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Citation for Material Scripture

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"Material Scripture." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts. Ed. Dorina Miller Parmenter. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Jan 24, 2022. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/opr/t454/e97>.


"Material Scripture." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts. , edited by Dorina Miller Parmenter. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/opr/t454/e97 (accessed Jan 24, 2022).

Material Scripture

“Material scripture” refers to an interdisciplinary perspective toward the study of religious books and texts that considers the roles of the physical elements of a text’s manufacture, transmission, use, and display and the effect of these roles on the production of authority, semantic interpretations, and ideologies attributed to scriptures. It is not a clearly demarcated field of study, but a point of emphasis used by a variety of scholars for the purpose of balancing the traditional predominance of textual interpretation without regard for material context in studies of the Bible. Other terms that have been used to analyze issues of material scripture include the iconic dimension of scripture and the artifactual use of scripture.

The Study of Material Scripture and the Bible.

The need for a material perspective on the Bible comes from a Western—and particularly Christian and Protestant—intellectual history of privileging ideas and beliefs perceived to be mental, interior, and spiritual rather than material or “worldly.” This preference shaped the early academic study of religion, where religions other than Christianity rose up the evolutionary and evaluative scale toward the status of “advanced religion” if they had scriptures that signified abstract religious ideas and beliefs (exemplified in F. Max Müller’s publication of The Sacred Books of the East in the nineteenth century) but fell down the scale toward “primitive” if they engaged material objects, images, or rituals (hence the value-laden terms “magic,” “fetish,” “totem,” and “idol” used for those practices). Consequently, issues of materiality were relevant for studies of “others,” and the material practices and conditions of Christians, especially those related to Christian scriptures, were ignored.

The self-reflexive discipline of the history of religion at the University of Chicago since the 1960s, following the ideas of Joachim Wach and led by Joseph M. Kitagawa, Charles H. Long, and Jonathan Z. Smith, brought awareness to these problematic Protestant Christian origins of the academic study of religion. Under the influence of critical comparison, new approaches that more carefully analyze the importance of material objects and ritual performance have overcome much of the Christian bias in the academic study of religion. But applying these new approaches to the study of Christianity itself, and especially to the Bible, has been slower to catch on since biblical studies traditionally has been separate from the study of religion and focused on the abstraction of meaning through processes of textual interpretation, rather than on the Bible’s material and cultural context.

The intersection of the study of religion and biblical studies with the discipline of cultural history, and its related fields of book history, material culture, visual culture, and popular culture, has led to the development of new studies in material scripture. Recent studies in the cultural anthropology of Christianity have also offered new insights into how Christians interact with the Bible as both text and object.

Book history emerged from the French Annales school among scholars of Renaissance and modern literature in the late twentieth century. Exemplified in the work of Roger Chartier, Peter Stallybrass, and Anthony Grafton, book history emphasizes printed books as cultural objects in complex networks of social relations. Material scripture broadens this book history perspective by extending studies of the Bible to include the material, social, and religious contexts of textual production and reception prior to modern printing. Combining the study of religion with book history provides tools for analyzing rituals involving books and texts as well as for assessing the role of the perception of divine power in relation to other kinds of power structures.

Investigating the Bible as an object embedded in modern culture has been furthered by the development of the fields of material culture, visual culture, and popular culture. Drawing heavily on the analytical tools of art history, these fields challenge the boundaries of art and kitsch and the sacred and the profane to focus on the role of popular objects and images in the production of religious meaning. Influential studies that are applicable to material scripture include those by Colleen McDannell (1995) and David Morgan (2005).

Insights into how Christians use their Bibles and interact with scripture have been revealed through the useful concept of “biblicism” in recent anthropological studies. First promoted by Brian Malley (2004), biblicism refers to the complex of relationships between Christians’ ideas about what scripture is and does and what Christians do with their scriptures. An important part of these considerations is Bibles as material artifacts—physical objects with which Christians interact that act as signifiers through their presence and are signified through various social practices.

In the early twenty-first century, a diverse group of scholars coalesced around the Iconic Books Project at Syracuse University, started by James W. Watts and Dorina Miller Parmenter, to grapple with the material aspects of the broad category of scripture. The interdisciplinary and cross-cultural collaborations of the Iconic Books Project culminated in the 2013 publication of a collection of essays in Iconic Books and Texts, grounded by Watts’s formative theory for issues of scripture and materiality in “The Three Dimensions of Scripture,” which is further addressed below. Around the same time, David Dault started the website and blog Material Scripture, using cultural materialism and new historicism to examine the influence of institutions of Bible publication on biblical interpretation. In 2010, the Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT), led by Watts, Parmenter, and S. Brent Plate, formed to encourage new scholarship related to various aspects of material scripture.

