Bible Sunday2018 talk by Sue Smith


Today is Bible Sunday – a day when we celebrate the Bible


There is a huge selection of Bibles available today.


The Bible is a wonderful story book, full of exciting tales well told. But it is more than a collection of stories – there is one big story throughout and told by the whole collection of individual stories.

At the centre of the big story is God - what he is doing with the world and the human race.

It does not simply tell this story in a detached way, as a historian might. It is written to invite those who hear its message to respond. The New Testament is written to persuade its readers to become followers of Jesus and help them understand how to follow him.



Over the last 2000 years since the Christian Faith began the Bible has been circulated across the world and translated into many languages.

The British and Foreign Bible Society founded in 1804 has helped to distribute the Bible worldwide. Today The Bible Society has by far the largest collection of Bibles in the world, with about 39,000 items. It includes its Chinese Collection which is the largest collection of Chinese Scriptures anywhere in the world. The collection is housed at the Cambridge University Library.


But have you ever thought how the Bible was distributed before the Printing Press was invented in 1455?    


I have been doing a bit of research and found this informative article on the International Bible Society website:


Before the advent of the printing press, the only way to duplicate a document or book was to copy it by hand.

While the Old Testament was first copied on leather scrolls, the use of papyrus soon became the favorite of Bible copyists. The sheets of papyrus were sewed together and placed between two pieces of wood for covers. This type of book was called a codex. Actually the term Bible comes from the Greek word for “papyrus plant” (biblos).

The oldest surviving manuscript of any part of the New Testament is a papyrus fragment from a codex; measuring only 3.5 by 2.5 inches and containing part of the  John 18. Scholars estimate that it was written about 125 AD. The fragment of papyrus was acquired on the Egyptian market in 1920 by Bernard Grenfell. The original transcription and translation of the fragment of text was not done until 1934, by Colin H. Roberts. And this amazingly is housed at John Rylands Library in Manchester.

Around 320 the codex book form replaced the roll or scroll, and parchment made from the skin of sheep or goats replaced papyrus. Also around this time the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and authorized the production of many copies of the Scriptures. Now the making of copies of the Bible began in earnest, but it was still a huge undertaking. Nor was much translation attempted. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Probably the first translation of the New Testament was into Latin in 175. By the year 600, the Gospels had been translated into only eight languages.

With this copying and translation activity, a confusing variety of Scriptures began to circulate through the early church. Finally, the Pope commissioned the great scholar Jerome to make a definitive translation into Latin, which was completed in 405. For nearly a thousand years this translation, known as the Vulgate, reigned supreme. While many translations were made, a church council in Toulouse, France, in 1229 forbade anyone who was not a priest from owning a Bible. Nevertheless, “underground” translation and circulation of the Bible continued.

The work of copying the Scriptures was undertaken in earnest in the monasteries in the Middle Ages. Several thousand monasteries were established across Europe, and, for many of the monks, making copies of the Scriptures was their chief task. They became the true guardians of the text and produced literally thousands of magnificent Bibles. Teams of scribes and artists worked with parchment to produce incredibly beautiful works of art. A scribe taking dictation might use as many as 80 quills a day, and artists embellished the work with intricate designs and illustrations. An example would be the wonderful Book of Kells which was produced around 800.

By the late Middle Ages, the production of both religious and secular texts passed to professional copyists. Booksellers placed shops near the universities and to cathedral schools, and so the book trade mushroomed. Of course, most people in the Middle Ages were illiterate, and so picture Bibles full of wonderful illustrations became popular.

Because of the huge size of complete Bibles, they were divided into several volumes, and each was very costly. Only the rich and the universities could afford them.

Into this situation came a great revolutionary named John Wycliffe, whose central doctrine was, “Every Christian ought to study this book because it is the whole truth!” Wycliffe inspired the first complete translation of the Scriptures into English in 1382. He also lashed out against the power and riches of the church establishment, and became a very popular leader at Oxford. Inevitably, he was condemned by the archbishop and was fired from Oxford. However, his conviction of the authority of the Bible rather than the authority of the Pope stirred great controversy. Despite the church’s efforts to suppress the Bibles, the common people were at last able to receive and read God’s Word.

And then in 1455 the first major book was printed on a metal mass-printing press and what was the book… yes it was the Bible  -  written in Latin and known as the Gutenburg Bible. Since its publication, 49 copies (or substantial portions of copies) have survived, and they are considered to be among the most valuable books in the world, even though no complete copy has been sold since 1978. We have 12 copies in this country and one of those copies is at John Ryland’s Library together with the St John Papyrus.

first major book printed

Today we are pretty casual about this great treasure, so readily available to us. We would  do well to stop for a moment to realize that we can actually hold in our hands the precious revelation of God Himself. It costs us less than an hour’s wage, rather than a year’s salary, as it once did. The temptation now is to treat the ancient word casually as well. But from this ink and paper springs the ageless gospel of hope for this life and the life to come. It is our priceless heritage.


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