Bible as Onion: Peeling Away the Last of the Historical Layers and Preparing for a Shift in Focus

It’s not time to ditch the onion analogy yet. In my last post, I ended my examination of the Vulgate with a brief glimpse of two popes in the historical scene of mid-eighteenth century Italy. Before I delve into the significance of Popes Sixtus V and Clement VIII, both of whom were mentioned on the title page of the Biblia Sacra, I want to expand our historical framework to the sixteenth century, and give a brief picture of the religious climate in Europe.

In the course text, De Hamel notes that Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses in Wittenberg in 1517, instigating a wave of religious discord and disunity that would later be termed the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church fell under close scrutiny, and its holy text, the Vulgate Bible, was not immune to the criticism. The Protestant Reformation called into question the Vulgate’s relevance, accuracy, and authority.  

As tensions rose with the progression of the sixteenth century, the papacy in Rome responded to the issues raised against it.  Reacting to Protestant challenges to the validity of the Vulgate in particular, Pope Sixtus V (the first name printed on the title page of the Biblia Sacra) released his revision of the Vulgate in 1588, and Pope Clement VIII (the second name printed on the title page) released his revision of the Vulgate ten years later in 1598.

Placing the Biblia Sacra in this framework, this bible recognizes Popes Sixtus V and Clement VIII as integral figures in the evolution of the Vulgate.  Keeping this historical layer in mind, we can peel another few layers down to the core of our onion, to 1740 when the Biblia Sacra was published in Italy.

The year 1740 saw a transition in the papacy from Clement XII to Benedict XIV.  Although I have only just begun my research of Benedict XIV, he proves to be an interesting study.  During his time as Pontifex Maximus, he eased the strict regulations regarding the printing and reading of the Bible, allowing Catholics to read this text in their vernacular languages as long as the translation had been approved by the Holy See.  This knowledge drives me to ask two questions: how was this relaxation of rules concerning the language of bible translation received by the church hierarchy, such as the College of Cardinals?  How did the limited sanctioning of certain vernacular translations of the Bible affect the status and production of the Vulgate?  Stay tuned…

Attempts to construct a historical framework for the Polyglot Bible from 1832 yielded surprisingly fruitful results!  As a brief recap, the pocket-sized Polyglot Bible was stereotyped in 1832 by L. Johnson and was published by Armstrong and Plaskitt in Baltimore, Maryland.  An initial internet search of these two publishers revealed that more of their publications are currently available for purchase.  While they did produce texts of sermons, hymnals, and even the works of a Jewish historian, their publications are not confined to religious works.  Secular books, such as travel guides and memoirs also comprise a facet of their publications, which date as early as 1821.  

In a stroke of pure luck, my research led me to a text by John Wright entitled Early Bibles of America: Being a Descriptive Account of Bibles… that mentioned the precise bible that I am examining!  Wright mentioned not only the publishers, but also the date (1832) and the name of the stereographer (L. Johnson) both of which appear on the title page of the Polyglot Bible.  Wright goes on to set a historical background for this bible, noting that the first stereotyped bible in the US was produced in 1812.

The production of Polyglot Bibles specifically began in the late 1820s into the mid-1830s after which they enjoyed mass popularity as their production rate soared.  Although Wright’s text provides specific information about Polyglot Bibles, it leaves me with questions, such as what is stereotyping?  How did this process in particular affect the production of printed Bibles?

Looking forward to my third post, I want to shift my focus from strict historical narrative to critical analysis in order to trace the societal and religious implications these bibles signify.


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