• Gospels in Armenian. Manuscript on paper. Lake Van region, 15th century.

For Glory and for Beauty

Highlights from the Collection

May 12–July 24, 2005

Almost 200 hundred years ago, the American Bible Society (ABS) established a biblical library that aimed to document the history of Bible translation and Bible publication.

Through gifts and an ambitious acquisitions policy, the Library’s holdings grew throughout the nineteenth century and today it constitutes one of the world’s largest collections of printed Scriptures. The rare book section of this collection, including about two thousand books and a few manuscripts, was recently loaned to the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA). It will be the focus of a series of exhibitions that aim to enhance the visibility of this little known-treasure and to present the public with a chance to experience its richness.

The first of these exhibitions, For Glory and for Beauty, brings together a superb selection of handwritten and printed Scriptures spanning more than five centuries. These books document the history of the Bible as it came down to us in its original languages and in some of its most influential translations. The exhibition also highlights the history of the Bible as an artifact through outstanding examples of typography, illustration, and book binding.

The Bible in its original languages, Hebrew and Greek

The earliest written texts of the Bible were in Hebrew and ancient Greek. Although lost today, they were copied time and again by countless scribes, who painstakingly produced one book at a time, until the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in the early 1450s opened the way for standard editions and hundreds of identical copies.

Two Hebrew Scriptures are displayed in this exhibition: a manuscript of historical significance and an early printed book. The manuscript is one of the 13 Torah scrolls once preserved in the synagogue of Kaifeng, the capital of Henan Province in central China. Built in 1163, the synagogue was destroyed in 1642 when a rebel army flooded the city by diverting the Yellow River, and rebuilt some 20 years later, when the scrolls were also restored. In its present condition, the ABS scroll, which has suffered severe water damage and was further damaged by rodents, extends from Genesis 1:1 to Leviticus 18:19. It is written in Hebrew square character unpointed and without Masoretic notes, on 37 panels of goatskin, measuring 23 inches by 71 feet. It consists of salvaged panels from several other scrolls. Its oldest portion dates to the fifteenth century; its newest one was added by the repairer in the mid-seventeenth century. Dr. Samuel Wells Williams, a noted missionary and lexicographer, acquired the scroll in China in 1866 and presented it to the ABS in 1868.

Books in Hebrew were printed within 35 years of Gutenberg’s invention and by 1488 the first edition of the complete Hebrew Bible was produced in Soncino, Italy. This text was the model used three decades later by Daniel Bomberg. Known as the Biblia Rabbinica, the first edition produced by Bomberg in Venice in 1517 includes Targums, old Aramaic paraphrases of the text, and commentaries by Rashi and others. Its second edition, exhibited here, was printed as a set of four volumes in 1524—25. Jacob ben Hayyim edited the text and provided ample marginal notes based on the traditional commentaries. His edition has remained the standard Hebrew text of the Bible until well into the twentieth century.

The Greek New Testament became available in print only in 1516. The first published edition, exhibited here, was printed in Basel by Johann Froben. As editor of the text, Froben chose one of the most successful scholars of the time, Erasmus, who also authored the Latin translation printed next to the Greek text. The book they created joined together two editorial bombshells: the first mass-produced edition of the Greek New Testament and its first new Latin translation since Jerome’s Vulgate in the 380s. Erasmus revised the Greek text several times during the last 20 years of his life. Starting in 1546, the same text was further refined by editors and publishers such as Robert Estienne and Th�odore de Bèze until it reached its final form toward the end of the sixteenth century. Known as the textus receptus, the received text, this late avatar of the Erasmus edition remained practically unchanged for the next 300 years.

Although many manuscripts divide the biblical text into chapters, the current division into verses was devised only in 1551. Robert Estienne introduced this innovation in a small sexto decimo edition of the Greek New Testament on display in our exhibition. His son, Henri Estienne, who attained an even greater fame as a scholar, alluded to the division in a book published in 1594. According to Henri, Robert marked one of his own editions of the New Testament while riding on horseback from Paris to Lyon. This circumstance may well account for the inconsistencies of the division and the uneven length of some of the verses. According to Estienne’s division, the shortest verse of the Bible is John 11:35, which has three words in Greek (one of them is the article) and only two in English: “Jesus wept.”

The Bible in English

The first English translation of the whole Bible was inspired by John Wyclif, an Oxford scholar and one of the precursors of the Reformation. Most of the actual process of translating was done by Wyclif’s followers, including Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey, and dates to the early 1380s. A revision of the text was finished around 1395. Like all Bibles translated in Western Europe before the Reformation, the Wyclif version was based on the Latin Vulgate. Completed before the invention of printing, this translation circulated in manuscript. Its New Testament was first printed in 1731; the complete text was released only in 1850. Wyclif’s theological writings were condemned in England in 1382 and at the Council of Constance in 1415. The Wyclif Bible was never granted ecclesiastical approval and in 1408 its dissemination became illegal in England. Nevertheless, the text was widely copied during the fifteenth century and survives in almost 200 manuscripts. One of these manuscripts, a particularly beautiful copy of the New Testament dating to the 1440s, is on display in our exhibition.

