Mark Wiltshire, Associate Specialist in Science & Books, walks us through the history of Christianity’s most influential printed text — illustrated with standout examples previously sold at Christie’s and offered in our Classic Week sales
More than any other text, the Bible has been fundamental to the development of Western culture, and its history in print allows us to trace a narrative through key moments in social and political history. Here we offer an introduction to key themes for would-be collectors.
The Gutenberg Bible
The most famous Bible, and the most appealing to collectors, is the Gutenberg Bible — the first substantial book to be printed using moveable type. Prior to its publication in the 1450s, books in Europe had been painstakingly reproduced by hand. The popular success of Gutenberg’s Bible encouraged the adoption of a technology that enabled the mass reproduction and dissemination of text.
It is thought that there were around 30,000 books in all of Europe before the Gutenberg Bible appeared, a figure which rose to more than 10 million by 1500 as Gutenberg’s technology was adopted across the continent. Approximately 180 copies of Gutenberg’s Bible were produced in total, of which only 49 are known to have survived. Many of the extant examples are incomplete, but such is the importance of this work that even single leaves are highly prized by collectors.
Martin Luther’s German-language Bible
In the Reformation’s 500th anniversary year, the works of Martin Luther have a profound resonance. His German-language Bible — supplemented by a range of pamphlets and broadsides — made religion accessible to the wider population.
This was reform for the ordinary person, coloured by the language of the marketplace, and buoyed by the rapid spread of ideas made possible by the printing press. Indeed, Luther took great advantage of the growing impact of printing to cultivate support for his ideas and spread a reformative message. Whether they owned a copy of Luther’s Bible, had borrowed one or had heard verses read aloud alongside popular Reformist songs, every German now had an opportunity to understand the Christian faith more directly, and to participate in religious debate.
William Tyndale’s Bible: The first English translation
The first English-language version of the Bible was printed in 1526. Inspired by Luther’s accessible German version, William Tyndale began to prepare his own translation — although he knew that doing so was illegal and would be viewed as heresy by the Catholic Church. Tyndale was ultimately executed for this crime, but the Bible he left behind laid the foundation for English translations to follow. Perhaps Tyndale’s greatest legacy was his enormous textual contribution to the King James Bible, which is thought to incorporate up to 90 per cent of Tyndale’s version.
The King James Bible
The King James Bible, published in 1611, is one of the most important books ever printed in English. Its preparation took more than five years, and was laboriously attended to by more than 50 translators and researchers.
Although the Royal Version appropriates much from the earlier Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva and Bishops' Bibles, it is regarded as the greatest literary translation of the Bible ever produced. It is thought to be the source of some 257 English idioms — more than double the number attributable to Shakespeare. The King James Bible is the most-published translation, with an estimated one billion copies printed to date. The first edition, particularly with the erroneous ‘He’ reading in Ruth 3:15, is a rare and highly-coveted addition to any serious book collection.
Tips for forming a collection
One intriguing approach to forming a Bible collection is to source the first and earliest editions printed in different regions and across different languages. This offers plenty of room for a collection to grow: from the time of Gutenberg’s Latin-only readership, the complete Bible has been translated into more than 600 languages. Beyond the obvious appeal of this approach for multilingual readers, it also allows the collector to trace the ways in which the Christian message has leapt across borders and continents, facilitated by ever-evolving printing technologies.
Our Valuable Books and Manuscripts auction on 12 July offers a number of highly influential religious texts in languages as varied as Spanish, Low German, Greek and Cree — a language derived from North American Algonquian and spoken by only around 100,000 people. This can be found in Portions of the Book of Common Prayer, the first book printed at the Moose Press in Hudson’s Bay, Canada. This rare work is a fine example of how Gutenberg’s revolutionary technology, combined with a Lutheran dedication to the vernacular, created new audiences for the Christian message.