The Printed Bible
It is easy to exaggerate the advantages of the first printed Bibles over manuscript copies produced to the highest professional standards. In portability, selling price, accuracy (to start with, no better or worse than the manuscripts used by the typesetters), and even uniformity of text (given the practice of continuing correction in the midst of an edition), Johann Gutenberg's printings of the Latin Vulgate at Mainz in Germany in the mid-1450s marked no dramatic advance. Yet the potential of this new technology was in its day as world-changing as the IT revolution ushering in the third Christian millennium. ‘He prints as much in a day as was formerly written in a year’, spoken of another fifteenth-century printer, may have been a pardonable exaggeration. Of Gutenberg's famous 42-line Bible perhaps only a couple of hundred were produced, some on paper, the rest on vellum. Each vellum copy used the skins of 170 animals.
But by 1500 editions regularly ran to 1,000 or 1,500 copies, and 100,000 Bibles may well have been in print. William Tyndale's New Testament, the first printed in English, saw 3,000 copies off the press in Worms in 1525, and print-runs of this size must soon have been normal. Multiplied by the number of editions—by 1640 about 300 for the English Bible and about 150 for the New Testament—such figures roughly indicate the quantities involved. Bible publishing became big business.
The size of the Bible book had already come down considerably by the end of the fifteenth century. A Paris Bible of 1510 by Hopyl in five parts measured not much more than 3in. by 4in. (7.5 × 10 cm.). The first English New Testament to fit the pocket was William Whittingham's translation published at Geneva in 1557, whose text would soon form part of the Geneva Bible of 1560. This became the most widely used English version, only gradually displaced by the Authorized or King James Version of 1611.
This Geneva New Testament and Bible were the first in English to number verses throughout. Robert Estienne (Stephanus), member of a distinguished family of scholar-printers who worked first in Paris and then in Geneva, introduced his own system of verse division and numeration in his Greek New Testament of 1551 at Geneva. Somewhat earlier Santi Pagnini, an Italian Dominican who was one of the most important Catholic Bible scholars of the early sixteenth century, had numbered the verses throughout his Latin Bible of 1528 at Lyons, but his scheme failed to catch on. The Bible itself was noteworthy also as a fresh translation from the original Hebrew and Greek. The very first to provide both division and numbering of verses throughout was Robert Estienne's 1553 folio Bible in French.
Prior to the introduction of verse-numbering, location within a chapter was often assisted by marginal markers, A, B, C, etc., every fifteen lines or so. Chapter divisions and numbers had appeared in printed Latin Bibles from the outset, and summaries even prefaced chapters in a Latin Bible of 1480 from Ulm. But little or no gap was given between chapters or even books, in a black solidity of unbroken text running ‘from Genesis to Revelation without stopping for breath’. Gradually the layout of the page became more and more reader-friendly, with page numbers in arabic figures first in Erasmus's New Testament of 1516 (see below), page-headings identifying the biblical book in question, and clear divisions first between the two Testaments (in a 1511 Venice Bible with a frontispiece to the New Testament for the first time), then between books and between chapters. More significant for easy legibility was the switch from heavy black letter type to roman (not far different from what you are reading on this page). This had been tried in the fifteenth century for Latin Bibles (and used for Italian ones from the earliest), but it became established only after Erasmus's pioneering New Testament of 1516.
Although several of these changes in printing practice facilitated the greater access to the Bible advocated by the Reformers, they often preceded Reformation pressures. Thus roman type was used in a series of small-size several-part Latin Bibles printed at Paris from 1523. Even standardized numbering of verses, which made possible greater speed and precision in appealing to the biblical text, especially in controversy, emerged more as a predictable development than a confessionally led innovation. In any case, facility in finding a crucial place in one of the gospels was of limited value without a uniform text. For that there was no alternative but resort to the original languages.