It is subversive literature. It has led to the overthrow of governments, sparked mass migrations across oceans, and more than once changed the course of history.
Governments – from the 16th-century English monarchy to the Communist Soviet Union – have gone to great lengths to restrict or even prevent its printing and distribution. Yet it has outlasted its enemies. It is the most popular book ever printed. No other has been translated into so many languages and few have had such impact on the development of those languages.
It is, of course, the Bible, portions of which have been translated into 1,946 of the 5000 languages of the world. This includes 318 languages into which the entire Bible has been translated. No other book even comes close to these numbers.
The collapse of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe has led to an unprecedented hunger for the Bible. In China, the lifting of restrictions by the government have led to the printing of 3 million copies of the Bible in Chinese. Bible publishers expect that Cuba will be one of the next strong fields of interest as that nation redefines its freedoms in the 1990s.
The interest of individuals in the Bible has often changed the course of history. Cultural historian David Hall of Harvard University argues that “the history of spirituality in Europe and America coincides closely with the printing of the Bible and its dissemination.”
The work of a 14th century monk, John Wycliffe, did much to reform the political structure of England. He laid the foundation of reform of not only the Church but also the State. He resolved to introduce the common people to the New Testament by translating it into the vernacular of the Saxon peasants.
Before the 15th century, every Englishman who could read was able to question the teachings of the Catholic Church with regard to both civil and ecclesiastical government. Because of the perceived threat of Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, who distributed and taught from English New Testaments, the Catholic Church banned translation of the Bible in 1408. The only copies that continued to exist in English were hand copies of the Wycliffe originals.
In the 1440s, Johannes Gutenburg began experimenting with novel, mysterious ways of approaching printing. Skilled in engraving and metal working, Gutenburg invented movable typeset and printed 200 copies of the Latin Bible. By the time Martin Luther was born in 1483, Germany had several large printing presses capable of printing hundreds of books at a time.
In 1521, William Tyndale, an Oxford scholar, began to translate the Bible into English. He did so because he was shocked to find that the people of England were so scripturally illiterate. Tyndale translated the entire Bible into English, printed copies of his version at Antwerp, and illegally smuggled the Bibles into England. In 1535, he was betrayed by a fellow Englishman and was burnt at the stake. His last words, reportedly, were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”
Consider that in 1525 in northern Germany, only 5 percent of the population was literate. Yet 150 years later in New England, 95 percent was literate. This great advance was the result of the Protestant Reformation which began to dominate the religious life of northern Europe. The basis of the Reformation was Martin Luther’s teaching on the Priesthood Of All Believers: “Every Christian is a Priest before God and is capable of interpreting the Bible for himself with the aid of the Holy Spirit.” Luther was also responsible for translating the entire Bible into the German language.
In turn, every Christian wanted to own a Bible and felt responsible to learn to read in order to more effectively commune with God. The result of this teaching brought on what some scholars believe to be the highest literacy rate of any society in the world: Puritan Massachusetts of the colonial period (1620-1775).
It may surprise some to know that the Puritans, although never a large group, have done more to influence the shape of government in the world than any other group of people in modern history. The Puritans were the architects of a new form of government – Christian self-government with union – which later became the basis for America’s form of government. This was the end result of the Puritan’s belief that the Bible holds principles that are applicable to every area of human life.
Today, there is a resurgence of interest in the Bible and reading the Scriptures in America. A 1990 Gallup poll found that 42 percent of Americans view the Bible as God’s Word, up from 38 percent in 1978. Asked if they read the Bible daily, 17 percent of the people in the same survey said they did, versus 12 percent in 1978. In 1990, 21 percent of those polled said they belonged to a Bible study group, compared with 19 percent in 1978. Although not gigantic shifts, these results indicate that interest in the Bible in America is on the upswing.