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 overview of some of the most valuable early examples, as well as tips on how to start a collection.
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 to be painstakingly copied 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 printing 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 such as the one shown above are highly prized.
Martin Luther’s German-language Bible
The works of the great church reformer Martin Luther were of profound importance to the dissemination of biblical texts. His German-language Bible — supplemented by a range of pamphlets and broadsides — made the ideas on which the Christian religion was based accessible to a wider population who were not Latin readers.
This was reform for the ordinary person, 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 his message of reform.
Whether they owned a copy of Luther’s Bible, had borrowed one or had heard verses read aloud in public, 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 edition of the Bible was printed in 1526. Inspired by Luther’s 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 authorities.
Tyndale was ultimately executed for this crime, but his Bible laid the foundation for English translations to follow. Perhaps his greatest legacy was his enormous 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 involved more than 50 translators and researchers.
Although it 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 also 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.
Starting a collection
One approach to forming a Bible collection is to source the first and earliest editions printed in different regions and across various languages. This offers plenty of room for a collection to grow: from the time of Gutenberg’s Latin-only readership, the 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 Christianity has leapt across borders and continents, facilitated by ever-evolving printing technologies.
Upcoming sale highlights
Our Valuable Books and Manuscripts auction on 14 July offers a number of highly influential religious books, including the very first Latin Bible printed in France, shown below. This work, which ultimately derives from the Gutenberg Bible itself, was produced in Paris in 1477 at the country’s first printing press.
Also on offer is the first edition of the Old Testament in Spanish, produced for the use of Spanish-speaking Jews who had fled the Iberian states. Printed in the Italian city of Ferrara, this Bible owed its existence to the city's liberal laws under the reign of Ercole II d'Este (1534-1559), which attracted Jews from Spain and Portugal as well as from the less hospitable Italian city-states.
The polyglot Propaganda Fide Press in Rome played a major part in the dissemination of the Bible across cultures. The press was established in 1626 to print grammars, dictionaries and alphabets in a range of languages for Catholic missionaries in training, as well as multilingual translations of catechisms, Bibles and dogmatic works for use in far-flung destinations.
Offered on 14 July is a rich and varied collection of woodblocks, both typographical and ornamental, used at the Propanganda Fide Press. The group encompasses about 919 wooden printing blocks representing a great variety of languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Burmese, Tibetan, Malachim and Greek.