A Vatican Exhibition on the History of the Bible, with Some Blind Spots


If you visit St. Peter’s square before the 15th of April an unexpected and interesting attraction will be waiting for you. In the Braccio di Carlo Magno (i.e. Charlemagne Wing) next to St. Peter’s basilica under Bernini’s colonnade on the right-hand side of the square, an exhibition entitled Verbum Domini (i.e. the Word of the Lord) will call for your attention. The colorful Italian-English brochure that will be put in your hands invites you to “Take a walk through the history of the Bible in this private collection of rare biblical texts and objects of enormous importance.” Admission is free.

Verbum Domini is also the title of the 2010 Post-Synodical Apostolic Exhortation by Benedict XVI in which the Pope summarized the present-day Roman Catholic interpretation of the Word of God, i.e. a living Tradition which includes the Bible and which the Magisterium of the Church interprets faithfully. The connection between the papal text and the exhibition is clear and signals the intent to underline the importance of this topic.

1. A Fascinating Exhibition …

The exhibit was put together from private collections from around the world, mainly from the Green Collection – the largest private collection in the world of rare biblical texts and documents. Displayed in 8 galleries, 152 rare biblical texts and artifacts showcase the history of the Bible: from ancient scrolls to copied texts to printed volumes of the XVII century; from Hebrew to Greek to Latin and other vernacular languages; from Qumran to Europe to the rest of the world.

Here are some of the highlights of the exhibition:

  • Codex Climaci Rescriptus—one of the earliest-surviving, near-complete Bibles containing the most extensive early biblical texts in Jesus’ household language of Palestinian Aramaic.
  • Scrolls
  • The Jeselsohn Stone or Gabriel’s revelation, a three foot tall, 150 pound sandstone tablet discovered near the Dead Sea in Jordan containing 87 lines of first century BCE Hebrew text.
  • The Gutenberg Bible Book of Romans, the first book printed in the West with moveable typeset printing.
  • Complutensian Polyglot, the first multilingual edition of the entire Bible.

In the first gallery, there are also two half-burnt scrolls of the Torah that escaped total destruction attempted by the Nazis and Stalinists. They are a moving testimony to the on-going battle that surrounds the Bible.

2. The Inter-faith and Ecumenical Intentions

The exhibition has an ambitious goal. In the organizers’ words, “the Verbum Domini, specifically, is a way of celebrating the interfaith love that many traditions have for the Bible, and we believe that is a way of sharing that with the world”. Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions are all represented in it. From the Vatican side, here is what Cardinal Farina, Prefect of the Vatican Library, said about the exhibition at the inauguration: The title Verbum Domini was chosen to highlight the ecumenical conception of this exhibition, and also its venue here at the Vatican. The origin of the documents, the prevalence of the Green Collection, and those from other collections highlight the participation of the Christian denominations. Because in reality, the Bible unites, even though so many think it does the opposite, it’s actually a very strong point of union.

Fair enough. But why is it that on the brochure that is distributed at the entrance one reads that “this exhibit celebrates the dramatic story of the Catholic contribution to the most-banned, most-debated, best-selling book of all time”? Has the broad contribution to the history of the Bible become a Catholic contribution alone? Perhaps this is a mistake made by a zealous editor, but it may also reflect the provincial culture that each institution (Vatican included) can fall prey to.

3. The Missing Story

The most puzzling point, however, is what the exhibition does not say about the history of the Bible. The unsaid is as telling as what is said. The trajectory of the suggested narrative is “linear” to the point of being historically anemic. The given picture is that the “modern” translations of the Bible in vernacular languages spread out across the Christian spectrum and that each sector of the Christian church championed their diffusion.

The reality is different. Since the XII century the Roman Church has in various instances banned the circulation of Bibles in the peoples’ languages. These bans lead to the compilation of the 1559 Index of Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) by Pope Paul IV where Bible translations were among the forbidden books. The attack by the Tridentine Church towards the translations of the Bible allowed historian Gigliola Fragnito to speak of “the Bible on stake” to describe what happened up to the XVII century in countries dominated by the Catholic Church[1], a ban lasted for centuries. A more accurate telling of the story, therefore, is quite different from the mild, peaceful, ecumenical account of the Verbum Domini exhibition.

The Bible is a shared heritage for Christians and this truth is beyond dispute. Therefore historical exhibitions on the Bible should aim at telling the story in a fair and accurate way rather than pursuing ecumenical readings which are unfortunately partial, selective, and therefore in the end misleading. We can all benefit from this example. It is proper and good to celebrate our heritage, but we must do so in a way that tells the complete story, including the unflattering elements.

Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 26th March 2012

[1] Gigliola Fragnito, La Bibbia al rogo. La censura ecclesiastica e i volgarizzamenti della Scrittura, 1471-1605 (Bologna: il Mulino, 1997). More recently the same scholar edited the volume Church, Censorship and Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. Leonardo,

    I would add that the complete story includes mention that the Catholic Church did allow vernacular translations of Scripture as far back as the 7th century with Caedmon and later with Venerable Bede translating the Gospel of John.
    What the Catholic Church did was ban translations of the bible that were flawed and filled with margin notes that were biased against the faith.
    Here’s a margin note from the Calvinistic Geneva Bible on Revelation, Rev. ix., 3. ‘Locusts are false teachers, heretics and wordly subtil prelates, with monks, friars, cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, doctors, bachelors, masters, which forsake Christ to maintain false doctrine.’ Is it really surprising the Catholic Church would ban this bible?

