by Scott Brown, Editor, Fine Books & Collections magazine. Save 43% on a subscription to Fine Books & Collections. Learn More
One of about fifty surviving Gutenberg Bibles.
Image Source: Library of Congress
It is one of the great ironies of book collecting that Bibles can be among both the most valuable and least expensive of books. Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible is probably the most valuable printed book, with single leaves selling for $60,000 and up. On the other hand, free copies of English-language translations of the Bible can be found at churches or downloaded from websites. Ron Lieberman, owner of The Family Album, a specialist in antiquarian Bibles, explains: “Bibles are the most common book in the world, especially in the English language. Collectors will encounter more Bibles than anything else.”
The Bible is, without a doubt, the most significant book in the Western world. It influenced law, culture, history, and literature to a tremendous degree. This was only possible because it was so widely distributed. As a result, Bibles are everywhere, and, Lieberman says, “Collecting requires connoisseurship.”
As with all areas of book collecting, condition matters. Big family Bibles from the nineteenth century, particularly study Bibles with illustrations, maps, and commentary, are “very popular among evangelical Christians,” Lieberman says. But only in excellent condition. Collectors will also want to consider what constitutes a Bible. There’s the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Apocrypha. Jewish Bibles differ from those used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Catholics, and Protestants. Then there is the nearly endless variety of translations. For most Bible collectors, figuring out how to narrow the scope of their collection can be a difficult task.
In the English-speaking world, four popular paths have emerged for Bible collectors.
Old Bibles. Many people consider anything printed before 1900 to be old. However, Gutenberg’s Bible, the first printed edition of the Good Book, appeared about 550 years ago. For Bible collectors, “old” typically means any Bible printed before the King James Version, which appeared in 1611. Truly old Bibles in Latin and German start around $750. Early Bibles in English tend to be more expensive.
A Bible printed in Antwerp in 1559.
The First Bible Printed in a Location. Collectors pursue the first Bibles printed in countries, states, provinces, and sometimes even cities. Since the Bible is such a long, hard-to-print book, portions of the Bible often appeared first (Genesis, the Psalms, and the Gospels were popular excerpts), followed by the New Testament, and then the complete text. The Bay Psalm Book, from 1640, containing a new translation of the psalms, was the first book printed in what is now the United States. A complete English-language Bible did not appear until the Revolutionary War. Prior to that, British law prohibited colonists from printing the Bible in English. The first American Bible was John Eliot’s translation into the language of the Algonquin Indians, completed in 1663.
Bibles in Foreign Languages. The original text of the Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Since very few people can read all three, most Bibles are translations. The United Bibles Societies records translations of both the Old and New Testaments in more than 400 languages. Parts of Bibles have appeared in a thousand more. A collector could spend a lifetime tracking down a single Bible in each language. For example, the Bible has appeared in Lapp, Chippewa, Bengali, Zulu, Quechua, and Gilbertese.
Bible Versions. The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, which has been revised many times over the centuries, is probably the most famous and influential English-language Bible. However, prior to the first KJV, at least nine major versions appeared in English, and the bibliography by Frederick Moule and Thomas Herbert Darlow counts 239 editions of the English Bible before the King James. Since 1611, the number of English versions has exploded. Collector Bill Chamberlain owns over two thousand different English versions.
Essential Tools: Christopher de Hamel’s The Book: A History of the Bible is a wonderful illustrated survey of the Bible as artifact, from the earliest manuscripts to the 20th century.
The most widely used and cited bibliography is T. H. Darlow and H. F. Moule’s multi-volume Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of Holy Scripture, which covers Bibles printed in 600 languages. Originally published between 1903 and 1911, the book has been reprinted several times. Anyone interested in the Bible in English should search for Arthur Sumner Herbert’s 1968 revision.
Collectors of American Bibles rely on Margaret Thorndike Hills’s The English Bible in America: A Bibliography of Editions of the Bible and the New Testament Published in America, 1777–1957.
Ten Interesting Bibles to Collect
Gustave Doré was one of the most acclaimed and popular illustrators of the nineteenth century, and his illustrated Bible is a landmark in the field. He made more than 200 engravings, illustrating the events of the Bible with detail and emotion. The first edition appeared in France in 1866, but his work was reprinted throughout Europe in the ensuing decades. The earliest editions tend to be the most expensive, but many collectors are happy with any nicely bound edition.
Find This Copy | Other Doré Bibles
In 1999, Barry Moser completed a deluxe illustrated Bible, the first in the twentieth century to be illustrated by a single artist. Limited to just 425 copies, these two large vellum-bound volumes rank with the great achievements in book design. A very nice trade edition, reduced in size, was also published.
Limited Edition | Trade Edition
One of Ron Lieberman’s favorite twentieth-century Bibles is from the Limited Editions Club, a press that printed fine books for bibliophiles. The LEC Bible, based on the King James Version, comes in five nicely-printed and bound volumes, in matching slipcases. Most surprising, this book-arts highlight sells for less than $300. Be sure to look for complete sets of five volumes, with the slipcases.
Julia Smith taught learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and translated the entire Bible in just seven years. She wanted a literal reading, and the resulting English is awkward, and perhaps for that reason, this version never caught on. It is now quite scarce.
Julia Smith's Bible