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Vassar’s Bibles

The Gospel According to John (detail), the Saint John’s Bible

It’s the bestselling book in history—over 2.5 billion copies sold, according to Businessweek (July 18, 2005). And, yet, is there really such a thing as the Bible? The word Bible comes from the Greek ta biblia (“the books”), a collection of religious texts written by multiple authors over a period of 1,500 years. Over the centuries, there have been literally hundreds of versions of those texts, and thousands of translations. “The Bible as Book: Manuscript and Printed Editions,” co-taught by Vassar librarians Ron Patkus and Debra Bucher this fall, gives students the opportunity to explore Vassar’s extensive Bible Collection in depth and ponder the significance of the differences between various editions.

“We’re seeing this almost as a laboratory course,” Patkus says. “We want the students to learn not just by listening to us talk but by looking at the actual objects and trying to figure out what a particular edition says about the time period in which it was printed or about the publisher or about who its intended audience was.”

The Vassar Bible Collection was developed by William Bancroft Hill, the first professor of the newly formed Bible Study Department in 1899. (It was renamed the Bible Department a year later, the Biblical Literature Department in 1922, and the Religion Department in 1927.) In true Vassar fashion, Hill set about the task of collecting original sources for use in the two courses initially offered: “The Life of Christ” and “The Apostolic Age.” After his tenure, the collection continued to grow through gifts from alumnae/i as well as purchases, and today it includes medieval manuscript Bible leaves, Bible leaves and Bibles printed in the age of incunabula (materials printed before 1501), Reformation Bibles, English Bibles of the 17th and 18th centuries, and modern fine press Bibles, including the 1903 Doves Press Bible and 1935 Bruce Rogers’ Oxford Lectern Bible.

The Sower and the Seed, the Saint John’s Bible

“We also have fragments of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book ever printed in the history of the world—that’s pretty amazing,” Patkus says.

Equally amazing is the library’s most recent addition to the collection—a heritage edition of the Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten, illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years. Fifteen years in the making, The Saint John’s Bible is a 21st century masterpiece created by an international team of artists, scribes, and scholars under the artistic direction of Donald Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office. Using medieval tools, materials, and techniques, Jackson and his team have created breathtakingly modern interpretations of biblical texts. Adam and Eve, for example, are depicted as Ethiopians, in accord with our current knowledge of science and human history. DNA strands are drawn throughout the genealogy of Christ. The Twin Towers appear in Luke’s parables.

There is only one original of the Saint John’s Bible, but to share this remarkable work of art with the world, they’ve created a heritage edition, widely recognized as “the highest quality reproduction ever made.” There are only several hundred of the heritage edition—one of which now belongs to Vassar, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of an alumna, Lucy Rosenberry Jones ’63, who just happens to be the great-niece of William Bancroft Hill.

To learn more about the heritage edition, visit saintjohnsbible.org.

—Julia Van Develder