Technology and Theology

Woodcut of Gutenberg printing press in action

N. T. Wright, in Scripture and the Authority of God, makes the following statement:

“The Reformers thus set…the right of ordinary Christians to read scripture for themselves over against the protection of the sacred texts by the Latin-reading elite.” (p. 73)

I think this misappropriates the causes of biblical illiteracy. Only 63 years transpired between Johannes Gutenberg’s first bible rolling off the press in 1454 in Mainz and Martin Luther nailing his 95 thesis to the cathedral door in Wittenberg in 1517. Before the printing press was invented, only the elite could read, because only they could afford books.

That any particular church had a Bible at all was the sign of a significant financial investment. We must remember that the primary means of writing and copying books until this time was by hand. This did not mean grab a stack of stationery and your favorite gel pen and get to work. Far from it.

First, you had to make your own paper or buy it from a paper-maker. Making paper involved collecting rags and other fibers and preparing them by hand, painstakingly creating one sheet at a time. Preparing animal skin was even more expensive as you had to slaughter an animal, tan the skin, and then cut it into useable size.

Then, you needed ink. Once again, your main supply of this was your own craftsmanship. Materials had to be gathered to make ink and the various mineral and vegetable matter ground and mixed.

Finally, you could take up your pen, once you made it. A large feather quill or a reed were the two main choices. Using a small, sharp knife, the point would be cut and shaped. Then you could dip your pen into your ink and begin to scribe upon your paper or vellum. Until your pen wore out. Neither quills nor reeds are exceptionally durable materials, and vellum and hand-made paper are both demanding materials.

At this time, too, Bibles were written in Latin. The Church used Greek almost exclusively for the first three centuries, but then Latin became the language of the church and of the empire for hundreds of years. It is only a Post-Reformation idea that religion be conducted in a local language. To this day, all the other major world religions retain their “native language” to varying degrees. Jews still use Hebrew. Muslims use Arabic. Only Christianity has changed its language to that of the people.

Cost was undoubtedly a contributing factor to Bible remaining in Latin for so long. Changing the language was cost prohibitive. That the reformers could advocate for such a change was only feasible because the price of printing a book fell substantially with the invention of moveable type.

To try to portray the protestant reformers as somehow ripping the scriptures out of the hands of rich, snobbish priests and handing them to the people in the pew is anachronistic and disingenuous. If credit is to be given, it goes to Gutenberg, not Luther. Luther did translate the scriptures into German, but it only reached the hands of a wider audience because of the invention of movable type.


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