Scripture and Antimaterialism in Christian History and Scholarship.

Most generally, “scripture” refers to “a writing” (Lat scriptura, Gk graphē), but the concept almost always carries a sense of religious value and authority because of its association with the scriptures (hai graphai), also referred to as the books (ta biblia; literally, “the papyrus scrolls”) of Judaism and Christianity. Despite scripture’s denotation of material practices and products, the tendency of biblical studies and comparative studies of scripture has been to follow the lead of the religious traditions themselves to focus on the more abstract and mental processes of semiotics and hermeneutics. Since written scripture begins the intellectual and emotional practice of understanding and encountering God’s “living word,” the trajectory of the process moves away from the mediated word toward abstract meaning. Even though modern biblical scholarship has developed new and important ways of approaching the Bible not bound by theological constraints, it also typically has focused on the textual contents of the Bible, whether through historical-critical approaches, literary-critical approaches, or reception history.

In Judaism and Christianity, as well as in Islam, speech is an important component of theology and faith because of the commandment against idolatry (Exod 20:4–5; Deut 4:15–19; 5:8). In these traditions, revelations from God come through spoken language, not through material objects; therefore, faith should come from hearing, which gains the connotation of being a more inner and spiritual sense, not the more dangerous sense of seeing, oriented at the external world. The apostle Paul articulated this distinction within an influential polemic against Judaism: followers of Christ are to be ministers of a new covenant, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:3, 6).

Also contributing to a disdain of the materiality of scripture in favor of orality and abstraction are the historical contexts of the early composition and transmission of the sacred texts of Torah and Talmud, the Christian Gospels, and the Qur’an. There is a significant oral component in traditions of the Oral Torah of Judaism, and Christ as the divine Logos or speech of God in Christianity, and Muhammad’s hearing and spoken transmission of the revelation in Islam. Many Protestant Christian theologians as well as scholars of comparative scripture have focused on these scriptural origins to argue that scripture is properly oral, and not written. In influential comparative studies of scripture in the late twentieth century, Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1993) and William Graham (1987) focus on the Qur’an, as well as the Vedas, as their primary examples for the normative oral function of scripture. While these studies make significant strides in challenging the exclusivity of textual interpretation within biblical studies, they also perpetuate the oral/written and spiritual/material hierarchical binaries that are problematic in contemporary analyses of material scripture.

Materiality in the Iconic Dimension of Scripture.

Relating scriptures to icons, developed in relation to the Christian Bible in the work of Dorina Miller Parmenter (2006, 2009, and explained further below), engages the materiality of scripture because icons, as revealed in justifications for the use of icons in Orthodox Christianity, are ritual material objects that mediate a transcendent reality. Thus the iconic dimension of scripture refers to the visible and material form that mediates the text, is encountered by the human senses, and generates meanings and messages beyond semantic understanding.

Demonstrating that textual meaning and performance are not sufficient by themselves to qualify particular texts as scripture, James Watts (2006) has built upon the ideas of Parmenter to theorize that scripture involves the ritualization of three related dimensions of texts—semantic, performative, and iconic. Watts’s theory is applicable to the concept of “scripture” broadly conceived, not just to the Jewish or Christian Bible.

Watts identifies the semantic dimension of scripture with the meaning of written texts, including all aspects of interpretation and commentary, and appeals to the text’s contents in preaching and other forms of persuasive rhetoric. Engaging the semantic dimension of scripture is the hallmark of authoritative religious leadership and is often encouraged among the laity as a means of personal devotion and group socialization. Thus it is this aspect of scripture that has received the most attention from scholars, as has been noted above.

The performative dimension of scripture also engages the words of the text, but in modes of ritual reenactment. Texts of scriptures are read, sung, and displayed in ways that call attention to the words themselves; contents of scriptures might be dramatized in plays and movies and illustrated in art. These performances convey a sense of inspiration that is sometimes separate from, or even in tension with, institutionally authorized interpretations, demonstrating that the performative dimension is inextricably bound with the semantic.

