Welcome to our exhibition, The Bible as Book: From the Dead Sea Scrolls to Gideon’s Bibles, in which we, as students of Dr. Kerry Boeye’s eponymously titled art-history class, display and discuss bibles from the Archives of Loyola-Notre Dame Library in Baltimore, Maryland. Most of the Bibles presented here come from the library of Henry J. Knott (1906–95), a successful Baltimore businessman who was both an avid collector and private philanthropist. These bibles span a vast array of origins: some were created in the Netherlands and Italy, while others most likely never left Baltimore. All are at least a century old, with one example from approximately seven hundred years ago.
Regardless of personal theology, most people bring their own preconceptions about the material form of the Bible to their understanding of the sacred text. What is a Bible? The word “Bible” comes from the Greek for “the books.” In our twenty-first century society we are accustomed to holding the Bible in our hands without much effort. While many of the Bibles in this collection are pandects, or “complete Bibles,” in which the entire text of the Bible is contained in a single portable volume, this was not always the case. In his text The Book: A History of the Bible, Christopher De Hamel notes that the format of the Bible as a single text did not emerge until approximately the thirteenth century. Before this time period, it was not unusual for a Bible to consist of ten or more separate volumes.
Our concept of Bibles may include thin, tissue-like pages of paper covered in tiny text. Again, it required many centuries for the Bible to assume this appearance. Before the advent of paper, parchment, made from specially treated animal hide, served as the writing surface in books. The physical size of Bibles has also altered over time as many Bibles were once enormous, multi-volume works. For example, the incredible length and breadth of the Léon Bible from the early Middle Ages would have required, according to De Hamel, the hides of approximately 155 calves or sheep. The thickness and weight of parchment exceeds that of paper, greatly decreasing the portability of the Bible. Even the style of text of the Bible has changed over the course of time, as Bibles were once manuscripts, hand-written and illuminated by monks, and, later, professional scribes and artists, until Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable type in the 1450s. As one can imagine, the process of copying the entire text of the Bible was time-consuming and transcriptional errors were common.
Tracing the personal histories behind these bibles in addition to their larger historical frameworks can also prove illuminating. In examining the Bible from the viewpoint of material object, one can appreciate its complexity, and the many centuries required for it to evolve into the physical book we recognize today. Applying this perspective can reveal the sentimental value that Bibles, like many in this exhibition, can possess. This concept of Bible as personal possession is epitomized by family Bibles of the Victorian Era. In her book chapter “The Bible in the Victorian Home,” Colleen McDannell discusses the inclusion of pages in this time period for families to record important events such as marriages, births, and deaths. As such, the synthesis of these personal events in the very pages of a Bible bolstered its status as family heirloom in addition to its status as a sacred text.
The history and evolution of the Bible is not without strife; the Book often found itself at the center of controversy that transcended the realm of religion. Issues such as translation and publication of the Bible also caused a great deal of debate that involved secular and sacred rulers alike. Not only has the Bible been used throughout history as a tool of personal devotion, but it has also taken on the role of an object with major political ramifications due to its ability to shape the mindset of those who read it.
The ancient Romans, for example, used the ritualistic practice of book burning in order to assert their authority over the Christians whom they believed were plaguing their society and inducing the wrath of the pagan gods. This practice began as early as 213 B.C. where the rural population of Italy was forced to hand over their books of prophecy and prayers to the Roman senate for destruction. Centuries later, Martin Luther would initiate a religious revolution throughout Europe with his criticisms regarding the corruption of the Catholic Church and his desire for a new translation of the Bible, one that aligned more closely with recent Greek and Hebrew translations, compared to the Latin Vulgate. As a result, Luther created an entirely new version of the Bible with his vernacular translation published in 1534, consequently putting the text in the hands of the masses instead of the educated elite. Working off of Martin Luther’s religious reformation, King Henry VIII utilized the tension with the Catholic Church to separate England from Papal authority in order to divorce his then wife, Catherine of Aragon. Therefore, in this context the Bible and its translation was used by Henry VIII to give precedence to his political aims of divorcing his wife.
Christian missionaries also utilized translation in their desire to convert colonized peoples and institute a “hierarchy of languages” or a system in which the Bible was translated into a native language, like Tagalog (a language found in the Philippines), but based on Latin in order to give it more authority. Since Latin was understood by sixteenth-century Catholic missionaries as the foundational language of truth and the closest to the word of God, utilizing Latin when translating the Bible into Tagalog legitimized the text, thus making it an acceptable tool of conversion and appropriate for native readers. Overall, these changes in the text and usage of the Bible demonstrate how throughout history its power within societies—and the struggles to control that power—frequently surpassed strictly religious concerns.
Again we can look back to Christopher De Hamel’s text where he discusses three levels of interpretation that were developed in the Middle Ages and applied to the Biblical text to enhance understanding of it. The first level of interpretation, the literal level, entails adopting a historical point of view of the text. This refers to an examination of the narratives contained in the bible as historical events involving real people. While De Hamel presents this as a method of interpreting the content of the Bible, this same viewpoint can also be applied to the bible as a material object. As you explore the books in this exhibition, you are enjoined to peel back the religious layer that accompanies all sacred texts, and to think about these bibles as material objects with unique histories that helped craft their appearance as well as their purpose, looking for similarities in physical origins, but also in objective and sentiment.