In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Bible

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Humanists and the Bible
  • Renaissance and Reformation Hebrew Scholarship
  • History of the Book
  • Other European Countries

Renaissance and Reformation The Bible
Hannibal Hamlin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0298


The primary texts for the Renaissance were the works of Greek and Roman writers. For the Reformation, however, only one text mattered: the Bible. The Bible was hardly original to the Reformation, of course. The canon of the Christian Bible was fixed by the 3rd century, and the Latin translation of Jerome was in continual use throughout Europe from the beginning of the 5th century until long after the 16th century. Jerome’s translation was called the Vulgate because it was produced for the vulgus, the “common people.” After a millennium, however, the common people were not speaking Latin, which had become the preserve of scholars and better educated clergy. The Bible was translated into several European languages before the Reformation, and the early reformers John Wycliffe (England) and Jan Hus (Bohemia) had championed the vernacular Bible. All the major Protestant Reformers from Luther on insisted on translating the Bible into the language of the common people. In most countries, this in itself was not something to which the Catholics necessarily objected, and indeed Catholic translators produced many vernacular Bibles in the 16th and 17th centuries. The new Latin translation of the New Testament by Erasmus, for instance, printed with and based on his edition of the Greek text (the textus receptus), was foundational for later Protestant translators, but Erasmus remained Catholic. For Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers, however, the vernacular Bible was not simply a sensible convenience. The doctrine of sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) was at the core of Protestant theology: a long list of Catholic beliefs and practices (for example, devotion to the saints; the sacraments of marriage, penance, and extreme unction; Purgatory) were rejected principally on the basis that they were nonscriptural. If the Bible was the basis, and the only true basis, for Christian belief and practice, it was essential that all Christians be able to read it for themselves. Despite the claims for sola scriptura, and for the self-interpreting simplicity of the biblical text, reformers also insisted upon the right interpretation of the text. A vast library of commentaries, sermons, prefaces, annotations, catechisms, and paraphrases was generated to assist the ordinary reader. The cultures of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were thoroughly biblical, and few areas of life were not shaped in profound ways by the characters, stories, language, and teachings of the Bible.

General Overviews

The story of the Bible in the Renaissance and Reformation is pan-European, especially when one considers the shared Latinity of international scholarly and ecclesiastical culture. Understandably, therefore, few studies are able to manage the potentially enormous scope of the general topic. The best attempt is in the volumes of The Cambridge History of the Bible (Lampe 1969, Greenslade 1963), which, despite its somewhat English bias, includes chapters and subchapters on the Bible in most European countries, as the Reformation splintered Catholic Christendom into various national and vernacular churches, including not only Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain, but also Scandinavia and eastern Europe (though not as fully). The New Cambridge History of the Bible will eventually supplant the older, but until Volume 3 (1450–1750) appears, van Liere 2012 is the only available update. Most of the other volumes listed are collections of articles that attempt as much international coverage as possible given constraints of space and expertise. Griffiths 2001, Muller and Thompson 1996, Steinmetz 1990, and Stephens 1995 focus on theology and biblical exegesis. Gordon and Mclean 2012 is broader in scope, with articles on hermeneutics and exegesis, Hebraica, Bible maps and illustrations, and several Latin Bibles. Shuger 1994, though it is not strictly about the Renaissance Bible as such, is one of the few monographs to address the shared Latin culture of educated Europeans, including Bible commentaries by Hugo Grotius as well as Luther and Calvin and biblically based literature by Theodore Beza and George Buchanan. Pelikan 1996 is more than just an exhibition catalogue, with learned but accessible chapters on essential topics from philology to the Bible and the arts.

  • Gordon, Bruce, and Matthew Mclean, eds. Shaping the Bible in the Reformation: Books, Scholars and Their Readers in the Sixteenth-Century. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    Eleven essays by an international group of scholars addressing topics from lay Bible readers, Dutch printed Bibles, and Christian Hebraism to the Bible scholars Theodor Bibliander, Sebastian Castellio, and Immanuel Tremellius.

  • Greenslade, S. L. The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 3, The West from the Reformation to the Present Day. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

    Standard survey, at times relatively superficial and now somewhat outdated, but still the only authoritative work of its scope. Chapters by different scholars on topics on the Bible in the Reformation.

  • Griffiths, Richard, ed. The Bible in the Renaissance: Essays on Biblical Commentary and Translation in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.

    Nine essays plus an introduction covering a range of topics, including Savonarola’s biblical teaching, Erasmus, Luther, Cardinal Cajetan and Bible translation in Rome, Tyndale, the Anglican Homilies, and the Welsh Bible.

  • Lampe, G. W. H. The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 2, The West from the Fathers to the Reformation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

    Standard survey, at times relatively superficial and now somewhat outdated, but still the only authoritative work of its scope. Chapters by different scholars on topics from Jerome to Erasmus.

  • Muller, Richard A., and John L. Thompson, eds. Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996.

    Festschrift for David Steinmetz with sixteen essays plus a Steinmetz bibliography. Arranged in sections: the medieval and Renaissance background, early Reformation, and mid-16th century. Focus on both major figures (Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) and lesser known but significant biblical scholars (Trithemius, Hubmaier, Musculus, Selnecker).

  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Reformation of the Bible, the Bible of the Reformation: Catalog of the Exhibition by Valerie R. Hotchkiss and David Price. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

    Catalogue of 1996–1997 exhibition at Yale, Harvard, and elsewhere. Fine illustrations and descriptions of early printed Bibles and related works, such as Reuchlin’s on Hebrew and commentaries by Luther and Calvin. Pelikan writes chapters on philology, exegesis and hermeneutics, popular Bibles, and the arts.

  • Shuger, Debora Kuller. The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

    Erudite study of European Latin scholarship on, and literary responses to, the Crucifixion and their cultural implications in shaping the early modern fields of psychology, anthropology, and legal and political theory.

  • Steinmetz, David C., ed. The Bible in the Sixteenth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822382713

    Important collection of eleven learned essays with a genuinely cross-European scope. H. C. Erik Midelfort on biblical exegesis and witchcraft in Germany, R. Gerald Hobbs on St. Paul and the Psalms, Steinmetz on Calvin and patristic exegesis in Paul, and Irena Backus on Martin Bucer.

  • Stephens, W. P., ed. The Bible, the Reformation and the Church: Essays in Honour of James Atkinson. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.

    Festschrift for James Atkinson, including essays on Atkinson and thirteen other topics, English as well as continental European, some post-17th century. Patrick Collinson’s “The Coherence of the Text” is notable, on the practice of reading the Bible by collation, as is Basil Hall’s general essay on the Geneva Bible.

  • van Liere, Frans. “The Latin Bible, c. 900 to the Council of Trent, 1546.” In The New Cambridge History of the Bible: From 600 to 1450. Edited by Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter, 93–109. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521860062

    Despite the chronology in the volume title, the survey of Latin Bibles extends to the mid-16th century, when the Council of Trent instituted for Catholics the exclusive authority of the Vulgate.

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