But these semantic and performative dimensions are not sufficient to define scripture or to establish a text as religiously legitimate, since any text can be analyzed and performed (the plays of Shakespeare, for example). What generates scripture is the ritualization of the representative and recognizable material form of the text that acts as a signifier separately from the signification of any particular words. An adorned Torah scroll in a synagogue ark, two arched tablets on a granite monument, or the display of a family Bible are examples of the iconic dimension of biblical scripture. As visual objects they might act as symbols of God’s revelation and/or religious history and tradition, as tangible objects engaged in ritual they might be perceived to act as mediators of divine presence, as images and objects within particular contexts they might communicate social power and acceptability (or the reverse, as with the deliberate desecration of scripture). The iconic dimension of scripture calls attention to texts as objects within complex power-generating networks of social and material practices and how ritual engagement with the iconic dimension marks scriptures as legitimate bearers of religious truth and power.

Examples of a Material Scripture Perspective on the Bible.

What unites diverse approaches to the Bible and material scripture is an emphasis on the effects of the physical medium of the biblical text. Since the Bible is inextricably text (message) and material form (medium), an important aspect of investigations into scripture’s visual appearance and material use is their impact on the text’s interpretation, status, relevance, and efficacy—in other words, how the medium affects the message. These effects might be personal or social, direct or subtle, but nevertheless embedded within networks of cultural meaning and power.

What follows are recent examples of scholarship about the Bible that emphasize a material scripture perspective. They were chosen to demonstrate the breadth of inquiry related to the use of the Bible in both Judaism and Christianity during different time periods and in relation to different technologies of the book, but they neither fully represent the depth of each investigation nor cover every aspect of the material elements of the Bible’s production, reception, and use.

The Torah and the cult of ancient Israel.

The prohibition against idolatry of the Mosaic covenant is frequently cited as the origin of and justification for the privileging of word over image in Western religions and the perception that Judaism always has been an aniconic book religion without images to facilitate worship. But several studies that focus on the ritual use of material scriptures challenge these assumptions in relation to the development of Israelite religion and early Judaism.

Karel van der Toorn’s 1997 comparative study of the Babylonian cult of images and early ritual uses of the Torah demonstrates that the ancient Torah was not used just for its text but as a sacred object in public and private rituals for purposes of protection, divination, oaths, and healing, paralleling the use of images among the Babylonians. There is evidence that during the First Temple period (from the tenth through the sixth centuries B.C.E.) Israelite religion did use theriomorphic and anthropomorphic images for Yahweh and/or lesser deities, but with the Deuteronomic reforms of the eighth through the sixth centuries B.C.E., these images were suppressed. The image and object of the Torah that filled the void left by the cult of images took a variety of forms: mezuzah containing small scrolls of scriptural texts on doorposts and gates (Deut 6:9; 11:20) replaced images of the gods at entryways; where the Babylonians might wear images of their gods as amulets on the body, the Israelites wore tefillin containing small scrolls of scripture (Exod 13:9, 16; Deut 6:8; 11:18); the Ark containing the stone tablets of the law were carried into battle as the Israelites’ enemies carried statues of their gods (Josh 6:4–15; 1 Sam 4:3–9). Thus, in the ancient near East, images of the gods and the Israelites’ scriptures intended to serve the same function as embodiments of the sacred and incarnations of the god(s).

Van der Toorn’s analysis breaks down the perceived dichotomies and hierarchies of aniconic or conceptual religions and iconic or sensual religions, which are assumed to go along with book-centered religions and ritually based religions. Van der Toorn concludes: “the cult symbol, be it an image or a book, tends to be perceived as being consubstantial with God. That is why the correct comprehension of the message of a holy Book is not a prerequisite for believing in it. The cynic might even argue that true comprehension of the book could only be detrimental to its unconditional veneration” (1997, p. 242).

But to maintain the authority of Israelite kings, priests, prophets, and scribes, it was necessary to provide a link between the veneration of scripture and its contents that were promulgated by religious leaders. James Watts (2005) argues that the ritual proscriptions of the Torah gained their legitimacy among the people after the scrolls themselves were ritualized through their public display and reading (as in Neh 8:5–6). That is, the rituals with the Torah scrolls legitimized their proponents through an appeal to an ancient text (with a mythological connection to Moses and God), which in turn led to the authoritative status of the contents of scripture as law.

The Torah as cultic center in the absence of the Temple.

Following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., the ritual use of the Torah was transformed for widespread synagogue use. The specifications for the construction, adornment, handling, and disposal of a Torah scroll (Sefer Torah) stem from the early Rabbinic period and are contained in the Mishnah and Talmud, written down between the third and the sixth centuries C.E. These ritual prescriptions surrounding the physical elements of the Torah mark the boundaries between the sacred text and the profane world. According to Marianne Schleicher, the Torah as ritualized sacred space replaces the axis mundi of the Temple. The marking of the Torah as a holy object thus affects both collective and private settings where participation in a ritual with the object has an effect outside of textual interpretation. Schleicher writes:

"The many specifications in Jewish history concerning the making and handling of the Torah, along with the examples of how the Psalms have been similarly treated as objects for protective activities, testify to such use and indicate that establishing and maintaining transitivity is the primary function of artifactual use. This scripture-based transitivity links individuals, collectives, and the overall culture, which is important for mobilizing religious identification in all times" (2009, p. 65).