The English language was changing rapidly during the fifteenth century and the average speaker of English found Wyclif’s Bible increasingly difficult to understand. At the same time, knowledge of Hebrew and Greek became more widespread in academic circles and provided the necessary tools for a biblical translation based on the original languages rather than the Latin Vulgate. The man who combined a masterful command of contemporary English, a scholar’s understanding of Greek and Hebrew, and an unfailing dedication to the cause of Bible translation was William Tyndale. Having failed to win the approval of the Church for his project to translate the New Testament from Greek into English and being already suspected of heresy, Tyndale fled England in 1524 and eventually settled in Antwerp. He became familiar with Martin Luther’s writings and pursued his work as a Bible translator. His New Testament, the first printed edition of the English text, was produced in Worms in 1526. Tyndale’s plan was to smuggle the copies into England to encourage reading of the Bible. Most of the copies, however, were seized and destroyed. The original edition consisted of 3,000 copies. Only three have survived.

In 1530, Tyndale completed the translation of the Pentateuch and had it printed in Antwerp. It was the first printed portion of the Old Testament in English and the first English translation based on the Hebrew original. Fewer than ten copies of this translation have survived and one of them is displayed in this exhibition.

William Tyndale was not allowed to complete his translation. In May 1535 he was betrayed by Henry Phillips, a man who pretended to be his friend and disciple, and captured by imperial officers. In October 1536 he was executed as a heretic near Brussels.

Although systematically destroyed, the early editions of Tyndale’s translation had an irreversible impact on the history of the Bible in English. In a revised form, much of Tyndale’s text found its way into the King James Version. First issued in 1611, the Bible commissioned by King James I remained the most influential English translation for more than 300 years. About 50 of the best scholars in England labored at the project for seven years. The translators were divided into six “companies” that met separately in Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. They included Lancelot Andrewes and John Reynolds, who worked on the Old Testament, William Barlow and John Boys, who worked on the Greek text of the New Testament and the Apocrypha, and Miles Smith, who wrote the preface and saw the book through the press. The version these scholars created set the standard of excellence in Bible translation and helped define literary English. A copy of the first folio edition issued in 1611 can be seen in this exhibition.

Translations into languages other than English

The Bible is considered the perennial bestseller and the book that has been translated in more languages than any other written text. By the end of the year 1500, six languages had a complete printed Bible, two others had a printed New Testament and an additional two had some portion of the Bible. By the end of the year 2004, 422 languages had a complete Bible, 1,079 had the New Testament, and 876 had some portion. This exhibition showcases a few of the milestones that mark the history of Bible translation across the world.

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses of 1517 ushered in the Reformation, and his German translation of the Bible embodied his belief in the saving power of God’s word. It served as a model to all Protestant translations of the Bible and set the standard of literary German. Luther started working on his translation after his courageous stand at the Diet of Worms, in April 1521, when he took refuge in the castle of Wartburg. The New Testament was printed in September 1522 and became an instant bestseller. It was the first German translation based on the original Greek text and went through more than 80 editions in ten years. The Old Testament, based on the Hebrew text, was issued in four volumes over a period of nine years. A first volume, including the Pentateuch, was released in 1523 and a second volume, starting with the book of Joshua, followed in 1524. Lucas Cranach the Elder printed the volume (in cooperation with Christian Doering) and also designed the title page. It is believed that he represented Martin Luther as the new Joshua.

Another important translation of the Reformation was the Spanish version by Casiodoro de Reina. Suspected of heresy, Reina fled Spain in the late 1550s. He worked on his translation in England and had it printed in Basel, in 1569. For the Old Testament, he used the Hebrew text and its Latin translation done by Santes Pagnini, as well as the Spanish translation that had been printed in 1553 in Ferrara. For the New Testament, Reina relied on the Greek text. A slightly revised form of Reina’s translation was issued by Cipriano de Valera in 1602. Modernized editions of the Reina-Valera text remain to this day the standard Bibles of Spanish-speaking Protestants.

Going back to the beginning of the fifth century, the Syriac Peshitta version is one of the earliest translations of the New Testament. Its publication in 1555 made the text widely accessible to scholars and marked the beginning of book printing in Syriac. The text was edited by Johann Albrecht Widmanstadt and published in Vienna at the expense of Ferdinand Archduke of Austria, who became Emperor in 1558. The copy on display in this exhibition comes from the Archduke’s library.

