Translating the Bible into Action: How the Bible can be Relevant in all Languages and Cultures

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Bible reading in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took place in a variety of locations. Group reading, in which one person would read aloud to other gathered listeners, was especially important, since it demonstrates that even the illiterate might have had access to the English Bible. As Alec Ryrie notes, however, illiteracy was generally disapproved of and among the godly Protestants relatively rare. Some parishioners were also able to read the Bible in parish libraries, which were founded in an increasing number of parishes throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In the seventeenth century, a number of towns also established public libraries in which readers could find Bibles and other religious books.

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In many households, the family and the servants would gather after church to discuss the sermon and to read together passages from Scripture. Finally, many men and women also read their Bibles individually, whether in their studies and private chambers or in less obvious locations, like the workplace and the prison.

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Another context in which the Bible was read in the sixteenth century was the schoolroom. The grammar school curriculum was not uniform across the country, but in Protestant schools the Bible was featured in a variety of ways. In , for instance, Thomas Cranmer insisted that teachers at Winchester should read the Bible in English rather than from the Vulgate. In some schools, students were further edified by sermons on these Bible readings.

A good deal of the Bible was also experienced by students in the mediated forms presented in catechisms, primers, and simplified guides to the Bible.

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If we know men and women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were reading their Bibles in many different places, what do we know about the order in which they read them? So large a volume was daunting to read cover-to-cover; if readers made selections, how did they do so? An indication of how students were encouraged to read the Bible is provided by books such as the extremely popular History of the Bible; briefly collected by way of question and answer , by Eusebius Pagit.

He seems to be referring to Short Questions and answeares, conteyning the summe of Christian Religion , first printed in and revised in ; all told, there were thirty-odd editions well into the next century. The texts of Short Questions and the History are in fact quite different.

The former follows the traditional catechism format, including various Bible verses upon which to meditate at different times, prayers, and then the questions, each with an answer and a supporting Bible verse. The language is generally not itself biblical, but the catechumen seems to have been expected to know the biblical prooftexts for each answer. Chapter out of the Booke of Deuteronomie ver. The volume thus became increasingly focused on biblical knowledge with each edition.

This was also one of a number of Bible-reading handbooks produced during the period.

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Others included Micronius Marten, A short and faythful instruction, gathered out of holy Scripture London, ; Theodore Beza, A booke of Christian questions and answers Wherein are set foorth the cheef points of the Christian religion in maner of an abridgment , trans. Arthur Golding London, ; Arthur Dent, A plaine exposition of the articles of our faith, by short questions and answeres for the understanding of the simple London, ; William Burton, Certaine questions and answeres, concerning the knowledge of God whereunto are adjoyned some questions and answeres, concerning the right use of the law of God London, ; and the anonymous The Doctrine of the Bible, or, Rules of discipline briefely gathered through the whole course of the Scripture, by way of questions and answers London, from and The way to true happines leading to the gate of knowledge: Or, an entrance to faith: without which, it is unpossible to please God By questions and answers, opening briefly the meaning of every severall booke and chapter of the Bible, from the beginning of Genesis, to the end of the Revelation London, from Most of these were best-sellers, and all of them fostered Bible learning, if of a relatively basic kind.

Moreover, even the simple, early Catechism of Edmund Allen taught not just Bible texts but their interpretation.

Forsooth thus: as God is everlasting and immortal, even so is the soul of man also. Every service included longer readings, the proper psalms and lessons for morning and evening prayer and the Epistles and Gospels for Communion included in the Book of Common Prayer. Special services like baptism and matrimony included their own required Bible readings, and many briefer excerpts were sprinkled throughout the liturgy.

Worshippers were listening to the Bible read aloud in church every week, and interpretive lessons were built into many of these readings, but more explicit and extended interpretations of the Bible were offered in sermons. The average English worshipper must have heard hundreds if not thousands of sermons over the course of his or her life.

These three sermons were printed and read, as well as preached, but the vast majority of sermons heard around England left their mark only on the minds of their listeners, whose understanding of the Bible they attempted to shape. When readers encountered the Bible independently, however, whether singly or in company, how did they read it?

The first edition of was reprinted, sometimes expanded, and under several different titles Nine observations, Ten introductions, A plaine and perfect method , in , , , and He then takes the reader through the Bible from beginning to end, offering comments on what he sees as essential matters, including names, numbers, chronology, and correspondences between Old and New Testaments. Byfield also offers daily readings, but in addition he summarizes, book by book, the most important take-aways.