It is significant that the ritual Torah retained the traditional book-roll or scroll, the common book medium in ancient Judaism and all cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. In the early Rabbinic period that promoted the ritual Torah-scroll, the codex book form became the more common form of book technology, first adopted by Christians but then used widely in the later Roman Empire. The ancient sacrality of the text of the Torah is symbolized in the conservative technology as the traditional form warrants special attention and sets it apart from “new” ideas and practices contained in codices. Christians drew on the contrast between the “old” revelation to Moses and the Jews, contained in a scroll, and the “new” revelation of Christ, contained in a codex, in their iconography from the Late Antique period onward. Within Judaism itself, the visual contrast between ancient scripture and later commentary began in the Middle Ages and continues today, as the only scrolls used in Jewish liturgy and practice contain scriptures, especially the Torah and Esther, while all other books within Judaism, including the Talmud and prayer books, are codices. Following Watts’s three dimensions of scripture (mentioned above), it is the ritualization of this distinctive and iconic scroll form along with reading and interpretation that marks its contents as scripture.

The early Christian book.

The Torah as a ritualized holy object was adapted yet transformed in early Christians’ use of their scriptures. This transformation was related to Christian incarnational theology coupled with the promotion of the codex book form over the scroll as a symbol of Christian faith and Christian imperial power and legitimacy.

The journey of the early Christian codex from an informal note-taking device to a lavishly adorned icon demonstrates how the medium can become the message. Modeled on hinged wax tablets or wooden panels (caudices) on which one could take notes, early codices of the first through third centuries C.E. had a connotation of informal rather than authoritative writing, even in the transition to parchment or papyrus leaves. Thus it seems that early Christian texts circulated and read in codex form were considered to be manuals or guidebooks for Christian living—appropriate for a small, developing religion more oriented to oral communication and apocalyptic expectations rather than posterity.

As book technology improved and Christianity spread further, the codex worked well to bind together collections of texts, such as the letters of Paul (e.g., Chester Beatty P46, ca. 200 C.E.), or multiple Gospels (e.g., Chester Beatty P45, containing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in addition to the Acts of the Apostles, ca. 250 C.E.). These collections reflect the development of an orthodox Christian scripture and canon, debated by bishops such as Irenaeus of Lyons (130–202 C.E.) in Against Heresies. It is with the these collections bound into single codices (including the unwieldy pandect Bibles of the Old and New Testaments bound together, e.g., the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus), increasingly promoted as authoritative and eventually canonized in Athanasius’s Festal Letter of 369 C.E., that we see Christianity shift from a religion of many disparate books to a religion of one book, the Bible in codex form.

As many have noted, even after Athanasius’s canon, Christianity has never been a religion of one uniform and universally agreed-upon book of scripture. But despite the diversity of texts it might contain, the image of a Bible codex connotes a singular, closed, and authoritative revelation, with continuity between the Old and New Testaments and among the different voices of the Gospels and Epistles. The fourth century is significant in the history of the materiality of the Bible because it saw Christianity emerge as the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, symbolized by the Bible in the now-dominant book form, the codex.

The early Christian Bible as an icon.

The Logos theology of the Gospel of John that identifies Christ as the eternal Word of God, appearing in the flesh, not only makes divinity visible but also leads to the veneration of that Word in its lasting material and visible form, the book of the Bible. Dorina Miller Parmenter (2006, 2009), along with several other scholars, has argued that related to these changes in theology and book form, the Bible frequently has functioned not only as a symbol but also as an icon. Like Christian Orthodox icons, the Bible is a ritual object with a divine origin, as demonstrated in the textual and visual associations of the Bible with the traditions of heavenly books widespread in the ancient Near East. Because the divine Word/Book has become flesh, it is perceived to be a mediator between the physical and the spiritual realms. Thus early Christian rituals with Bibles or Gospel books employed in liturgical, conciliar, and judicial settings as well as in popular and private use demonstrate that the presence of the book of scripture, apart from its textual use, was seen to invoke the presence of Christ. Byzantine supporters of icons like John of Damascus made this connection in their arguments against iconoclasm in the eighth century C.E. when they pointed out the disjunction between permitting the veneration of particular holy objects like the Bible and the cross and forbidding the veneration of pictorial icons.

