Computer Meets Quill: The Making of a Contemporary Manuscript Bible

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Art Review

Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. Matthew 13:52

A vellum page is like no other writing surface. Vellum, made from calf's skin, has a kind of translucency that can be compared to alabaster. It literally catches the light. The surface of the page is soft and off-white, and, if it has been prepared properly, it feels slightly velvety to the touch. When the skilled scribe writes on it with a freshly cut quill pen, the quality of the writing is supple, fluid, and as crisp as can be. Gold leaf laid on a gesso ground on such a page comes to life: even in a dark room, the gold captures every bit of available light, and, as the page is turned, the sparkling light shimmers across the page. There is no writing surface which can compare to it. It is no wonder that for most of Christian history, the vellum manuscript book has been the dominant vehicle for passing the Bible from generation to generation.

Gutenberg did all that in. Christianity gained enormously from the explosion of Bible printing - the book suddenly could be in the hands of almost every believer. It could be large or small, annotated or plain, bound in floppy leather to wave in the air while making points in sermons, or paperback and light so it could be tossed into a backpack. Many Christians own more than one. A quick glance at my bookshelves reveals seven whole Bibles (in three different translations), two New Testaments, and the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. That's not counting two Greek New Testaments I never open, or liturgical books like Psalters and lectionaries. And it doesn't take into account the two Internet sites I use for quick Bible reference. I suspect I'm not alone in being awash in Bibles.

In this sea of scriptures, something has definitely been lost. My great-- grandmother's old King James Bible sits on my shelf, well thumbed and filled with underlining. It was the one Bible she owned. On the inside front cover is written, "To Mrs. A. Anderson This Bible is lovingly presented by members of the Worthwhile Sunday School. Longview, Texas, March 28, 1944." This inexpensive, commercially printed Bible is transformed by that bit of handwriting. It is no longer just one of the perhaps 10,000 copies printed that year by that publisher. Instead, it is marked as a particular book, given by particular people whose names appear on the next leaf; their personalities are suggested by their handwriting. The inscription conjures a time and a place, and a circle of Christians who passed on a book to one of their number.

What my great-grandmother's Bible does on a very small scale, a full manuscript does on every page. If you look closely at the writing, you get a very strong sense of the personality of the scribe. Were they rushing? Were they careful, or sloppy? Did they make lots of mistakes - can you see the erasures and corrections? You can see them hit a "groove" with the writing, when the whole text dances in harmony; and you can see when the day's light may have grown too dim, but they struggled to get just one or two lines more down on the page. Most of all, you are aware that another human being sat down one day and wrote out the text you are now reading. The transmission of scripture is personal.

It is not only the essential humanity of a manuscript which sets it apart from a printed book. It is also a statement about the value of the scriptures themselves. In the painstakingly slow process of writing a Bible out by hand, the scribe is saying that this is a book worthy of being pored over, labored over, treasured. I've heard it said that a skilled medieval scribe took a whole year to write out a complete Latin Bible. That's just the text, without any illustrations. Great medieval illuminated Bibles could take years. They were as intricate in their conception as the gothic cathedrals, and involved whole teams of scribes, illuminators, and theologians. …