The term “curious Bibles” is used of two types of Bibles: those that are noteworthy because of a typographical error or a peculiar translation, and those with an unusual format.
Oddities in Printing and Translation.
In spite of the extreme care in proofreading Bibles, typographical errors have been found in them since the beginning of printing history. In the 1562 folio edition of the Geneva Bible of 1560, there is an error in Matthew 5.9, which reads “Blessed are the place makers” instead of “peace makers”; hence this edition has been called the “Whig Bible.” The same edition has another error in its indication of the contents of Luke 21: “Christ condemneth the poore widdowe” (for “commendeth”). Several editions of the Geneva Bible, issued by Robert Barker in London from 1608 to 1611, erroneously read “Judas” for “Jesus” at John 6.67. The first octavo edition of the King James Version (1612) reads at Psalm 119.161, “Printers have persecuted me without cause,” instead of “princes.”
A Bible issued in London in 1631 contains one of the most well‐known typographical errors to date. This edition is known as the “Adulterous Bible” because of its omission of the word “not” in the seventh (sometimes numbered sixth) commandment, which then read, “Thou shalt commit adultery” (Exod. 20.14). For this mistake the printers, Robert Barker and associates, were fined £300 and ordered to suppress the thousand copies of the edition. Ironically, the same printers in 1641 published a Bible that omitted the word “no” in Revelation 21.1, so that it read, “And there was more sea.”
John Fields of London published a Bible in 1653 that is marked by many careless errors, including the omission of “not” in 1 Corinthians 6.9, so that it reads, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?” In 1795, Thomas Bensley, also of London, issued a Bible in which Mark 7.27 read “Let the children first be killed” (instead of “filled”).
The 1801 “Murderers” Bible was so named because of its use of “murderers” for “murmurers” in Jude 16. In Bibles printed in 1806, “fishers” in Ezekiel 47.10 is altered so that the text reads, “It shall come to pass that the fishes shall stand upon it.” An edition of 1810 was dubbed the “Wife‐Hater” Bible for its substitution of the letter w for l in Luke 14.26, so that the text reads, “If any … hate not … his own wife also.”
More recent editions with noteworthy typographical errors include the first printing of volume 1 of the Old Testament published by the Episcopal Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in 1950, in which Leviticus 11.30 includes the skunk as one of the animals that swarm upon the ground. The translation reads “skink,” which is a type of lizard, but the typesetter mistakenly made an unauthorized “correction” and changed i to u. Psalm 122.6 of the 1966 Jerusalem Bible instructs its readers to “Pay for peace” instead of “Pray”. A less obvious error in the New American Bible's first edition of 1970 omits the last verse of the letter to the Hebrews. Early printings of the 1990 New Revised Standard Version omitted the words “having ten horns and seven heads” from Revelation 13.1.
In addition to typographical errors, unusual or eccentric translations can make an edition noteworthy. Of course, many renderings are thought unusual because their use of archaic English strikes the modern reader as odd. For example, the traditional rendering “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer. 8.22) appears with the word “treacle” in both the 1535 Coverdale Bible and the 1568 Bishops' Bible, and as “Is there noe rosin in Galaad?” in the 1609 Douay Bible. The use of the word “breeches” (for “aprons”) in Genesis 3.7 earned the 1560 Geneva Bible and its later printings the name “Breeches Bible.” (In fact, the fourteenth‐century Wycliffe Bible used the same word.)
There are also twentieth‐century English Bibles with eccentric renderings. In Ferrar Fenton's 1903 Bible, Acts 19.3 finds Paul and Apollos “by profession landscape painters” instead of tentmakers. In James Moffatt's revised edition of the New Testament (1935), two people sleep in “a single bed” [i.e., not a double bed] (Luke 17.34), while the first edition reads “the one bed.” And, in the New English Bible (1970), Paul warns the Corinthian faithful to “have nothing to do with loose livers” (1 Cor. 5.9). (See also Translations, article on English Language.)
