The Bible came into existence only in about the 14th century AD. “Wait,” you’re thinking, “some of the materials in the Bible are more than three thousand years old. The youngest of them are almost two thousand years old. What is this business of the 14th century?” And I reply, “What image comes to mind when you hear the word Bible?” The image of a book, a single authoritative volume that you can hold in your hand. The image is so reliable that we now have “bibles” for every conceivable subject—barbecuing, for example—always with the implication that this one volume is all you need. It will tell you everything you need to know.
Such a book never existed in the Christian world before about the 14th century for the simple reason that it was technologically impossible. Earlier copies of the scriptures were written on papyrus or parchment, and neither material will serve to produce a single volume big enough to contain everything in the Christian Bible—at least not one that you could lift single-handedly. Papyrus is too rigid and brittle to be folded over and over or to allow for the constant turning of pages without breaking along the fold. Parchment, made of animal skins, is stronger, but comparatively heavy. Only when the East Asian invention of paper-making eventually percolated westward to Europe did scribes have a writing surface that made the inclusion of so much material in a single, hand-held volume practicable.
I have seen one of these early Bibles, held it in my hand, turned the pages. It was created for a Medieval scholar and contains the whole of the Christian scriptures, as then acknowledged, in small, hand-written gothic letters on rag paper—paper that has lasted very well for six hundred years. It was a marvel of technology in its day: a scholar could actually hold in one hand the whole of the sacred writings, could carry it while traveling, could consult it in the study, could read from it in the lecture room. All because of the miracle of paper.
Written copies of the scriptures existed long before that, of course. But never in the single, compact form that we know so well today. And this is not just a bit of antiquarian trivia. The transition made in the late Middle Ages (further reinforced by Gutenberg’s introduction of printing with movable type) was a technological revolution. It has shaped Christians’ notion of what the scriptures are in ways of which we are mostly unconscious. It means that we conceive them as a unified whole, a single book, a concrete object. Our Christian forebears of a thousand years ago and more had no such notion. For them, the Holy Scriptures were an extended array of documents, inter-related but hardly uniform, scattered among many different volumes—a Psalter here, an Euangelion (Gospel-book) there, a book of Prophets (or maybe just an Isaiah, depending on how good your local church’s library was), an Apostolikon (New Testament letters). For reading in public services many clergy relied simply on lectionaries, books with the readings for each Sunday in succession.
The multiplicity of their physical embodiment ensured that people thought of the Scriptures as existing in the plural. We still use that plural name for them, but the singularity of the paper-based Bible has effectively canceled its implications. The Bible has superseded the Scriptures. It is a book, singular, unified, under one set of covers. And from Gutenberg’s time onward it was increasingly affordable for a wide reading audience.
No one who has paid attention to the ways in which electronic media have changed how we read today—the physical embodiment of what we read, the kind of attention with which we read, the scope of what we read, our expectations of what we read, the credulity many of us bring to what we see online—should doubt the far-reaching implications of the printing-on-paper revolution that came about in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Europe.
It meant that the audience for the scriptures changed. It meant that the ways people interpreted the scriptures changed—quite drastically in some respects. And it ushered in the radically new ways of using the scriptures that characterized the Protestant Reformation and are still the inheritance of its modern heirs—very much a part of modern culture.
For almost fifteen hundred years before this technological revolution, Christians read their scriptures in ways quite different from those that became dominant in Protestantism. Is the Bible as taken for granted in the post-Gutenberg world still the best way of viewing and understanding the Christian Scriptures in our own changing world?’=
More on this topic to follow . . . .