Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Bible Prohibited and Improved.

The following are the express words contained in the regulation of the popes to prohibit the use of the Bible.

“As it is manifest, by experience, that if the use of the holy writers is permitted in the vulgar tongue more evil than profit will arise, because of the temerity of man; it is for this reason all Bibles are prohibited (prohibentur Biblia) with all their parts, whether they be printed or written, in whatever vulgar language soever; as also are prohibited all summaries or abridgments of Bibles, or any books of the holy writings, although they should only be historical, and that in whatever Vulgar tongue they may be written.”

It is there also said, “That the reading the Bibles of catholic editors may be permitted to those by whose perusal or power the faith may be spread, and who will not criticise it. But this permission is not to be granted without an express order of the bishop, or the inquisitor, with the advice of the curate and confessor; and their permission must first be had in writing. And he who, without permission, presumes to read the holy writings, or to have them in his possession, shall not be absolved of his sins before he first shall have returned the Bible to his bishop.”

A Spanish author says, that if a person should come to his bishop to ask for leave to read the Bible, with the best intention, the bishop should answer him from Matthew, ch. xx. ver. 20, ”You know not what you ask.“ And indeed, he observes, the nature of this demand indicates an heretical disposition.

The reading of the Bible was prohibited by Henry VIII., except by those who occupied high offices in the state; a noble lady or gentlewoman might read it in “their garden or orchard,” or other retired places; but men and women in the lower ranks were positively forbidden to read it, or to have it read to them, under the penalty of a month’s imprisonment.

Dr. Franklin has preserved an anecdote of the prohibited Bible in the time of our Catholic Mary. His family had an English Bible; and to conceal it the more securely, they conceived the project of fastening it open with packthreads across the leaves, on the inside of the lid of a close-stool! “When my great-grandfather wished to read to his family, he reversed the lid of the close-stool upon his knees, and passed the leaves from one side to the other, which were held down on each by the packthread. One of the children was stationed at the door to give notice if he saw an officer of the Spiritual Court make his appearance; in that case the lid was restored to its place, with the Bible concealed under it as before.”

The reader may meditate on what the popes did, and what they probably would have done, had not Luther happily been in a humour to abuse the pope, and begin a REFORMATION. It would be curious to sketch an account of the probable situation of Europe at the present moment, had the pontiffs preserved the omnipotent power of which they had gradually possessed themselves.

It appears, by an act dated in 1516, that the Bible was called Bibliotheca, that is per emphasim, the Library. The word library was limited in its signification then to the biblical writings; no other books, compared with the holy writings, appear to have been worthy to rank with them, or constitute what we call a library.

We have had several remarkable attempts to recompose the Bible; Dr. Geddes’s version is aridly literal, and often ludicrous by its vulgarity; as when he translates the Passover as the Skipover, and introduces Constables among the ancient Israelites; but the following attempts are of a very different kind. Sebastian Castillon — who afterwards changed his name to Castalion, with his accustomed affectation referring to Castalia, the fountain of the Muses — took a very extraordinary liberty with the sacred writings. He fancied he could give the world a more classical version of the Bible, and for this purpose introduces phrases and entire sentences from profane writers into the text of holy writ. His whole style is finically quaint, overloaded with prettinesses, and all the ornaments of false taste. Of the noble simplicity of the Scripture he seems not to have had the remotest conception.

But an attempt by Père Berruyer is more extraordinary; in his Histoire du Peuple de Dieu, he has recomposed the Bible as he would have written a fashionable novel. He conceives that the great legislator of the Hebrews is too barren in his descriptions, too concise in the events he records, nor is he careful to enrich his history by pleasing reflections and interesting conversation pieces, and hurries on the catastrophes, by which means he omits much entertaining matter: as for instance, in the loves of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, Moses is very dry and concise, which, however, our Père Berruyer is not. His histories of Joseph, and of King David, are relishing morsels, and were devoured eagerly in all the boudoirs of Paris. Take a specimen of the style. “Joseph combined, with a regularity of features and a brilliant complexion, an air of the noblest dignity; all which contributed to render him one of the most amiable men in Egypt.” At length “she declares her passion, and pressed him to answer her. It never entered her mind that the advances of a woman of her rank could ever be rejected. Joseph at first only replied to all her wishes by his cold embarrassments. She would not yet give him up. In vain he flies from her; she was too passionate to waste even the moments of his astonishment.” This good father, however, does ample justice to the gallantry of the Patriarch Jacob. He offers to serve Laban, seven years for Rachel. “Nothing is too much,” cries the venerable novelist, “when one really loves;” and this admirable observation he confirms by the facility with which the obliging Rachel allows Leah for one night to her husband! In this manner the patriarchs are made to speak in the tone of the tenderest lovers; Judith is a Parisian coquette, Holofernes is rude as a German baron; and their dialogues are tedious with all the reciprocal politesse of metaphysical French lovers! Moses in the desert, it was observed, is precisely as pedantic as Père Berruyer addressing his class at the university. One cannot but smile at the following expressions:—“By the easy manner in which God performed miracles, one might easily perceive they cost no effort.” When he has narrated an “Adventure of the Patriarchs,” he proceeds, “After such an extraordinary, or curious, or interesting adventure,” &c. This good father had caught the language of the beau monde, but with such perfect simplicity that, in employing it on sacred history, he was not aware of the ludicrous style in which he was writing.

A Gothic bishop translated the Scriptures into the Goth language, but omitted the Books of Kings! lest the wars, of which so much is there recorded, should increase their inclination to fighting, already too prevalent. Jortin notices this castrated copy of the Bible in his Remarks on Ecclesiastical History.

As the Bible, in many parts, consists merely of historical transactions, and as too many exhibit a detail of offensive ones, it has often occurred to the fathers of families, as well as to the popes, to prohibit its general reading. Archbishop Tillotson formed a design of purifying the historical parts. Those who have given us a Family Shakspeare, in the same spirit may present us with a Family Bible.

In these attempts to recompose the Bible, the broad vulgar colloquial diction, which has been used by our theological writers, is less tolerable than the quaintness of Castalion and the floridity of Père Berruyer.

The style now noticed long disgraced the writings of our divines; and we see it sometimes still employed by some of a certain stamp. Matthew Henry, whose commentaries are well known, writes in this manner on Judges ix.:—“We are here told by what acts Abimelech got into the saddle. — None would have dreamed of making such a fellow as he king. — See how he has wheedled them into the choice. He hired into his service the scum and scoundrels of the country. Jotham was really a fine gentleman. — The Sechemites that set Abimelech up, were the first to kick him off. The Sechemites said all the ill they could of him in their table-talk; they drank healths to his confusion. — Well, Gaal’s interest in Sechem is soon at an end. Exit Gaal!”

Lancelot Addison, by the vulgar coarseness of his style, forms an admirable contrast with the amenity and grace of his son’s Spectators. He tells us, in his voyage to Barbary, that “A rabbin once told him, among other heinous stuff, that he did not expect the felicity of the next world on the account of any merits but his own; whoever kept the law would arrive at the bliss, by coming upon his own legs.

It must be confessed that the rabbin, considering he could not conscientiously have the same creed as Addison, did not deliver any very “heinous stuff,” in believing that other people’s merits have nothing to do with our own; and that “we should stand on our own legs!” But this was not “proper words in proper places.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37