What are Diglots and Polyglots?

New Testament, Matthew 1: NRSV, Greek and NIV

The words diglot and polyglot are linguistic terms that come from Greek words meaning “two-tongued” and “many-tongued”, respectively; they can also mean “language” rather than “tongued”. When used as adjectives, they refer to people who speak more than one language. In this article, I’ll be using them as nouns and refer to manuscripts and books which have more than one language. Most of the time, I’ll use polyglot to refer to two or more languages, and I’ll be focusing on Biblical polyglots.

Polyglots are generally used for three purposes. First, a polyglot can be used for Biblical studies. The polyglot will have the original language (Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament), and one or more other languages. This allows the reader to compare the the translated versions with the original language to confirm the translations were done accurately. Scholars can then see nuances in the original language which may be difficult to translate into other languages.

The second reason is to assist in learning a language. In this case, the polyglot will have a version of the Bible in the reader’s native language, and the other language (which may or may not be in the original language) will be the one the reader is trying to learn.

The third purpose occurs when people who don’t have a common language may be reading a text. An example of this comes from Jesus’s crucifixion.

And Pilate posted a sign on the cross that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, so that many people could read it. (John 19:19-20 NLT)

It’s unknown when polyglot writing was first used. The Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) was translated into Greek about 300-200 B.C., and that translation is called the Septuagint. It’s quite possible a Hebrew-Greek polyglot was created long before Jesus was born. It likely polyglots go back further in time than that.

The first known polyglot Bible was compiled by the early church father Origin of Alexandria, sometime before A.D. 240. Origin spent an estimated 28 years on this project, and it only contains the Old Testament. The massive work is called the Hexapla, from a Greek word meaning “six-fold”, because it has six versions of the Old Testament.

  1. Hebrew text (consonants only)
  2. Hebrew text (consonants only) transliterated using Greek characters
  3. Greek translation by Aquila of Sinope (A.D. 100-200)
  4. Greek translation by Symmachus the Ebionite (A.D. 150-200)
  5. Greek Septuagint (300-200 B.C.)
  6. Greek translation by Theodotion (A.D. 125-175)
Origin's Hexapla: Psalm 22:15-80, 20-28
Origin’s Hexapla: Psalm 22:15-80, 20-28

Only fragments of the Hexapla still exist. The picture above shows how the book may have been presented, along with a page from a copy made about A.D. 500-700;  Psalm 22:15-18 and 22:20-28 are displayed. The first attempt to recreate the Hexapla using the existing fragments and the sources Origin used was made by Frederick Field in 18751.

There have been many other polyglot Bibles since Origin’s Hexapla. The Hexapla was written by hand, but after the printing press was developed (1450-1455) several important polyglot Bibles were published.

  • Complutensian Polyglot Bible (1521-1522)
    • 6 volumes
      • Vol 1-4: Old Testament in Hebrew, Latin Vulgate, Greek Septuagint, Aramaic and a translation from Aramaic into Latin
      •  Vol 5: New Testament: Greek and Latin Vulgate
      • Vol 6: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek dictionaries
    • Financed by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436–1517), in Alcalá de Henares, Spain
    • Chief editor Diego Lopez de Zúñiga
    • Work started 1502 and finished in 1517 (not released)
    • Approved by Pope Leo X in 1521-1522, and released
    • Only 600 copies were printed; 123 still exist (View fragment online) (Facsimile Reproductions)
  • Plantin Polyglot / Antwerp Polyglot (1568–1573)
    • 8 volumes
      • Vol 1-4: Old Testament in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, with independent translations into Latin from each of those languages
      • Vol 5-6: New Testament in  Greek and Syriac, with independent translations into Latin from each of those languages, and a translation of the Syriac into Hebrew
      • Vol 7-8: Dictionaries
    • Published by Christopher Plantin in Antwerp (Belgium)
    • Financed by king Philip II of Spain
    •  1,212 copies printed
  • Paris Polyglot (1629–1645)
    • 10 volumes
      • Vol 1-4: Old Testament reprint of Plantin Polyglot
      • Vol 5-6: New Testament Reprint of Plantin Polyglot with Syriac Antilegomena and an Arabic version with Latin translation
      • Vol 7-10: Samaritan Pentateuch with in Syriac and Latin; Old Testament in Arabic and Latin.
    • Financed by Guy Michel le Jay
  • London Polyglot Bible /  Walton’s Polyglot (1654–1657)
    • 6 volumes
      • Vol 1-4: Old Testament in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Chaldee, Samaritan Targum, Syriac, Ethiopic, Persian, and Arabic
      • Vol 5: New Testament in Syriac, Latin, Ethiopic, and Arabic; Gospels also in Persian
      •  Vol 6: Critical collections (?)
    •  Published by Brian Walton
    • (View fragment online)
  • English Hexapla (1841)
    • This is technically not a polyglot, as all the editions are English
      • Wycliffe (1380)
      • William Tyndale (1534)
      • Cranmer (1539)
      • Geneva Bible (1557)
      • Rheims (1582)
      • King James Bible (1611)
    • Published by S. Bagster
    • (View online)

Diglots and polyglots are still being published and are easy to find. My wife and I own an English and Hebrew Old Testament diglot, and an English and Greek New Testament diglot. I also found an English and Arabic Quran diglot in my searches.

Old Testament, Genesis 1: Hebrew and English
Old Testament, Genesis 1: Hebrew and English

New Testament, Matthew 1: NRSV, Greek and NIVNew Testament, Matthew 1: NRSV, Greek and NIV

Quran, al-Fatihah 1: Arabic and English
Quran, al-Fatihah 1: Arabic and English

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Origin of Alexandria. Hexapla (A.D. 240, critical edition by Frederick Field, 1875) (Archive.org vol 1, Archive.org vol 2)

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