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The Artifacts

The following artifacts are just a few of the items on display in the Creation and Illumination exhibit.

King James Bible (1611)

In 1604, Church leaders decided that a new Bible translation was needed to replace the academically inadequate Bishops’ Bible used at the time. Various translation teams comprised of some 50 scholars came together and labored for seven years. The new translation was ideal for public liturgical reading. But some time would pass before it became the favored Bible of the English-speaking people.

By 1750, the English-speaking world fully accepted the King James Bible and many considered it a great work of literature. High esteem of this particular version of the Bible continued until well into the 20th century. Like Luther’s Bible for German, many consider the King James Bible a treasure of English in its own right. Today, it is the best-known, most-published, and most widely distributed book in the English language.

Latin (Vulgate) Illuminated Bible Leaves (12th–15th century)

During medieval times, the beginnings of chapters of Christian manuscripts were often distinguished by the embellishment of initial letters with precious paints and sometimes images. The intent was to fill the reader with wonder and awe befitting the sacra pagina (“sacred page”) of Scripture. Through the reflection of color and light, the worshiper could absorb into the soul the meaning of the work in accordance with traditional meditative modes of reading Scripture known as lectio divina. Illuminated Jewish and Christian biblical manuscripts represent some of the finest artwork and craftsmanship ever produced.

Leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455)

The invention of the printing press radically changed Bible production. Around 1440, German craftsman Johannes Gutenberg created a mechanized method of printing from moveable type using metal molds, a special press, and linseed oil-based inks. The process made mass production and marketing of Bibles and other books possible for the first time.

This folio-sized Bible, printed around 1455, represents the beginning of a new era. Of the 180 copies of this large-format, two-volume Latin Bible made, only about 50 still exist. The Gutenberg Bible was meant for public reading and is legible from about three feet away. Considering its large format and text size as well as the fact that its numbers were written as words rather than Roman digits, it is likely that the text was meant to be read aloud. The Gutenberg Bible also included blank areas on many pages for hand-painted illumination as was common for high-quality Bibles of the time.

Complutensian Polyglot Bible (1521)

The Biblia Complutensis appeared as the first printed polyglot (multi-language) Bible. Publisher Cardinal Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros commissioned the best Jewish and Greek scholars of the time and secured the most reliable manuscripts possible, including many from the Vatican library, for this endeavor.

The project represented a remarkable typesetting achievement that took 15 years to complete, resulting in 600 copies printed on paper. This six-volume Bible features the Old Testament in Hebrew text, the Vulgate (Latin Bible) text, and the Greek Septuagint text (with interlinear literal Latin translation), plus Aramaic Targum texts (and attendant Latin translation) for the Pentateuch. Parallel columns featured the Greek and Vulgate texts in the New Testament. This polyglot Bible stands as a scholarly edition aimed at restoring original texts and comparison of the earliest translations.

Tyndale New Testament Leaf (1534)

William Tyndale, an Oxford-trained priest who converted to Protestantism, was responsible for the first English translation of the New Testament rendered from the Greek. This pocket-sized edition circulated rapidly, raising red flags for secular and church authorities alike who feared the potential for heresy and rebellion should Protestantism find a footing on English soil.

Tyndale was publically executed by strangulation and burning for heresy in 1536. His literary masterpiece had an immense impact on the English language through subsequent English translations. Like Luther, Tyndale’s genius lay in his biblical language proficiency combined with his mastery in crafting the vernacular of his day.

Leaves from the Coverdale Bible (1535)

The first complete Bible printed in English was a large folio Black Letter edition, translated by Miles Coverdale and based on the work of Tyndale, Luther, the Vulgate, and other Latin translations. Coverdale exercised considerable influence on the English Bible between the time of Tyndale and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. His version of the Psalms shaped that text for the Great Bible of 1539, the Bishops’ Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer.

Coverdale gave us many memorable biblical phrases, including the following: “The heavens declare the glory of God”; “O God, thou art my God, early will I seek thee;” “enter thou into the joy of thy Lord,” “the valley of the shadow of death,” and “thou anointest my head with oil.”

Leaf from the Great Bible (1540)

The first (and only) English Bible to receive royal authorization. Mainly a revision of Matthew’s Bible, it was undertaken by Coverdale at Thomas Cromwell’s suggestion and it brought the Bible to the English people in a dramatic and direct way. Its publication brings to an end the rapid series of the New English Bible. It would be 21 years before the next New English Bible translation, the Geneva Bible of 1560.

Geneva Bible (1607 printing)

Fleeing England during the Catholic rule of Mary I, many Protestant scholars sought refuge in Geneva. There they began work on a new English translation of the whole Bible from the original languages. A New Testament appeared in 1557, and in 1560, the complete Bible went to press in Geneva, giving the translation its popular name, “Geneva Bible.” In 1558, Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, and the Protestant English Bible found a welcome. Despite the fact that the Geneva Bible never received royal sanction, the endorsement it received from the general population established it overwhelmingly as the Bible of Elizabethan England.

Success came to the Geneva Bible largely because it differed from previous English Bibles in ways that mattered to readers. Its smaller size made it handier and more portable, and it featured clear, easily readable Roman type. A word or brief sentence at the top of each page noted the contents of that page, and several maps helped orient the reader to key biblical geography. Woodcut illustrations depicted the tabernacle and temple accouterments, and the biblical text had numbered verses for the first time in an English Bible. Versification proved helpful for reference study of the Bible with concordances and marginal cross-references. With literacy sharply rising, the Geneva Bible immediately appealed to the people of England.