Centuries of struggle to control the Bible’s content are beautifully detailed in an exhibit at the Florida International Museum.
By LENNIE BENNETT, Times art critic
Published January 19, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG – In the beginning was the Word.
And nothing was ever simple again.
That’s the message of "Ink and Blood," an engrossing exhibition at the Florida International Museum tracing the evolution of the modern Bible, a document stained with martyrs’ blood and scholars’ pens through centuries of strife and struggle to control its content.
Almost 100 religious manuscripts and objects dating from the seventh century B.C. to the 18th century are on display, none a facsimile. Doubters and believers alike will find the beauty of the rare books and individual pages, or leaves, and the fragility of the ancient scroll fragments powerful transmitters of human aspiration. And the polyglot of languages, we learn, indicates fierce territorial motivations rather than appeals for multiculturalism.
The oldest objects are cuneiform clay tablets from the fourth century B.C., nonreligious examples of early forms of written communication that were pictorial. Wall texts discuss the development of symbols and later alphabets that often were stylized versions of the first literal images.
The discovery of a cache of religious writings in caves in Qumran, on the northeast shore of the Dead Sea, between 1947 and 1956 turned biblical scholarship on its head. The papers, mostly tiny fragments, became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls and were the oldest known examples of what today is called the Written Torah by Jews and the Old Testament by Christians. Before they were found, the oldest known Scriptures were ninth-century A.D. translations. Tiny pieces of the scrolls are under glass here, scraps of paper printed with indecipherable lettering. They look like nothing, yet reaching out across 3,000 years is the hand that wrote: "From the ends of the earth have we heard songs, (even) glory to the righteous" from Isaiah, translated for us on a label.
Fragments from a Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, date to the third century B.C. By the time of Christ, many Jews knew more Greek than Hebrew or its close cousin, Aramaic, so the question is raised: When Jesus read from a temple scroll, in what language was it written?
That and so many questions can be posed in the presence of these texts.
The next section of the exhibition brings us into the Middle Ages in Western Europe, when the Christian church was benefitting from a power shift hundreds of years earlier after the Holy Roman Empire began to crumble. Greek yielded to Latin, and an all-powerful Roman Catholic Church issued ecclesiastical laws that, if broken, could lead to death and frequently did. Yet the handwritten and hand-illustrated illuminated manuscripts are silent witnesses to the belief that beauty was God’s due as much as obedience to mortal interpretations of his laws.
John Wyclif (pronounced WIK-lif) knew plenty about both. He was a 14th century English scholar, probably the greatest of his time, who questioned the church’s authority. Among other irritants to the pope was Wyclif’s belief that Scripture should be available not only in Latin but in the vernacular, too, so common people could read it. He was arrested and eventually burned at the stake, but not before arranging the first complete translation of the Bible from Latin to English.
A case can be made that without the movable-type printing press, there would be no Protestantism, which is a stretch, but "Ink and Blood" demonstrates its importance in the spread of the new denominations. Gutenberg’s Bible – represented by individual leaves – was the standard Latin Vulgate and broke no new ground theologically. But it paved the way, 60 years later, for Desiderius Erasmus to print his startling version of Scriptures in the original Greek. It was widely circulated and inspired Martin Luther, who translated it into German for the first time, and William Tyndale, who is responsible for much of the glorious language that still inspires anyone who reads the King James version of the Bible. (That came later, but much of it is taken directly from Tyndale’s earlier translation.)
More centuries pass, more tyrants and martyrs, more Bibles. Queen Mary of England, a staunch Roman Catholic, didn’t care for the English Bibles and had them and their supporters burned. Elizabeth I, her sister and successor, reversed the process, each with her own ax to grind and Bible to ban.
We end in 1782 America, the newly minted United States, with the Aitken Bible. It was the first legally printed Bible on this soil, because previously, only the king of England could authorize its publication, which he chose not to allow in the Colonies. It’s a small thing and could fit into the palm of a child’s hand.
Its survival, you know, could well be the Word and work of God. But you also understand that it bears the weight of this cruel, compassionate world.