Sunday, July 26, 2009

1456: Johann Gutenberg Produces the First Printed Bible

DURING THE MIDDLE AGES, few people owned Bibles or books of any kind. Monks copied texts by hand, on papyrus sheets or parchment made of animal skins. The cost of both materials and the copyists' time lay far beyond the average man's resources---even assuming the book he might want was available.

Not many people could read their own language, and many books---the Bible included---were available only in Latin, a language even fewer understood. The average person relied on the local priest and pictures or statues in the church for information on the Bible. Often the local priest had little or no training in Latin, and his knowledge of the Bible was quite minimal. Though scholars debated Scripture and wrote commentaries, their thoughts had a hard time trickling down to the average Christian.

One of the great changes of the fifteenth century had a heavy impact on this state of affairs. In the 1440s Johann Gutenberg experimented with movable pieces of metal type. By setting books in lead type, he could make many copies, at a fraction of the cost of a hand-copied text.

In 1456, Gutenberg---or a group of which he was a part---printed 200 copies of Jerome's Vulgate Bible. The common man could not yet understand God's Word, but it was the first step in a mighty revolution.

For a while the printers of Mainz kept Gutenberg's techniques a trade secret, but by 1483, when Martin Luther was born, every large European country had at least one printing press. Within fifty years of Gutenberg's first printing the Bible, printers had out-produced centuries of monks. Books had become available in numerous languages, and literacy had increased.

Without Gutenberg's invention, perhaps the goals of the reformation would have taken longer to be achieved. As long as only the clergy could read God's World and compare it to church teachings, it had a limited impact on the common Christian.

With the invention of the printing press, Luther and other reformers could make God's Word available to "every plowboy and serving maid." Luther translated the Scriptures into a vigorous, readable German version that was used for centuries. No longer did a priest, pope, or council stand between the believer and his comprehension of the Bible. Though many had claimed the average man could not understand God's Word and needed it interpreted by churchmen, Germans began to do just that.

As they read, these ordinary men and women began to feel part of the Bible's dramatic world. Household training in the faith became possible. Slowly the boundary between pastor and parishioner broke down. instead of worrying, "What will I have to confess to a priest?" the believer could ask, "Is my life in keeping with the Bible?"

With the invention of a complex printing tool, a fire was lit across Europe---one that spread both the Gospel and literary.

----Curtis, Lang and Petersen The Hundred Most Important Events in Christian History

1 comment:

FYI said...

As of 2003, the number of known extant Gutenberg Bibles includes eleven complete copies on vellum, one copy of the New Testament only on vellum, and 48 substantially complete integral copies on paper, with another divided copy on paper. The country with the most copies is Germany, which has twelve. Four cities have two copies: Paris, New York, Leipzig, and Moscow; London has three copies plus the Bagford Fragment.