Bible as Onion: Peeling back the Layers and Setting a Historical Context

“Now think of these Bibles as books, as objects…”  The professor for my special topics art history class has already said this phrase many times this semester, yet I don’t think I grasped the full implications of his statement until recently.

When studying Bibles, it is easy to understand the religious significance that Bibles inherently possess.  However, it is also easy to become ensnared in this view that stresses only the sanctity of Bibles as holy books.  In order to attain a more thorough understanding of bibles, one needs to shift his or her view to different aspects of these objects.

My epiphany stemmed from a realization that Bibles, in some sense, are like onions; they have many layers and are influenced by the environment in which they were produced.  In addition to their theological significance, Bibles also have historical, social, and even technological importance, and examining these layers yields a diverse view of the Bible as book.  In the course text The Book: A History of the Bible, Christopher De Hamel discusses the manner in which various factors, such as political turmoil, religious discord, ideals of thirteenth century academia, and technological advances molded and developed the format and styles of bibles over the course of centuries.  Viewing the Bible as book is a useful perspective because it discards the notion of the Bible as an immutable object that is isolated from its contemporary environment.

As I commence my examination of two specific bibles housed in the university archives, this viewpoint prompts me to construct a historical framework for each bible.  The first bible of interest, entitled Biblia Sacra, is Vulgate Bible, created in 1740 in Italy.  A Vulgate Bible is in Latin, and the term Vulgate means “popular” or “common,” which provides a historical clue about the Bible.  De Hamel’s text notes that St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, called the Vulgate, was completed in the late fourth century.  Although it initially received criticism, the Vulgate gradually gained acceptance as the definitive translation of the Bible that was adopted by the Catholic Church.

This particular Bible has a modest beige cover, worn in some places from age and use, but devoid of any embellishments or decorations.  Of particular interest is an image that appears after the flyleaf. This image most likely depicts Sixtus V and Clement VIII, both of whom are mentioned on the title page. At first, I thought that perhaps both of these figures had served as popes at the time that this particular Bible had been printed.  However, research yielded that both of these men served as popes at the end of sixteenth century and into the beginning of the seventeenth century.  In 1740, Clement XII was succeeded by Benedict XIV for the papal office.  So why are Sixtus V and Clement VIII pictured in this image?  Do they have a connection with the Vulgate Bible?  Stay tuned for my next post.

The second Bible I selected from the archives was a pocket-sized English version of the Polyglot Bible, printed in Baltimore in 1832 by Armstrong and Plaskitt.  De Hamel defines the term polyglot as “many-tongues,” and this word often refers to a Bible that contains columns of the sacred text in various languages juxtaposed with each other.  However, since this is an English translation of a Polyglot Bible, it contains only the English translation, not multiple languages.  The size of this Bible indicates portability, and this feature aligns with the inscription on its title page that elucidates its purpose as a teaching tool.  Compared to the Biblia Sacra, the pristine cover of this Bible is far more ornate, with a leather cover and gold, organic-shaped embellishments.  Exploring the idea of Bible as instructive resource as well as the history of Polyglot Bibles and their translations will hopefully allow for the construction of a historical framework with which to study this Bible.

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