It is the 23rd of February 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
At the turn of this century, various polls were trying to rank the greatest everything of the past 1,000 years. In 1999 the computer and the internet were a big deal, but nothing compared to today’s smartphones and social media. And so, it was left to the first mover in mass communication- Johann Gutenberg and his printing press and Bible would take most polls as the most important innovation of the 2nd millennium since the birth of Christ.
Johann Gutenberg was hailed as “the man of the century,” and his famous Bible- first completed on the 23rd of February in 1455- would become the Mona Lisa of printed books.
We’ve talked before about the printing press- moveable type and the proliferation of printed material. Today, let’s look at the first mechanically printed Bible- perhaps the most famous and coveted book.
We call it “Gutenberg’s Bible,” but it has no publishing credits. We only know it was Gutenberg based on court records- his investors had sued Johann, and his printing press had been taken by one of them- this man, Johann Fust, took the press and the Bibles and sold them himself. Gutenberg never saw a cent.
This printing project began in 1450- with the ability to mechanically print multiple copies, the Bible would become an obvious first choice (it is worth mentioning, especially in that we connect Gutenberg and the coming Reformation, that alongside the Bible project Gutenberg also printed indulgences.
The project took between 2-5 years for each copy of the Bible- it came in 2 volumes. However, there would be considerable variation as the purchaser would take the printed pages and take them to an artist and binder to complete the process. The edition at Harvard University weighs some 70 pounds- a thief in the 1970s almost got away with the heist of the century, but he didn’t account for the weight of the book and fell from his rope, getting caught and cracking his skull.
While there may have been as many as 180 copies made, today, only 48 or 49 exist (the discrepancy comes from fragmentary copies and debates over how much can be missing to still count as a full copy). Most of the bibles were printed on fine Italian paper, but 30 were printed on vellum- the skin of calves. It is believed to have taken the skin of over 150 calves to produce one of the 1,000-page plus Bibles (we have 12 Vellum copies today).
You may see it referred to as the “42-line Bible” this is because Gutenberg got 42 lines in 2 columns per page. Sometimes it is referred to as the Mazarin Bible. It was the French Cardinal Mazarin whose library had an original copy found in the 17th century- this “first printed book” would become legendary after this time. Mazarin’s copy would become a historical artifact and a status symbol. Since then, the surviving Bibles have been traded, stolen, bought, sold, and preserved. 14 copies are in Germany- and 2 in Russia, although they were reported stolen from Germany near the end of World War 2. There are ten copies in the United States, from the Huntington Library on the West Coast to the Library of Congress, where one copy is printed on vellum. In 1978 the Bible was sold for over 2 million, and in 1987 a single volume sold for over 5 million.
One of the 48 for 49 is estimated to sell for up to 100 million today. Numerous works have been written about this most famous of books- two of note: Editio Princeps: A History of the Gutenberg Bible by Eric White is a delightful book published in 2017 following various copies as they went from owner to owner. It’s expensive, so see if you have a local library or university that has it. On the other end of the spectrum, the very small book by Martin Davies, “the Gutenberg Bible,” is a solid introduction.
Today we remember the book that Eric White calls “the most famous, expensive, and closely scrutinized of all typographic books” and when it was first completed on this the 23rd of February in 1455.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary from Romans 1- a part we can skip over sometimes, but there’s some good stuff here
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. 6 And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of February 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite productions from a Guttenberg include the Bible, Police Academy, and Three Men and a Baby- he is Christoper Gillespie
The show is written and read by a man who has seen all 7 Police Academy movies without really enjoying any of them. I’m Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.