Berea College showcases collection of Bibles, sacred literature

13th-century French prayerbook fragments were framed and on display.
13th-century French prayerbook fragments were framed and on display. Lexington Herald-Leader

BEREA — Berea College thinks that archives are for teaching, not just for saving.

That's why students — and in some cases the public, as well — recently were able to see one of the few 1611-edition King James Bibles left in the world.

They also took a gander at the unintentional classic nicknamed the "Vinegar Bible" from 1716, in which the Luke 20 heading of the "Parable of the Vineyard" was hilariously labeled "Parable of the Vinegar."

Just because the Bible is sacred did not make it immune to typos in any version from Latin to old English to the King James and more modern versions.

The parable attributes to Jesus a statement saying that any laborer accepting the invitations to work in the vineyard, no matter how late, receives a reward equal to those who have been faithful the longest.

Berea displayed the Bibles, both original and facsimile, and other sacred papers and documents for public viewing on Dec. 4 and 5. Initially, the books were assembled for a class that Tyler Sergent, a Berea assistant professor of general education, was teaching, and it was decided to make them available for a short while to others who might like to see them.

(Currently, the books are available for viewing by special appointment. Call Sharyn Mitchell, research services specialist for Berea's department of Special Collections and Archives, at (859) 985-3892.

The collection includes the Celtic-monk produced look of the Book of Kells from 800 A.D., and a biblical Book of Revelation from England around 1250 A.D. Known as an illumination Bible, the book has a golden glow provided by the sheen of the gold leaf that appeared to light up the pages, as if illuminating them from an external source.

And speaking of illustrations, "illuminated" Bibles generally refer to richly illustrated Bibles — which distracted from masses of unbroken text on the pages — but "illumination" refers more literally to the sheen of the gold leaf.

Also in the collection: A Book of Hours, including scripture, illustrations and spiritual readings for the thrice-daily times of prayer. It is believed that the book belonged to the landed gentry of 1390. The books could be heavily personalized. In fact, the book's owner may have even appeared in an illustration as someone seen in passing at a religious event.

A facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible, printed by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, is in the collection. This particular version, from 1454-55, was the first Bible to be set with movable type, making it easier to widely distribute. Colored letters and illustrations were still inserted by hand.

Around 1535 the art segues from hand-drawn to the easier to reproduce woodcuts, although in some cases, hand-coloring could still be done.

Verse numbers — taken for granted by many readers of the modern Bible — were added by a translator about 1551.

Older Bibles would have been difficult for modern readers to read — even those who know Latin — given that they were written in streams of text not broken up for clarity or by subject. Before widespread literacy and the Gutenberg Bible, the book was not studied and owned by the masses.

Martin Luther's German Bible from 1560, with a wooden cover and brass fittings that still work, is part of the collection, too. Sergent calls the book "one of our revered treasures," because it is so well preserved.

A 1578 book called the Geneva Bible is attributed to a group of Puritans who settled in Switzerland and is notable for its anti-Catholic footnotes, one of which refers to the Pope as "Satan's ambassador."

Nonetheless, Sergent said, the Geneva Bible was popular in England at the time of Shakespeare, although it may have led to the production of the King James Bible, which Sergent said is the "first translated by a structured, organized committee" rather than an individual.

The 1611 King James Bible "is our greatest treasure," Sergent said. Only about 175 of those still exist in the world, he said.

Sharyn Mitchell, research services specialist for Berea's department of Special Collections and Archives, is particularly proud of the "Fee Cut-Bible," which is a ceremonial Bible used at Berea. It is a King James edition, published in Philadelphia in 1812, that belonged to the family of John Fee, the founder of Berea College. It is called a "cut-Bible" because passages relating to slavery have been excised, probably with a razor or knife.

The Berea College collection goes full circle, from hand-written Bibles to mass-produced Bibles back to where it all began: with a hand-written Bible. The St. John's Bible, commissioned in 1998, is a hand-written Bible with a modern artistic style — Jesus wears blue jeans — and uses the handwriting of British calligrapher Donald Jackson.

It took a decade to produce.

"This is the first handwritten Bible in 500 years," Sergent said.

Printing errors

Tyler Sergent, Berea College professor, pointed out this collection of curious printing mistakes in the Bible, compiled by worldwide academics and collectors with their title nicknames.

■ "Judas Bible," 1611. Matthew 26:36 "Them cometh Judas with them ... " Correct printing would be Jesus.

■ "Revenge Bible," 1613. Romans 12:17 "Recompense to man evil for evil." Correct printing: "no man."

■ "Forgotten Sin Bible," 1638. Luke 7:47. "Her sins ... are forgotten." Correct printing: Are forgiven.

■ "Easter Bible," 1648. Esther title page reads "The Book of Easter. Correct printing: Esther.

■ "Unrighteous Bible," 1653. 1 Corinthians 6:9: "The unrighteous shall inherit ... " Correct printing: Shall not.

■ "Murderer's Bible," 1801. Judge 16 "These are the murderers complainers." Correct printing: Murmurers.

■ "Standing Fishes Bible," 1806. Ezekiel 47:10: "The fishes shall stand." Correct printing: Fishers (fishermen).

■ "Wife-Hater's Bible," 1810. Luke 14:26: "If any man hate not ... his own wife." Correct printing: "His own life."