What is the Bible? The answer to this question is perhaps more
complex than most of us realize, and it's vastly different from that
of 1,000 years ago.
The text of the Scriptures hasn't varied; it is essentially the
same as at the beginning of this millennium. But the place of the
Bible in Western thought and culture has changed in many ways. Three
particularly striking developments have forwarded these changes: the
increasing accessibility of the Scriptures, the clash between the
Bible and the sciences, and the rise of biblical archaeology.
Today's global citizen can locate a Bible with ease. There's one
on the bookshelf or in the local library. We can trot over to a
bookstore or flip on the computer. But 1,000 years ago, it was
Bibles were expensive and rare. All books were written by hand. A
talented scribe could hope to complete a 400-page book in about six
months. With such a scarcity of written material, it's not
surprising that literacy was uncommon, and a complete Bible unusual.
The medieval person probably needed to be multilingual as well as
wealthy and literate in order to read the Scriptures. By the year
1000, the original languages of the Old and New Testaments (ancient
Hebrew and Greek) were dead languages.
As early as the Dark Ages, however, portions of Scripture had
been translated or paraphrased into the vernacular. These were often
inaccurate or slanted in a particular religious or political
direction. But they spurred interest, especially by the 13th and
14th centuries, when literacy began to grow.
The printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1456 marked a revolution -
an explosion - in the dissemination of information. By the end of
the 15th century the Scriptures alone had been published in more
than a hundred editions. The invention of movable type did not
manufacture the Renaissance or the Protestant Reformation, but when
Martin Luther began to preach his message of religious reform in the
16th century, he had the tools he needed to forward his cause.
The printing revolution gave the Scriptures to all mankind. To
Luther and many other Christians, this was more than a gift of
inspired religious teachings. The Bible was the supreme source of
knowledge, the history of the development of mankind from Adam to
the Apocalypse. The accuracy of its accounts could not be
But publishing was also nurturing a spirit of scholarly,
scientific inquiry that led to tumultuous change in approaches to
the Scriptures. The seeds of conflict between strict interpretations
of the Old and New Testaments and scientific discoveries were
planted in the Renaissance, and the friction reached its peak in the
19th century. …