There are many examples of printed Bibles in curious formats. One such grouping is hieroglyphic Bibles, which are children's picture books citing brief scripture verses, with some words of the passages represented by small pictures. The first English hieroglyphic Bible was printed before 1784, although similar volumes had already been published in Latin, German, and Dutch. A second printing, entitled A Curious Hieroglyphic Bible, appeared in London in 1784. Its subtitle is:
Select Passages in the Old and New Testaments, represented with Emblematical Figures, for the Amusement of Youth: designed chiefly to familiarize tender Age, in a pleasing and diverting Manner, with early Ideas of the Holy Scriptures. To which are subjoined, a short Account of the Lives of the Evangelists, and other pieces, illustrated with Cuts.
This version of the Bible must have had popular appeal since it soon appeared in a number of editions and printings.
There exist two varieties of shorthand Bibles. The New Testament in Shorthand, prepared by Jeremiah Rich and issued in London in about 1665, used Rich's shorthand system throughout, except for the two dedication pages and the list of subscribers at the end. Another Bible in shorthand was published in 1904 in London by Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons Ltd., using the Pitman method.
The term “Thumb Bible” has been used to designate a synopsis, an epitome, or an abridgment of the Bible. Thumb Bibles are usually meant for children and are therefore printed in miniature volumes and decorated with pictures. The oldest recognized Thumb Bible, entitled An Agnus Dei, is also one of the smallest: it measures 3.3 × 2.7 cm (1 5/16 × 1 1/16 in) and was issued in London in 1601. The book is made up of 128 leaves, and on each page is set about six lines of text, along with the running title and catch word. The text of this miniature volume, a rhymed account of Christ's life, was written by John Weever (1576–1632).
The second oldest and probably most well‐known Thumb Bible is the Verbum Sempiternum, published in London in 1614. Presenting the Old and New Testament in versified summaries, this miniature Bible was the handiwork of John Taylor (1580–1653). Verbum Sempiternum was still being reprinted well into the 1800s. The first American edition (labelled “The Twelvth Edition, with Amendments”) of this particular miniature Bible was published in Boston in 1786, with dimensions of 5.4 × 3.8 cm (2½ × 1½ in). The page facing the title page reads:
Reader, come buy this Book, for tho' it's small,'Tis worthy the perusal of all.
Only in 1727 was the Thumb Bible published in prose. Printed in London by R. Wilkin and entitled Biblia or a Practical Summary of ye Old & New Testaments, this edition comprises close to three hundred pages (with sixteen engraved plates) and measures 3.6 × 2.4 cm (1 7/16 × 15/16 in).
Longman and Co. of London seem to have originated the term “Thumb Bible,” which is found on the title page of an 1849 edition. Most likely this name was borrowed from General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), the famous midget who visited England with P. T. Barnum in 1844. Thumb Bibles were also printed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in France, Germany, Holland, and Sweden. In all, almost three hundred separate editions are known.
In 1896 the Glasgow University Press photographically reduced the complete Oxford Nonpareil Bible (Authorized Version). David Bryce and Son of Glasgow and Henry Frowde of London issued it in a printing of 25,000 copies. This version is made up of 876 pages, each of which measures 4.2 × 2.8 cm (1 5/8 × 1 1/8 in). In a pocket inside the front cover a magnifying glass was provided. In the same year Bryce and Frowde also published a facsimile edition of the New Testament that was even smaller, just 2 × 1.5 cm (3/4 × 9/16 in), and there have been many other miniature editions.
Two other curious Bibles deserve mention. The first, published in London in 1698 by Benjamin Harris, is best described by its title: The Holy Bible in Verse, Containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocripha [sic]. For the Benefit of Weak Memories. The Whole Containing above one thousand lines, with Cuts. In 1988, Tyndale House Publishers reprinted Kenneth Taylor's The Living Bible, Paraphrased (1971; See Paraphrases), with the books of the Bible arranged in alphabetical order, so that the volume begins with Acts of the Apostles, and ends with the book of Zephaniah.
Bruce M. Metzger