Was the Bible ever on the Index of Prohibited Books?

My latest post is up at my website. Check it out!

Was the Bible ever on the Index of Prohibited Books?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: The Index of Prohibited Books is an old list of bad books and authors. It was made popular by the Council of Trent, which prohibited Catholics from reading books on the list, as well as some of the authors on it. The Index also contained an introduction with ten “rules” that gave general information about how to know if a book was acceptable and how to use the Index. You can read the Latin text of the Index here. An English translation of the “rules” part is available here.

Rule 3 is where some people attempt to find a prohibition on reading the Bible. Here is what it says: “versions of the books of the Old Testament may be allowed only to learned and pious men at the discretion of the bishop.” And: “let versions of the New Testament, made by authors of the first class of this index, be allowed to no one.” Notice that: regarding the New Testament, only certain versions are prohibited – versions “made by authors of the first class of this index.” Those are the authors whose names are listed in alphabetical order starting on this page. The first name on the list is Abidenus Corallus. Abidenus Corallus was a name associated with Ulrich Zwingli, a heretic. The New Testament is not prohibited by the Index of Prohibited Books, only versions of it made by heretics.

Moreover, that very same rule, in the next sentence, mentions that some bibles are approved: “[some] annotations are made public with such versions as are permitted, or with the Vulgate edition…” Notice: the Vulgate is not the only version of the Bible that is permitted. There is a plural used: such “versions” as are permitted. And these are separate from the Vulgate: “OR…the Vulgate edition.” You can use Either such “versions” as are permitted “or” the Vulgate edition. The Vulgate was permitted too, since it was an official Catholic bible. But this rule makes it clear that there were other Bibles permitted for use among Catholics.

Then there’s the subject of the Old Testament. “versions of the books of the Old Testament may be allowed only to learned and pious men at the discretion of the bishop.” It is Possible to read this statement as banning Most people from reading the Old Testament, but not “learned and pious men” who have their bishop’s permission. I’d like to observe something about this interpretation. The phrase “only to learned and pious men” may be referring to a smaller category and a larger category. There are more pious men than there are learned men because it is possible to be good without being educated.

If I said that my car insurance can cover other drivers from my city and my state, I think it would be clear that drivers from my city get the coverage and also drivers from my state. The second category is larger than the first and covers more people. Notice, drivers from my city are Also in my state, but it’s okay to specify that drivers from my city get coverage. Similarly, it seems possible that the phrase about letting “only…learned and pious men” read the Old Testament might actually cover a smaller category and a larger category, learned men and pious men. Just as my car insurance only covers people in my city because they are in my state, so also the learned men must be pious or else they wouldn’t particularly care what the Church commands. If you are pious but not particularly educated, you would be in the “pious” class of men without being in the “learned” class. And if you were learned but not pious, you would not care what the Church says because impious people do not obey the Church.

From this analogy it seems clear to me that reading the Bible isn’t necessarily “limited” to learned people by this rule. They are the smaller category out of two categories: “learned” could be one category, and “pious men” could be a bigger category, which includes some learned men but is not limited to them. The rule calls for “pious men” to be allowed to read the Old Testament, and perhaps this category includes most ordinary Catholics. But also, some “learned men” are specified within that larger category because grammatically it’s okay to do that, and learned men can particularly more easily discover the best insights available in the Old Testament.

Then there’s the issue of “discretion.” The full sentence says: …


Good job Dan.

The qualifying clause " at the discretion of the bishop.” modifies only pious men and does not modify the learned group. Therefore, in this case only the pious men who are not in the learned group need special permission from the bishop.

Because at this time when many people could not afford a private tutor their reading skills were limited. There were no “free” public schools. Books were expensive and resources were limited. Special care had to be taken to keep the unwise and those who lacked proper reverence from being manipulated by the heretics who took Scripture passages out of context.


Thanks, John. I recently discovered that my generous interpretation seems to clash with the one given by the Catholic Encyclopedia (scroll to “Attitude of the Church towards the reading of the Bible in the vernacular”.) It speaks of an additional “restriction” by Sixtus V in which, allegedly, he reserved “the power of allowing [laypeople to] read…the New Testament in the vernacular” to himself and a certain Vatican office. I know that’s a confusing sentence, but if I’m reading it correctly that would seem to imply that every unlearned layperson would have to directly apply to the Vatican for permission to read the New Testament.

If that is accurate, it’s still not a complete ban, but it seems very close, unless Sixtus V also said that in general everybody had permission. I think I need to look into this in more detail, including finding out the specific language he used in making this “restriction.” One of my first thoughts is, perhaps this was only a Seeming restriction, and in reality Sixtus V reserved this power to himself precisely so that individual bishops could not restrict Bible reading by pious people…but that would seem to make sense only if Sixtus V gave a general permission as if to all pious people to read the Bible. So I’ll have to look into what language he used. Also, I don’t want to be “stretching” here…if the Catholic Encyclopedia thinks the Index was restrictive on this point, who am I to say it was generous? I’d appreciate any clarifying thoughts you may have. Perhaps I am misreading the Catholic Encyclopedia.

