Like a New Star: Gutenberg’s Bible, 1455

Allow me to indulge the history major in me and ramble about one of my favorite events in church and world history…

Much study has been given to the tumultuous history of the canonization of the Bible. The controversial, often-violent process of finalizing which books and letters were recognized as Scripture lasted over three centuries, and debate on some texts continues to this day. But despite the devotion scholars have given to the canon, not as much attention has been paid to the evolution of the holy book itself and the fascinating history that brought us the mass-printed Bible we know today.

Thanks to elementary history studies, Gutenberg is a household name. Almost everyone recognizes Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) as the inventor of the first Western moveable type printing press. (The earliest use of metal type can be traced to Korea in 1377, but the sheer number of characters in Asian languages made this method impractical[1].) This invention was revolutionary on every level. Not only did it completely transform the exchange of information by introducing mass-printed books—a powerful weapon that continues to inspire social and political change to this day—but the invention itself was a miracle of modern engineering. With the help of an estimated twenty assistants, Gutenberg spent four years perfecting the process[2]. In addition to designing the press itself (which was originally modeled after a wine press), he developed his own oil-based ink, a specialty metal alloy for the type, and an organization process to allow efficient use of the finished letters[3]. The final set of type included 292 unique characters, featuring multiple widths of many letters to allow for precise typesetting[4].

Although everyone can appreciate the technological and intellectual impact of the printing press, many take for granted the enormous spiritual influence the invention had, not only on the Western Church, but also on the advance of Christianity throughout the world. Gutenberg himself, however, appeared to have been divinely aware of the significance of his efforts, when he said of his invention:

“It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow, in inexhaustible streams, the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of man! Through it, God will spread his word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men.”[5]

Though poetic, this grand language is by no means an overstatement on Gutenberg’s part. For immediately after its invention, Gutenberg’s press would be used to mass produce the most important book in history, the incarnate of truth itself: The Holy Bible.

Although the Bible was not the first book printed on the press (Gutenberg printed small runs of German textbooks to test the invention, followed by an order of 2,000-some indulgences commissioned by Cardinal Nicholas of Kues[6]), the Bible is without dispute the largest and most significant project Gutenberg undertook. By spring of 1455, six newly-minted presses[7] and been run approximately 237,170 times to print 60,000 leaves of vellum and paper[8], producing an estimated 180 copies of the Latin Vulgate in two volumes, of which 48 whole and partial copies remain today.

Although 180 is a small run by today’s standards, in the fifteenth century this was astronomical, considering there were only an estimated 30,000 books in the entirety of Europe[9]. Prior to this time, the Bible was still being copied largely by hand, and a single copy could easily cost upwards of a laborer’s yearly wage[10]. With the dawn of the printing press, the vision of bringing the Word to the masses was revived. By coupling revolutionary engineering with the relentless commitment to translate the Bible into the common tongues despite persecution from the established church, the Scriptures were finally placed in the hands of the people. A mere two decades after Gutenberg’s first printing, there were nine German Bibles in circulation[11]; within fifteen years, there was a press in every major European country[12].

Very little information exists about Gutenberg himself, with many suggesting that his primary motive was to milk to wealth of the established church[13] (ironically, wealth was the one thing he never gained[14]). But whatever the man’s intentions, it is impossible to ignore the massive spiritual revolution that was sparked by his creation. By shattering the Bible’s exclusivity, Gutenberg allowed Truth to run free amongst the masses, making the invention of the printing press truly one of the greatest turning points in Christian history.

Bibliography

Beal, Timothy K. The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Boston: Mariner, 2012. Print.

Christianson, Scott. 100 Documents That Changed the World: From the Magna Carta to WikiLeaks. New York, NY: Universe, 2015. Print.

Houston, Keith. The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. Print.

Skinner, Andrew C. A Bible Fit for Restoration: The Epic Struggle That Brought Us the King James Version. Springville: CFI, UT. Print.

Websites

http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-28/1456-gutenberg-produces-first-printed-bible.html

http://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-gutenberg-bible

Endnotes

[1] Christianson, Scott. 100 Documents That Changed the World: From the Magna Carta to WikiLeaks. New York, NY: Universe, 2015. 43. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Skinner, Andrew C. A Bible Fit for Restoration: The Epic Struggle That Brought Us the King James Version. Springville: CFI, UT. 32. Print.

[6] Houston, Keith. The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. 106-109 Print.

[7] http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-28/1456-gutenberg-produces-first-printed-bible.html

[8] Ibid. 126.

[9] http://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-gutenberg-bible

[10] Houston. 106.

[11] Beal, Timothy K. The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Boston: Mariner, 2012. 121. Print.

[12] Houston. 127.

[13] Both Houston and Beal support this narrative.

[14] Houston. 126.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: