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Missionaries and the Bible

13 November, 2009

Patrick Duffy comments on a distinct difference between how Catholic and Protestant used the Bible.

One of the extraordinary aspects of the Jesuit missionary expansion to the Far East begun by St Francis Xavier in the mid 16th century is that, although the Jesuits did produce a whole series of books and a Christian literature, the provision of a vernacular bible was not a priority. 

Even though the famous Jesuit apostle of adaptation to the local culture, Matteo Ricci, brought the famous polyglot (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac and Aramaic) bible published by Christoph Plantin in Antwerp (1572) to China in its own packing case in 1604, he consistently refused all requests to translate it.  Perhaps he felt it was more important to spend time learning Chinese language, philosophy, art and literature in order to understand the Chinese way of life and dialogue with them on what was of interest to them and that bring the Bible, with its Semitic and Mediterranean culture, would have been too much of an initial imposition on Chinese sensitivities.  The Jesuits did later publish a leaflet containing a Chinese translation of the Ten Commandments along with a small catechism in which the chief points of Christian doctrine were explained in a dialogue between a pagan and a European priest.

Similarly, in Africa through the missionary expansion of the 19th century, although Protestant vernacular bibles multiplied across the continent, Catholic ones were simply non-existent.  Was it that Catholics felt that a living, oral tradition of teaching, sacraments and works of charity was a higher priority than what they might have seen as possibly a ‘dead’ written word in the Bible?  There is also the resistance among higher clergy and even secular authorities that we have seen in the England of the Lollards and Wyclif’s time to allowing lay people read the bible for themselves in case the insights they might discover would differ from what the authorities thought was good for them! Whatever the reason, there was a distinct difference in missionary approaches between Protestants and Evangelicals on the one hand and Catholics on the other.

The British and Foreign Bible Society (1804) did enormous work in promoting translations throughout the colonies throughout the 19th century.  Among the projects they funded were translations into Irish (1817) of the Old Testament by Bishop William Bedel of Kilmore and of the New Testament by Archbishop William O’Donnell.  They also inspired Bible Societies to form in Germany, Russia, Greece and the United States.  And soon the Bible was available in indigenous languages throughout Africa, South America, India and China.