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Have you ever desired to find a passage in the Scriptures but struggled to recall its location? Yet, by recalling just one word, you were able to discover it using a Bible concordance. Or perhaps you have participated in a Christian gathering where hundreds, or even thousands, swiftly opened their Bibles to read a cited verse mere seconds after it was mentioned.
In both instances, you owe a debt of gratitude to a man whom you may not be acquainted with. He made your Bible study more accessible, and he also played a role in ensuring that we possess accurate Bibles today. Furthermore, he influenced the visual appearance of many Bibles. However, I would be remiss if I were not to mention that his New Testament was based on the corrupt Textus Receptus. Yet, with Erasmus, he re-engaged scholarship toward the original language New Testament. The Catholic Church locked the Bible up in Latin for a thousand years.
This man was Robert Estienne, a printer who was born as the son of a printer in Paris, France, during the early 16th century. It was an era marked by the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the printing press became instrumental in both movements. Robert’s father, Henri Estienne, was a renowned painter, producing some of the finest editions of books during the Renaissance. His work encompassed academic and Biblical publications for the University of Paris and its theological institution, the Sorbonne.
Let us, however, shift our attention to the son, Robert Estienne, also known by his Latinized name, Stephanus, and his Anglicized name, Stephens. Little is known about his formal education. Nevertheless, from a young age, he attained mastery in Latin and swiftly acquired knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. Under his father’s guidance, Robert learned the art of printing. By the time he assumed control of Henri’s printing press in 1526, Robert Estienne had already established himself as a scholar of elevated linguistic standards. Although he published critical editions of Latin literature and other scholarly works, his primary and undeniable passion was the Bible. Driven by a fervent desire to achieve for the Latin Bible what had already been accomplished for the Latin classics, Estienne embarked on a mission to restore, to the best of his ability, the original fifth-century text of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate Bible.
A Refined Vulgate
In the days of Estienne, the Vulgate had been in existence for a thousand years. Jerome had translated it from the original Hebrew and Greek languages. However, over the course of generations, numerous errors and corruptions had crept into the Vulgate through the process of transcribing. Additionally, during the Middle Ages, the divine words of the Bible had become intertwined with medieval legends, paraphrased sections, and false interpolations. These elements had become so entangled with the text of the Bible that they began to be accepted as inspired writings.
To remove everything that was not original, Estienne employed the methods of textual criticism used in the study of classical literature. He diligently sought out the oldest and most reliable manuscripts available. In libraries in and around Paris, as well as in places like Évreux and Soissons, he discovered several ancient manuscripts, one of which appeared to date back to the sixth century. Estienne meticulously compared various Latin texts, selecting passages that carried the greatest authority. The result of his work was Estienne’s Bible, first published in 1528, which marked a significant advancement in refining the textual accuracy of the Bible. Estienne continued to release improved editions thereafter. Although others before him had attempted to correct the Vulgate, his edition was the first to provide an effective critical apparatus. In the margins, Estienne indicated where he had omitted doubtful passages or where multiple readings were possible. He also documented the manuscript sources that supported these corrections.
Estienne introduced several innovative features, which were quite remarkable for the 16th century. He distinguished between the Apocryphal books and the Word of God. He placed the book of Acts after the Gospels and before the letters of Paul. At the top of each page, he included a few keywords to assist readers in locating specific passages. This early example of what is now known as a running head. Instead of using the heavy Gothic or black letter type that originated in Germany, Estienne was one of the pioneers in printing the entire Bible in the lighter and more readable roman type that is now commonly used. He also included numerous cross-references and philological notes to help clarify certain passages.
Estienne’s Bible found favor among many nobles and church leaders because it surpassed all other printed editions of the Vulgate. Its beauty, craftsmanship, and usefulness made it the standard, and soon it was being imitated throughout Europe.
The Royal Printer
“Have you seen a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” – Proverbs 22:29
Estienne’s exceptional craftsmanship and linguistic prowess did not go unnoticed by Francis I, the king of France. He appointed Estienne as the royal printer for Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. In this esteemed position, Estienne produced some of the most remarkable examples of French typography. In 1539, he embarked on the creation of the first complete Hebrew Bible printed in France, a work that would be hailed for its excellence. A year later, in 1540, he introduced illustrations into his Latin Bible. Instead of the fanciful depictions commonly seen during the Middle Ages, Estienne opted for informative drawings based on archaeological evidence or the measurements and descriptions found within the Bible itself. These wood-block prints depicted intricate details of subjects such as the ark of the covenant, the high priest’s garments, the tabernacle, and Solomon’s temple.