It would seem to me just from what you had posted that Sixtus restricted people from reading the NT in the vernacular only. The Latin Vulgate was available, and does not seem restricted. Were there many authorized translations of the Bible around that Sixtus prohibited? Or was Sixtus afraid of, say, English Catholics reading problematic translations like Wycliffe’s or the decidedly Calvinistic Geneva Bible?


Why for a relatively short period of time did the Catholic Church place some restrictions on reading the Bible in the vernacular ?

The restrictions could be compared to placing a metal fence around a playground next to a busy highway. It’s purpose is to protect so that faithful may do so without suffering serious spiritual harm.

The key here is context. Remember our conversation on
** Why 153 Fish in John 21:11 ?**
Context is more than just the text. We have to get into the whole culture of that time. Culture of AD 1500’s

There were just two classes of people then: those who could read, and those who could not read. Now, those who did read could read Latin, and, therefore, were perfectly content with the Scriptures in Latin. Those who could not read Latin could not read at all . . .

The whole mistake in peoples’ minds arises, of course, from the supposition they make that Latin was then a dead language, whereas it was really a living one in every sense of the term, being read and spoken and written universally in Europe.
{James Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, NY: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, rev. ed., 1917, pp. 89,91}
Proof that those who could read, could read Latin. Not only did the schools of that time teach Latin, but all the other subjects were also taught in Latin.
See ** Proof
There were several problems with reading the Bible in the vernacular that required discernment, caution, and appropriate advise that the Bishop or Pope would need to give to those wanting to do so.

Modern Context Vs. AD 1500’s Context

It is not that a vast number of people of that time wanted to read the Bible in the vernacular. Now, there were some Protestants who were wanting to use their own specific
** vernacular Bibles with their corrupted translations and corrupted footnotes **to mislead otherwise faithful Catholics into revolting against the Catholic Church.

Those wanting to read the vernacular was a small number of people at that time. For several reasons it would have been a specialized study of a small number of people. 1. There were no “free” public schools at that time. The vast majority of people could not afford to hire a private tutor to teach them to read at all. So, giving a person of that time permission to read the Bible in English would have been about as meaningful as giving a modern American permission to read the Bible in Chinese

 2.  **[Most      all those who could read could read Latin.

3. The** Latin text much superior than the vernacular. **
For example, sometimes the English language did not have an exact equivalent for the Latin or Greek text, so a “close” English word would have to be used. There was no word even close for “Evangelist” or “Evangelization” so the translators had to import that Latin based word into the English language.

By analogy consider a physician wanting to do heart surgery in the early 20th century. It would have been rare so it would be prudent to place some restrictions on those wanting to do so to make sure that appropriate cautions were taken. Just as physical life would have been in jeopardy in that analogy, when it come to the Bible the spiritual life of both the teacher and the student was at stake. Even the Protestant “reformers” were noting the drastic problem of keeping their new followers in their new churches. The new sects were multiplying exponentially.

The general attitude of the Catholic Church toward Bible reading apart from those isolated times when heretics were endangering the spiritual welfare of others. It says at the end of a Koberger Vulgate of 1477:[INDENT] The Holy Scriptures excel all the learning of the world . . . All believers should watch zealously and exert themselves unremittingly to understand the contents of these most useful and exalted writings, and to retain them in the memory. Holy Scripture is that beautiful garden of Paradise in which the leaves of the commandments grow green, the branches of evangelical counsel sprout . . .
These words admirably describe the attitude which the Church in the Middle Ages held with regard to Holy Scripture. . . .
[/INDENT] First and foremost the study of the Bible was urgently enjoined on the priests . . . The Breviary and the Missal . . . are for the most part made up of words from Holy Scripture . . . Thomas a Kempis,( c. AD 1380 –1471) in agreement with the Fathers, compares the Word of Christ with the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and declares that without the Eucharist and the Holy Scriptures, his food and his light, life would be unbearable to him.

{Johannes Janssen, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 vols., tr. A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 (orig. 1891), v. 14, pp. 381-383}
** The Catholic Church: On Reading The Bible**


An excellent read, which puts many of the legends, fables and downright reformation lies to rest is Where We Got The Bible by Rev. Henry Graham. It is short on footnotes and references, but a quick, practical read that demonstrates the extreme measures which the Church has taken to preserve both the scriptures as well as their integrity. It also notes a few of the extreme measures taken by some secular and non-Catholic religious institutions to destroy it.

Thanks for the reminder. Great book.
I want to buy a copy and lend to my Protestant neighbor !
I am going to print out the following pamphlet as book mark for him.

The Catholic Church: On Reading The Bible

This book is also online for free. See Link

**Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church **
by The Right Rev. Henry G. Graham,




DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.