities, concerned about heresies and misinterpretations, moved against Wycliffe. His movement didn't succeed, but he opened the door and inspired others. He is commonly called "The Morningstar of the Reformation."
In 16th-century England, William Tyndale, a brilliant young priest, took up where John Wycliffe left off to bring the Bible to the common people. He could not gain approval from his church superiors, so he worked as an outlaw on the run in Europe, translating the Bible into English from the original languages and smuggling copies back into England to his countrymen. He was captured, condemned and executed in 1536. But his work became the foundation for our subsequent English Bibles.
A German monk in the early 1500s, he played one of the most visible roles in bringing the Bible back to the churches. Luther's burden of guilt tortured his soul. He found no comfort in religious ceremonies. But in his study of Scripture Luther discovered the path to salvation and inner peace he so desperately sought. His teachings brought him into conflict with church authorities and to an eventual split. He translated the Bible into German for his people and inspired churches in many nations to return to the Bible as their teaching authority.
Even a young girl played a significant role in the dissemination of Scripture. The advent of printing made possible the spreading of the Bible as never before. It did not happen all at once, but a key surge was prompted by young Mary Jones of Wales. As a teenager she saved her money and walked barefoot 25 miles to buy a Bible of her own. Her example is credited with inspiring the formation of Bible societies which now provide millions of copies worldwide every year.
The Scripture in Many Forms
Through the Middle Ages, when most of the population was illiterate, the Bible was taught in an amazing variety of ways.
Sculpture depicted Biblical people and events.
Pilgrimages took on great importance in the Middle Ages. Then, as now, there was special interest in visiting Jerusalem and the land of Israel to recall Biblical events in their original settings.
Great artists spent whole lifetimes painting only Biblical themes.
Stained glass was used to tell the stories of the Bible.
Drama in church services in medieval Europe told the stories of the Bible. At times many plays would be given on one day in the chancel of a church.
The dramas grew in popularity and moved outside to the marketplace. The plays could last up to three days.
To Every Tongue and People--The Most Translated Book in the World! From the earliest days, believers have hungered for the Scriptures in their mother tongues. For centuries, Bible translation proceeded slowly. In the chart below you see the number of translations that were in existence at the end of each century from the first century until now.
Notice especially what has happened in the last two hundred years. The pace of translation activity exploded! Today, it is expected that within a generation or two the Bible could be translated into every known language on earth. Thousands of gifted linguists work in remote areas of the world right now to achieve that goal. There are at least portions of the Bible now in over 2,000 languages. Exact numbers are not currently available on how many languages there are yet to go and that is now being surveyed worldwide, but the day will come when every person on earth who can read will be able to read at least portions of the Bible in their own language.