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How the Bible Became a Book

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Enter any North American hotel room, pull open the drawer next to the bed, and you will encounter a remnant of late-medieval culture: a single-volume Bible. Mass-produced as a small book with tissue-thin pages, this form of Bible was actually a medieval invention, intended to make Scripture relatively uniform and more widely available. Before the 13th century, however, the Bible as a physical object was very different from its modern counterpart. Bibles could be assembled in any order, incorporate only some of the books thought necessary to a Bible today, and even include added "non-biblical" texts completely unfamiliar to the modern reader. In fact, the texts that were thought to comprise the Bible were flexible for centuries, as the composition of the biblical "canon" (from the Greek word for "rule") was debated in both Judaism and Christianity and some writings were eventually rejected as apocryphal.

Early in the history of Christianity, the most important units of Scripture were the individual books of the Bible, such as the books of Moses, the Prophets or the Gospels, which could be grouped together in various combinations and sometimes in differing orders depending on how they were read aloud in the liturgy. Most people did not own a Bible. It would have been difficult for ordinary Christians (who were probably illiterate and thus knew biblical texts only from hearing them read aloud) to discern which of the stories and explanations they heard were canonical parts of the Bible, and which were interpretations or additions.

There were many reasons for a layperson's restricted access to written Scripture, but one of the most straightforward was expense. Medieval Bibles were manuscripts (written by hand) and almost always in Latin. Thus they had to be copied by educated and skilled scribes. Bibles were produced in various formats and sizes, from large- or small-scale, multi-volume sets to individual segments, such as a collection of Prophets that might have commentary written in the margins in miniscule script. Almost all Bibles, however, came as groups of books. The origin of the word "Bible" is in the Greek and Latin term for library ("bibliotheca"); in effect, a collection of biblical books comprised a small library. The exceptions were large, luxury manuscripts that contained all the books of the Bible in one volume and were often lavishly illustrated. A modern equivalent might be the Saint John's Bible. Commissioned by Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 1998, the Bible was recently completed through the collective efforts of a team of scribes and artists directed by renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson, Master of the Guild of Scriveners, London (http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/). Producing medieval luxury Bibles sometimes took as long as 50 years and the investment of considerable resources (including gold, paint and parchment made from the skins of hundreds of cattle or sheep).

Each medieval Bible was therefore one of a kind, not only because it was created by an artisanal process, but also because it could include prefatory texts, chapter headings, commentaries, or even entire biblical books not found in other copies. The Bible as a unit was a rare and wonderful thing, treated sometimes with almost as much respect as a Torah scroll, and at other times as a malleable object that could be dismembered, rearranged and translated. Its form thus lacked the material and linguistic consistency of a Torah, and the linguistic consistency at least of a Koran. In fact, the ear of the careful, literate listener may have occasionally been struck by discrepancies between the Latin Bible he or she read, and the passages from Scripture used in the liturgy. Liturgical texts emerged gradually during the early centuries of Christianity, before the widespread adoption of the Latin translation known as the Vulgate (http://vulgate.org/)

Until the 13th century this diversity remained the rule. The rise of European universities after 1200 created a need for more Bibles that could be owned by students or itinerant preachers. This change fostered the emergence of one-volume compilations that were smaller in size than ever before, and most like the Bibles familiar to today's Christians. Copied on remarkably thin, translucent parchment, often in almost microscopically tiny script, these handy reference volumes incorporated the chapter titles, division into verses and roughly consistent ordering of the Bibles we know today. Such Bibles were still written by hand, however, and priced well beyond the reach of most medieval households. Even distributing them free of charge would not have had much impact as most people could not read Latin, which remained the language of the Bible for European Christians.

The Bible was only rarely translated into vernacular languages in the Middle Ages. Some translations became associated with heresy and authorities feared that vernacular translations were not as reliable as the Latin, Greek, or Hebrew texts, which were thought to contain the sacred truth of Scripture (even though the Latin Bible was itself a translation from the Greek and Hebrew). Less vulnerable to criticism were translations made for study purposes, or commissioned by affluent patrons. Vernacular Bibles created for the elite reflect the interests of their intended recipients as much as the work of the scholars who compiled the texts and the scribes who copied them. Many Latin Bibles also originated in commissions by or for important individuals.

We can thank Renaissance scholars and printers, then, for the invention of more affordable vernacular Bibles such as the King James Version, as well as for adding such helpful and mundane aids as page numbers and tables of contents. But the thirteenth-century scribes who first standardized and economically manufactured Latin Bibles were the ones who transformed a diverse collection of scriptural "books" into the kind of book we can hold in one hand.

Susan Boynton and Diane Reilly are the co-editors of 'The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages: Production, Reception, and Performance in Western Christianity' (Columbia University Press, 2011).

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