1520 Complutensian Polyglot Bible

The Complutensian Polyglot Bible was the first printed Polyglot of the entire Bible, produced and sanctioned by the Catholic Church. In contrast, the earlier printed Greek and Latin Bibles produced by Erasmus contained only the New Testament.

The Complutensian Polyglot Bible was produced and supervised by Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, who lived from 1436–1517. Cardinal Ximenes was a highly-respected and important Cardinal of his day. His role in office had allowed him to amass great personal wealth, which he put to good use by planning and financing the production of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. His goal was "to revive the languishing study of the Sacred Scriptures" - a good indication of the poor state of interest in, and knowledge of, the Holy Scriptures in his day. To achieve his lofty goal, Cardinal Ximenes undertook to provide scholars with accurate printed texts of the Old Testament in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and the New Testament in Greek and Latin. The Complutensian Polyglot Bible also contains the Aramaic Targum of the Pentateuch (Targum Onkelos), and an interlinear Latin translation of the Greek Old Testament.

Cardinal Ximenes spared no expense in producing the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. He acquired many important manuscripts specifically for the purpose, aiming to secure the best manuscripts he could to provide a solid foundation for his Polyglot. He obtained manuscripts from the Vatican itself, thanking Pope Leo X for providing them. Traces of such manuscripts are, indeed, discernible, particularly in the Greek text, and there is still a copy at Madrid of a Venetian manuscript which he is believed to have used.

Cardinal Ximenes invited the top religious scholars of his day to assist in the project. Only Catholic scholars were used in the production of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. No Jews were acceptable - even for the production of the Hebrew text and the Aramaic Targums. The chosen scholars met in Spain, in the city of Alcalá de Henares (in Latin, Complutum), at Complutense University, hence the name Complutensian Polyglot Bible. Work on the ambitious project began in 1502. The New Testament was completed and printed in 1514, with work on the Old Testament continuing until it was completed in 1517. Overall publication of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible was delayed while work on the Old Testament continued, to allow both the Old and New Testaments to be published together as a complete work in 1520.

While the Complutensian Polyglot Bible was in preparation, Erasmus in Rotterdam heard about its imminent production. In a race to be the first to publish a Greek New Testament, Erasmus managed to obtain an exclusive four-year publishing privilege from Emperor Maximilian and Pope Leo X in 1516, allowing him to be the first to formally publish a printed edition of the Greek New Testament, which he did in 1516. Erasmus' 1516 Greek New Testament was, however, somewhat hastily edited. Corrections were made in later editions of his Greek New Testament, culminating in his 1527 edition, which forms the basis of the Textus Receptus, in which a strong influence of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible is generally recognized. However, Erasmus' exclusive publishing privilege meant that the formal publication of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible could not happen until the privilege expired in 1520, after which Pope Leo X allowed it to be published. Tragically, Cardinal Ximenes died in July 1517, five months after the completion of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, and he never saw its eventual publication.

The Complutensian Polyglot Bible was published in six hundred large six-volume sets, of which only 123 are known to have survived. It is not believed to have been distributed widely before 1522. The first four volumes contain the Old Testament. Each page consists of three parallel columns of text, with Jerome's Latin Vulgate in the middle, the Hebrew on the outside, and the Greek Septuagint on the inside. The preface of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible explains that this arrangement was deliberate, to represent Jesus (the Roman Catholic Church) in the middle, with the two thieves crucified with Jesus on the left and right (the Hebrew text being a thief representing the Jews, and the Greek text being a thief representing the Greek Orthodox church). This arrangement, however, graphically illustrates the Catholic Church's clear preference for Jerome's Latin Vulgate, and its disdain for the original Hebrew and Greek.

On each page of the Pentateuch, the Aramaic text of Targum Onkelos (with its own Latin translation) is added at the bottom. The fifth volume, the New Testament, contains parallel columns of the Greek text and the Latin Vulgate. For the Greek text, the minuscules 140, 234, and 432 were probably used. The sixth volume contains a Hebrew and Aramaic dictionary, a Hebrew grammar, and Greek dictionary.

Copies of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible found their way into the principal libraries of Europe, and had considerable influence on subsequent editions of the Bible. They were one of the sources used for the textual basis of the King James Bible, for example.

A full size (folio) Facsimile Edition of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible was published in Valencia in 1984-87. Volumes 1-5 are reproduced from the copy in the Library of the Jesuit Society at Rome, and Volume 6 was reproduced from the copy in the Madrid University Library.

The typeface created for the Complutensian Polyglot Bible is particularly noteworthy. It was designed by Arnaldo Guillén de Brocar and was state-of-the-art in Greek typography for its day. It was highly regarded by typographers such as Robert Proctor as the pinnacle of early printing, before Aldus Manutius' manuscript-based typefaces took over for the next two centuries. Proctor based his 1903 Otter Greek typeface on the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. The Greek Font Society's GFS Complutensian Greek is similarly based on the Complutensian Polyglot Bible.

The Complutensian Polyglot Bible remains a very important historical edition of the Biblical text. It was produced using the very best available Hebrew, Greek and Latin manuscripts of Cardinal Ximenes' day, and no expense was spared in its preparation. More information about the Complutensian Polyglot Bible can be found in the book "Cardinal Ximenes: Statesman, Ecclesiastic, Soldier and Man of Letters, With an account of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible", by James Lyell, Grafton & Co., 1917. This book provides a detailed account of the life of Cardinal Ximenes, and contains a fascinating chapter about the background and production of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. It is highly recommended reading if you want to know more about this important early Polyglot.