Complutensian Polyglot Bible

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The first page of the Complutensian Polyglot
The first page of the Complutensian Polyglot
Page from Complutensian Polyglot
Page from Complutensian Polyglot

The Complutensian Polyglot Bible is the name given to the first printed polyglot of the entire Bible, initiated and financed by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436-1517) and published by Complutense University of Madrid). It includes the first printed editions of the Greek New Testament, the complete Septuagint, and the Targum Onkelos. Of the 600 printed, only 123 are known to have survived to date.



With the rise of the printing press in the 1450s, the Bible could be distributed much more efficiently. At great personal expense, Cardinal Cisneros acquired many manuscripts and invited the top religious scholars of the day, including Hernán Nuñez, and Desiderius Erasmus (who refused twice) to work on the ambitious task of compiling a massive and complete polyglot "to revive the languishing study of the Sacred Scriptures." The scholars met in the city of Complutum (referred to as Alcalá de Henares), a city near Madrid (Latin, referred to as Alcalá de Henares), a city near Madrid, at Complutense University. Work on the project began in 1502 under the direction of Diego Lopez de Zúñiga, and continued there for fifteen years.

The New Testament was completed and printed in 1514, but its publication was delayed while work on the Old Testament continued, so they could be published together as a complete work. In the meantime, word of the Complutensian project reached Desiderius Erasmus in Rotterdam, who produced his own printed edition of the Greek New Testament. Erasmus obtained an exclusive four-year publishing privilege from Emperor Maximilian and Pope Leo X in 1516. Theodore Beza's Greek NT Text was used primarily, along with Erasmus' Greek NT Text and with various readings from the Complutensian Greek NT Text to form the Textus Receptus published by the Elzevir family (Uncle and Nephew) in 1633, and Erasmus' later editions were a secondary source for the King James Version of the New Testament. The Complutensian Polyglot Bible was Tertiary source for the 1611 King James Version.

The Complutensian Old Testament was completed in 1517. Because of Erasmus' exclusive privilege, publication of the Polyglot was delayed until Pope Leo X could sanction it in 1520. It is believed to have not been distributed widely before 1522. Cardinal Cisneros died in July of 1517, five months after the Polyglot's completion, and never saw its publication. Christopher Plantin reprinted the Complutensian Greek text in antwerp in 1564, 1573, 1574, 1584 and 1590, and it was also printed in Geneva in 1609, 1619, 1620, 1628 and 1632.

Other page from Bibbia Poliglotta Complutense
Other page from Bibbia Poliglotta Complutense


The Complutensian Polyglot Bible was published as a six-volume set. The first four volumes contain the Old Testament. Each page consists of three parallel columns of text: Hebrew on the outside, the Latin Vulgate in the middle (corrected by Antonio de Nebrija), and the Greek Septuagint on the inside. On each page of the Pentateuch, the Aramaic text (the Targum Onkelos) and its own Latin translation are added at the bottom. The fifth volume, the New Testament, consists of parallel columns of Greek and the Latin Vulgate. The sixth volume contains various Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek dictionaries and study aids.

Jerome's version of the Old Testament was placed between the Greek and Hebrew versions, thus the synagogue and the Eastern church, as the preface explains it, are set like the thieves on this side and on that, with Jesus (that is, the Roman Church) in the midst.

A magnificent full size (folio) facsimile edition was published in Valencia 1984-87. It is reproduced for the Bible text (volumes 1-5) from the copy in the Library of the Jesuit Society at Rome; the rare sixth volume with dictionaries has been reproduced from the copy in the Madrid University Library.

The typeface devised for the Complutensian by Arnaldo Guillén de Brocar has been regarded by typographers such as Robert Proctor as the apex of Greek typographical development in early printing, before Aldus Manutius' manuscript-based typefaces took over the market for the next two centuries. Proctor based his 1903 Otter Greek typeface on the Polyglot; the Greek Font Society's GFS Complutensian Greek is likewise based on the Polyglot.


Although many of the manuscripts used are probably lost in time, some remaining Greek Minuscules which were probably used are: Minuscule 140, Minuscule 234, and Minuscule 432.

In the Preface to the reader Cisneros praises the Greek manuscripts sent by Pope Leo X from the Vatican Library and used for the Polyglot, as very old and pure (“vetustissima simul et emendatissima”). He mentions, in addition, other sources: a copy from a very correct manuscript belonging to the legacy of cardinal Bessarion, sent by the Venetian Senate; together with other manuscripts which were the fruit of a long and costly search for a large number of corrected codices.[1]

In the 19th century, Vercellone discovered in the Vatican Library, the proceedings of an inventory of the library of Leo X which were drawn up in 1518; he had edited this inventory and described the codices lent to Spain for the preparation of the Complutensian Bible, adding that they had been returned to the library.[2] These are Vaticanus Graecus 330 (=108 of Rahlfs’s Catalogue) and Vaticanus Graecus 346 (= 248 of Rahlfs’s Catalogue).[3]

The first contains the Octateuch, 1–4 Kingdoms, 1–2 Paralipomena, 1–2 Ezra, Judith, Esther (Septuagint and Alpha-text) and Tobit (incomplete); and the second contains Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job, Wisdom, Ben Sira (with the second Prolog), 1–2 Ezra, Esther, Tobit and Judith. It must be emphasized that ms. 330 has many Hexaplaric notes and arabic glosses as well as some Greek scholia to 2 Kingdoms. Ms. 248 is full of Hexaplaric notes in the margins without any indication of the sigla to which those notes should be attributed. As we shall see below, this circumstance may explain some Complutensian singular readings at the beginning of the book of Job.


See also


  • 1. “Quod autem ad Graecam scripturam attinet: illud te non latere volumus: non vulgaria seu temere oblata exemplaria fuisse huic nostrae impressioni archetypa: sed vetustissima simul et emendatissima: quae sanctissimus Dominus noster Leo Decimus Pontifex Maximus coeptis nostris aspirans ex ipsa apostolica Bibliotheca ad nos misit: tantae integritatis: ut nisi eis plena fides adhibeatur: nulli reliqui esse videantur: quibus merito sit adhibenda. Quibus etiam adiunximus alia non pauca: quorum partem ex Bessarionis castigatissimo codice summa diligentia transcriptam Illustris Venetorum Senatus ad nos misit: partem ipsi magnis laboribus et expensis undique conquisivimus: ut copia emendatorum codicum abunde supesset,” Prologus ad Lectorem, IIII of the Alcalá Polyglot.
  • 2. C. Vercellone, Dissertazioni accademiche (Rome, 1864), 409.
  • 3. A. Rahlfs, Verzeichnis der griechischen Handschriften des Alten Testaments (Berlin, 1914).

Further Reading

  • Lyell, James P. R. (1917), Cardinal Ximenes, Statesman, Ecclesiastic, Soldier, and Man of Letters: with an Account of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. London: Coptic House, 1917.
  • Rummel, Erika. Jiménez de Cisneros: On the Threshold of Spain’s Golden Age. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1999.

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