The rise of mass-production printing in fifteenth-century Europe was not due so much to an individual discovery or idea as it was to the coming together of many isolated technologies and an increased availability of their associated raw materials. Nevertheless, history associates the birth of printing with one man, Johannes Gutenberg, and with one product, his 42-line Bible.

In fact, for many readers of this article—and indeed until very recently for all contemporary readers—the distinction between “Bible” and “print Bible” was merely academic. Though we may have encountered Bibles of all shapes, sizes, and translations, the brute fact was simply that each Bible was a bound, typeset book that had come through one of several modern printing processes.

It could be argued that the twentieth century saw the rise of audio Bibles, with voices recorded on vinyl, tape, and digital formats, as well as visual depictions of Bible texts through film, and that these troubled the uniformity of the Bible as a print object. As will be discussed in greater detail below, however, the object we call “the Bible” has always coexisted alongside sound and visual media, and this has been true throughout the age of the printed Bible as well.

Nevertheless, the mechanization and mass reproduction of these complementary media technologies, as well as the advent of digital media forms, will help us to bracket a definite epoch we can call “the age of print,” and with it, the epoch of the “print Bible.” This article will proceed by defining key terms in the study of print Bibles, as well as outlining the key cultural factors allowing for the rise to ubiquity of the mass-printed Bible as a central cultural totem in the West over half a millennium and the technological and market factors that are now undermining that ubiquity in the twenty-first century.

Though it will be argued that the image we have of an object we call “the Bible” is itself defined largely by its relationship to the processes of print technology, we can also attempt a definition of the object abstracted from those processes as a starting point. Hence, in this essay, the word “Bible” is defined with some degree of articulation.

First, we can use the term as a collected set of not less than 66 books, which have historically been considered to conform to the Christian canon of scriptures. These books conform to at least three major orderings: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. In each of these orderings, there is a traditional division between Hebrew/Aramaic-based writings (the “Old Testament”) and Greek/Aramaic-based writings (the “New Testament”), possibly with an intertestamental set of writings known as the Deuterocanon of the Apocrypha.

Second, we can use the term to refer to the collection of 24 Hebrew/Aramaic-based writings that have been ordered by the Jewish traditions as the Torah (the five books of Moses), the Nebi’im (the Prophets), and the Ketubim (the Writings). The name for the collection is often shortened to the abbreviation TaNaK, or referred to as the Miqra, when used in Jewish contexts.

Finally, the term “Bible” is used as a colloquialism to refer to any number of shortened or paraphrased versions of Christian or Jewish scriptures. For example, a pocket-sized collection of the Christian New Testament and Psalms distributed by the evangelical organization the Gideons might be called a Bible in conversation, even though the term is not technically accurate.

All three of these possible meanings for “the Bible” will be kept in play as we proceed, though a good deal of the discussion that follows will focus on the Christian manifestation. It should be noted in passing that a large number of compendia, instruction guides, and self-help books are also referred to as “Bibles.” While an interesting point of study for book and print history, these sorts of objects will not be part of this essay’s consideration of the term.

Similar articulations abound when attempting to define print. Print is a medium. Print is a product, as well as a series of related processes, and, most intriguingly, print is an epoch. In his A Short History of the Written Word, Warren Chappell defines printing, at its most basic level, simply as “the process of transferring images onto paper through the use of types, blocks, plates, or cylinders” (1970, p. 6). Moving from the mechanical to the conceptual, we can add that print is one strategy for fixing and conveying a structured set of intangible ideas in a manner that is iterative. For the purposes of this article, we will explore and differentiate the phenomenon of print and its particular relationship to the history of Bibles. We will explore the conditions that subtend this medium and have made its epoch and influence possible.

Again following Warren Chappell, we can define the epoch of our consideration as the age of print (and therefore the age of print Bibles). Chappell delineates this as the 500-year span from roughly 1440 to 1940, which encompasses “the age of classic printing, hot metal, and some form of impression of type on paper,” and ranges “from the invention of cast moveable letters to the first large-scale introduction of cameras and film techniques” (1970, p. 7). Nor is Chappell alone in making this sort of delineation. For example, a more hyperbolic form of the argument can be found in Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, though McLuhan marks the break as occurring in the early 1960s (1962, p. 32), slightly later than Chappell.

