Across Centuries and Continents, Form of the Bible Is Ever Evolving Harvard University Exhibit Traces Changes in Content and Presentation of Scriptural Texts

By Judy Nichols, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 20, 1994 | Go to article overview

Across Centuries and Continents, Form of the Bible Is Ever Evolving Harvard University Exhibit Traces Changes in Content and Presentation of Scriptural Texts


Judy Nichols, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


MANY a Christian or Jew has carried a well-worn, beloved copy of the Bible through life's triumphs and challenges. Yet what many people have considered their Bible, especially in centuries past, has taken quite a different form from the standard Bible versions so common today. Many believers have instead turned to Bible presentations that have included everything from commentaries and illustrations to versified abbreviations and dialogues.

A current exhibit at Harvard University traces these presentations, emphasizing how they have changed over the centuries. The exhibit, "Sacred Stories, Eternal Words, and Holy Pictures," focuses on the presentation of what are termed children's Bibles - works that present Biblical material in simplified form for beginning readers.

The term "children's" is somewhat misleading, however, since these Bibles reached an audience far wider than the young: Particularly in earlier centuries, children's Bibles were often the Bibles of the common people. The exhibit notes, written by guest curator Ruth Bottigheimer of State University of New York at Stony Brook, point out "the pressing task of mediating `the Word' to the adult illiterate and the youthful preliterate, whom educators, authors, and publishers regarded as a single market in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries."

Still, children's Bibles have had specific applications for young readers. Commonly used in schools at various times and places, the Bibles have not only shed light on Scriptural content but have also provided a medium for learning languages such as Latin. These educational materials have taken the form of "catechisms, biographies, dialogues, devotional writings, Bible epitomes, versified abbreviations, and only very occasionally the Bible itself," exhibit notes say.

In tracing the evolution of children's Bibles, the exhibit marks the long-lasting influence of several early works. Peter Comestor's "Historia Scholastica" ("Scholastic Bible History"), completed around 1170, was translated into every Western language and initiated a tradition of including commentary with Bible stories. Nicolas Fontaine's "L'Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament" ("The History of the Old and New Testaments," 1670) reinforced the use of commentary and made its practice more openly acceptable.

In addition to its narrative style, Fontaine's text included illustrations and explicit commentary - two elements common to many children's Bibles. The exhibit includes a special section on illustrations, showing how Bible illustrations of the garden of Eden have evolved over the centuries from depicting both Adam and Eve reaching for and holding the forbidden fruit, to Eve alone bearing the apple.

OTHER Bibles in the exhibit show how Scriptural content has changed for the specific needs of a time and place. …

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