Bible study refers to a quest for an understanding of the messages in this holy book of the Jewish and Christian traditions. But there’s another kind of Bible study: that of understanding how this oldest of books came to its present form, and how that form manifests in homes throughout the world. This leads to the question: What do you know about your family Bible?
The oldest surviving complete Christian Bibles are Fourth century Greek manuscripts documenting the saga of the world as they knew it, from creation through the life of Jesus, with a unifying theme of God’s interactions with humanity. Pope Damasus I commissioned the first Latin translation in 382 A.D. By first assembling a list of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, he assigned St. Jerome to produce a consistent and reliable text in Latin. This translation became known as the Latin Vulgate Bible. Nine centuries later, this translation was divided into chapters. Verses became the common form in the 16th century.
In 1546, nearly 12 centuries after the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts were translated into Latin, the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent declared it to be the only authentic and official Bible in the Latin Rite. Of course, by that time there were also many other forms of Christian Bibles which contained from 66 to 81 books. The Hebrew Bible contains 24 books.
The King James Bible, considered by many as the modern Bible, was bound in 1611. This was adopted as the second official Bible of the Church of England following the Great Bible of 1539, which was considered the first. In between was the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, known as a rough draft of the King James Bible. It’s interesting to note that about the same time, 1569, there was a Spanish Protestant Bible known as the Bear Bible. It got its name from the title page, which had an illustration of a bear eating honey.
Illustrations brightened the pages of Bibles from the earliest times. The Book of Kells, on display at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, is a well-known illustrated Bible, with texts from the Vulgate. Two of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (no longer bound into one book) are on display in glass cases in a small room in the college library. Every few weeks the vellum (thin white or light-colored calfskin) pages of the calligraphy and paintings by ninth century Celtic monks are turned. Periodically, the two on display are swapped with the two in storage. Along with them are the four books of Armagh, Durrow, Mulling and Dimma.
The book of Armagh is believed to have belonged to St. Patrick and that part of it was scribed by him. However, research has determined that a scribe named Ferdomnach of Armagh was responsible for the earliest parts of the manuscript. He wrote the first part of the book in A.D. 807 or 808, for Patrick’s heir Torbach. It contains text of Vulgate, that earliest translation in Latin from A.D. 382.
Believed to date from the 7th century, the book of Durrow is a fully decorated Gospel manuscript, probably the earliest existing one. The Book of Mulling dates from the second half of the eighth century and is a pocket Gospel used by traveling monks. The text, most likely a copy of an even earlier text, includes the four Gospels and a service, which includes the Apostles’ Creed. The book of Dimma, like the book of Mulling, is a pocket Gospel and is attributed to Dimma MacNathi. It contains the four Gospels, and between the Gospels of Luke and John, has an order for the Unction and Communion of the Sick.
The Bible has the distinction of being the first mass produced book, which leads us back to Jim Braud’s family Bible, which was donated to the Otter Tail County Historical Society in Fergus Falls in 1935. A description from the Fergus Falls newspaper at that time said, “This book is a collection of daily Bible readings… The gospel for each Sunday is illustrated with an appropriate picture.
“Mr. Braud (this refers to Jim’s father, Jacob) is uncertain how long the book has been in his family, but it is known that his great- great-grandfather used it in the early part of the 1700s. Relatives intended to bury the book with this great-great-grandfather, who prized it highly, but one of the family objected, and the volume was saved.
“In 1896, the book was brought to America by his uncle, Carl Braud, who located at Ada, Minn. It was brought to Otter Tail County in 1914. His uncle died in 1933, and the book has since been in his father’s (Jim’s grandfather) possession.”
The historical society also noted that it was doubtful that Norway had a printing press at the time the book was printed. In fact, only three places in Norway produced any printed books prior to 1500. According to Religious Reading in the Lutheran North: Studies in Early Modern Scandinavian Book Culture edited by Charlotte Appel and Morten Fink-Jensen, “From 1562 – (through at least 1582) – Copenhagen was, by law, the only city in the kingdom of Denmark and Norway where the printing of books was allowed, and in the city only two or three printers would actually be operating at any given time.”
Following this lead, research further revealed that a Book of Common Prayers was printed in 1569, a first edition, followed by others in 1578, 1581, 1590 and 1608. In 1569, Fredrik II ordered that all foreigners in Denmark had to affirm their commitment to 25 articles of faith central to Lutheranism, on pain of deportation, forfeiture of property, and death. Making common prayers available to the populace certainly assisted them in “affirming their commitment.” It’s difficult to know the literacy rate in Denmark in 1569, but considering that the Gutenberg press was less than a century old then, reading and book ownership were probably not that common. This fits into the Braud family tale, too, in that the book was said to have been owned by a priest, a man who would have known how to read and used the book for which it was intended.
Braud family genealogy traces back to Jim’s 11th great-grandfather, Palle Christenson Trane, who was born in Stavanger, Norway ,in 1537. He was a priest at a Mosterøy (an island off the coast near Stavanger) monastery when he died in 1584. His son, Christen Palleson Trane (Jim’s 10th great-grandfather), was a priest for the Høyland parish and died in 1649. Since the Braud family Bible, or Book of Common Prayer, was printed in 1569, it may have been owned by Palle Christenson Trane, who may have passed it down through the family via this son. Jim noted that other relatives from these same ancestors live in the Ashby, Minn. area.
Jim Braud would love to visit Mosterøy and Ustein Abbey, likely the place where his ancestor served. Ustein in said to be the best-preserved medieval monastery in Norway.
Whether your own family Bible, or perhaps a long-used prayer book, has such a fascinating history or if handwritten notes within the pages carry family heritage details, it may be or become as treasured as those found in museums. Pursue this form of Bible study to illuminate these treasured books for future generations. What do you know about your family Bible?