Prior to 1440, of course, we can find “printerly” aspects of production and proto-print technologies. Many of the conventions that find their way into print culture are already established in manuscript culture: the shape and style of letters, the format of pages, and even marginal notes—the precursor to the modern footnote—can be found in old script Bibles, drawn in by careful hands. Chappell’s use of the year is to mark the coalescing of these elements into a coherent, unified process.

Similarly, 1940 does not mark the end of print, but rather the end of print as a singular, world-dominant technology. By 1940, we can find ascendant the competing technologies of radio, television, and digital computation—each of which will radically reconfigure the dominance of print culture on the Euro-American and global stage—displacing the singular, central location of print and literacy in Western culture. (Photography, another ascendant technology in the early twentieth century, did not upset the hegemony of print; rather, it was incorporated into print culture through technologies such as the halftone and mezzotint processes, allowing photographic images to stand alongside printed text, much as block-print images did.)

“What are the bench marks that can serve as references and guides in tracing the history of printing?” Chappell asks. His answer gives us a ready shorthand for recognizing the key features of the age of print:

"I would put first an understanding of the alphabet, and an appreciation of its practical as well as its esthetic aspects. Second, a regard for the sculptural nature of type as it was first produced by Gutenberg and perfected by the punch-cutters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As third and fourth bench marks I would suggest awareness of the arrangement of type and the actual impression from it. These four together determine the form and texture of a piece of printing, and are outside the time flow of people, places, events, development, and dates. It is possible to put the best piece of contemporary printing beside a page of the Gutenberg Bible, and to compare the two without any concession being asked for the latter because it was produced more than five hundred years ago." (1970, p. 19)

In this fourfold matrix we see that the cultures of literacy, design, mechanics, and commodity all coalesce to form a unified technology that is easily identified throughout the age.

To this list we could add another ring of benchmarks, namely the development of industrial production processes, markets, and distribution channels. The growth of these into a multinational book trade ensures that the rarity and idiosyncrasy of individual copies of books that dominate the scribal period is replaced by availability and ubiquity. Thanks to the blossoming mechanically reproduced book products, we can actually speak of a “history of printing” that intersects with a global, mass culture. As Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin note in their The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450–1800:

"From its earliest days printing existed as an industry, governed by the same rules as any other industry; the book was a piece of merchandise which men produced before anything else to make a living, even when they were (as with Aldus and the Estiennes) scholars and humanists at the same time. Thus it was vitally necessary from the outset to find enough capital to start work and then to print only those titles which would satisfy a clientele, and that at a price which would withstand competition. The marketing of books was similar to that of other products. To the manufacturers who created the books—the printers—and to the business men who sold them—the booksellers and publishers—finance and costing were the key problems. Those problems need to be studied if we are to understand how they determined the structure of the whole trade." (2010, p. 109)

Indeed, the study of commerce in the book trade, and the impact of capital on the development of printing, does much to illuminate the development and spread of the Bible as a mass commodity and cultural object.

Interestingly, Chappell’s (1970) marker, “understanding of the alphabet,” sets out the lowest bar to entry into participation into print culture. We can note, however, that full participation assumes a much more robust immersion into the act of reading. The last of our definitions then, at this point, concerns how we understand “the reader” in all of this.

The division of the book history of the Bible into epochs that mark distinctions between oral culture, manuscript culture, print culture, and postprint culture helps us to see that—at each stage—what we mean when using such terms as “reader” and “audience” undergoes profound shifts from epoch to epoch. The audience in the epoch of oral culture is constituted of listeners, not “readers” in the modern sense (and yet we may find that there are more similarities than differences at the level of interpretive abilities). In the age of manuscripts the “readers” were often the clerics who copied and reproduced the texts (and then often only mechanically, without comprehension beyond the physical act of transcription). When we turn to the age of print, we observe that “readers” can be understood as much as a market force as a cultural force: (for a fascinating exploration of this claim, see Franco Moretti’s masterful Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History [2007]).

The attentive study of printing, print culture, and how books work is collected under the field of bibliography. Readers interested in this discipline can find a number of thorough resources for introduction and deeper study. In addition to Chappell’s Short History, which is a wonderful introduction to the subject, readers interested in a more theoretical survey might also begin with D. F. McKenzie’s Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1999); those interested in the history and romance of well-stocked personal libraries through the ages should read Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf (1999). Those who find appeal in the more painterly approaches to the subject might then wish to dig deeper with a study of more heft, such as Rosemary J. Coombe’s The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law (1998) (for contemporary issues of press and copyright) and the cultural history found in Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s comprehensive The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450–1800 (2010).

Of course, bibliography is not simply an exercise in social and historical reflection, but also involves a rigorous and complete set of analytical tools for examining manuscripts and printed volumes in minute detail. Readers interested in this technical side of bibliography might want to cut their teeth on M. A. K. Halliday and Colin Yallop’s Lexicology: A Short Introduction (2007) to test their stamina for such close examination of minutiae. From there, the classic volumes of bibliography and book taxonomy include Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography (2007) and Principles of Bibliographic Description (1995) by Fredson Bowers. Both of these works offer a complete set of descriptive terms and uniform vocabulary to document every aspect of physical books.

This term “physical books” brings to the surface a core dilemma of the practice of bibliography, and one that will speak to the heart of our attempts to understand and describe the Bible, particularly, as a printed object. Namely, in the course of bibliographic analysis, we discover a continual need to distinguish when we are speaking of a physical book. This is an odd predicament, since, on a basic level, all books are physical. Yet readers’ experience of their encounter with a given book is, in many respects, beyond the simple physical encounter with an object. This demonstrates that, as heirs to the age of print, contemporary readers are also heirs to a conceptual blurring of what, precisely, the term “book” itself means. We must proceed with care, then, to speak clearly of what we indicate with the term “book” and find some other means to speak of this extra-physical experience of the reader in a helpful way.

Indeed, it is at this moment of blurring that the discipline of bibliography comes to our aid. As noted above, the bibliographic enterprise can be divided into its theoretical and technical spheres. One scholar who was most successful at synthesizing these two approaches into a coherent method in the late twentieth century is G. Thomas Tanselle, currently serving as president of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia. In addition to his work in close examination of particular print editions, he has also published a large number of essays that consider the mechanisms by which books function for readers. It is worth our time to consider some of his insights in detail. For example, in 1990, Tanselle delivered the annual Sol M. Mankin Lecture in Bibliography at Columbia University, which he titled “Libraries, Museums, and Reading.” During the lecture, he observed that

"[t]he primary fact about the nature of libraries—and the one most often ignored—is that libraries do not house works of literature or other verbal works. Language is intangible; works that use language as their medium are inevitably intangible also; and one cannot preserve something that is intangible in a physical space. All arts in which the products have duration—with dimensions in time rather than in space—employ intangible media; and if works of this kind are to be experienced more than once, the instructions for their repetition must be committed to memory or to a tangible surface like paper. Such sets of instructions constitute “texts,” but those texts are not the works themselves. Musical and choreographic notations on paper and emulsified images on celluloid are examples of instructions in physical form for the recreation of works of music, dance, and cinema. No one supposes that a library holding such papers and films actually contains within its walls the sounds of music, the movements of dance, or the manipulated light of movies. But because works of language can be performed within the mind as well as orally and because readers sitting in libraries are actually experiencing such works, many people have been misled into thinking that literature exists between the covers of books. It is perhaps easier to see that a traditional musical score is not music, for a person reading the score is not experiencing the work of music in the medium in which it was meant to be experienced. (I say “traditional” because there are scores that reflect other, or additional, aims.) A person reading a novel silently, however, is indeed experiencing the work of fiction in the medium in which it was meant to be experienced; but the medium is language, not paper and ink, and the reading is a performance based on a sequence of notations (a “text”). Different kinds of performance are required by music and by literature, but the status of the tangible texts in relations to the intangible works is the same in both cases." (1990, p. 16)