Using a specially commissioned Greek typeface for printing the king’s collection of manuscripts, Estienne continued his work and produced the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament. Although the initial two editions of Estienne’s Greek text were not much of an improvement over Desiderius Erasmus‘ work, the third edition in 1550 brought significant advancements. Estienne incorporated collations and references from approximately 15 manuscripts, including the Codex Bezae from the fifth century C.E. and the Septuagint Bible. This edition by Estienne gained widespread acceptance and later became the foundation for the Textus Receptus, also known as the Received Text. Many subsequent translations, including the renowned King James Version of 1611, drew upon Estienne’s work as their basis.
The Sorbonne Against the Reformation
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” – 2 Timothy 4:3
As the ideas of Martin Luther and other Reformers began to spread throughout Europe, the Catholic Church sought to maintain control over the thoughts and beliefs of the people by regulating their reading material. On June 15, 1520, Pope Leo X issued a bull decreeing that any book containing “heresies” should not be printed, sold, or read in any Catholic territory, and he demanded that secular authorities enforce this decree within their domains. In England, King Henry VIII entrusted the task of censorship to Catholic bishop Cuthbert Tunstall. However, in most of Europe, the ultimate authority in matters of doctrine, second only to the pope, was the faculty of theologians at the University of Paris—the renowned Sorbonne.
The Sorbonne served as the voice of Catholic orthodoxy, regarded for centuries as the defender of the Catholic faith. The Sorbonne’s censors vehemently opposed critical editions and translations of the Vulgate into vernacular languages, considering them not only “useless to the church but harmful.” This stance was unsurprising during a time when Reformers were challenging church doctrines, ceremonies, and traditions that lacked scriptural foundation. However, many theologians at the Sorbonne placed greater importance on the church’s venerable doctrines than on an accurate understanding of the Bible itself. One theologian expressed the view that “once the doctrines are acquired, the Scriptures are like scaffolding that is removed after a wall is built.” Most of the faculty members were ignorant of Hebrew and Greek, yet they scorned the pursuits of scholars like Estienne and other Renaissance scholars who delved into the original meanings of biblical words. In fact, one Sorbonne professor even dared to suggest that “promoting knowledge of Greek and Hebrew would lead to the destruction of all religion.”
The Sorbonne’s resistance to the Reformation was rooted in a desire to maintain established traditions and doctrines, even at the expense of a deeper understanding of Scripture. Their opposition to critical biblical scholarship and the translation of the Bible into common languages served to perpetuate the authority of the Catholic Church and limit access to the Scriptures among the laity. However, their stance stood in contrast to the growing movement of Reformers who emphasized the primacy of Scripture and sought to make it accessible to all.
The Sorbonne Attacks
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32
Although the early editions of Estienne’s Vulgate Bible managed to pass the scrutiny of the faculty at the Sorbonne, they were not without controversy. The Vulgate had been established as the official Bible of the university back in the 13th century, and to many, its text was deemed infallible. In fact, the faculty had previously condemned the esteemed scholar Erasmus for his work on the Vulgate. Therefore, it was alarming to some that a local layman printer would dare to correct the official text.
Above all, it was Estienne’s marginal notes that stirred concern among the theologians. These notes raised doubts about the authenticity of the Vulgate’s text. The theologians feared that Estienne’s annotations intruded into the realm of theology. However, Estienne refuted this accusation, stating that his notes were merely concise summaries or focused on philological matters. For instance, in his note on Genesis 37:35, he clarified that the word “hell” [Latin: infernum] in that context should not be understood as a place of punishment for the wicked. The faculty accused him of denying the immortality of the soul and the intercessory power of the saints.
Nevertheless, Estienne enjoyed the favor and protection of the king, Francis I. The king held a keen interest in Renaissance studies, particularly in the work of his royal printer. It is even reported that Francis I visited Estienne on occasion and patiently waited while the printer made last-minute corrections to texts. With the king’s support, Estienne stood firm against the opposition from the Sorbonne.
Theologians Ban His Bibles
In 1545, a series of events brought the full force of the Sorbonne’s faculty against Estienne. Recognizing the importance of presenting a united front against the Reformers, the Catholic universities of Cologne, Louvain, and Paris had previously agreed to collaborate in censoring unorthodox teachings. When the theologians of Louvain University expressed their surprise to the Sorbonne that Estienne’s Bibles were not on Paris’ list of condemned books, the Sorbonne deceitfully replied that they would have condemned them if they had seen them. The enemies of Estienne within the faculty now felt confident that the combined authority of the faculties of Louvain and Paris would be enough to persuade Francis I of the errors of his printer.
