Preserved by Hand: The Bible from Manuscript to Gutenberg

For centuries, prior to the invention of printing in the Western world, the text of the Bible was preserved in manuscript form. From the hand-copied manuscripts of the post-New Testament and Medieval periods to the hand-copied Bibles of the early Reformation period, the text of Scripture was preserved by God to assure that the Words of God--his plan, principles, and purposes--would be accessible to man created in His image. This exhibit presents examples of manuscript portions of the Bible from the 1st to the 15th centuries, leading in 1455 to the production of the first printed Bible, the remarkable Gutenberg Bible, seen in the exhibit in facsimile form. Following that momentous event, the printed Bible could be distributed to the masses.

Although this exhibit is not currently in the Biblical Heritage Gallery, the virtual exhibit remains accessible by following this link.

Exhibit history:

  • Spring 2022

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Browse the Preserved by Hand: The Bible from Manuscript to Gutenberg Collections:

Display Case 1

The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of 900 ancient scrolls in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, were discovered by chance in 1947 by a Bedouin boy in caves in and around the ruins of the ancient settlement of Qumran in the Judean desert. These scrolls, comprised of both biblical and non-biblical texts, provide a wealth of information about the history of the Second Temple period from 520 BC to 70 AD. The texts are of great religious and historical significance, as they include the oldest known surviving copies of biblical and extra-biblical documents. The documents themselves were produced from 150 B.C. to 70 A.D. The Book of Psalms was the most prevalent biblical book in the Qumran caves, of which some 35 examples were found. The best preserved biblical scroll, discovered in cave 11, contains 41 Psalms.

Display Case 2

In this case is a facsimile of a page from the Codex Sinaiticus, an important Bible manuscript named after the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, where the manuscript was discovered in the 19th century. Also in this case is a leaf from a large 15th-century Latin manuscript Bible scribed in Bohemia.

Display Case 3

In this case are a leaf from a 13th-century Latin manuscript “pocket” Bible scribed in France, a leaf from a 14th-century Latin manuscript “portable” Bible also scribed in France, and photographic reproductions of the Wycliffe Bible.

Display Case 4

Johann Gutenberg was the first in the West to advance the use of moveable type for printing. His greatest printing achievement, and the first book ever to be printed by moveable type in the West, was the magnificent two-volume copy of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, commonly called today the Gutenberg Bible. Completed in 1455, the project resulted in the printing of about 200 copies on paper and an additional 30 deluxe copies on vellum. The expense of the project, as well as the actions of unscrupulous business associates, forced Gutenberg into debt from which he never recovered. The Bibles did sell well enough for a second edition to be printed two years later. Today, there are only 46 copies of the Gutenberg Bible still in existence, about half of which are complete. These are the property of libraries and private collections scattered throughout the world. Without Gutenberg’s invention, which paved the way for the printing of common language copies of the Bible in the 16th century, it is possible that the Protestant Reformation may not have happened or may have been significantly delayed.