Thus Tanselle echoes a helpful analytic distinction, one that is well known in the technical field of bibliography—that between the clear delineation of the intangible schema of the narrative (the “work”) and the physical object that conveys and iterates that work (the “text”). What is confusing is that, in our current culture, the term “book” provides no such distinction. In common speech, a book is a work and a text. In our culture, a book means both. Tanselle continues:

"Most people do of course recognize in some sense that literature is not tangible, but they have not proceeded from that point to think coherently about the relationship between literature and the physical objects that transmit it. Symptomatic of the confusion is the use of “book” to mean both intangible work and physical object—more often the former, necessitating the use of such phrases as “the book as a physical object” when speaking of the latter. The expression “a good book” does not normally refer to a well-designed book. How we define the word “book” is of no consequence; what matters is that we distinguish clearly, in some way, between the intangible work and the tangible text. But commonly people waver between the two and as a result seem to be suggesting that somehow an intangible thing can be compressed into the physical space of a book, that a text is not subject to physical laws and exists on a different plane from the package that encloses it." (1990, pp. 16–17)

It follows that any discussion of print Bibles will be haunted by this same wavering between the intangible and the tangible, this confusion between work and text, leading us to reflexively assume that a printed Bible simply represents (or re-presents) the “real Bible.” There are indeed whole theologies built upon the assumption that a printed Bible is simply a mechanical reproduction of an immortal form. Yet, if we take a step back from this assumption, we can begin to see a print Bible—while reproducing the words of the scripture—is so much more than this simple reproduction. There are layers upon layers that complement and augment the simple typeface re-presentation of scripture.

Some of these layers are tactile—the suppleness of the calf grain or bonded leather on the tips of the fingers, or the peculiar dry thinness of the paper. Other layers are distinctly visual. Think of the quaintness of the two-column layout that we find on many a print Bible’s pages. Add on to this any of a number of other graphic elements—Jesus’s words in red, or a map of the Holy Land.

Finally, there are more esoteric, but no less vital, layers to consider. We are talking about Bibles that, in most cases, have come off an assembly line. Each is one of innumerable identical twins, born of a given production run. Add still to the layers of production the invisible work of editors, marketers, and distributors, not to mention the managers and salespeople who all made their living, in part, by helping this book find its way into your hands.

The challenge, as Tanselle points out, is to speak clearly about these various layers. In what follows, then, we will use “work” to signify intangible literary contents—narrative, schemata, ideas. The Gospel of Mark is a work. “Text” will signify the physical, iterative fixture of a work in an organized medium. Any New Revised Standard Version of the Gospel of Mark is a text. We will use “edition” to signify a given pressing of a text. The 1992 print run of the NRSV, which contains the Gospel of Mark, is an edition. “Volume” will be used to denote a specific physical object, an individual printed and bound artifact that has location and provenance. One 1992 edition of the NRSV, which contains the Gospel of Mark, which belonged to a grandmother and was given by an uncle to a grandson after her death, sitting now on a desk next to a laptop as the grandson works on an encyclopedia article, is a volume. We must lay out these terms with some precision because, as Tanselle has made clear, “book” could be used for them all. It should be noted, however, that there is nothing magical about these particular terms—borrowed as they are from Bowers and other bibliographers—and that the curious reader might discover any number of terms and strategies to keep these particular distinctions of “books” in order.

Why bother with such definitions and articulations? What good is served when we stop to examine the difference between the intangible “Bible” and all these iterations of print Bibles? Certainly we can find many who are taken with a docetic impulse, a desire to focus only on “the Bible,” existing but intangible behind this shifting history and these material phenomena. Like the Gnostics of old, we encounter those who distrust the matter of the book and wish only to contemplate its timeless spirit.

