Giovanni Diodati, Italian Bible Translator

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

Giovanni Diodati was born in 1576 in Geneva, Switzerland (though some authorities trace his birth to Italy) and died there in 1649. His family were Protestant refugees from papal persecutions in Italy. Giovanni grew up speaking both Italian and French, and was trained in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. It is reported that he was so adept at Hebrew that Theodore de Beza hired him to teach Hebrew in the Academy in Geneva when Diodati was only 21 years old. He was both a noted preacher and an active academic for his entire life, and labored long and hard for the souls of men. His most notable achievement was the single-handed translation of the whole Bible into Italian, the first edition appearing in 1607 (and consulted by the KJV translators), the second, heavily annotated edition appearing in 1641. Diodati did for Italian speakers what Luther did for the Germans in the 16th century and Jerome did for Latin speakers a millennium and more earlier—he gave them the whole Bible in their own language. His translation remained unrivaled as the Bible of Protestant Italians for centuries, and is still in print in up-dated editions. Later, Diodati produced a complete revised French version (1644) which met with considerably less success, due to opposition from the pastors of Geneva, who favored the Geneva French Bible of 1588.

In 2006, a book was published, titled John Diodati’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture, by Andrea Ferrari (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books). After a brief biographical sketch, the author focuses on Diodati’s view of Scripture, especially as presented in Diodati’s These Theologicae de Sacra Scriptura [“Theological Propositions regarding Sacred Scripture”] which was published in 1596. In these 25 theses, he expresses views of Scripture nearly identical to those of Calvin, de Beza and Turretin. Some quotes from this book will clarify what that involved.

A program of intense study was required of all candidates for the Calvinist ministry in France. One of the sources of the Reformation had been the scholarly, critical study of the Bible, and each Calvinist minister was expected to be well equipped for the continuing task of biblical study and exegesis… . Only a man with a high degree of linguistic and philological ability could be entrusted with the task of interpreting to less learned and otherwise occupied people the very words of Almighty God. (p. 8, quoting Robert M. Kingdon)

Regarding Diodati’s revision of the 1588 Geneva French translation:

Although he did not condemn this translation, he thought it could be improved and that it would have been a mistake to ‘canonize’ a version of the Bible, thereby denying others the freedom to produce new translations. (p. 19)

[Calvin] … . holds that the sixty-six books of the canonical Scriptures were handed down in the providence of God in a sound text that meets the test of critical scrutiny. (p. 37)

The authentic text of Scripture, and that which is truly God-breathed, consists only in the Hebrew originals in the Old Testament and Greek originals in the New Testament. (Diodati’s thesis #4, p. 47)

The Latin version (they call the Vulgate) is an ectype [i.e., derivative] of the original, from which it is lawful to appeal to the archtype [i.e., original]. (Thesis #5, p. 47)

Scriptures can and must be translated into all the languages of all nations, so that they may be read and understood by everyone. (Thesis #6, p. 47)

It is a sacrilege to keep people from reading the Scriptures because of obscurity or danger. (Thesis #7, p. 47)

We attribute to the Church, Councils, Doctors, and Pastors no authority except the ministerial one of interpreting the Scripture. (Thesis #14, p. 49)

Scripture is trustworthy by and in virtue of itself, and does not need the precarious authority of the Church. (Thesis #16, p. 49)

Scripture contains most perfectly all things necessary for salvation. (Thesis #20, p. 50)

Unwritten traditions are not necessary for salvation, for they either must be considered of no value, or they are mutable, for they concern only church polity. (Thesis #23, p. 51)

We deny that the pontifical traditions are either from Christ or from the Apostles. (Thesis #24, p. 51)

The Reformation saw the application of the sola Scriptura principle as the non-negotiable rule for all other grounds of authority. (p. 57)

As for Diodati, there is much evidence that his attitude toward the Vulgate was not determined by a blind and bigoted hatred of Catholicism and its theologians. In her research, Milka Ventura has a lengthy section of about 100 pages on the sources that Diodati used in his work as translator of the Bible, and there is an important sub-section devoted to Diodati’s relationship with the Vulgate. Diodati shows great respect for Jerome, and is much influenced by him as a translator. In a letter written to the Synod of Alencon in 1637, Diodati mentions his admiration for Jerome. Diodati explains that he followed Jerome where he could do so ‘with a safe conscience.’ In practice, this means that Diodati generally followed Jerome, taking a different position only when the Roman Catholic theological stance made appeal to such passages in the Vulgate wrongly or imperfectly translated.

