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The Holy Script in Hungarian: The Vizsoly Bible by Lili Zemplényi

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The Holy Script in Hungarian: The Vizsoly Bible

When the Reformation started in 1517, Hungary was living through desperate times. The Ottoman Turkish Empire threatened the existence of the Kingdom, soon dividing it into three parts: the Conquered (the Centre part of the country, occupied by the Ottomans), the Royal (on the North and West of Hungary, governed by the Habsburgs) and the Transylvanian Principality. The wars and calamities, however, did not stop the spread of new Christian doctrine and by the 1560s most of Hungary’s population joined one of the new Christian faiths.[1]

One of the greatest achievements of the new Protestant belief was delivering the first complete Hungarian translation of the Holy Script and promoting literacy and the use of Hungarian to the general population. Bible translations had a huge impact on the development of the Hungarian language, as they led to the study of Hungarian grammar and consolidated a Hungarian alphabet which in turn, contributed to the standardisation of the language itself. The widespread availability of religious texts in Hungarian due to the Reformation promoted the opportunity to learn – first about religious matters which led to mass schooling and the foundation of the first Hungarian universities.  

After the Reformation started, more and more chapters were translated to Hungarian to make the Holy Script more widely available

The first attempt to translate the Bible to Hungarian was made before the Reformation in the 1420s and ‘30s. The so-called Hussite Bible was an almost complete Hungarian translation, but it was never published. No original manuscripts of the Hussite Bible survive today, but for fragmented copies of the translation preserved in various codices. After the Reformation started, more and more chapters were translated to Hungarian to make the Holy Script more widely available. First the Epistles of Paul were translated by Benedek Komjáti in 1533, followed by the translation of the New Testament by János Sylvester in 1541.

These translations were followed by the first full Hungarian translation of the Bible, the Vizsoly Bible. The translation and publication of the Vizsoly Bible was done by the Calvinist pastor, Gáspár Károlyi (~1529-1592). The work to translate the Bible started in 1586 and the finished work was published four years later. During the translation Gáspár Károlyi and his team took into consideration both already existing Hungarian translations, the original Greek and Hebrew script as well as Latin publications. Beyond the main text, the Bible included notes and summaries from Károlyi. Printing the Bible was both a dangerous and expensive endeavour for Károlyi’s team. It was dangerous because the Habsburgs, who held the Hungarian crown, were against Protestantism. The printing press at Vizsoly, Northern Hungary was reported to the Habsburgs who did not approve of the publishing of a Hungarian language Bible. Therefore, anyone who was engaged in the translation and publishing risked imprisonment and the confiscation of their assets.[2]

Due to the political risks and the great financial cost of publishing the Bible, the translators needed help from nobles more sympathetic to the Protestant cause. Sigismund Rákóczi (1544-1608) was among their patrons – he spoke up in defence of the publication in front of the Habsburgs and he also offered financial support and a place on his territories at Vizsoly to set up the printing press. The printing started in 1589 under the leadership of the Polish Bálint Mantskovits and it was concluded on July 20, 1590 – over a year later.[3] The 4.5 million sorts (characters in movable type printing press) used to print the Vizsoly Bible came from the Netherlands; the paper was from Poland, for which payment was taken in Tokaji wine.[4] Four workers worked for 450 days to assemble the sorts by hand so that the book could be printed. The 2,412-page-long book was eventually published in three volumes, weighing 6 kilograms.[5] From the 800 books which were published in Vizsoly only 52 survive to this day (24 of them are abroad, one is exhibited in Vizsoly). 

The Vizsoly Bible was re-published over 300 times, which makes it the most published Hungarian language book ever

The book printed in Vizsoly is the basis for the Protestant Hungarian Bible editions available today. The Vizsoly Bible was re-published over 300 times, which makes it the most published Hungarian language book ever. Revised editions that improved the translation of the original Vizsoly Bible appeared soon after its publication. The second edition was published in 1608 by Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574-1634, Calvinist pastor, who was famous for his Psalm translations. As more revised editions were released, Hungarian language Bibles became smaller, more practical and more readable. The number of copies increased with each edition, making the Holy Script available in Hungarian to a wide range of people.[6] To cherish the memory of the first Hungarian language Bible in both 2017 – on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – and in 2020, the Vizsoly Bible was reprinted on the original site using a recreation of the original movable type printing techniques and paper.[7]


Lili Zemplényi, trainee at Danube Institute


[1] István Szathmári, ’A magyar reformáció nyelvi hatásáról’, Nyelv és stílus (2017), http://real.mtak.hu/61579/1/141206.pdf, 207, accessed 18 March 2022.

[2] ‘Vizsolyi Biblia’, vizsolyibiblia.huhttp://vizsolyibiblia.hu/biblia/, accessed 18 March 2022.

[3] ‘Vizsolyi (Károli) Biblia’, vizsoly.hu (2015), https://www.vizsoly.hu/karoli.php, accessed 18 March 2022. 

[4] ‘Vizsolyi Biblia’, vizsolyibiblia.huhttp://vizsolyibiblia.hu/biblia/, accessed 18 March 2022. 

[5] ‘430 éve készült el a Vizsolyi Biblia’, Kultúra.hu (2020), https://kultura.hu/430-eve-keszult-el-a-vizsolyi-biblia/, accessed 18 March 2022.  

[6] ‘A vizsolyi Biblia’, Arcanumhttps://www.arcanum.com/hu/online-kiadvanyok/pannon-pannon-enciklopedia-1/magyar-nyelv-es-irodalom-31D6/harom-evszazad-irodalma-3D33/a-bibliaforditasok-szaz-eve-szabo-andras-3D49/a-vizsolyi-biblia-3D57/, accessed 18 March 2022. 

[7] ‘430 éve készült el a Vizsolyi Biblia’, Kultúra.hu (2020), https://kultura.hu/430-eve-keszult-el-a-vizsolyi-biblia/, accessed 18 March 2022.  

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