However, if we give in to this docetic impulse, we may fail to meet the challenge laid down by William Barclay in his book Introducing the Bible, where he insists that we must “take the whole of Scripture to our problem and to our thought” (1972, p. 94, my emphasis); though where Barclay meant the whole of the narrative, here we mean the whole—work and text, edition and volume, intangible and tangible—that comprises the history of the Bible, from the age of manuscripts through the dawn and flourishing of print and beyond into the present day. When we explore the Bible in its physicality as well as well as its spirituality, we discover that “the Bible was not written as it now stands,” as Leander Keck points out in Taking the Bible Seriously (1962). Keck goes on to observe that, when we encounter a Bible,

"The Table of Contents does not reveal the order in which the literature was written, nor is it an accurate guide to the authors. Our Bible is the result of collecting and editing a long series of writings. An important key to the Bible, then, lies in the purposes for which the literature was gathered together. This, in turn, leads us to the group which made the collection and first used it. The problem is complicated by the fact that the phrase “The Holy Bible” actually refers to three collections, to three Bibles. Therefore, when we ask “What Bible?” we ask “Whose Bible?” at the same time. (pp. 25–26)"

Exploring the history of printing, we begin to uncover the interests that shape and reshape the books we call the Bible.

This is what we miss if we follow the docetic impulse and only pay attention to the intangible and narrative side of the Bible; we lose the important and fascinating history of politics and intrigue that has been woven into the Bible that we inherit as modern readers. It is this extended series of physical objects, ideologies, linguistic and production technologies, and market developments—which we can group collectively under the denominator, “print Bibles”—in which we discover a key to unlock much that undergirds our present-day interpretations and arguments about “the Bible.”

Probably the most accessible general introduction to the history of print Bibles in recent years would be Lori Anne Ferrell’s The Bible and the People (2008), its only shortcoming being that it focuses mainly on the English Bible tradition. However, because a good many English Bibles were produced on the Continent, her history still includes a good deal of information about the breadth of international Bible printing and trade. A search on the Internet or in a used bookstore might also yield an equally valuable work from the last century, Brooke Foss Westcott and William Aldis Wright’s A General View of the History of the English Bible (1927), which melds the print history of the Bible with the editorial and translation histories, moving step by step from the fourteenth century through the King James Version. The book is a fine complement to Ferrell’s excellent later work.

If we survey the various accounts of the 500-year sweep of print history, we find several distinct approaches to describe periods of development. The bibliographer Gaskell (2007), for example, divides the age of print cleanly in two: the hand-press period, from 1500 to 1800 C.E., and the machine-press period, from 1800 to 1950 C.E. Westcott, as mentioned above, moves from translator to translator in a roughly chronological fashion. Ferrell (2008) and Chappell (1970), on the other hand, choose instead to divide the age of print by centuries, moving sequentially from 1500 to the present, with examination of the technological developments that occurred in each hundred-year period.

For our purposes here, we can proceed by taking a leaf from each of these approaches. Briefly, then, we will outline the history of print Bibles by looking at their prehistory, then move in quick succession through the incunabula.

As Harry Y. Gamble notes, in his Books and Readers in the Early Church, the “modern book and its reader are removed from antiquity not only in time and culture but also by two major developments in the history of books: the change from the roll (scroll) book to the leaf book (codex), which transpired between the second and fourth centuries, and the change from the handwritten to the printed book, which occurred in the fifteenth century” (1995, p. 43). As scripture moved from scroll to codex, certain conventions arose to aid the new format. Pagination and indexing would be meaningless on rolled parchment but become sensible and necessary with bound pages. The development of different written hands—beginning with letters taken from the Roman alphabet as Trajan and Square capitals (all uppercase), smoothing by the fourth century into Rustic and Uncial scripts, to the introduction in the eighth century of what we recognize as “lowercase” lettering with proto-Uncial and Caroline minuscule script—coincided with the introduction of spacing between words and punctuation in the manuscripts.

