Published:  02:10 AM, 14 May 2019

Bible in Malta during the Knights' era

Bible in Malta during the Knights' era Coat of arms of Inquisitor Pietro Dusina who ordered every priest in Malta to have a copy of the Bible.

There is so far absolutely no confirmation in Maltese records that the Holy Scriptures were ever printed or widely circulated in Malta during the rule of the Order of St John, in their original languages, in the Latin Vulgate edition, or in translation. Considering that Malta was, in that period, almost a Catholic theocracy, scarce evidence exists that the Bible enjoyed any widespread popularity among the knights, the lay population, or the ecclesiastical class itself.

In Malta, three religious entities uncomfortably shared between them the entirety of civil and spiritual power: the Grand Master of the religious Order of St John, the Bishop of Malta and the Inquisitor, all three directly subject to the ultimate jurisdiction of the Pope in Rome.

And yet the living presence on the island of the fundamental books of the Christian faith is difficult to trace and to profile, quite likely because of their really minor relevance to local spiritual life, not to say their stark irrelevance.

No entire or partial printed translation of the Bible into Maltese is known to exist before the British period. The records of the Order's printing press suggest that in 1757 (twice) and again in 1759, the Reverend Don Francesco Grech and the Reverend Don Giuseppe Fiteni, procurator of the venerable altar of St John the Evangelist (Our Lady of Victories church, Valletta), placed orders for the printing of the Evangelio del sudetto Glorioso San Giovanni.

No copy of these three printings is known to survive, so we can only speculate about the contents: was it the complete Gospel of St John, or only those short extracts used in the liturgy? Was it in Latin or in the Italian Malermi version of 1471? The next Catholic translation into Italian, by Bishop Antonio Martini, came later, in 1769 to 1781.

And all three Dominican convents in Rabat, Vittoriosa and Valletta had small libraries. Though these contained several theological works and biblical commentaries, not a single copy the Bible seems to appear in the inventories.

In fact, when during and after the Great Siege of 1565, the spirits of the beleaguered knights and inhabitants were fortified by the devout and stirring sermons of Italian Capuchin Fra Roberto da Eboli, what remained memorable about them was the preacher's extensive and erudite quotations from the Bible - something his audiences seem to have considered truly exceptional.

From early records we get glimpses of how the local clergy related to the Bible in their pastoral work. ?urrieq parish priest Don Nicolaus Bonnici, in 1594, gave catechism lessons by selecting parts of the Gospel, translating them into Maltese and explaining them to the people.

Don Dionisius Mangion, in 1575, shared with Mgr Dusina the fact that, though he was able to read the Gospel, he was at a loss as to how to translate its contents, as he had never studied grammar. Similarly, Mgr Dusina found that Don Sanctorus de Nasis, though well versed in grammar, had difficulties in explaining the Gospels.

We come across several instances in Malta, during the Hospitaller period, when this aversion to 'popularizing' the Bible was translated into action and, occasionally, persecution.

The knight Fra Simon Provost, gifted sculptor and Master of the Mint, was tortured after being accused of reading a Protestant French Bible he had obtained from a priest eager to get rid of it; Don Andrea Axiaq was excommunicated for the same offence, and priest Don Francesco Gesualdo is said (wrongly) to have ended burnt at the stake for various crimes of con­science, including owning translated Bibles.

Charges of possessing or reading pro­hibited literature swamp the Inquisition's records, and many of these referred to the scriptures translated in modern languages, mostly originating in Protestant countries or from heretical sects.

Differently from his brother who became one of the leaders of the Protestant revolt in France, Grand Master Jean de Valette waged a focused and systematic war against the spread of Protestantism in the island, targeting especially the distribution of heretical literature, mostly unauthorized translations of the Bible into French, German and English, and commentaries thereon.

De Valette did everything in his power to stem the dissemination of these books. In 1562 he appointed a formal commission of high-powered knights to take all necessary measures to "fight the poisonous books of the Lutherans and other heretics" to make sure "that the Order and the island be completely purged and cleansed of such books".

In 1563, Antonio Xerri had found himself in hot water after borrowing some books from Mattew Falzon and others, and was denounced to Bishop Domenico Cubelles for having in his possession Luther's 1525 Sermon on the Gospel and Calvin's Confessions of Faith and his Institutes of the Christian Religion, co-authored with William Farrel. Ahead of disappearing from Malta, Falzon burnt all his heretical books, before being himself burnt in effigy.

It seems that the Bible copies that existed in Malta were not used for the purpose of study, prayer or meditation, but as the solemn prop to take an oath on. The oath of witnesses and accused in front of the Inquisitor was taken by laying one's hand on the Bible, and not by kissing the crucifix, the stereotype formula being iuramento tactis scripturis de veritate dicenda.

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