In 1 Timothy, for instance, the contents are. He enformeth concerning the dutie of Byshops and Deacons, ch. He taxeth seuerall abuses, ch. The journal of Robert Bulkeley, a Welsh country gentleman, records only a single evening of Bible reading over six years. The obsessive diarist Nehemiah Wallington, on the other hand, read a Bible chapter every morning and evening, and the surveyor Richard Norwood read at least twenty pages a day for seven months. However often they read their Bibles, and in whatever quantities, early modern men and women often read the Bible according to certain prescribed schemes.

One of the best guides to Bible reading practice is itself the Bible most often read, the Geneva. The Geneva Bible was popular with all English Protestants, not just with the more evangelical. In a number of editions of the Geneva Bible from , readers are advised by one T. Coherence of the text, howe it hangeth together, 2. Course of times and ages, with such things as belong unto them, 3. Manner of speech proper to the Scriptures, 4. Agreement that one place of Scripture hath with an other: whereby that which semeth darke in one is made easie in an other.

Many Bible readers clearly also sought out interpreters, given the huge number of published sermons and commentaries available. The marking and considering that Grashop recommends is more complicated. It does, of course. In 2 Kings Jehoiachin is said to begin his rule at the age of eighteen, but in 2 Chronicles he begins at age eight. Such contradictions might prove confusing to the reader or even dangerous to faith, so coherence is stressed as a matter of fundamental belief.


The consistency of the Bible also underlies the exhortation to compare one place of scripture with another. There are many more cross-references in the margins of the New Testament books than the Old. Many of these are internal, such as those connecting words or episodes common to different Gospels.

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But there are also cross-references in Old Testament verses to places where they are quoted in the New Testament. The margins of Psalm 22 direct the reader to Matt. While there is no cross-reference to Matt. Patrick Collinson argued that, while the Catholic liturgy fragmented the Bible, Protestant reading practices encouraged continuous reading. That Bible verses were commonly quoted out of context was a practice exploited by poets and playwrights for intriguing purposes.

Redcrosse is on the verge of suicide, when his more righteous and biblically informed companion Una paraphrases the rest of St. Marlowe, Spenser, and Shakespeare were clearly sensitive to the potential pitfalls of citing chapter and verse. The isolation of chapter and verse was further encouraged by the practice of commonplacing. Commonplacing was a general practice by means of which early modern readers culled the most wholesome flowers from whatever they read, but when applied to the Bible it further encouraged reading passages out of their original contexts.

The effects of the principle of internal cross-referencing and the practice of commonplacing may also be visible in the use of biblical allusion in paraphrases and adaptations. William Hunnis wrote a greatly expanded metrical paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms, for instance, Seven Sobs of a sorrowfull soule for sinne.

Several stanzas further on, though, the psalmist interjects material from elsewhere in the Bible, anachronistically asking Christ to reach forth a hand to him, as he did to Peter, sinking on the Sea of Galilee, and to the leper, who was cleansed by his touch.

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This is a close paraphrase of Matt. A final and most important question about Bible reading is surely how readers interpreted what they read, but this is even more difficult to answer than the previous questions about reading practices. Once again, most interpretation, like most reading, leaves no trace. Interpretations were also available in glosses, commentaries, and sermons.

And allusions to the Bible in any number of literary works can also reveal how those alluding are interpreting the texts. One might also consider how the Bible is interpreted in other media: musical settings, for instance, or visual arts and crafts.

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Since the Bible permeated almost every nook and cranny of sixteenth-century culture, however, a massive amount of research would be necessary to reach even tentative generalizations. Still, it is probably safe to suggest that biblical interpretation was remarkably diverse. Kate Narveson makes the useful point that many, perhaps even most, early modern Bible readers were quite orthodox in their interpretation. Narveson is no doubt right, too, that the instruction of children through catechisms, parental lessons, and preaching must have meant that orthodox interpretation was instilled in many minds before they even opened their Bibles.

Tyndale put the Bible into the hands of common readers, but he provided them with introductions, prefaces, and marginal glosses to make sure they read aright. Readers were provided with interpretive aids, and sermons directed the congregation how to understand, but anyone was free to question a marginal gloss or disbelieve the preacher, and of course glosses and preachers sometimes disagreed.

This is, after all, how the Reformation began, with Luther and others reading their Bibles carefully and questioning the received understanding of such fundamentals as the sacraments, the structure of the Church, and the nature of salvation. And different reformers came to different conclusions—Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli about the Eucharist, for instance—so it is hardly surprising that later Bible readers differed likewise.

This exchange is a useful lesson in the inadequacy of explaining Catholic and Protestant biblical interpretation in terms of the allegorical versus the literal sense, since it is Feckenham who stresses the literal, and Grey who argues for the metaphorical.