In the culture of Hebrew texts, the combination of hand-copying and translation led very early to the development of Targumim, a practice of interpolating explanations and commentary within the lines of the original text. As Martin McNamara argues in Targum and Testament (1972), these interpolations, long known in the Jewish world, became influential for Christian scholars during the Renaissance period and affect both the interpretation and the construction of the New Testament as a book. In addition to interlinear influences, the medieval scribes also began to use the increasing space in the margins of the pages for glossing, the practice of adding notes and cross-references along the edges of the core text on the page. Sometimes these are as simple as a hand-drawn hand, pointing a finger at a key portion of the text. At other times these are entire paragraphs, written alongside a difficult passage, in the attempt to untangle an opaque meaning. As Ferrell points out,

"Such annotation or glossing, whether on the sides or between the lines, provided analytical or explanatory notes for the text in the text, thus making additional and immediate scholarly content dependent on the physical reformatting of a book’s words on the page. Glossing shaped reading in the same way as it shaped the page: authoritatively directing the eye between original passage and comment, which meant that the book and its explanatory materials could be accessed at the same time. It could also imply by its look of regularity that here, additional explanation was as important as the original text." (2008, p. 138)

These glosses are the direct precursors of editorial and critical apparatus, such as footnotes and chapter headings. In fact, all the modern conventions of book construction can be understood as improvements to these practices developed for hand-written manuscripts. As Chappell observes, “The bound manuscripts of the fifteenth century were more than just prefigurements of the first printed books. Rather, they were actual models to be imitated as closely as possible” (1970, p. 12).

All of these conventions—alphabet, codex structure, page structure, punctuation, and glossing—combined with another massive technological shift. As disease swept Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, it left in its wake an unexpected bounty. The clothing of millions of deceased victims meant that an abundance of cheap flax rags was suddenly available as raw material for a new industrial process: papermaking. Unlike vellum or parchment, which were resource-poor and labor intensive to produce, and therefore extraordinarily expensive, rag-based paper was strong, relatively cheap, and, thanks to the rags of the dead, able to be produced in abundance. This, it turns out, was the missing tinder for an explosion. As Febvre and Martin observe, “papermaking made printing possible” (2010, p. 16).

It is this period of overlap, where printed books begin to appear but the hand-copied manuscripts still hold the fore, that we see these conventions transferred, solidified, and improved. This period from 1450 to 1500 receives special attention in the history of printing. It is referred to as the “incunabular” period. As Chappell explains, “[t]he word incunabula comes from the Latin cunae, meaning ‘cradle.’ It can describe the earliest stages in the development of anything, but it has come to stand particularly for those books produced before 1500” (1970, p. 59). The incunabula are the books that stand in this liminal period, where manuscript technology and print technology are blurred together. The most famous incunable, and indeed arguably the most famous printed book in the West, is the 42-line Gutenberg Bible (so called because of the number of lines of type on each page).

Johannes Gutenberg had worked as a goldsmith and blacksmith. His metallurgical skills, borrowed from the smithing trades, helped him create a process for casting type, along with the techniques of ganging the type, preparing the oil-based ink, and assembling the finished print sheets into a bound block of pages. Unfortunately, somewhere between his print run of the 42-line edition and the subsequent 36-line edition, Gutenberg went bankrupt, and the entirety of his equipment and processes were sold to his financiers and his associate, Peter Schoeffer. Initially, these print Bibles had to compete surreptitiously with manuscript versions produced by scribes, which had numerous legal protections.

Print Bibles

The Gutenberg Bible (1455) opened to the beginning of the Gospel of Luke.

Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division

view larger image

In spite of these legal hurdles, the demand for cheaper and more available Bibles meant that market forces opened ever-wider possibilities for the incunabular publishers. Febvre and Martin note that “throughout the fifteenth century editions of the Bible were innumerable. … In addition to Latin versions for priests and university students there were translations of the whole Bible: 11 German, 3 Low German, 4 Italian, 1 French and others in Spanish, Flemish and Czech, without counting translations of parts of the Bible, which were even more numerous, especially of the Psalms, the Apocalypse and Job” (2010, p. 250).

