Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

The Wilderness of the Word: John Bunyan and the Book in Christian's Hand

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

The Wilderness of the Word: John Bunyan and the Book in Christian's Hand

Article excerpt

[. . .] and behold I saw a Man cloathedwith Raggs, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own House, a Book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and Read therein; and as he Read, he wept and trembled: and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry; saying, what shall Ido?1

The book that Bunyan's nameless man holds at the beginning of The Pilgrim 's Progress is, of course, a Bible. It is with reference to this book that Christian persuades Pliable to join him, albeit not for long, in his endeavour to become one of the ''Sharers'' in the 'Immortality' it promises, and it is this same book that Worldly- Wiseman looks upon as a sure sign that Christian has been ' meddling with things too high''': 'Worldly- Wiseman does not like that Men should be Serious in reading the Bible', a marginal note soberly informs us.2 We recognise that Christian's book is a Bible long before he experiences even these early encounters, though, because he appears from the outset to be himself composed of the Scriptures. As a series of marginal references indicate, Christian's clothing, those 'filthy rags', are his 'righteousnesses' (from Isaiah 64:6), and his 'heavy burden' is one of 'iniquities' too heavy for him to bear (echoing Psalms 38:4). Even the wording of his 'Out-cry', ' what shall Ido?'' aligns him with the prison guard of Acts 16:31, making it difficult for us to tell where the fictive character begins and the Scriptural quotations end. So seamlessly are they interwoven that Biblical references become not just inseparable from but synonymous with the imaginative fabric - the fundamental texture - of Bunyan's allegory.3

Given the unquestionable seriousness of this opening to The Pilgrim 's Progress, the line of enquiry I intend to pursue in this essay may seem whimsical, perhaps even preposterous. I wish to ask: which edition of the Bible might we imagine Christian to be holding in this 'threshold scene'?4 And, if only we could see them, what might the pages of his Bible look like? Is Christian's an edition with explanatory notes printed within its margins? Conversely, might it have very sparse marginal annotation or perhaps no marginal matter at all? What would the significance be, in other words, of imagining that the book in Christian's hand were a copy of one of the many editions of the Geneva Bible, published from 1560 onwards and often considered to be the most popular English Bible of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries? Or might we be on safer ground thinking of it as a King James Bible, the Authorized Version, first published in 161 1, and which, for a variety of reasons, eventually displaced the Geneva translation from the pockets and bookshelves of England's mid-to-late seventeenth-century Bible-reading public?5

Even to speculate on this issue may seem absurd. Aside from appearing to ask the kind of question that only A. C. Bradley might be interested in answering, we could object to wondering which Bible Christian might be holding because such a query would threaten to dissolve the figurative richness of Bunyan's allegory into an unwelcome literalism. It is an allegorical, not an actual, book that Christian holds at the start of The Pilgrim 's Progress and as such its legibility, like so many texts represented in art, is deliberately withheld from our prying eyes: we are frustrated by what Garrett Stewart terms 'the tease of the readable'.6 At the same time, by enquiring what version of the Bible Christian might be reading we are in danger of missing the doctrinal point of the allegory's beginning. For the book in Christian's hand represents not an actual, material Bible as much as a crucial symbol within the ordo salutis of Bunyan's theology of conversion: 'the Book in my hand' stands for the forbidding Law by which, as Christian says to Evangelist, he perceives 'that I am Condemned to die, and after that to come to Judgment'. …

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