    Whether you agree or not with the sentiments expressed in the margin notes doesn’t matter, but I think it’s only fair to illustrate some of the reasoning behind the banning of vernacular translations. Clearly the reason was not to “keep the laity from discovering the true gospel” which is what is intimated from comments mentioning the Index of Prohibited Books.

  2. I do believe there are numerous historical documents that contradict the claims of Russ Rentler. Did the Roman Catholic Church reject translations of the Bible into vernacular and their use by ordinary church members simply because of the footnotes? This is not what I have found in reading historical works by Catholics. I hope Leonardo De Chirico will either give us a link to primary sources or get someone to do so.

  3. Michael
    Can u produce those historical documents that refute the existence if caedmons or Bede’s translations? Are you claiming these aren’t true? Do you believe there was no German vernacular versions approved by the Church before Luther?

  4. Russ,
    I may have oversimplified the conflict. However, looking at the course of history, we need to see who were most active in promoting the translation, distribution and encouragement of church members to read the Bible and the reactions of opponents.

    While there were Bible translations before the Reformation, these were not widely available in the language of ordinary uneducated people. Were those who were eager to have the Scriptures translated into the simple language of the common man given the blessing and wholehearted support of the Roman Catholic Church? I know of no historical support that this happened. On the eve of the Reformation many ordinary priests were woefully ignorant and illiterate. This did not help. Luther wanted the Bible to speak clearly in the language of the peasants. Had one of the handful of pre-Reformation German translations been adequate he would surely have used it. The Reformers, who were eager for both the clergy and uneducated church members to get to know the Scriptures, encouraged Bible translation, printing and wide distribution. If opposition from the Roman Catholic Church was because of mistranslation, the footnotes and explanations, why did they not follow the example of Paul and reason, from the Scriptures, about the disputed teachings? Why did they go so far in their opposition to what Protestants believed was simply returning to what God’s Word revealed and what was taught by the early Church?

    This is not merely an historical issue. It remains contentious and relevant today. Consider the Catechism of Pius X (1908) http://www.ewtn.com/library/catechsm/piusxcat.htm :

    Q33 A. The Church forbids Protestant Bibles because, either they have been altered and contain errors, or not having her approbation and footnotes explaining the obscure meanings, they may be harmful to the Faith. It is for that same reason that the Church even forbids translations of the Holy Scriptures already approved by her which have been reprinted without the footnotes approved by her.

    Q31 A. We can only know the true meaning of Holy Scripture through the Church’s interpretation, because she alone is secure against error in that interpretation.

    None of the “Protestant Bibles” that I have used over the past 50 years have had footnotes explaining difficult passages. None of them have made changes to the essential teachings (doctrines) of the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament manuscripts and Greek New Testament manuscripts (predating the Vulgate).

    The opening words of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) clearly indicate that the writer expects Theophilus to be able to read the gospel on his own. He expects him to understand the plain sense of the language and to compare the content with what he had been taught. This is to assure him that he has indeed placed his trust in Jesus Christ, God’s promised Messiah and Saviour. What is more, this is not the only passage that indicates that the believer can read and ponder the Scriptures, privately, and through understanding them come to know Christ and to be encouraged to serve God faithfully.

    It is really convenient for the Catholic Clergy to insist that they alone can interpret the Scriptures reliably – and this is the reasoning behind the “Bible War” with Protestants. To discover what the Scriptures are plainly teaching by reading them closely and contextually is a real threat. To do so may expose serious errors in belief and failings in behaviour among the clergy.

    If I say Roman Catholics do not know the Scriptures I am not making an arrogant claim. Dr Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, in May 2010 asked, “What do we really know of the message of Jesus?” He pointed out that traditional Irish Catholicism has greatly neglected the place of Scripture, going so far as to say, “Catholics do not know the Scriptures.” This is not only true of Irish Catholics nor of the modern generation. It is true for many Catholics in different countries and also down the centuries.

    However, I find it just as saddening that so many Protestants today have such a superficial and often muddled understanding of the Scriptures – nor do they appreciate the careful way men like Luther and Calvin unpacked the Scriptures. I can thank my Catholic high school teachers for simply reading through Matthew and Acts to us though without explanation. This was really unusual for the Irish Christian Brothers. But I am also able to read what the Reformers taught, to compare this to the Scriptures, and then to see if they indeed followed the natural sense of the language of the Bible.

  5. An interesting comment on pre-Lutheran German Bibles:

    “All these pre-Lutheran German Bibles shared two characteristics: they were translated not from the original Hebrew and Greek texts but from the Latin Vulgate and they were written in a stilted and sometimes incomprehensible German, far removed from the language spoken and understood by the German people. Because of this they never really entered into Germany’s religious and literary heritage, as Luther’s version was to do.”


    This would help explain why they did not receive the popularity of Luther’s translation and why they were not a threat to the Roman Catholic Church.

  6. Let’s not forget that prior to Luther’s translation most all books, Bibles included were either manuscipt, ie. hand copied (usually by monks) or each page would be hand cut. One of the advantages Luther had in his rupture with what had always been taught was movable type. Even with the advantage of movable type, and the rise of local princes who saw the rejection of any authority above themselves as the key to their own power, we have to also remember that the very first book printed with movable type, was a copy of the Vulgate Bible. Latin yes, but then again Latin was the language commonly used by the majority of those who were literate. So even here the Catholic Church was at the forefront of using the latest technology to publish and spread an accurate translation of the Bible.

Comments are closed.