I should warn potential readers: there’s a real danger that you will drool on the pages of Christopher de Hamel’s new book.
While some parts are a little ponderous, you won’t drool because you’ve fallen asleep. There’s enough good trivia (the scribes creating Hebrew Bibles circumvented the prohibition on illustrations by drawing pictures using miniscule text instead of lines) and excellent one-liners (“The Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God may be the most important unreadable book in the world.” and “Sparke takes immodest pleasure in adding that when the Royalist armies beseiged Worcester in 1642, Ash hid his illicit fortune down the privy and, in trying to dig out his money some weeks later, was overcome by the smell and died.”) interspersed to keep you well awake. You’ll drool over the pictures.
Luscious, oversized photographs of every step of the Bible’s history–from pages of the Dead Sea Scrolls to richly illuminated medieval manuscripts, to rather optimistic translations of the Bible into Hindustani and Mohawk to (my personal favorite) a modern illuminated manuscript that’s still a work in progress. The gold used to highlight the lines in Jesus’ genealogy in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel appears to transcend the page it is on–and the page of this book. It took my breath away.
Perhaps what I most appreciated about this book was its effort to trace the history of the Bible as a book, not (as is more commonly done) as a source of theology. De Hamel only takes the occasional foray into philosphical issues, and these are interesting.
There’s no reference to Mormons or Mormonism here, but there are some interesting ideas for the Saints to chew on:
(1) De Hamel’s comments on the reception of the Latin edition of the Bible translated by Jerome (known as the Vulgate) provide an interesting data point for comparison with the LDS Church’s use of the KJV:
It is a curious fact that at many stages in the Bible’s history, contemporary translations into current languages have often been regarded with unease. The words of the Old Latin translation, by contrast, must by Jerome’s time have sounded archaic, and therefore seemed to many people to be more fitting for a biblical text. It is interesting that the Vulgate never really gained acceptance until its language too began to seem archaic. In the period when its supporters defended it most fanatically, the late Middle Ages, it was obsolete.
(2) De Hamel notes that the initial reaction by many Bible-believing people to modern finds of ancient texts was one of some hesitancy: there was a real fear that the Dead Sea Scrolls would suggest that in the first century, the Old Testament was a very different book. But as de Hamel explains:
Anxious believers can be enormously reassured by the almost exact similarity between even the earliest of the biblical papyri from Egypt and the text as it has survived during its descent through countless scriptoria and printing shops of Europe. . . .No significant variations or deliberate falsifications have ever been found to shake public confidence in the Bible as a whole.
While not delegitimating Joseph Smith’s famous statement about “designing priests and corrupt scribes” or the Book of Mormon’s note that many “plain and precious” parts were removed, it does call the Saints to carefully consider what might have changed–and when.
(3) One cannot so much as flip through this book without being in awe of the efforts that were put into not only transmitting the Bible, but making it a work of beauty. I wonder if there is room for any such thing in the LDS Church. I only know of a few efforts to go beyond the standard-issue scriptures of the Church (see here and here) and both leave a lot to be desired. Should there be an illuminated Book of Mormon? Would it be of any worth to the Saints? How else might art and scripture merge?
You have to admire De Hamel, who spent a quarter century as head of the Western Manuscripts department at Sotheby’s in London, for taking on a project so huge that it is beyond the purview of any one scholar. While it is perhaps unfair, then, to expect him to have mastered all of the relevant literature on 3000 years of Bible transmission, I do note that on the one point where I feel competent to evaluate his work, he’s off the mark. Here’s de Hamel discussing a manuscript of the Gospels found in the early twentieth century:
The text of Saint Mark includes one verse not apparently recorded elsewhere. Between Mark 16:14 and 16:15, Christ adds a statement that the reign of the Devil is over and that fearful things are about to happen to those sinners whom Christ came to save, and for whom he has prepared spiritual and incorruptible glory in heaven. The style and context of the verse suggests the real possibility that this may indeed be an authentic lost sentence from the Gospel.
The problem here is that most scholars regard Mark 16:8 as the original ending of the Gospel, with Mark 16:9-20 as a later addition. This makes the contention that his newfound verse is original rather problematic. (Perhaps de Hamel meant that it was an original verse, once found elsewhere in the manuscript. But that isn’t the plain sense of his words.)
Aside from that slight slip and the ocassional dry passage, this is a wonderful book. I recommend the text for anyone who wants to know how we ended up with fifteen hundred pages in fake leather and I recommend the illustrations for everyone.