This iconicity of the early Christian Bible was generated and maintained through the care and expense given to the production of Bibles that were to be ritually displayed or that would grant authority and status to their owners. The most luxurious of early Christian Bibles were written by the best scribes in gold and silver on purple-stained vellum (e.g., the sixth-century Codex Brixianus), or colorfully illuminated with narrative scenes (e.g., the sixth-century Rabbula Gospels) or intricate patterns that invited the meditation of the scribe and the viewer. Covers were adorned with precious metals, gems, enamels, or carved ivory (e.g., the eighth- to ninth-century Lindau Gospels). The materials and images used to decorate the Word as Book served to make Christ visible and divine power and grace accessible.

The Reformation and sola scriptura.

Like the change from scroll to codex that accompanied early Christianity, the shift from manuscript to print technologies had significant effects on Protestant ideas and culture. The invention of movable type and the availability of cheap paper, both achievements of the fifteenth century, fed Renaissance desires for greater access to classic works of the past, including the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. Educated laymen and scholars could now appeal to “original” texts of scripture against centuries of tradition and air their protests through books and illustrated pamphlets, available even to the nonliterate.

An important concept that emerges from the Reformation in an age of printing and has a lasting impact on Western material culture is the Protestant ideal of sola scriptura, or the view that salvation comes through “scripture only” and not through the embodied “works” of the Medieval Catholic tradition. Sixteenth-century reformers of the Christian church complained that the Medieval Latin Bible was used in the liturgy as an object of power rather than a text to be read and understood by the people. Thus, when writing and preaching about scripture, reformers like Martin Luther insisted that the importance of the Bible lay in the message it contained about the Logos, the divine spoken word and God’s communication to humans incarnate in Jesus Christ, and not as a canon of texts authorized by humans and housed in an elaborate codex. For Luther, the Bible was “the Holy Spirit’s own special book, writ and word” (WA 54, p. 474), a complex interplay between writing and reading, speaking and hearing. The present, living word—the spoken gospel message of the New Testament—was privileged over the distant letter and law of the Old Testament.

The paradox of postprinting sola scriptura is that the elevated spoken word is dependent on the disparaged written word. The evidence of the Word of God in the printed Bible is necessary for the transmission of knowledge to the ends of the earth; thus, Luther called printing “God’s ultimate and greatest gift” (WA 1, p. 523). But at the same time, Luther “deplored the abundance of books and writers” that led to the Bible being “buried under a mass of literature about the Bible” so that “the text itself will be neglected” (LW 54, p. 361). While Luther assumed that scripture illuminated by faith would be clear for all and unite Christians around one text, the practical result of uncontrolled interpretation to the reader was multiple interpretations, which could then be shared through printing, creating widespread division among Christians and resulting in Protestant denominationalism.

Even though Luther was not a strict iconoclast, his attitude privileging spirit and speech over material objects and images was picked up by more radical reformers like Calvin and Zwingli and has remained one of the foremost ideological effects of the Reformation. There is a correlation between the degree to which differently nuanced Christian worldviews accept visible images and physical objects as means for approaching the divine and the status given to the book of the Bible, or books deemed biblical.

Modern printing and the expansion of scripturalism.

Despite the ideals of sola scriptura and the increased availability of vernacular Bibles after the mid-sixteenth century, it is not clear how much effect printing had on the direct practice of Bible reading outside of the educated elite of early modern European society before the industrialization of printing and mass production of Bibles in the nineteenth century. But without a doubt, religious ideas and issues came more to the forefront of people’s everyday experiences due to the confluence of printing and the Reformation and the spread of ideas through posters, leaflets, and tracts—as well as books—which, through both text and illustration, formed the basis of conversations among Catholic, Protestant, literate, and illiterate alike. These publications and conversations began to shift the loci of religious authority away from priests, preachers, and/or the Bible toward a variety of printed religious matter, and inadvertently to printers, publishers, and booksellers.

This expansion of religious authority into the printed medium also expanded the notion of what was biblical or scriptural. This can be seen in the treatment given to personal religious books such as prayer books or Psalms, elaborately decorated with jewels or embroidery and carried in a pocket, purse, or worn about one’s neck. Alexandra Walsham (2004) writes that wearing a book as part of one’s apparel indicates a greater intimacy between the owner and the text, an ideal of Protestantism. But these highly decorated personal religious books were also visual and material objects signifying status, wealth, and piety apart from their textual contents. Like early Christian and medieval luxury Bibles, these books were afforded special treatment because they were biblical, demonstrating the expansion of scriptural reverence, and perhaps the canon of scripture itself, beyond the Bible.

