Book Review: The Book: A History of the Bible

Note: This article is reprinted with permission from As I See It, a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at

The Book: A History of the Bible by Christopher de Hamel. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2001. 352 pp, paperback. $29.95
history_of_bible.jpgPerhaps a more precise subhead for this oversized book (9.5” x 8.25”) would be, “A selected study of the transmission of the Bible, from the production of the Vulgate to present day, with particular attention given to the Vulgate in medieval times, the translation of Luther, and the Bible in English.” Only regarding the transmission of the Vulgate is the presentation anything like comprehensive.

The account begins with the making of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate version between AD 383 and 415 and its displacing of the prior Old Latin versions. In the pre-printing era, Jerome’s Vulgate was far and away the dominant version in Europe and exists in more manuscript copies than the Greek Bible (LXX and/or NT) or any other ancient version—indeed, than all others combined. The Latin Vulgate was “THE Bible” in Western Europe for a millennium, and virtually all vernacular (“common language”) versions during that period were made from it, rather than from the Greek and Hebrew originals. (Our own “take” on the Vulgate can be found in “The Latin Vulgate Bible Translation in Historical Perspective, part I,” As I See It 5:4, April 2002; and “The Latin Vulgate Bible Translation in Historical Perspective, part II,” As I See It 5:5, May 2002.) Various trends in manuscript copying (from small to huge sizes, from the most austere, text-only, to the highly ornate and heavily illustrated editions), to attempts at editing and “standardizing” of the text are noted, and very heavily illustrated with excellent full-color photos of pages from various surviving manuscripts.

After introducing Jerome’s work in extensio, the author reaches back to the Hebrew and Greek originals and gives some accounting of their compilation and transmission. But here the author falls repeatedly into blunders regarding the canon of the Old Testament, opting for the standard but demonstrably false liberal schemata of a three-fold canonization: Law, 400 BC; Prophets, 200 BC; and Writings, AD 90. All the ancient actual evidence supports a closed, settled, fixed canon, including all the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament—no more, no less—several centuries before the Christian era. The fiction of a three-fold, very late settling of a fluid Old Testament canon is a long-told liberal fable that though oft-repeated is as false as the day it was first fabricated. (See Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church. Eerdmans: 1985). The author likewise blunders by the adoption of similar liberal assumptions concerning the New Testament canon, opting for dates decades too late for the writing of the Gospels, among his several errors.

In describing the earliest extant originally complete Greek Bibles (manuscripts Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus chiefly), he also errs in describing their present contents (being apparently unaware that Alexandrinus is incomplete, missing numerous pages in the New Testament and in the Old Testament). He also mischaracterizes the Sinaiticus manuscript as a “model of accuracy” when in fact the scribes who copied it were remarkably careless, however good their Vorlage may have been. He also misidentifies the location of the “woman taken in adultery” account (which is absent from some two hundred of the two thousand or so manuscripts of John) as John 8:3-11 instead of 7:53-8:11.

The most extensive part of the account is the history of the Vulgate during the Middle Ages. The photos of selected manuscripts from this era are indeed spectacular (by far the best I’ve ever seen) and convey to the reader something of the effort expended in making these copies of the Bible (which were usually intended for the personal libraries of the nobility or of monasteries or of cathedrals. The cost of such put them far beyond the personal possession of the masses, to say nothing of the general incomprehensibility to all but the learned of the Latin language). The plates of various pages from medieval and modern manuscripts are in full color and often quite spectacular. The energy, effort, time, and money invested in the copying of the Scriptures during the Middle Ages was indeed incredible. In one case, a scribe and his assistant spent four full years making a single massive folio edition of the Vulgate, complete with colored illuminations; upon completion, the scribe undertook to make another like copy!

Many of the medieval Vulgate Bibles were Bible text only; others included accompanying commentaries, usually taken from the writings of the church fathers. Some “Bible” manuscripts were hardly Bibles at all, being chiefly picture books of biblical scenes with little or no accompanying texts (the section describing such was to me the most tedious and least profitable portion of the book).