The proliferation of translations from the earliest days of print belies the misconception that the Catholic Church insisted on the Vulgate as the sole acceptable text. Nevertheless, the age of print is replete with attempts by both clergy and monarchs to control which Bibles were used by the populace, to greater or lesser success. This history also shows the increasing resourcefulness of publishers, distributers, and consumers to utilize both legitimate and illegitimate markets to obtain the style of Bibles they wanted. A notable example of this phenomenon is the Geneva Bible, first produced in full edition in 1560. Though the text was in English, as its name suggests, it was produced in Geneva and was printed with an extensive interpretive apparatus in its margins. This apparatus offered explanations drawn from Calvinist and Puritan theologians, which were at points highly critical of the British monarchy. Initially, its import and possession was illegal in England. Despite this, it was obtained, and read, by vast numbers of English readers.

Church and state allied to suppress and replace the Geneva, to no avail. Both the Bishops’ Bible and the Great Bible were produced as official editions within the realm, with demands and protections to guarantee their use. Regardless, as Ferrell points out, “[i]n an age hungry for user-friendly lay Bibles, the Geneva Bible simply did the job better” (2008, p. 85). The market pressures caused by demand for the Geneva Bible influenced an entire generation of Bibles that followed—including the King James Version. Originally produced, by law, with no notes whatsoever (as a means of undermining the problems caused by the Geneva’s Puritan notes), by the 1700s we can find editions of the King James Version printed with the Geneva apparatus.

Theologically, the Reformation forever threw into question this matter of controlling authority, but in practical fact it was market pressures, such as those noted above, that have continued to drive an ever-increasing proliferation of Bible versions. The ability to quickly and cheaply print new and novel editions of the text continues to undermine the desire readers have for a standard, stable, authoritative, and definitive version. As Ferrell observes,

"In the Industrial Age, improved print technologies made it possible for publishers to produce the scriptures at remarkably low cost. This abundance of cheap goods, along with an evangelical fervor for saving souls, inspired the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, and the American Sunday School Union to join forces in the 1820s and announce a “general supply”: a plan to distribute Bibles and other religious literature to every person in the United States, either gratis or priced on a sliding scale. By the 1840s, a complete Bible could be purchased for a half-dollar, a New Testament cost six cents. And by mid-century, the American Bible Society alone was either selling or giving away a million copies of the Bible every year; the British Foreign and Missionary Society was distributing as many if not more. The Bible had become, in other words, an ordinary, workaday commodity: easy to produce in bulk and distributed in large numbers by missionaries and Sunday School teachers to their respective captive audiences." (2008, pp. 205–206)

Through mass-print processes, the Bible was transformed from a very rare and expensive, hand-crafted artifact into an innumerably iterated, ubiquitously available cultural given. Because we are the orphaned children of print, we take literate culture and print culture for granted. In many respects, these cultures are the givens that make our wider concept of “shared culture” possible. By virtue of the fact that you are reading this account, you are a participant; it is the air we breathe. But it is an open question as to how long this will remain the case. No matter how ubiquitous we assume these to be, however, what we call “print culture” is now again in a state of deep transition. The shift to digital technologies at the end of the twentieth century upended a tenuous web of interconnected technologies, behaviors, and legal structures.

As we look now beyond the print Bibles of the last five centuries to the digital editions now contained in our smartphones and on the Internet, we have moved beyond commodity to binary code—increasingly iterable, able to be repeated in ways unimagined even at the height of print production in the last century, but also increasingly malleable. Though print made the Bible more accessible, it was, at its heart, a proprietary process, dependent on esoteric technical skills. With the eclipse of the age of print, the Bible is now an open-source enterprise. We’re all publishers now.

[See CHILDREN’S BIBLES AND LITERATURE; FAMILY BIBLES; ILLUSTRATION, BIBLE; MAPS; MATERIAL SCRIPTURE; and PROTESTANT ART AND ICONOGRAPHY.]

Bibliography

  • Barclay, William. Introducing the Bible. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1972.
  • Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.
  • Bowers, Fredson. Principles of Bibliographical Description. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 1995.
  • Brown, Cynthia J. Poets, Patrons, and Printers: Crisis of Authority in Late Medieval France. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.
  • Chappell, Warren. A Short History of the Printed Word. New York: Knopf, 1970.
  • Coombe, Rosemary J. The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.
  • Dessauer, John P. Book Publishing: The Basic Introduction. New York: Continuum, 1993.
  • Edwards, Mark U. Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
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David Dault