Three Bibles in One: 1st Printed Polyglot

Published Apr 28, 2010
Three Bibles in One: 1st Printed Polyglot

Maybe you've skimmed down the columns of one of those Bibles that has four--or even eight--translations side by side. It is interesting to compare their wording. Such Bibles are useful for study, especially if one column gives the original Greek or Hebrew. We call them polyglot Bibles and they help us catch the meaning of the original words.

"Polyglot" means "many languages." The first polyglot Bible compiled was done in the third century by the renowned theologian Origen. The first polyglot Bible printed was the Complutesian Polyglot published in sixteenth century Spain. It is called Complutesian for Acala, the place where it was printed. The Roman name for Acala was Complutum.

Wealthy Cardinal Ximenez, the Inquisitor of Spain, paid for the Complutesian Polyglot. Although rich, Ximenez chose to live as a simple Franciscan friar. The pope himself had to order him to accept his position as Archbishop of Toledo. A man of great ability, he founded the University of Acala, defeated the Moors at Oran, North Africa, and governed Spain during absences of the royal family. Had Julius II (and later Leo X) listened to Ximenez, Luther's Reformation might never have happened for the cardinal protested the infamous indulgences that triggered the split in the church. As head of the dreaded Spanish inquisition, Ximenez restricted the scope and actions of its officers, but thousands of people suffered its cruelties all the same.

Ximenez appointed Diego Lopez de Zunga to head up work on the expensive polyglot project, which cost about half a million dollars in today's money. The Old Testament ran to four volumes. Jerome's Latin Vulgate was sandwiched between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament). For the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) the arrangers also provided an Aramaic translation. In a preface, Ximenez said he hoped the polyglot would assist scholars to determine the correct interpretation of Scripture and argued that while the "meaning of heavenly wisdom" can be found in any language, the true meaning of Scripture cannot "be understood in any way other than from the very fount of the original language."

A colophon is an inscription placed at the end of a book or manuscript telling about its production. According to the colophon of the first volume of the polyglot, it was issued on this day January 10, 1514--more than three years before Luther tacked his 95 theses to the church door. The sixth volume did not come off the press until 1517.

The official publication date was even later-- 1522-- several years after Ximenez died. Pope Leo X had been slow to approve the huge project. The fact that Erasmus had a monopoly from Emperor Maximillian to print Greek New Testaments also impeded publication. The Complutesian Polyglot, begun in 1502, had taken 20 years to publish. It stands as a monument of Renaissance Bible scholarship.


  1. Alston, G. Cyprian. "Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  2. "Complutesian Polyglot" and "Ximenez de Cisneros, Francisco." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  3. MacNutt, Francis Augustus. Bartholomew de las Casas; his life, his apostolate, and his writings. Putnam, 1909. Source of the image.
  4. Starkie, Walter, 1894 - 1976. Grand Inquisitor; being an account of Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros and his times. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1940.
  5. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated May, 2007.


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