How the Bible Came to the Common Man

Article excerpt

Wearing a baseball cap and a backpack, a student enters Harvard University's Houghton Library and stays exactly seven minutes. A quick trip around the open, ancient books in glass cases, and he is gone.

But what the student has ambled past as quickly as a fast-food visit are some of the rarest and most important Bibles ever published.

The exhibition, "The Reformation of the Bible: The Bible of the Reformation," (through Feb. 28) focuses on the fact that the 16th-century Reformation was as much defined by the Bible as the Bible was reshaped by the cultural and political forces of the Reformation. Brought together by Jaroslav Pelikan, a renowned scholar of Christian thought at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., the rare texts hold the roots of contemporary Christian theology reaching out from a passionate century. They are also art objects, meticulously handmade and illustrated. "What this exhibit is about is how the Bible moved from being the exclusive possession of the relatively few who could read, and read Latin, and buy a manuscript," says Mr. Pelikan, "to becoming generally available to people who could read anything." The exhibit of some 70 books traces the often perilous work of 16th-century Bible scholars and others to "renovate education, literature, philosophy, and theology." Those scholars reached back to Bibles in Greek and Hebrew to gain a more vigorous understanding of the word. In so doing, they "reformed" attitudes toward the Bible, broke from the domination of the Roman Catholic Church, reinterpreted Biblical meaning, and published Bibles in the vernacular. "The Reformation ... took the Bible out of the libraries and brought it to the people," Pelikan says. Few scholars disagree that vernacular Bibles encouraged reading in addition to understanding Christian ideas. "In England, even if you didn't read, somebody in your family or neighborhood could," says Valerie Hotchkiss, co-author of the exhibit catalog and a librarian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. …