Another example is the soldier’s pocket Bible provided for Oliver Cromwell’s troops in the English civil war of the seventeenth century and reprinted during the nineteenth century and used by both Union and Confederate soldiers in the American Civil War. These “Bibles” were only 16 pages long, consisting of selected Bible verses applicable to soldiers and arranged under guiding headings like “A Soldier must not do Wickedly,” plus prayers and a hymn. The abundance of stories of Bibles (including these slim books) stopping bullets demonstrates that even these selections gained the power and authority of “real” Bibles.

Thus in the modern period, the phenomenon of printing moved the perception of the Bible in two directions. With mass printing, especially after the industrialization of the print industry in the nineteenth century, the Bible could become a book available to all. But at the same time, as Luther feared, the Bible was buried under a mass of literature about the Bible so that the text itself was not always read. This dual movement strengthened the idea of “the Bible” because the concept could be filled with notions of what the Bible is supposed to be or what people are told that it is like. Similar ideas related to the perception of Torah and Talmud generated by mass print culture in the twentieth century have been studied by Jeremy Stolow (2010).

America’s iconic book.

In 1980, Martin Marty opened his Centennial Address to the Society of Biblical Literature with the question of why American Christians were not more affected by the critical biblical scholarship of the last one hundred years. He answered on two fronts in relation to the proliferation of the image of the Bible in America. First, the Bible is “America’s Iconic Book” (the title of Marty’s talk)—a ubiquitous visual image and material object that is so taken for granted that it is rendered almost invisible despite its use and display not only in churches and Christian homes, but on billboards, monuments, bumper stickers, and merchandise. Second, this prominent visibility of the Bible supports a cultural mental image about what the Bible is and does. Marty describes this image of the Bible functioning as a “carapace,” or a “protective covering, the sort of cocoon that individuals, subcultures, and in their own way societies need for the structuring of their experience. … [The Bible’s] presumed contents, that for which one would consult if one did consult it, remove the ‘just happening’ dimension from human existence” (Marty, 1982, pp. 6–7). This image of the Bible that trumps any reproach is exemplified in President Grover Cleveland’s statement: “The Bible is good enough for me, just the old book under which I was brought up. I do not want notes or criticism or explanations about authorship or origin or even cross-references. I do not need them or understand them, and they confuse me” (in Marty, 1982, p. 3).

Several recent studies have examined this attitude toward the Bible in contemporary American Evangelicalism and how it is cultivated by Bible publishers and reflected in Bible use. Timothy Beal unpacks the cultural image of Bible—its “iconic cultural meaning” (2011a, p. 4)—as authoritative, univocal, practical, accessible, comprehensive, and exclusive. This attitude is generated within culture rather than from reading the text, because, as Beal points out along with Marty and others, Americans’ high rates of reverence for the Bible coexist with low rates of Bible reading and biblical literacy. One unexpected result of this mix is the steady growth of Bible-publishing businesses, who build upon the sacred capital and brand recognition of the Bible to sell a myriad of biblical books and magazines that boost the Bible as a cultural icon but do not contribute to more reading of the biblical text itself.

Investigations into the contemporary Bible-publishing industry provide excellent examples of how religious and cultural ideologies are created through the material context of the Bible and not through some kind of “neutral” interpretation of texts. The recent explosion of “niche Bibles” geared toward particular subcultures (e.g., New Mom’s Prayer Bible by Zondervan) or particular interests (e.g., The Sportsman’s Bible with camouflage bonded leather and zipper closure by Holman Bible Publishers) reveals that every aspect of the Bible-printing business—size, cover design, page layout, translation, illustrations, typeface, commentaries, summaries, etc.—is carefully chosen for image and impact. While initially for the purpose of increased sales, the lasting effects create impressions about “what the Bible is,” which perpetuates the very ideology to which the Bible is intended to appeal in the first place. These marketing techniques are becoming more obvious but nothing new: medieval treasure bindings with illuminated pages conveyed heavenly inspiration and splendor, nineteenth-century illustrated King James family Bibles perpetuated a Victorian ideology of home-based sentimental piety; gold-edged, red-letter “floppy” Bibles appeal to Protestant ideals of simplicity and accessibility while highlighting the specialness of the Word.

An Early View of Material Scripture in a Digital Age.

