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The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: The Gutenberg Bible

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin contains a copy of what many people consider the most valuable book in the world. The Gutenberg Bible is not only the oldest surviving book to be printed using moveable type, but also the first complete book to be produced with that technology. The volume in the University of Texas is one of only 20 complete copies to survive. Though its value is merely speculative as it has been almost 40 years since a copy was last sold, there is no doubt that if it were put on the market today, it would shatter all existing records. (The edition at the Harry Ransom Center was purchased in 1978 for $2,400,000.) As we survey the history of Christianity in 25 historical objects, Gutenberg’s Bible represents his great contribution to history in the movable type printing press.

Gutenberg Bible
Johannes Gutenberg is one of those rare individuals whose invention literally changed the world. When A&E closed out the second millennium with their list of the 100 most influential people of the millennium, few were surprised to see Gutenberg’s name at the very top, above Newton, Darwin, Columbus, Marx and so many other notables.

Movable type had been invented in Asia as early as the fifth century A.D. and in its earliest form used handcut wooden blocks that could be coated in ink and pressed onto paper. The earliest book from this time was printed in China in the ninth century but it has long since been lost. It would be centuries before the art was discovered or rediscovered in Europe.

Johannes Gutenberg was born around the year 1400 in Mainz, Germany. History has recorded few facts about his early life, though we know he was at first a goldsmith. It was not until he was near the age of forty that he began to experiment with printing.

Gutenberg HThe genius of Gutenberg’s invention was not in the press itself as much as in the type. At that point in history, almost all books were handwritten, painstakingly produced by scribes so that a single Bible might take years to complete. Block printing was also becoming popular, but it, too, was slow as it required an entire page to be carved into a wooden block before being coated in ink and pressed onto paper. Because of the onerous process of production, books were both rare and expensive. Gutenberg understood that printing could be made exponentially faster by splitting text into its most basic parts and using movable blocks of letters and punctuation marks. Sets of these characters could be arranged to form a page of words which could then produce a near-infinite number of facsimiles.

The printing press was a screw press, adapted from wine-making. He modified it so he could quickly slide paper in and out and so it was simple to squeeze water from the paper after printing was complete. None of Gutenberg’s presses survive, but a handful of copies of his first book do. The first complete book to come from Gutenberg’s press was a Bible—the Gutenberg Bible.

The Gutenberg Bible is an edition of the Latin Vulgate, the authorized translation of the Roman Catholic Church. It is printed in two volumes and over 1,200 pages. It has little adornment when compared to the illuminated Bibles of the Medieval period, but is still remarkable for its artistry and especially for the calligraphic characters that begin individual books and chapters. The Ransom Center copy is printed on “fine, handmade paper imported from Italy. Each sheet has a watermark left by the paper maker, which can be seen when the paper is held up to the light. There are four different watermarks in this Bible: a bull’s head, a trotting ox, and two variations of grape clusters. Gutenberg also devised an oil-based ink that would cling to type and was exceptionally dark.” Gutenberg printed 180 of these Bibles and most were sold immediately to buyers all over Europe.

Gutenberg PageFor our purposes, the book itself is less remarkable than the technology it represents. Movable type, combined with the press, was a quantum leap forward in printing. Though for a time movable type remained a trade secret, in 1462 Mainz was plundered and the secret became common knowledge. Within twenty years there were printing presses all over Europe. Tim Dowley writes, “It was the most momentous invention since the stirrup, and a revolutionary step forward in technology. Like the invention of gunpowder (rediscovered at about the same time), the application of printed to book-production held a tremendous potential for good and evil in subsequent history.” As the cost of book production plummeted, the availability of books skyrocketed.

G.R. Evans writes, “The printing press was the Facebook or Twitter of its time.” It was a new and exciting technology and it was fast. What was said in print had the power to spread much faster and much farther than anything before it. Gutenberg’s press was crucial in giving birth to the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Protestant Reformation. The availability of printed material and the desire to read it also led to a great increase in literacy. The world would be forever transformed.

Looking back at history from our vantage point we can see how God was preparing the world for a great spiritual upheaval, a great reformation. The Bible had been preserved, men known as pre-Reformers were proclaiming the gospel of justification by grace through faith and translating the Bible to the common tongue. And now a technology had been invented that had the power to spread knowledge faster than ever before. The parts were slowly but steadily falling into place. Just one important artifact remains before we turn our attention to that great Reformation.