Thursday, January 09, 2014

10 January 1514: Complutensian Polyglot New Testament


The New Testament volume of the six volume Complutensian Polyglot—Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine in Academia Complutensi Nouiter Impressum—has a colophon at the conclusion of the Apocalypse which dates its printing to 10th January 1514, five hundred years ago tomorrow. This of course makes the Complutensian Polyglot New Testament the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament.

This massively impressive collection is known after the ancient Latin name, Complutum, of the town and university of Alcalá de Henares, where it was produced under the direction of, and with funding from, the Spanish cardinal, Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros (1436–1517), archbishop of Toledo and primate of Spain (1495). Its publication, based on the best contemporary scholarship, was intended to reform and revive the Christian church, as Ximenes makes clear in his prologue (addressed to Pope Leo X), which reflects on the importance of both the original language of Scripture and the original text of Scripture:
There are many reasons, Holy Father, that impel us to print the languages of the original text of Holy Scripture. These are the principal ones. Words have their own unique character, and no translation of them, however complete, can entirely express their full meaning. This is especially the case in that language through which the Lord Himself spoke. The letter here of itself may be dead and like flesh which profits nought (‘for it is the spirit that gives life’ [2 Cor. 3:6]) because Christ concealed by the form of the words remains enclosed within its womb. But there is no doubt that there is a rich fecundity so astonishing and an abundance of sacred mysteries so teeming that since it is ever full to overflowing ‘streams of living water shall flow out from His breast’ [John 7:38]. And from this source those to whom it has been given ‘to behold the glory of the Lord with an unveiled face and thus be transformed into that very image’ [2 Cor. 3:18] can continually draw the marvellous secrets of His divinity. Indeed there can be no language or combination of letters from which the most hidden meanings of heavenly wisdom do not emerge and burgeon forth, as it were. Since, however, the most learned translator can present only a part of this, the full Scripture in translation inevitably remains up to the present time laden with a variety of sublime truths which cannot be understood form any source other than the original language.

Moreover, wherever there is diversity in the Latin manuscripts or the suspicion of a corrupted reading (we know how frequently this occurs because of the ignorance and negligence of copyists), it is necessary to go back to the original source of Scripture, as St. Jerome and St. Augustine and other ecclesiastical writers advise us to do, to examine the authenticity of the books of the Old Testament in the light of the correctness of the Hebrew text and of the New Testament in the light of the Greek copies. And so that every student of Holy Scripture might have at hand the original texts themselves and be able to quench his thirst at the very fountainhead of the water that flows unto life everlasting and not have to content himself with rivulets alone, we ordered the original languages of Holy Scripture with their translations adjoined to be printed an dedicated to your Holiness. And we first took care to print the New Testament in Greek and Latin together with a lexicon of all the Greek expressions that can help those reading that language. Thus we spared no effort on behalf of those who have not acquired a full knowledge of the Greek tongue.
The NT volume contains a short preface in Greek and Latin, Eusebius’ letter to Carpianus (without any canons), Jerome’s letter to Damasus and a series of Jerome’s Latin prologues preceding each book. After the Gospels come the Pauline Epistles (themselves preceded by a range of Euthalian and other material), then the Acts, Catholic Epistles and Revelation (the whole is followed by some verses in praise of Ximenes, a list of proper names and a Lexicon of the Greek of the NT). The volume presents the Greek text on the left alongside the Latin Vulgate (in a slightly narrower column). Throughout the volume parallel passages, especially in the gospels, and the source of OT citations are given in the Latin margin (sometimes also unusual words are defined, or unusual verb forms are parsed). Since only standard Latin chapter numbering is used, along with an A, B, C or D, this is the system used in indicating parallel passages in the gospels (most of the information that could be gleaned from the Eusebian canons is therefore included beside the text at each point). A system of consecutive letters links Greek words to their Latin counterpart (where there is one). The Greek text is given without accents or breathings, on the grounds, according to the preface to the NT volume, that they were not part of the genuine text as seen in the most ancient copies. The Greek font for the NT volume, modelled on an unknown archetype of the tenth century, is often praised, in the over-blown words of R. Proctor, as ‘undoubtedly the finest Greek fount ever cut’. The volume also contains a list of names in NT order with an interpretation, a brief (one page) summary of Greek grammar and a lexicon of Greek words used in the LXX apocrypha and the NT, essentially a word list with Latin glosses, the first such lexicon.