However, being forewarned of his enemies’ intentions, Estienne took preemptive action by approaching the king first. He proposed that if the theologians identified any errors they had found, he would be willing to print their corrections and include them with each Bible sold. This solution gained the favor of the king. He entrusted Pierre du Chastel, his royal lector, with handling the matter. In October 1546, the faculty wrote to Du Chastel, objecting that Estienne’s Bibles were “nourishment for those who deny our Faith and support current heresies” and that they were so riddled with errors that they deserved to be completely extinguished. However, the king remained unconvinced and personally ordered the faculty to provide the censures so that they could be printed alongside Estienne’s Bibles. The faculty promised to comply but did everything possible to avoid producing a detailed list of supposed errors.
Sadly, Francis I passed away in March 1547, taking with him Estienne’s most powerful ally against the authority of the Sorbonne. When Henry II ascended the throne, he renewed his father’s command for the faculty to produce their censures. However, with the observation of how the German princes were exploiting the Reformation for political purposes, Henry II became less concerned about the perceived advantages or disadvantages of the royal printer’s Bibles. His primary focus shifted toward maintaining France as a united Catholic nation under his rule. On December 10, 1547, the king’s Privy Council decided to prohibit the sale of Estienne’s Bibles until the theologians could provide their list of censures.
Accused of Being a Heretic
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” – Matthew 10:28
The faculty of the Sorbonne now sought ways to transfer Estienne’s case to the newly established special court for trying heresy cases. Estienne was well aware of the peril he faced. Within just two years of its establishment, the court gained a fearsome reputation and came to be known as the “burning room” or chambre ardente. Approximately 60 individuals were sent to the stake, including printers and booksellers who were burned alive at the Place Maubert, a mere few minutes’ walk from Estienne’s doorstep. Authorities repeatedly searched Estienne’s house, hoping to find evidence against him. More than 80 witnesses were interrogated, with informers promised a share of Estienne’s possessions if they could secure a conviction of heresy against him. However, the only evidence they had was what Estienne had openly printed in his Bibles.
Once again, the king commanded that the list of censures from the faculty be presented to his Privy Council. However, the faculty stubbornly replied that theologians did not usually provide written reasons for condemning something as heretical, preferring to convey their verdicts orally. They insisted that their spoken word should be enough, or else the process would become endless. King Henry II reluctantly accepted their response. The final ban was issued, condemning almost every biblical work produced by Estienne. While he had managed to avoid the flames of Place Maubert, he made the decision to leave France due to the complete prohibition of his Bibles and the likelihood of further harassment.
Estienne’s departure from France was a consequence of the severe persecution he faced as a result of his printing and publishing activities. He sought to protect himself from further harm and to continue his work in a more accepting environment.
The Expatriate Printer
“But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!'” – Luke 11:28
In November 1550, Estienne made the decision to relocate to Geneva, Switzerland. In France, the faculty had enacted laws making it illegal to publish any Bible except the Vulgate. However, now free from such restrictions, Estienne took the opportunity to reprint his Greek “New Testament” in 1551, presenting two Latin versions (the Vulgate and Erasmus’ translation) side by side. Following this, in 1552, he released a French translation of the Greek Scriptures alongside Erasmus’ Latin text. In these editions, Estienne introduced his system of dividing the Bible’s text into numbered verses—the same system that is universally used today. While previous attempts had been made to divide the text into verses, Estienne’s method became the widely accepted format. His French Bible of 1553 became the first complete Bible to include his verse divisions.
Estienne’s Latin Bible of 1557, featuring two versions, is particularly noteworthy for his use of God’s personal name, Jehova, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. In the margin of the second psalm, he noted that the substitution of ʼAdho·naiʹ for the Hebrew Tetragrammaton (יהוה) was solely based on Jewish superstition and should be rejected. In this edition, Estienne employed italics to indicate Latin words that were added to complete the sense of the Hebrew text. This convention was later adopted in other Bibles, becoming a legacy that has sometimes puzzled modern readers accustomed to italics denoting emphasis.
Driven by a determination to make his knowledge available to others, Estienne dedicated his life to the publication of the Holy Scriptures. Those who cherish the Word of God today can be grateful for his efforts and the labor of other scholars who painstakingly worked to uncover the original words of the Bible. The process they initiated continues as we gain a deeper understanding of the ancient languages and discover older, more reliable manuscripts of God’s Word. Shortly before his passing in 1559, Estienne was engaged in a new translation of the Greek New Testament. When asked who would purchase and read it, he confidently responded, “All learned men of godly devotion.”