The Reading Room

The Continuing Story of the Banning and Censoring of the Bible

The banning and censoring of the Bible has a long and multifaceted history that continues to this day, and although it is not typically included within popular lists of banned books, it is safe to assert that the Bible is the most banned and censored book in history.  In this article, I will attempt not so much to chronicle the specific details of this history as to consider the broad categories of censorship that have appeared through the ages and to look at specific biblical passages that are problematic to authorities that have banned and censored the Bible.
Diocletianic Persecution: During the Diocletianic Persecution throughout the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, authorities destroyed Christian scriptures and liturgies.  Significantly, during this time of persecution the authorities compelled inhabitants of the empire to sacrifice to pagan gods.  Thus, biblical verses prohibiting such sacrifices would have been particularly upsetting to the persecuting authorities.  Such passages include Exodus 22:20, which reads: “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” And although the early Christians’ political situation differed significantly from that of the theocratic Judaism of Moses’ time, the Christian Scriptures agreed with the Mosaic prohibition, with Saint Paul commanding the Corinthians to “flee from idolatry” (10:14). and stating, “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20).  In any case, the polytheism advocated by the Diocletianic authorities conflicted explicitly with the exclusivity taught in the New Testament.  Jesus’s words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6); and Peter’s statement regarding Jesus, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) fly in the face of the state-promoted polytheism of the persecution.  
Roman Catholic Repression of the Bible: The Roman Catholic church’s repression of the Bible in vernacular languages has been documented since the Middle Ages, with a few highlights being Pope John X in 920 banning the use of the Old Church Slavonic translation, the Second Council of Tarragona in 1234 banning ownership of a Bible in any Romance language, and Archbishop Richard Arundel’s 1409 prohibition of translating the Bible into English.  Severe restrictions on the ownership of vernacular Bibles were laid out in Pope Pius IV’s Tridentine Index, being relaxed somewhat in 1896 by Pope Leo XII.  The various bans and restrictions on vernacular Bibles focused on concerns that the laity, left to their own devices and apart from the direction of the clergy, would wrongly interpret the Scriptures.  The aforementioned bans against English translations were accompanied by an opposition to John Wycliffe’s belief in the “priesthood of all believers,” a doctrine suggested by 1 Peter 2:9 in which followers of Christ are called “a royal priesthood” and thus, according to Wycliffe, not needing the mediation of priests to interpret the Bible.  The ban on English Bible translations was also accompanied by the concern that the laity would read passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9—“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”—according to Wycliff’s proto-Reformational hermeneutic and thus come into conflict with official Church teachings regarding matters of salvation.
Islamic State Censorship of the Bible: The Bible has long been viewed with suspicion by Islam, which views the Bible as a corrupted text whose teachings about Jesus clearly contradict with the Koran’s brief presentation of Jesus.  In the present day, various Islamic states ban or severely restrict possession of the Bible, particularly for Muslim residents.  Such countries include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Libya, Maldives, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen.  Offending Bible verses, in addition to the aforementioned verses teaching that salvation comes through Jesus alone, are passages that assert, in contrast to the Koran, to Jesus’ crucifixion, his resurrection, and his deity, such as Jesus’ statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).  
Communist State Censorship: Bans and significant restrictions on the Bible have been enforced throughout communist states of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.  Clearly the circulation of the Bible is a threat to state-promoted atheism, and the Bible’s teachings regarding the returning Jesus’ destruction of those earthly powers who oppose him (Revelation 19:15-21) can be viewed as particularly unsettling.  It is worth noting that the communist state in which the Bible is most severely restricted, North Korea, has long required its citizens to bow down to bronze statues of its founding Supreme Leader, Kim Il-Sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il.  Certainly one particular Bible episode the North Korean authorities would have its citizens avoid involves the Jewish captives Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego’s refusal to bow down to the golden image that the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had erected (Daniel 3).  
The Slave Bible: A particularly curious example of Bible censorship is the 1807 volume entitled Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands.  Commonly referred to as the Slave Bible, this volume, used by nineteenth-century British missionaries to proselytize and educate slaves in the British West Indies, contained only 232 of the 1,189 chapters in standard Protestant Bibles.  It conveniently omitted passages that could have justified slave rebellion, striking, for example, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Censorship in Present-Day Democratic Republics: Finally, Bible bans and censorship have occurred in the twenty-first century within modern democracies and republics, largely due to the Bible’s depiction of matters of sexuality.  For example, in Finland, parliamentarian Päivi Räsänen is currently facing charges of criminal hate speech for posting on Twitter the text of Romans 1:24-27, which condemns homosexual behavior.  And in 2023, Utah’s Davis School District in Utah school district decided that, due to concerns about the Bible’s “vulgarity” and “violence,” the Bible would be removed from some grade and middle school libraries.  Offending passages include Lot’s daughters’ sexual relations with and impregnation by their drunken father (Genesis 19:30-38) and the men of Gibeah’s deadly gang rape of the Levite’s concubine and the Levite’s subsequent dismembering of her (Judges 19:25-30).