How was the Bible distributed before the printing press was invented in 1455?
Before the advent of the printing press, the only way to duplicate a document or book was to copy it by hand. Probably the first copies of writing were made by engraving symbols on a slab of rock. A more temporary copy could be made by using a stylus on beeswax. The ancient invention of ink or dye enabled early scribes to make marks on animal hides, which could be scrubbed and used again.
A great leap forward took place when the Egyptians began using papyrus. This plant, found along the Nile, was cut into strips, soaked in water, and then pressed into sheets. While the Old Testament was first copied on leather scrolls, the use of papyrus soon became the favorite of Bible copyists. The sheets of papyrus were sewed together and placed between two pieces of wood for covers. This type of book was called a codex. Actually the term Bible comes from the Greek word for “papyrus plant” (biblos). The oldest surviving manuscript of any part of the New Testament is a papyrus fragment containing part of John 18. Scholars estimate that it was written about 125 AD.
Around 320 the codex book form replaced the roll or scroll, and parchment made from the skin of sheep or goats replaced papyrus. Also around this time the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian and authorized the production of many copies of the Scriptures. Now the making of copies of the Bible began in earnest, but it was still a huge undertaking. Nor was much translation attempted. Probably the first translation of the New Testament was into Latin in 175. By the year 600, the Gospels had been translated into only eight languages.
With this copying and translation activity, a confusing variety of Scriptures began to circulate through the early church. Finally, the Pope commissioned the great scholar Jerome to make a definitive translation into Latin, which was completed in 405. For nearly a thousand years this translation, known as the Vulgate, reigned supreme. While many translations were made, a church council in Toulouse, France, in 1229 forbade anyone who was not a priest from owning a Bible. Nevertheless, “underground” translation and circulation of the Bible continued.
The work of copying the Scriptures was undertaken in earnest in the monasteries in the Middle Ages. Several thousand monasteries were established across Europe, and for many of the monks making copies of the Scriptures was their chief task. They became the true guardians of the text and produced literally thousands of magnificent Bibles. Teams of scribes and artists worked with parchment to produce incredibly beautiful works of art. A scribe taking dictation might use as many as 80 quills a day, and artists embellished the work with intricate designs and illustrations.
By the late Middle Ages, the production of both religious and secular texts passed to professional copyists. Booksellers placed shops near the universities and to cathedral schools, and so the book trade mushroomed. Of course, most people in the Middle Ages were illiterate, and so picture Bibles full of wonderful illustrations became popular.
Because of the huge size of complete Bibles, they were divided into several volumes, and each was very costly. Only the rich and the universities could afford them. Into this situation came a great revolutionary named John Wycliffe, whose central doctrine was, “Every Christian ought to study this book because it is the whole truth!” Wycliffe inspired the first complete translation of the Scriptures into English. He also lashed out against the power and riches of the church establishment, and became a very popular leader at Oxford. Inevitably, he was condemned by the archbishop and was fired from Oxford. However, his conviction of the authority of the Bible rather than the Pope stirred great controversy. Despite the church’s efforts to suppress the Bibles, the common people were at last able to receive and read God’s Word.
Today we are pretty casual about this great treasure, so readily available to us. We do well to stop for a moment to realize that we can actually hold in our hands the precious revelation of God Himself. It costs us less than an hour’s wage, rather than a year’s salary, as it once did. The temptation now is to treat the ancient word casually as well. But from this ink and paper springs the ageless gospel of hope for this life and the life to come. It is our priceless heritage.
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