A rare viewing of rare Bibles for YDS community

By Casey Cep ’13 M.Div.

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library opened its doors last week to more than 100 students and faculty from the Divinity School who headed downtown to see some of Yale’s oldest printed Bibles--outside their cases.

Bible image“This is a Halley’s comet moment,” Bruce Gordon, Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History, wrote in his invitation to the community, referring to the rare opportunity to see the pages of the Gutenberg Bible turned. 

The Gutenberg Bible (1450s) was the highlight, but other texts on display included: Erasmus’s Greek New Testament (1516), the Complutensian Polyglot (1514-1517), the Bomberg Rabbinic Bible (1516/17), and Luther’s German Bible (1534).

This incredible event developed out of a course that Gordon and Joel Baden, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, are co-teaching on “Jews, Christians, and Bibles in the Renaissance.” 

“A couple of years ago, Joel and I were looking at an old Bible and we fell into a conversation about the Jewish and Christian interpretation of religious texts,” Gordon said. “We thought we could turn that conversation into a dialogue, and the course has become a free-for-all where we gather around a text, then discuss and dispute what’s going on between the different sources.”

Twice a week, Baden and Gordon meet their students in one of the Beinecke’s seminar rooms. After a few weeks, Gordon said: “We realized the Beinecke was keen to make these materials more widely available.”

That realization led to the open house, where for two hours Gordon and Baden introduced the materials, took questions, and turned pages with assistance from Kathryn James, a curator at the Beinecke. 

“It’s no particular privilege that we turn the pages,” Gordon joked at one point during the open house: “It’s just that we’ve been told we’re financially liable.”

Students and faculty alike marveled at the gorgeous bindings, careful illuminations, and remarkable type-settings of these Bibles. Mark Letteney ’14 M.A.R. said, “I came because I love objects and the stories they tell. My training is in text criticism, so I’ve spent a lot of time with some of these editions.” 

Bible image“I’ve played around with making books, so I’m fascinated by how these Bibles are constructed,” said Christina Baik ’13 M.A.R. “But it’s not just the construction: they all have underlining and notes—it’s so neat to see just how personalized they all are.”

Both Baik and Letteney fulfilled Gordon’s hopes for the event: “We wanted to foster a real encounter with the past, so that students realize these Bibles aren’t only artifacts, but living things that connect us with history.”

“It’s one thing to look at pictures in books or digital images, but it’s another to have a real encounter with materials like the Gutenberg Bible,” Gordon said. “It would be a shame to be so close to an extraordinary collection like that of the Beinecke and never see it.”

Gordon recounted an experience from earlier in the day when he was on his way into the library: “A student leading a tour said, ‘And here’s the Beinecke. It houses the first Bible ever written. We can go in now to see it.’" 

“It made me feel like Moses,” Gordon said, laughing. “I hated to tell them it was only the first Bible ever printed, and that in fact they’d be viewing a facsimile since the real Gutenberg was downstairs for our event!”

“It’s one of only 48 copies in the world, one of only half that number which are complete. Whole tour groups come to see this remarkable achievement of printing. You don’t have to venerate it,” Gordon said, “but YDS students should at least see it while they’re here.”

Date Posted: Sunday, March 3, 2013 - 4:15pm