What is the Gutenberg Bible?

Johannes Gutenberg introduced the movable type printing press to Europe in 1450. The first major book printed on the press is known as the Gutenberg Bible, an edition of the Latin Vulgate, in 1454-1455 AD.

Prior to the printing press, the Bible (and other documents) were copied by hand. The two Latin words manu (with the hand) and scripta (written) form the word manuscript, or “written with the hand”.  Scribes took great care to accurately copy books, but the end result could have minor mistakes. The large number of Biblical manuscripts that still exist give scholars the opportunity to compare manuscripts, and more easily find the differences, which helps determine what the correct reading should be

The Gutenberg press had significant advantages to handwritten manuscripts. Once the printing plates were setup, many copies of a book could be quickly printed, knowing the printed text would be the same for each copy. The books could be printed with much less work than hand writing one, which in turn made them less expensive. That made the Bible accessible to many more people, and literacy dramatically increased in Europe.

The number of copies printed of the Gutenberg Bible is unknown, but estimates range from about 150 to 200 copies. The Bible was printed on both paper and parchment/vellum, and many of them were hand embellished. An estimated 49 Gutenberg Bibles still exist, although less than half of them are complete

I did a Google search on how long it would take to hand write a Bible. I found articles about people who have done it, and it often takes a few years. “Mr. Jackson is one of the world’s foremost calligraphers. As scribe to the Crown Office at the House of Lords in London – a position many refer to as the queen’s scribe – he produces the official documents for the crown…. Now, Jackson is embarking on a six-year project to handwrite and illustrate the Bible…. ” [1] Compare that to how long it took Gutenberg to print the Bible.

Although all the copies of the Bible weren’t completed until 1455,  some scholars believe he started making the printing plates for the Bible around 1450, so the full process for 150 Bibles could have taken up to 6 years. If 150 copies were printed, that would be an average of 25 Bibles per year, or 14 days per Bible, including the hand embellishment. That’s much faster than Mr. Jackson’s goal of 1 Bible in 6 years (although presumably he wasn’t working on it full time).

“It’s estimated there were about 30,000 books in all of Europe before Gutenberg’s press. Less than fifty years later there were as many as twelve million books, and the book that was printed was often the Bible. As people became more interested in studying the Bible, Bibles were printed not only in Latin, but in German, French, and even ancient Greek.” [2]

Let’s do a bit of math. If there was a total of about 30,000 books in  all of Europe before the Gutenberg press, and Gutenberg printed 150 Bibles, that increased the number of books in Europe by 0.5%. If there were 12,000,000 books in Europe within 50 years, as a direct result of the printing press, that would have been an increase of nearly 40,000%!

To compare, the Library of Congress (LoC) has about 39,000,000 books and printed items. [3]

  • LoC has more than 1,000 times the number of books in all of Europe before the Gutenberg Press, in 1450.
  • LoC has over 3 times the number of books in all of Europe 50 years after the Gutenberg Press, in 1500.
  • An increase of 0.5% of the books at the LoC would be 185,000 new books.
  • An increase of 40,000% would be 15,600,000,000 books!

The revolution of the printing press in Gutenberg’s day could be compared to the Internet in our day. Education exploded because people had access to huge amounts of information. People could communicate with bigger audiences. People became more knowledgeable about distant places. Much of our modern society would not exist without books (paper or online) and the knowledge they contain. We owe a debt of gratitude to Gutenberg and his invention.

These are pictures I took of the Gutenberg Bible at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington (most of the New Testament, none of the Old Testament). Considering the Bible is worth millions of dollars, I was surprised how poor the lighting was.

Gutenberg Bible, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington
Gutenberg Bible, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington
Gutenberg Bible, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington
Gutenberg Bible, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington
Gutenberg Bible, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington

 

These pictures are a of a replica of the Gutenberg Printing Press, which I took at Museum of the Bible in Washington, D. C.

Replica of Gutenberg Printing Press, Museum of the Bible, Washington, D. C.
Replica of Gutenberg Printing Press, Museum of the Bible, Washington, D. C.
Replica of Gutenberg Printing Press, Museum of the Bible, Washington, D. C.

Resources

Footnotes

[1] Copying the Bible like a medieval monk, CSMonitor.com, Accessed September 2, 2018.

[2] The Gutenberg Press: An Invention That Changed the World, Museum of the Bible, Accessed September 2, 2018.

[3] Fascinating Facts, Library of Congress, Accessed September 2, 2018.

 

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