There is no critical apparatus and only five marginal notes, these relate to readings at Matt 6.13; 1 Cor 13.3; 15.31; 15.51; 1 John 5.7f (we shall return to these in more detail in a few moments). Little information is offered as regards the textual basis of the Complutensian edition, although the editors claim to have used ‘very ancient and correct’ manuscripts (antiquissima emendatissimaque) supplied from the Vatican library by Pope Leo X:
Ordinary copies were not the archetypes for this impression, but very ancient and correct ones; and of such antiquity, that it would be utterly wrong not to own their authority; which the supreme pontiff Leo X., our most holy father in Christ and lord, desiring to favour this undertaking, sent from the apostolical library to the most reverend lord the cardinal of Spain, by whose authority and commandment we have this work printed.
Here is an image of a page of the Greek New Testament: 

Some bibliography:

  • J.P.R. Lyell, Cardinal Ximenes: Statesman, Ecclesiastic, Soldier, and Man of Letters, with an Account of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible (London: Crafton & Co., 1917)
  • F.J. Norton, A Descriptive Catalogue of Printing in Spain and Portugal 1501 – 1520 (Cambridge: CUP, 1978), 11-15.
  • J.C. Olin, Catholic Reform: From Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent 1495-1563 (new York: Fordham UP, 1990), esp. 61-64 for ET of Ximenes’ dedicatory prologue cited above. 
  • E. Rummel, Jiménez de Cisneros: On the Threshold of Spain’s Golden Age (MRTS 212; Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1999).


  1. I enjoyed this post on the Complutensian Polyglot. There are many interesting points here which connect to my studies.

    There seem to be three dates of note in relation to this publication, and I would be interested in learning more about when the Complutensian Polygot became available for use. Recently I was looking into the history of published critical Greek NT, and my notes indicate that although the Complutensian Polyglot has the earliest publication date, it was not published until 1521 or 1522. This link ( further indicates that the printing for the Complutensian Polyglot was completed by 1517 although "the difficulty in obtaining papal approval delayed official publication of the work until 1521/22".

    The next candidate for the first printed GNT coming into circulation seems to be that published by Froben of Basel, edited by Erasmus, with a date of 1516.

    So I'm just wondering in which year would a printed GNT first have become available for use?


  2. One misstatement in the original post: "The Greek text is given without accents or breathings".

    As evident even in the sample page displayed, even though no breathings nor any "normal" pattern of accentuation is present, a simple acute accent is utilized throughout to indicate the stress syllable of multi-syllable words.

  3. Hi,

    Thanks, this is a fine post.

    Allow me to add a recommended bibliographic source.

    Humanists and Protestants, 1500-1900 "Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros and the Complutensian Bible." Basil Hall, 1990.

    Like the post above, a fine scholarship chapter, with lots of historic backdrop, sans the common polemic. Often the simple unvarnished truth refutes a myriad of distortions.


    My question du jour:

    Does anyone know of a good study that compares the Complutensian GNT with any of the later TR editions (Erasmus 3, Stephanus 1550). Best would be a 3-way comparison including the Greek Byzantine majority text. (Or 4-way with the Clementine Vulgate / Rheims NT.)

    Even a study that simply looked at 50 variants would be very interesting.


    Yours in Jesus,
    Steven Avery

  4. The first edition (1861) of Scrivener's Plain Introduction has a full collation of the Complutensian Polyglot Greek NT text against that of Elzevir 1624, pp. 349-368.

  5. And don't forget, folks, that you can get your own digital copy at (just search there for "Complutensian." Big file though.

  6. Paul Anderson1/10/2014 12:52 am

    I have both personally seen and handled several of the copies left of the Complutensian Polyglot. There is a well preserved copy of the full set including the rare index volume here in the LC rare book collection.

    It was a magnificent work and deserves its due along with the other early editions of the Greek NT like the Novum Instrumentum omne (1516) by Erasmus.

    Paul Anderson

  7. Question: Did Cardinal Ximenes produce the first modern printed edition of the LXX? I vaguely recall reading of his extensive work in the field of LXX studies, which was in its infancy back in the early 16th century.

  8. Re Julie's question about dates. The NT volume of the Comp. Poly. was finished printing on 10 Jan 1514. That is basically volume five. Volumes 1-4 comprise the books of the OT and they were completed on 10 July 1517 (according to the similar printed colophon at the end of volume four).
    [Volume Six I think was completed on the last day of May 1515)
    The issue of publication is a bit different since there was some kind of delay in getting papal approval. The normal date given for this is 22 March 1520. (Darlow and Moule wonder whether this is correct since the presentation copy given to the Pope was not entered into the Vatican Library until Dec 1521.) It does seem clear that copies didn't circulate until 1522 (there were only 600 copies produced).