The account given of medieval vernacular versions is limited to the Wycliffite translation made in the 1380s (precisely what part Wycliffe played in the production is uncertain). This chapter was of great interest, as were the numerous photos of pages of the various extant copies. That the author makes no mention of any other pre-Gutenberg vernacular versions—in Anglo-Saxon, Bohemian, Spanish, German, Provencal, Italian, et al.—is a sizeable omission. These could and should have been at least briefly surveyed.

The account of Gutenberg and his printed Bible was exceptionally informative (e.g., copies printed on paper weigh thirty pounds and those on parchment almost fifty pounds!) and exhausts all contemporary information about the project, and its reception. About the only thing missing is any accounting of what Vulgate manuscript(s) Gutenberg used as his exemplar(s).

Coming to the Reformation era, note is taken of the printing of the Hebrew and Greek originals (Socino, Complutensian Polyglott, Erasmus), and their translation into German by Luther—a photo of a page of Luther’s own personally annotated 1494 Hebrew Old Testament is included. The author fails to note that for the “Prophets” portion of his 1534 complete German Bible, Luther was largely dependent on the prior German version produced by Anabaptist scholars. The author also erroneously says (p. 232) that there was no copyright in the early sixteenth century, a statement disproved by the “cum privilegio” on the title page of Erasmus’ Greek NT, 1516 (p. 225). The briefest attention is given to Reformation-era printed Bibles in Italian, Spanish, and French. The English versions of the era are dealt with in greater detail (the “prize” among the photos here is the only known title page of Tyndale’s first edition, included in the third known and only complete copy of Tyndale’s first New Testament, discovered in a German library only as recently as 1995!).

The KJV and subsequent English versions are given a chapter by themselves, though the survey is only of selected English versions and is far from complete. The author inexplicably claims that the KJV wasn’t altered for two hundred and fifty years (he was apparently unaware of revisions in spelling, punctuation, italics, and to some extent text in 1613, 1629, 1638, 1762, 1769, 1824, and many other editions; indeed, there has never been one standard edition of the KJV). Various editions of the English Bible—some huge, some immensely illustrated with woodcuts and engravings, some on the other hand thimble-sized, are noted. This is followed by a chapter addressing the subject of mission field Bible versions, including Eliot’s seventeenth century Algonquian version, the versions of India produced by Carey and others, versions for Pacific islanders, and more.

The final chapter of the book discusses modern discoveries of ancient Bibles—the papyri manuscripts of the Greek Bible from Egypt, the Hebrew manuscripts from the Judean desert and the Cairo synagogue, and manuscripts of early Bible versions in Syriac, Ethiopic, and more. Frankly, the author makes some surprisingly misguided and uninformed remarks about the Diatessaron of Tatian (a continuous text Gospel harmony), the Syrian canon, and the bogus, so-called “Gospel according to Thomas” and other pseudepigraphal works of the second to fourth centuries and more. This chapter contains more factual errors and invalid opinions than the rest of the book combined, and the book would have been materially improved if this chapter had simply been left out entirely—or corrected with a firm and informed hand.

The notes and documentation—shoved to the back as per usual—are worthy of reading and cited a substantial number of scholarly works with which I was previously unfamiliar.

The author is the Fellow Librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, has a doctorate from Oxford University, and supervised for a quarter century all sales of medieval and illuminated manuscripts at Sotheby’s, London.

kutilek.jpgDoug Kutilek is editor of, a website dedicated to exposing and refuting the many errors of KJVOism, and has been researching and writing about Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a B.A. in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati), and a Th.M. in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). A professor in several Bible institutes, college, graduate schools, and seminaries, he edits a monthly cyber-journal, As I See It. The father of four grown children and four granddaughters, he and his wife, Naomi, live near Wichita, Kansas.
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