Most predictions about material scripture in a digital age focus on hypertextualilty—that is, how linked media, instant reference, and cut-and-paste ability have and will alter practices of reading and interpretation. They seem to take for granted that physical, printed books of scripture will be eclipsed by new technologies and practices. However, the history of material scripture indicates that the Bible as book is not going away. Following James Watts’s three dimensions of scripture, the ritualization of semantic and performative aspects of religious texts and their contents, which can be accessed in a variety of forms, is not a sufficient guarantor of scriptural legitimacy. It is the ritualization of the iconic dimension, or the readily recognizable material and visual aspect of religious texts, that links the texts to revelation and to tradition, legitimizing the contents.

Recent guidelines on “Reading Scripture in Public Worship” from the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA) point to the anxiety created by the lack of iconicity in an age where people are accessing the text of the Bible in a variety of ways and offer a solution for its recovery. Acknowledging that biblical texts are encountered in a variety of forms for private use, the guidelines recommend that during a church service, the designated reader should engage the church’s large pulpit Bible. “This practice communicates that Scripture is a shared story and a common Word, one that stands at the center of the church’s life and liturgy. Using a large and dignified looking Bible also more adequately conveys the weight and significance of God’s Word in Christian life—not a disposable thing (like a loose scrap of paper), but an enduring inheritance, a priceless treasure, a source of wisdom and guidance for the ages” (Gambrell, n.d., p. 2).

The purpose of reading from an iconic Bible is not only for the subtext it generates for the text read in the moment, but for the lasting affective associations that are attached to the concept of the Bible. The book’s size and appearance legitimize the text encountered in the present and the future, as an “enduring inheritance,” by making a visual reference to the Bible’s recognizable form (“a large and dignified-looking” codex), which is now a form associated with the past. The underlying anxiety reflected in these guidelines is that the biblical text encountered in various ways is in danger of becoming mere words, unattached from history, community, and tradition. Thus the recommended practice reinstates those attachments through rituals with the iconic book, thereby changing how the text is received and interpreted, and making it more likely that its use is secure in the future.

The Future of a Material Scripture Approach to the Bible.

This overview of a material scripture perspective on the Bible began by pointing out the desire to supplement biblical studies’ tendency to focus on textual hermeneutics without regard for material and cultural contexts. As is evident from the examples of scholarship provided above, several attempts have been made to examine the history of the Bible and its use, especially in Europe and America. Fruitful areas for future research will involve contexts outside of these histories that have dominated studies of Christianity. Examples of research that point in this direction but have concerns beyond those of material scripture can be found in work done in relation to the Institute for Signifying Scriptures at Claremont Graduate University, including an important collection of cross-cultural examinations of biblicism edited by James S. Bielo (2009).

As with other critical periods of technological change that have altered how and what kinds of information are received and interpreted, how communication takes place, how relationships are structured, and how authority is generated and maintained—like the shifts from scroll to codex and from manuscript to print—the electronic age will affect the iconicity of scripture and the interpretation of biblical texts. But since texts are always mediated, we are not facing a period of dematerialization and the irrelevance of analyses of material scripture, but precisely the opposite. Future studies in material scripture will have to contend not only with the complexities of scriptural texts and digital media, but also with how they are used alongside the scriptural media that has been authorized by history and tradition and infused with cultural meaning.