The Ethiopic version of the New Testament may be as early as the fourth century or as late as the sixth or seventh centuries. The earliest printed editions of the text, issued in 1549 and 1657, were known to scholars all over Europe, but were too expensive to circulate in Ethiopia. The manuscript on display in this exhibition, a liturgical Psalter, dates from the eighteenth century and is representative of the type of Scriptures manufactured and treasured throughout rural Ethiopia. Its carrying case enabled the priest who owned it to take it with him on his tours around the countryside. The manuscript was presented to Dr. Eric M. North, an officer of the ABS, in 1956.

Printed in 1663 in Cambridge, the Massachusetts Bible is the earliest translation of the complete Bible in any of the native languages of America and the first Bible printed in the New World. The text was translated by John Eliot, a Presbyterian pastor who came to America in 1631 and devoted the remaining years of his long life to evangelizing the Indians. The Massachusetts Indians he converted spoke an Algonquin language and were illiterate. Eliot created the first written documents in their language and taught them the rudiments of reading and writing. The printing of Eliot’s Bible was made possible through financial and technical assistance provided by the “Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Indians of New England,” the first missionary society ever established in England. The Bible on display in this exhibition is one of the 20 presentation copies sent by Eliot to his supporters in the old country.

Artworks and artifacts

The Bible has been and continues to be a prized possession owned and revered by individuals, families, and whole communities. Over the centuries, scribes, printers, illustrators, and binders lavished their technical knowledge and creativity upon this quintessential book and gave it, in many cases, the status of a work of art. The last section of this exhibition pays tribute to their craft and dedication.


Books printed before the end of the year 1500 are given a special name, incunables, adapted from a Latin word meaning “swaddling-clothes” or “things put in the cradle.” They represent the infancy of printing and are revered as historical and cultural artifacts. Three incunables are displayed in this exhibition, two of them as examples of book illustration and bookbinding. To illustrate the art of typography we have selected one of the very rare Greek incunables. Printed in 1497 by Aldus Manutius in Venice, this small quarto displays a beautiful Greek font with red titles and red initials. A not unusual misprint was caught and corrected in Psalm 71. A line had dropped from the beginning of a page and was added by hand. We may be tempted to imagine that the handwriting we see is that of Aldus himself.

Printed in four languages and three alphabets, the Complutensian Polyglot is considered one of the most beautiful books ever produced. The polyglot Bible was sponsored by Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros and printed in Alcalá de Henares, a town whose Latin name had been Complutum.The typographer Arnaldus Guillelmus de Brocario spent more than three years to print the six volumes of this magnificent work. Volumes 5 and 6 were finished in 1514, volumes 1—4 on July 10, 1517. The first volume, on display in this exhibition, includes the Pentateuch in the three sacred languages, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, with the Aramaic paraphrase and its Latin translation printed below the main texts. The Hebrew roots are given in the marginal column and an interlinear Latin translation is printed with the Greek text. One can only wonder at the art of the printer who was able to arrange all the texts while creating printed pages of such elegant proportions.

The more recent history of printing is illustrated by three outstanding editions of the English Bible. The earliest of the three is the work of John Baskerville, a type designer who started printing for Cambridge University in 1758. Five years later, in 1763, Baskerville produced what is considered the masterpiece of his career, the folio Bible displayed in this exhibition. Although forgotten after his death, Baskerville’s work was rediscovered in the 1920s. Many of the fonts released by type foundries such as Linotype and Monotype are revivals of Baskerville’s typefaces and bear his name. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle paid Baskerville an indirect homage in 1901, when he used his family name in one of his most successful novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The folio Bible printed in 1935 in England at the Oxford University Press is often described as the finest Lectern Bible ever produced. Intended for ceremonial rather than day-to-day use, it was designed by the American typographer and artist Bruce Rogers, who also helped with its actual printing. Set in a special face of Rogers’ Centaur type, the text runs to 1,250 double-column pages and is sometimes bound as a set of two volumes. The 1935 Oxford Bible was so much admired that in 1949 Rogers was asked to design a similar edition for the World Publishing Company of Cleveland and New York.

Released in November 2000 as one of the cultural events linked to the celebration of the new millennium, the folio Bible designed and produced by the Arion Press in San Francisco, California, is the most recent of the great hand-printed Bibles. The paper was handmade in England and the type, originally designed in the 1930s by the Dutch typographer Jan Van Krimpen, was later adapted for machine composition.


Designed to facilitate the reader’s immersion into the text, book illustration evolved from the illuminations that adorn medieval manuscripts to the computer technology used in the most recent publications. Five books displayed in this exhibition exemplify the evolution of book illustration over five centuries. Two Books of Hours showcase the art of fifteenth-century anonymous artists engaged in embellishing some of the most precious books of the pre-Gutenberg era. The larger one was produced in France and includes 13 large miniatures, many borders, and ornaments in gold and various colors. The smaller one was copied and illustrated in Flanders and is remarkable for its delicate ornamentation.

