A hundred years ago, Dean Burgon thundered from the pulpit of St. Mary's, Oxford: The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth on the throne. Every book of it, every chapter of it, every verse of it, every syllable of it, every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High…faultless, unerring, supreme.
The majority of Protestant Christians of that time thought of the Bible as he did. A much smaller proportion still thinks so. Although an extravagant claim is put forward by Bible Societies and other fanatics that the Bible is the most-read book in the world, the contrary is true. Very few people read it, and fewer still study it, even though they may attend church where portions of it are read out to them in an often dull, sing-song voice that holds very little meaning to them. To the ordinary reader or hearer, the chapters and verses of the Bible seem to be a sacred fetish of words. In fact the ignorance and bigotry of fanatics who may have considerable knowledge of its contents but are usually unconversant with questions of textual or historical criticism, the task of the sober student is hard indeed. Christian apologists, however, do not claim anymore that “every syllable” is “the utterance of the Most High”. A distinction is made between revelation and inspiration. Dean Burgon's description of the Bible obliterates this distinction. In spite, however, of the clear negation in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893), of the possibility of error on the part of the inspired writers, the apologists have argued that errors may occur in the sacred text, though such errors are not put forward as statements of truth.
St. Jerome was the author of the Vulgate * which he produced between 383 and 420 A.D. with the encouragement of Pope Damasus. His work was necessitated by the corrupt state into which the old Latin version (dating from the late second or the early third century) had long since fallen. In the course of time Jerome's translation itself became corrupt. Alcuin reformed the text under the great Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), but “even the Monastery of St Martin de Tours, from which Alcuin, as Abbot, had directed this reform, was pouring forth a stream of corrupt texts within a few years of his death! **
The standard Bible produced by the University of Paris in the 13 th Century was based on a corrupt text, and so high an authority on the subject as the Dominican Father Denifle says that this proceeding “gave up the Bible to mere caprice”. Nearly all printed editions based themselves on the texts of this standard Bible, which is the foundation of that to which the modern Catholic is pledged by the decree of Pope Clement VIII, issued in 1592. Sixtus V *** published a version of the Vulgate in 1590, which “by the fullness of apostolic power” he ordered to be received by all the faithful as “true, lawful, authentic, and unquestioned, in all public and private discussion, reading, preaching, and explanations”. To alter this version in the slightest degree entailed “the indignation of God and of the blessed Apostle Peter and Paul”, as well as the penalty of the greater excommunication. The text of the version issued by Sixtus V was so “authentic” that it had to be corrected in more that two thousand places and re – issued, with these corrections, by Clement VIII only two years later. The Authorized Version (1611) which so many treat as though it were the actual Word of God, comes at the end of a long series of English Bibles which begins with Wycliffe's translation of the Vulgate in the 14 th Century. The Old Testament was composed in Hebrew, with the exception of parts of the Books of Ezra and Daniel, and Jeremiah X, 11 (a marginal note interlude in the text) which were written in Aramaic, while the New Testament was composed in Greek – not the Greek of Homer, Aeschylus, or Plato – but the Koine (“common”) tongue which was spoken all over the Eastern Mediterranean region in the days of the Roman Empire. Hebrew is a much more defective language than Greek, and this may account for the fact that in many places the text of the Old Testament is corrupt and in others so confused that the translation is near guesswork. Professors W.O.E. Oesterley and T.H. Robinson write: “There is no book in the Old Testament which has suffered more from corruption than Hosea. There is hardly a single verse of which the reader can be sure that it has not been more or less altered……A large part of the text, as it stands, its meaningless, though sense can often be obtained by very silent changes." **** Other books of the Old Testament exhibit textual corruptions, some in greater and others in smaller measure. In short what are known as Epistles, or letters, were written and to these, at a later date, names were given. These are also included in the New Testament. The books of the New Testament are not historical documents. No one knows who wrote them; nobody has reported ever having seen the original documents, and nobody knows when they were written . Various estimates have been made as to the dates of their origin, but nothing is known for certain.
* Vulgate: Latin version of the Bible most widely used in the West.
** The Roman Catholic Church and the Bible (Mediaeval Studies No. 14, p. 20, p. 19 by G.G. Coulton).
*** Sixtus V was Pope from 1585 to 1590. He was born in Italy in 1521, named Felice Peretti, and was successor of Gregory XIII.
**** An Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament, p. 354.