  9. So Erasmus clearly had the first published Greek New Testament. His publishing strategy and distribution also proved superior to that of the Comp. Poly.

  10. Re the LXX there is a similar issue in that the Comp. Poly. is the first printed text; but another text was printed and published by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1518 (the Aldine edition).

  11. Head: "So Erasmus clearly had the first published Greek New Testament. His publishing strategy and distribution also proved superior to that of the Comp. Poly."

    And yet, compared to the numerous typos and reconstructed portions found in Erasmus' first edition, the Complutensian clearly was far superior in terms of accuracy and manuscript-based textual quality.

  12. But Erasmus main purpose was to provide an alternate Latin translation to the Vulgate. He didn't seem so concerned about the Greek text.

  13. Paul Anderson1/11/2014 4:31 pm

    As a side note, the Aldine edition (1518) mentioned by Peter was also the the first edition to contain both the Greek OT Septuagint and NT without adjoining parallel Latin translation. The NT portion being for the most part Erasmus' 1st but with some notable changes from Greek MSS consulted for the edition.

  14. Thanks for these heplful comments. I agree with Maurice that the Comp. Poly. is basically a superior product. In addition to the general care etc. there is also the matter of the scheme for linking Greek words with Latin equivalents, the lexicon of Greek words - these were designed to help people access the Greek text for themselves.
    In terms of distribution the Comp. Poly. had a print run (if that is the right terminology) of 600 (cf. over 3,000 for Erasmus) and was unlucky as well - according to several reports many copies were lost in a shipwreck en route to Italy.
    Then Erasmus' edition proved much easier to revise and reprint.
    I am not sure about actual price differential between the two.

  15. The Comp. Poly. took the Greek as basically supporting the Vulgate, whereas Erasmus, as Suzanne noted, was interested in revising the Vulgate. In initial conception the Greek is supporting the revised Latin text.

  16. Other paratextual features: The Greek lines are right-justified by the modern process of hyphenated word-breaks, whilst the Latin lines are right-justified by the rather unusual process of space-filling o's.

  17. The same space-filling o's are also used on the Greek side when the Latin has additional material that is not present in the Complutensian Greek text (e.g., Ac 8:37; 9:5b-6a; 14:7; 23:25, etc.).

  18. Hi,

    Examples like Acts 8:37 are opposite to the idea expressed by Peter Head. Erasmus was more faithful to the Latin tradition, while the Complutensian left the Greek missing the verse.

    Is there a study of major variants that summarizes which Greek text, CP or Erasmus 1, was more likely to use a minority Greek reading that matches the historic Latin text.

    Granted, most studies do not properly make a distinction between inclusion/omission and alternate variants, yet the question remains even if that element is not separated out.

  19. Would not the 10 Jan. 1514 be based on the Julian calendar? The actual 500th anniversary would be on 21 Jan. 2015 [Gregorian calendar].

  20. I just came across this paper by J A L Lee which may be of interest to those who don't already know it:
    'Dimitrios Doukas and the Accentuation of the New Testament Text of the Complutensian Polyglot'
    NovT 47.3 2005 250-290.

    1. Another article to add, for the OT: 'Greek Sources of the Complutensian Polyglot' by Natalio Fernández Marcos. PDF here.

  21. No Larry, the Julian and Gregorian calendars were only 10 days out of synch between March 1, 1500 and February 28, 1700. By the time the Anglicans adopted the Gregorian, however, it was 11 days.
    So Jan. 20th was the 500th anniversary.

  22. Hi Julie, indeed the first printed edition of any Greek NT was the CP, yet Cisneros believed that the Bible was not the NT but Genesis to Apocalypse, thus until his 6 volumes were finished he refused to publish the GNT even though it was finished before Erasmus. Frobem forced Erasmus to publish his first edition even though it was a very poor edition with many errors including a forged Apocalyose, but knowing that Cisneros had finished his GNT, Frobem wanted to be the first publish purely for economic reason. You can read further on my PhD dissection: THE FIRST PRINTED APOCALYPSE THE CP AND ITS INFLUENCE ON ERASMUS THIRD EDITION. Cheers
    Dr Jorge L Valdes, PhD

  23. Does anyone have more information regarding the five marginal notes? The article mentions a "return to these in more detail in a few moments" but never does. I was hoping someone somewhere has provided an English translation of these five marginal notes.

  24. It is interesting to note that Revelation 22:19 has the correct Greek "tree of life" and the latin panel is "book of life" It would seem the two Greek manuscripts lent from the Vatican library had this reading.