  • Beal, Timothy. The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011a. An overview of the history of the Bible as a book with an emphasis on contemporary evangelical Bible publishing. For a general audience.
  • Bielo, James S. The Social Life of Scriptures: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Biblicism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2009. A collection of anthropological studies of biblicism in Christian contexts around the world, as well as several articles that theorized biblicism.
  • Gambrell, David. “Reading Scripture in Public Worship.” www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/ readingscriptureinpublicworship.pdf. Guidelines for church leaders who read scripture aloud before a church congregation.
  • Graham, William A. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religions. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An important early study in comparative scripture that uses examples from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic and Vedic traditions to argue for scripture as properly oral, downplaying the material effects of books and writing.
  • Luther, Martin. Luthers Werke (LW). Kritische Gesamtausgabe. 57 vols. Edited by J. F. K. Knaake et al. Weimar: Böhlau, 1883. Translated as Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols., edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960).
  • Luther, Martin. Luthers Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe (WA). 127 vols. Edited by Hermann Böhlau. Weimar, 1883.
  • Malley, Brian. How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira, 2004. An influential anthropological study on how the Bible functions as a cognitive placeholder and influential artifact among contemporary American evangelicals.
  • Marty, Martin. “America’s Iconic Book.” In Humanizing America’s Iconic Book: Society of Biblical Literature Centennial Addresses 1980, edited by Gene M. Tucker and Douglas A. Knight, pp. 1–23. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982. From the preeminent scholar of American religions; the first study to address the Bible in America as an icon that orients experiences through its presence and visibility rather than as a text to be read.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. One of the earliest and most influential studies in Christian material culture in America; contains a chapter titled “The Bible in the Victorian Home.”
  • Morgan, David. The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Blends art history and religious studies to address the visual practices that constitute belief; focuses on images of the Bible in the chapter “National Icons: Bibles, Flags, and Jesus in American Civil Religion.”
  • Parmenter, Dorina Miller. “The Iconic Book: The Image of the Bible in Early Christian Rituals.” Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds 2, nos. 2–3 (2006): 160–189. Reprinted in Iconic Books and Texts, edited by James W. Watts (Sheffield, U.K.: Equinox, 2013), pp. 63–92. Surveys the ritual uses of early Christian Bibles; part of an argument (along with Parmenter 2009) for the Bible as an icon or mediator for the presence of Christ.
  • Parmenter, Dorina Miller. “The Bible as Icon: Myths of the Divine Origins of Scripture.” In Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon, edited by Craig A. Evans and Daniel Zacharias, pp. 298–309. London: T&T Clark, 2009. Traces literary and artistic images of the Bible as a heavenly book revealed to humans, which contributes to the idea that the Bible functions as an icon.
  • Schleicher, Marianne. “Artifactual and Hermeneutical Use of Scripture in Jewish Tradition.” In Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon, edited by Craig A. Evans and Daniel Zacharias, pp. 48–65. London: T&T Clark, 2009. Shows the interrelationships between the artifactual and hermeneutical uses of scripture by focusing on Jewish use of the Torah and the interpretation of Psalms.
  • Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. What Is Scripture? A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993. Uses a phenomenological approach to identify a universal propensity to scripturalize, which is a reflection of humans’ engagement with the transcendent, rather than the material world.
  • Stolow, Jeremy. Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. An in-depth analysis of Orthodox Jewish publisher ArtScroll and the strategies used by print media to both authorize and popularize religious texts.
  • van der Toorn, Karel. “The Iconic Book: Analogies between the Babylonian Cult of Images and the Veneration of the Torah.” In The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East, edited by Karel van der Toorn, pp. 229–248. Louven, Belgium: Peeters, 1997. Provides examples of the Torah as a cultic image that functioned in the same way as the Babylonians’ images of their gods.
  • Walsham, Alexandra. “Jewels for Gentlewomen: Religious Books as Artefacts in Late Medieval and Early Modern England.” In The Church and the Book, edited by R. N. Swanson, pp. 123–142. Woodbridge, U.K.: Ecclesiastical History Society, 2004. Shows the continuities between the Medieval Books of Hours and early Protestant devotional books, demonstrating that books were legitimate material objects for Protestant use and display.
  • Watts, James W. “Ritual Legitimacy and Scriptural Authority.” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 3 (2005): 401–417. Argues that the ancient Torah became an authoritative sacred text that legitimized ritual action and religious law after it was employed as a ritual object in the Temple.
  • Watts, James W. “The Three Dimensions of Scriptures.” Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds 2, nos. 2–3 (2006): 135–159. Reprinted in Iconic Books and Texts, edited by James W. Watts. Sheffield, U.K.: Equinox, 2013, pp. 9–32. The foundational theory for materiality as a crucial component of scripture, which is the result of three ritualized dimensions: semantic, performative, and iconic.
  • Watts, James W., ed. Iconic Books and Texts. Sheffield, U.K.: Equinox, 2013. An interdisciplinary and cross-cultural collection of essays from the Iconic Books Project at Syracuse University between 2007 and 2010. Material scripture and the Bible is addressed in essays by Parmenter, Brown, Plate, Elitzur, Graham, Beal, Malley, Larson, and Camp.

Further Readings

  • Beal, Timothy. “Reception History and Beyond: Toward the Cultural History of Scriptures.” Biblical Interpretation 19, nos. 4–5 (2011b): 357–372. An overview of the gains and limitations of a reception historical approach to the Bible, pointing toward the need for a cultural history approach that takes more seriously the Bible as a material object.
  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979. The most thorough study of the impact of printing on early modern European culture in relation to the Renaissance, Reformation, and the rise of modern science. Frequently criticized for placing too much emphasis on print culture as revolutionary rather than being in continuity with earlier trends.
  • Gutjahr, Paul. An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. A thorough study of the rise of nineteenth-century American Bible publishers and the proliferation of diverse, mass-printed Bible editions.

Dorina Miller Parmenter

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