Christopher De Hamel, The Book A History Of The Bible, Phaidon Press Limited, 2001 (ISBN 0 7148 3774 1)

I adore bookshops and hate libraries. Why? Because I love to ruin books with marginal notes and pencil scratchings. This habit is an aggravation to my family and friends. But “A History of the Bible” is one publication I will not deface. It is a book to cherish--much like the grand historic Bibles it so beautifully describes.

De Hamel (who for 25 years was responsible for mediaeval and illuminated manuscripts at Sotheby’s) has done his readers several good turns. First, his bibliography seems to embrace many lifetimes of reading, a godsend for harried, overworked Tyndalians. Second, the exquisite (and expensively produced) illustrations bring us face-to-face with fragile manuscripts we might never get a chance to see in person.

Quibbles? A few. The Tyndale material is a tad perfunctory, as is so often the case with old-school Tyndalian analysis (the Gutenberg section is zippier). Nicholas Love, he of the dumbed-down Bible stories, gets a mention. Never a man to break the rules, Love sought and obtained an ecclesiastical exemption from Archbishop Arundel under the Oxford Constitutions of 1409, letting him quote from the Bible in English.

The Lollards receive close attention, and De Hamel asks some pointed questions about their work. Were those early Lollard Bible translations Latinate on purpose, reflecting an effort by the translators to convince ecclesiastical authorities of their loyalty to Jerome? Were the Lollard Bibles used, at least at first, as cribs (“Bibles for dummies” we might say today) to simplify the study and memorization of their “authentic” Latin counterparts?

Today, we think of Lollardy as a samizdat. However, a good many Lollard books - often prepared under visibly optimal conditions with loving care - survive, and this in an era when book burning was one of the few things that governments did well. Some 250 copies have been recorded. In the face of adversity, the Lollards have a proud record of achievement. Therein lies a conundrum - do reformers and bible translators get best results when under stress (e.g. Tyndale) or in a state of relative peace (Erasmus, Jerome)?

Before reaching for your wallet, remember that “A History of the Bible” is a history about how books are made. There is a focus on print shop logistics; the mechanics of publication throughout the ages are a constant theme. The author compares the merits of papyrus, parchment, and uterine parchment (don’t ask!). Scarce materials made for scarce books in the first millennium; however, the democratization of book readership took place long before the Protestant reformers showed up. Parisian workshops in the 1300s churned out Old and New Testaments a-plenty. Granted, these were not for the ploughboy reader - at least not yet. But a critical mass of educated readers was developing, and their needs were catered to.

Mediaeval manuscripts displayed these shifts. As time passed, bible searchability was enhanced through wider use of visual aids to the reader (signposts and markings embedded within the text). Some manuscripts would use the colour red to distinguish actual Biblical text from patristic commentary. Thank goodness de Hamel ignores the 20th century Jesus Seminar and their silly colour-coded Bible.

In focusing on “look and feel”, the author is stressing an issue long overlooked in the Bible world. No-frills Bibles come into vogue from time to time, but never for long. Complain all you like about the focus on appearances, but the urge to embroider bibles has been a fixture for centuries. The Scriptures have been a catalyst for the ingenuity of artists and calligraphers since the dawn of the Christian era; the injunction against images never stood a chance. Sometimes this “interior decorating” has been interactive. In the 19th century, American readers would bind their own chosen illustrations into their own private Bibles (“Grangerizing”); then as now, customization was vital in a consumer society.

Lest you feel this sounds too much like a Versace catalogue, fear not, there is plenty of hard scholarship in these pages. The author is a born historian who always uses particular examples to illustrate broader conclusions. In de Hamel’s analysis, the Good Book is a kaleidoscope through which an array of scholarly, societal, and economic trends can be viewed in fascinating and unexpected ways.

Through this prism, we note how standards of scribal precision and presentation have changed over time (although the highest standards of accuracy in transmission were unvaryingly found in the Judaic world). We see the genesis of copyright law, propelled by the King James Version. We observe the evolving treatment of children, who came to be viewed as individuals and as customers for Bibles in their own right (the “thumb bibles” are a glorious curiosity). Nor should sociology blind us to business issues. After all, the Bible has always done a roaring trade (one Bible producer, attempting to store ill-gotten royalties down a privy, keels over from the stench).

There is nothing new under the sun or under de Hamel’s microscope, and genuine watersheds in church history are rare. All key figures in Christendom tend to have their own archetypes or forerunners. The incredibly prolific Jerome put this reviewer in mind of Erasmus. In the author’s account, the pulsating forces of ecclesiastical action and reaction are thrown into relief as seldom before.

At one end of the spectrum, we are reintroduced to the back-to-basics Bible pioneers epitomized by Jerome. We discover mediaeval scholar Stephen Harding (abbot of Cīteaux 1109-34) who consulted Judaic scholars in the “lingua romana” (i.e. in French!) to discuss original Hebrew texts. At the opposite pole, we meet the everything-but-the-kitchen sink crowd who revere the whole miasma of church tradition, see all Bible stories as equally sacrosanct, and hate to leave anything out. Later scribes reinstated doubtful Bible passages which Harding had pruned away.

The treatment of purely religious material here is uneven. De Hamel gives a fine account of the analytical methods used by the patristic authors. Best of all, he avoids the smirking, reductionist tone of much contemporary Bible commentary, so fatal to an understanding of the Scriptures.

But by De Hamel’s own confession, theology is not his strength. He lacks the suspicious mindset which Tyndalians have learned through force of habit and bitter experience. He mentions certain Bibles from the 1100s that are missing the four gospels, postulating that the gospel texts might already be present in the form of lectionaries within the same monastic institution. Indeed, not all Bibles were “pandects” in those days, but one’s sceptical Tyndalian brain wonders if substantive disputes, rather than document formatting issues, lay behind this omission.

And is it really true, as the author suggests, that the content of the Bible has remained largely unchanged over the past two millennia, small discrepancies aside? Are those tiny differences as minor as he thinks? De Hamel is blind to the miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile atmosphere dominating the doctrinal debates of the Reformation, where tiny distinctions (such as “church” versus “congregation”) made all the difference in the world. In those days, people really did believe - as opposed to merely professing to believe - that what they did in this life would determine their salvation in the next.

The author keeps out of the alkali bog of sectarian controversy. He avers that Bible-focused Protestant missionaries were forced - despite themselves - to take the full measure of indigenous cultures and to interact with them (the implication being that Catholic ritual could be imposed on distant societies on a like-it-or-lump-it basis). The Bible was often (although not always) the first book produced in native languages. Translating into the language of an oral culture not one’s own has to be one of the greatest challenges of all.

If the religion is secondary here, it doesn’t matter. We have other books on that. This `History` magnificently complements - it does not replace - the many past, present, and future books on the subject

Neil L. Inglis Bethesda, Maryland
March 2002.

Valid XHTML 1.0!