Diodati’s attitude towards Jerome highlights the real issue: the theological implications of the primacy of the Vulgate in public lectures, disputations, sermons, and expositions when solving of doctrinal controversy. Francis Turretin, who studied theology under Diodati, is very straightforward in his explanation:

“The question is, have the original texts (or the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) been so corrupted either by copyists through carelessness (or by the Jews and heretics through malice) that they can no longer be regarded as the judge of controversies and the rule to which all versions must be applied? The papists affirm it, we deny it.” (p. 63)

It is important to add that when Diodati speaks of the “Hebrew originals in the Old Testament and Greek originals in the New Testament,” he is not referring to the autographa, but to the apographa [i.e. copies]. With regard to the purity of the text, Francis Turretin makes the following relevant comment: “By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” (p. 64)

[William A.] McComish acknowledges that “Diodati’s achievement was to produce single-handed, one of the main Bibles of European Protestantism,” and that his work “stands on a level with that of the Luther Bible in German and the Authorized King James’ Bible in English.” (p. 67)

Quoting Diodati’s expressed reasons for producing a new, revised French translation:

I have labored to free the reading of the Holy Scriptures from certain and yet very common abuses …I have endeavored to make it plain and easy to the simple… . It hath been the constant practice of all Ages from the very birth of Christianity that all nations and languages have not only suffered, but even carefully collected and embraced a diversity of translations of the Holy Scriptures. (p. 68)

Diodati appeals to the mandate of Calvin himself and of “those of the year 1588” [when the first Geneva French version appeared], saying in the preface to the Bible of the Genevan Company of Pastors, they “never designed by their performances, to exclude and debar any of their successors from attempting such a work as this; but rather did invite, exhort and summon them to contribute what should be in their power for the perfection of that, which according to their candor and modesty they said, they had left imperfect.” Further, he explains the necessity of his work because of the changes that occur in human languages. These changes caused some “words, terms and phrases as were seemly and sound well in one age, yet in the next following hear ill, are barbarous, putrid and intolerable.” (p. 69)

Diodati has been moved also by the expediency of this liberty [to produce a new French translation] for fear that “the singularity of one translation always heard, read, and handled publicly and privately, should come at length to be canonized.” He then explains that that this is what happened in the Church of Rome, that not at first by any public declarations, but by custom, and length of time the Vulgar Latin hath obtained this reputation.” (p. 69)

Speaking of the traditional 1588 French translation, Diodati says,

And a very foolish opinion it is, to think, that we are come to such a pitch of perfection, as if nothing among us could be bettered. (p. 70)

It is evident that, for Diodati, the authority of the Bible is not founded upon the church, for the simple reason that the church itself is founded upon the authority of the Bible. (p. 88)

There are virtually no differences among Calvin, Beza, Diodati, and Turretin on the doctrine of Scripture. (p.105)

In all of this, it is clearly evident that Diodati found final authority in the original language Bible texts in Hebrew and Greek, that he believed these were sufficiently preserved and accurate in current copies, that they should be translated into the vernacular of all nations, and that all translations were subject to revision for cause based on these original Hebrew and Greek texts, views, incidentally, which he held in common with the King James translators, as expressed in their preface, “The Translators to the Readers.”

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Douglas K. Kutilek Bio


Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.

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Bert Perry's picture

Way back in college, I took a class in Old High German (predecessor language to modern German), and one of the interesting things about it was that many of the text fragments were translations of Scripture into old German dialects.  So I was "cheating" in the class (with the professor's approval) from my knowledge of Scripture, and the other student (yes, almost a tutorial, great class) was "cheating" (also with approval) from the parallel Latin text.

That tradition of translating Scripture into the vernacular more or less ended at the end of the Dark Ages and kept Scripture away from the people until Luther, Wycliffe, Tyndale, and....now I learn Diodati.  Good to know about another hero of the age, and I wonder how much different Italian history would have been if Diodati's translation would have become more widespread.  In the Protestant regions of German-speaking Europe, Luther's translation made the regional differences in dialect much less than they otherwise would have been, and allowed  some great unity among those regions.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

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I had never heard of Diodati before. I appreciate the deep dive into translation history!

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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