The German publisher Anton Koberger is remembered mainly for his handsome folios, beautifully printed and illustrated with woodcuts. One of his most important books is the German Bible displayed in this exhibition. It was issued in February 1483 and was the ninth Bible printed in German. Its 583 leaves contain more than 100 hand-colored woodcuts printed from blocks used three years earlier in a Low German Bible produced in Cologne.

Crude maps of the Holy Land began to be printed in the 1470s. Starting in the 1530s it became common to insert them in Bibles as aids to the study of the text. By the end of the seventeenth century, many folio Bibles included atlases of sacred geography remarkable for both their accuracy and their elegant design. The Latin Bible published in Paris in 1662 by Antoine Vitré, on display in this exhibition, has one of the particularly beautiful selections of hand-colored maps of the Ancient World. Vitré, who proudly added to his name the title “printer to the King and the French Clergy,” is best remembered as the producer of the Paris Polyglot Bible issued in ten volumes between 1629 and 1645.

The most popular Bible illustrator of all time was the French artist Gustave Doré. His 238 engravings of biblical scenes were first used in 1866 to embellish a new French translation of the Latin Vulgate . Within a year they were included in similarly sumptuous English and German Bibles. By the end of the decade, the Doré illustrations were adorning Bibles in a dozen different languages and were reprinted in most family Bibles sold in America. More than 2,000 editions of the Doré Bible have been produced to this day. They all go back to the 1866 French edition on display in this exhibition.


From humble beginnings as a mere means of keeping together and protecting handwritten sheets, bookbinding evolved into a decorative art aiming to match and complement the beauty of the text and the quality of its illustrations. Simple wood boards were replaced by precious metals or covered with leather, while jewels, ornaments, and a variety of designs and inscriptions were added to the new surfaces. As many books were repaired and rebound over the centuries, the date of the text does not always coincide with the date of the binding. The final section of our exhibition features six outstanding examples of bookbinding dating from the late fifteenth century to the year 1910.

One of the earliest books in this exhibition is an Armenian Gospel manuscript copied in the late fifteenth century in the Lake Van region. In 1649, a priest by the name of Mesrop, who was living at the time in the village of Hapusi, near Kharper, rebound the manuscript in traditional Armenian manner. In the following decades the covers were embellished with silver ornaments and metal crosses, some of which have precious or semi-precious stones and inscriptions. Apparently these were given by mothers who had lost infants before they were baptized, and who wanted to secure the salvation of their souls.

The large folio Bible printed by Bernard Richel in Basel sometime before 1474, one of the three incunables on display in this exhibition, has a contemporary binding consisting of blind-tooled pigskin with metal fittings over wood boards. Like the hand-drawn initials that adorn this Bible, its binding was probably executed in Salzburg by Ulrich Schreier, one of the best-known book artists of the time. The tiny holes visible in the binding were produced by book worms.

Although not in mint condition, the binding of the great polyglot Bible published in 1572 by Christophe Plantin in Antwerp is one of the most beautiful in the ABS collection. The eight folio volumes of the work have a contemporary Flemish binding of red morocco, gilt with arabesque motifs, and brass corner pieces. All their edges are gilt and gauffred.

In contrast to the folio volumes produced by Plantin, the Greek New Testament published in 1628 by Jean Jannon in Sedan was the smallest edition of the text ever printed. Bound in contemporary red morocco, this miniature volume is remarkable for the elegance of the geometrical pattern tooled on its covers.

The small German Bible printed in Halle in 1770 displays its owner’s initials, J. R. H., on the front cover and the date 1772 on the back. It has one of the few precisely dated bindings in the ABS collection. Made of vellum over cardboard, this binding includes a beautiful border of painted foliage and birds and four biblical quotes.

Nineteenth-century bindings are represented in this exhibition by one of Francis Fry’s works. Known as the author of important books on the early translations of the Bible into English, Fry was also a Bible collector and a businessman. The binding created for one of the 1613 quarto editions of the King James Bible bears an unmistakable resemblance with other bindings in Fry’s collection of Bibles. A note pasted inside the book seems to indicate that it was rebound in 1860.

One of the most sumptuous bindings in the ABS collection adorns a presentation copy of the New Testament in Chinese printed in 1909 or 1910. Four copies of this edition were presented in 1910 to the last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, and three members of his family. All of them were bound in sterling silver decorated with appropriate scenes. The front cover of the book displayed in this exhibition depicts the Ascension and both Jesus and the eleven Apostles have Chinese features. It was long thought that the remaining three presentation copies had been lost during the revolution that started in 1911. However, one of them recently resurfaced in Hong Kong.

The limited space of this exhibition cannot do justice to the richness of the ABS Rare Scripture Collection now on loan to MOBIA. We envision it as only an introduction to our future displays focusing on specific segments of this collection.

- Liana Lupas, Curator