Bible manuscripts: 1400 years of scribes and scripture
Scott McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle
British Library, 2007, Hardback, 160p., chiefly ill. (col.), £20.00,
The only thing to say about this one is, “Wow!” A scholarly coffee table book with a vengeance. A compilation of startling beauty put together by two genuine experts with a highly informative, if brief, commentary. If, like me, you are an enthusiast for calligraphy and illumination; or, also like me, an enthusiast for the history of the Bible, then this is the book for you.
The main part of the book is 140 pages of full colour reproductions of excerpts from Bible manuscripts in The British Library collection, ranging from around 150 A.D. (the Egerton Gospel, one of the two earliest surviving Christian books) to 1540 (The Psalter of Henry VIII, by which time a hand-written illuminated book was simply a status symbol). In between are all sorts of things – the famous, a page of Codex Siniaticus, – the exotic, a Medieval Bible picture book that you wouldn’t give to the kids to look at, – the interesting, the gospel believed to have been used by the Saxon kings for their coronation oath. It is also awash with quirky facts that give an insight into the thinking of medieval Christians. My favourite page shows a picture of the Garden of Eden where Satan displays the most amazing grin of devilish glee behind their backs as Eve offers Adam the forbidden fruit – in this picture definitely an apple!
It is not a Christian book. It is a book that Christians will be interested in. It does not share our preconceptions, for instance Luke is described as the ‘supposed author of Acts’ and the seraphim as ‘traditionally surrounding the throne in perpetual adoration’. These are not descriptions that would occur to us. Intended as a popular introduction to a rather esoteric subject it is not altogether an easy read. The advantage of it is that you can read it a bit at a time without losing anything. The brief comments with each picture build up into a very clear picture of the history of the transmission of the Bible and the related history of religious illumination. Once you have read it you need to go back and start again to get the full benefit of what it has to tell you.
If you are likely to be offended by what our Puritan and Methodist revival forebears would probably have termed idolatrous images, then don’t bother with it! Otherwise I recommend it as an informative insight into an aspect of the story of the transmission of our Bible you are unlikely to find anywhere else.
Contributed by: Richard M. Waller, BD, MCLIP, ALBC, who is CLIS Vice-President and works for the public library service in the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan.