Printing and the Democracy of Belief
International Print Day, celebrated on October 17th each year, has its roots in the work of German innovator Johann Gutenberg – producer of the most famous Bible in the world and widely recognised as the inventor of the modern moveable metal typeset printing process.
In fact, religious texts have played an important role throughout the history of printing.
Chinese artisans had begun pressing ink onto paper towards the end of the Han Dynasty in the second century AD. We know that within 600 years they were printing full-length books using wooden blocks.
And while Johann Gutenberg may be best known for his invention of the printing press used to print his famous bibles, in fact, it was not the first example of printed literature made with moveable metal type in the world. A collection of Zen Buddhist teachings called the Jikji was first published using metal-typeset printing techniques in Korea in 1377.
It wasn’t until 1455 that Johann Gutenberg would make a similar stride forward in print – printing somewhere between 158 and 180 copies of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, as translated by Saint Jerome in the fourth century.
It is thought around three-quarters of Gutenberg’s copies of the Bible were printed on paper, the rest on vellum.
To achieve this, Gutenberg made several innovations. First, in his development of the metal press itself. Second, in the special inks that could be used with the metal typeset, which were oil-based rather than the traditional water-based inks used with woodblocks and quills.
Early copies were passed through the press twice, so the black body text could be overprinted with a red ink for the rubrics. However, this proved too time-consuming so most of the versions had their titles and chapter headings added later by hand by professional scribes.
As a result, no two versions of the Gutenberg Bible are alike. Only forty-eight are known to survive until today. It is thought if one came to auction today it would reach at least $35 million in sale value.
In his lifetime, however, Gutenberg is thought to have made little or no money from his world-changing innovation. Little is known about the man, but legal documents record that a former business partner sued Gutenberg for the large sum of money borrowed to produce his bibles. The subsequent ruling required him to turn over half his printing equipment to claimant Johann Fust.
The financial ruin suffered by Gutenberg is dwarfed by the fate of the first person to print the Bible in English. When William Tyndale sought to print a version of the Bible in the vernacular, he had to do it from exile in Germany. Smugglers would then risk their lives to import Tyndale’s translated, printed texts into England.
Bibles had been translated into French successfully by the thirteenth century. By the 1500s, printed versions in French and German were helping to fan the flames of the Reformation.
In England, however, Martin Luther’s works and those of Tyndale were being publicly burnt. In 1536, the same fate befell Tyndale himself, burnt at the stake for his heresy.
Just a few short years later, Henry VIII would give the go-ahead for an English Bible for his newly formed Church of England, translated by Tyndale’s collaborator Myles Coverdale. Henry’s Great Bible was superseded by the work of around 50 scholars appointed by King James in 1604.
The result, the Authorised Version of the Bible, was published in 1611 and owed some 80 percent of its text to Tyndale.
Today, the King James version of the Bible remains the most widely published text in the English language.