Book Review: The Book: A History of the Bible

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.

10 comments for “Book Review: The Book: A History of the Bible

  1. August 15, 2005 at 9:34 am

    Julie, thanks for bringing this book to attention. I’m excited about it and will add it to my list of books that I want to read.

  2. August 15, 2005 at 10:23 am

    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.

    It may be worth noting that there are reasons to question the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s statement. In “Priceless Words and Fallible Memories: Joseph Smith as Seen in the Effort to Preserve His Discourses,” BYU Studies 31/2 (Spring 1991), Dean Jessee offers a few relevant observations.

    Speaking of Willard Richards, who recorded the October 15, 1843, sermon supposedly containing the statement, Jessee writes:

    Prior to the Richards appointment [as private secretary and historian to Joseph Smith in December 1842], there had been little continuity or consistency in reporting Joseph Smith’s addresses. However, Richards tended to take brief, almost illegible notes and to leave gaps with the intention of later filling them. This practice required substantial editing and fleshing out.

    p. 27.

    Jessee also writes:

    In comparing the published discourses of the Prophet with original reports of what he said, one finds elements of harshness, hypercriticism, egotism, ill humor, boasting, etc., cropping up at the points of heaviest editing–traits that have filtered into the record during the reporting and editing process and that appear to be more characteristic of the reporters and editors than of Joseph Smith. Thus the editing process has superimposed the personality of others over that of the Prophet. The following quotations, for example, were added editorially to original reports of the Prophet’s speeches to bridge disconnected thoughts or to flesh out ideas that were partially preserved.

    p. 31.

    Jessee includes the “[i]gnorant translators, careless transcribers” comment as one example of the above and instructs the reader to compare Richards’s report with the sermon printed in History of the Church 6:57.

    Richards’s report:

    I believe the bible, as it ought to be, as it came from the pen of the original writers. as it read it repented the Lord that he had made man. and also God is not a man that he should repent.—which I do not believe.—but it repented Noah that God made man.—this I believe. & then the other quotation stands fair.—if any man will prove to me by one passage of Holy writ, one item I believe, to be false. I will renounce it disclaim it far as I have promulg[at]ed it.—

    History of the Church:

    I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors. As it read, Gen. 6:6, “It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth”; also, Num. 23:19, “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the Son of man, that he should repent”; which I do not believe. But it ought to read, “It repented Noah that God made man.” This I believe, and then the other quotation stands fair. If any man will prove to me, by one passage of Holy Writ, one item I believe to be false, I will renounce and disclaim it as far as I promulgated it.

    Jessee notes that Richards died in 1855, “before he was able to prepare the reports of Joseph Smith’s speeches for the history, a work that would have included fleshing out the gaps in his own records of the discourses” (p. 28).

  3. Julie in Austin
    August 15, 2005 at 12:43 pm

    Justin, that’s fascinating. Thank you for posting it. I had no idea.

  4. manaen
    August 15, 2005 at 4:06 pm

    Justin, thank you for that posting. It’s refreshing and startling. I’m going to check Bro. Jessee’s article!

  5. August 15, 2005 at 9:43 pm

    You’re welcome, Julie and manaen. Thank you for another interesting book review, Julie.

  6. Kevin Barney
    August 15, 2005 at 9:50 pm

    I appreciate your book reviews, Julie. Keep ’em comin’.

  7. Seth Rogers
    August 16, 2005 at 10:11 am

    So … Do we believe in Joseph Smith “as far as he is translated correctly?”

  8. August 16, 2005 at 8:15 pm

    This book reminds me of a series of Ensign articles starting in January 1982.
    “How the Bible Came to Be”, by Lenet H. Read.

    Here’s the first:

    So if you want to save $25 from not buying the book, read the series of 8 Ensign articles.

    If someone needs to defend authorized changes/corrections that the church has made to the Book of Mormon, one can point to the many translations and verifiable changes in modern Bibles. Here is a list of translations:

    Geneva Bible.
    Bishop’s Bible.
    Great Bible.
    Wycliffe’s Bible.
    Tyndale’s Bible.
    King James Version.

    And more modern translations, many of which you can purchase at American
    Bible Society ( and the International Bible Society ( :

    American Standard Version.
    Revised Standard Version. (revision of ASV)
    New American Standard Version. (newer revision of ASV)
    New Revised Standard Version. (revisiohn of RSV)
    Jerusalem Bible.
    New Jerusalem Bible.
    New Kings James Version (based on KJV)
    English Standard Version.
    Good News Bible.
    Good News Translation (evolved from GNB)
    The Living Bible.
    New Living Translation (evolved from The Living Bible)
    New International Version, NIV
    Todays New International Version. (simplifed NIV)
    New International Readers Version (simplifiedl NIV)
    Contemporary English Version, CEV.
    Holman Christian Standard.
    Amplified Bible.

    A quick example of two words that were translated incorrectly in the KJV are the words “owl” and “organ” in the book of Job. Today’s Bible translators, (eg the NIV translators) now use the words “ostrich” and “flute”. Which supports the 8th Article of Faith: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.”

  9. Lisa B.
    August 18, 2005 at 11:25 am

    The difference, GreenEggz, is that the BOM claims to have been given pretty much word for word by the power of God. The Bible doesn’t claim that. True, the BOM admits that there may be human errors in the book, but the translation process makes the defense you propose above faulty.

  10. Lisa B.
    August 20, 2005 at 8:30 am

    Julie–as I clicked on the Amazon link, I noticed several other Bible histories. Any one have any idea how this one compares with other histories? I did think it was interesting & cool that Pres Hinckley recently mentioned having read a Bible history recently. GreenEggz–thanks for the Ensign articles link.

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