There is no question that the Bible has been the most influential book in human history as well as the best and biggest seller. While we may appreciate the profound impact the Bible has had on the moral, spiritual and even political development of the West, few of us appreciate the process whereby this came to be so.
In this first of series of articles on the impact of the Bible on civilization I would like to talk about the historical process which led to the mass spread of the Bible.
Today virtually every household in the West has at least one, if not more, copies of the Bible. It has been translated into over 1,000 languages, and in only 150 years (from 1800 to 1950) more than 1.5 billion copies were sold. (1)
Although the Bible is a ubiquitous product in virtually every Western home today this was no means the case 500 years ago. The story of the spread of the Bible is one of the lesser-known, but fascinating aspects of the Jewish impact on civilization.
Our story begins with the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In the 4th century, especially during the reign of the Emperor Constantine (306-337 CE), Christianity made the dramatic switch from persecuted splinter sect of Judaism to major world religion. During the following centuries the Christian faith spread throughout Europe and the Middle East gathering millions of new adherents who were formally pagans.
The Bible spreads outward from Zion, until the Church stands as a bulwark against its dissemination to the masses.
As the church spread, it grew into a tremendous political and physical power. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, the church took over the reigns of authority within former empire boundaries.(2)
At the same time, the collapse of Rome led to a precipitous decline in culture, literacy and general quality of life in the region. Out of this relative chaos emerged the feudal system which would serve as the main political and economic structure of Medieval Europe.Within this feudal system, the church, with its vast network of dioceses, huge land-holdings and relatively literate clergy, emerged as the most powerful institution. The church's power grew to such an extent that by the 11th century Pope Innocent III was more powerful than any monarch in Europe and church revenues from feudal taxation far exceeded the revenues collected by local nobility and even kings.(3)
Besides physically controlling much of Europe the church also controlled the spiritual destiny of the Western Christian world, and the soul of every Christian -- it could grant pardons and offer salvation or punish with excommunication or eternal damnation.
The church also had an almost complete monopoly on both literacy and books in Medieval Europe, as the only people who were educated to read were clergy, with very few exceptions. (One such exception were the Jews, who had a near 100 percent literacy among them.) The reason for this was partly economic -- before the development of the printing press in the 15th century, all books had to be copied by hand, a very time consuming and expensive process. The few libraries that existed were virtually all in the hands of the church and the vast majority of people could neither afford a book nor read one.
The feudal system was a primitive and harsh system. The vast majority of people were peasant farmers who led a subsistence level existence, slaving away on farms and paying most of their meager harvest in taxes to the nobility or the church. The church reaped huge economic benefit from this feudal system yet as it grew in wealth and power it found itself in an uncomfortable moral position.
In theory, Christianity was based on both the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels and Writings. The Hebrew Bible constantly speaks about the notions of equality, charity, social responsibility and spirituality. The Christian Gospels and Writings echo many of the same sentiments and also stress the idea of the meek inheriting the earth. These ethical ideals were in sharp contrast to realities of the very materialistic and powerful medieval church. This hypocrisy did not escape the church's awareness and thus we have one of the great ironies of history -- the Roman Catholic Church which drew its legitimacy directly from the Bible was more afraid of the Bible than any other book in its library!
The church embarked on a deliberate policy to deny the common people access to the Bible. (4) This policy forbid a member of the clergy from owning or publicly reading from the Bible without special permission from higher church officials. Even if a local parish priest was given permission to read the Bible to his flock, every copy was written in Latin, so virtually no peasants would understand what he or she was hearing.
So threatened was the church by the Bible that in 1408 Bishop Arundel of England decreed that anyone making or using an unlicensed translation of the Bible was liable to be put to death. (5)
Persecution of the Bible carried on for centuries but the "Book of Books," could not be suppressed forever. Disgust with the decadence of the church combined with humanity's desire to hear the word of God would lead to dramatic political and religious changes in Europe and the mass translation and dissemination of the Bible.
How that happened will be covered in the next installment in this series.
1.Goldberg, M. Hirsh, "Jewish Connection," Maryland: Scarborough House, 1993, pp. 6-130.
2.Johnson, Paul, "A History of Christianity," New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976, p. 104.
3.Dillenberger, John and Welch, Claude, "Protestant Christianity: Interpreted Through Its Development," New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1954, p. 11.
4.Phelps-Brown, Henry, "Egalitarianism and the Generation of Inequality," Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 68.
5.Tuchman, Barbara, "The Bible and the Sword," New York: New York University Press, 1956, p.85.