Converging Visions

Just five months before his death, in July 1517, Cardinal Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo, celebrated the completion of his six-volume Complutensian Polyglot Bible. Of the 600 sets originally printed, only 123 are known to have survived. Twenty are in the United States, and one of these is owned by Duke.


Complutensian Polyglot Bible. Completed 1514; distributed 1522


Cardinal Ximénez undertook the creation of the polyglot Bible to promote biblical scholarship, particularly the study of the Scriptures in their original languages. He used much of his personal fortune to acquire original manuscripts from which to work and invited the most renowned religious scholars of the day to join him in his venture. They came to the cardinal's home city of Alcal· de Henares, which the Romans called Complutum, meaning the confluence of two rivers. The polyglot Bible's designation "Complutensian" derives from this early name for the city.

Work on the project began in 1502 under the guidance of Diego López de Zuñiga. The New Testament, completed in 1514, was printed in an uncial type that was designed specifically for the project by Arnald Guillen de Brocar and is still widely considered to be the finest of all Greek typefaces. The text of the New Testament consists of parallel columns in Greek and Latin Vulgate. ("Latin Vulgate" refers to Jerome's Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, circa 382-401.)

By comparison, each page of the four-volume Old Testament comprises three parallel columns of text: Hebrew on the outside with Hebrew roots in the margin, Latin Vulgate down the middle, and the Greek Septuagint with an interlinear Latin translation along the inside column. ("Greek Septuagint" refers to the early Greek translation of the Old Testament by a group of seventy Jewish scholars, circa 285-246 B.C.E.) In addition, Aramaic text with its own Latin translation runs along the bottom of each page of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. This Aramaic text, better known as the Targum of Onkelos, dates to the second century, when Aramaic began to replace Hebrew as the primary language of Jews in Palestine.


The ordering of the three primary columns of text in the Old Testament was intentional. Not only did Ximénez wish to honor the Latin Vulgate at the center of each page, but he also sought to denigrate the Jewish faith and the Eastern Church. As is explained in the Second Preface, he associated the Latin Vulgate with Jesus Christ and viewed the text's format as a metaphor for the crucifixion of Jesus. James Lyell, a scholar of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, translates the original Latin preface: "[A]s our Lord was crucified between two thieves, so the Latin Church stands between the Synagogue and the Greek Church."

Word of Cardinal Ximénez's project reached Rotterdam, where Desiderius Erasmus rushed to complete his own edition of the Greek New Testament. Scholars note that because of his haste and limited access to original manuscripts, he produced an inferior edition riddled with hundreds of typographical errors. Nevertheless, in 1516 he was granted an exclusive imperial privilege for the publication of the New Testament, a privilege that obligated Ximénez's group to delay distribution of the Complutensian until 1522. Thus, Erasmus became the first man to publish the New Testament in Greek, even though Ximénez was the first to print it.

The Complutensian Polyglot Bible holds several distinctions: It includes the first printed editions of the Greek New Testament, the complete Greek Septuagint, and the Targum of Onkelos. In addition, it is the first great work produced by a collaboration of biblical scholars. Indeed, it is a monument to biblical studies.


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