CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Wearing a baseball cap and a backpack, a student enters Harvard University's Houghton Library and stays exactly seven minutes. A quick trip around the open, ancient books in glass cases, and he is gone.
But what the student has ambled past as quickly as a fast-food visit are some of the rarest and most important Bibles ever published.
The exhibition, "The Reformation of the Bible: The Bible of the Reformation," (through Feb. 28) focuses on the fact that the 16th-century Reformation was as much defined by the Bible as the Bible was reshaped by the cultural and political forces of the Reformation.
Brought together by Jaroslav Pelikan, a renowned scholar of Christian thought at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., the rare texts hold the roots of contemporary Christian theology reaching out from a passionate century. They are also art objects, meticulously handmade and illustrated.
"What this exhibit is about is how the Bible moved from being the exclusive possession of the relatively few who could read, and read Latin, and buy a manuscript," says Mr. Pelikan, "to becoming generally available to people who could read anything."
The exhibit of some 70 books traces the often perilous work of 16th-century Bible scholars and others to "renovate education, literature, philosophy, and theology." Those scholars reached back to Bibles in Greek and Hebrew to gain a more vigorous understanding of the word.
In so doing, they "reformed" attitudes toward the Bible, broke from the domination of the Roman Catholic Church, reinterpreted Biblical meaning, and published Bibles in the vernacular.
"The Reformation ... took the Bible out of the libraries and brought it to the people," Pelikan says.
Few scholars disagree that vernacular Bibles encouraged reading in addition to understanding Christian ideas. "In England, even if you didn't read, somebody in your family or neighborhood could," says Valerie Hotchkiss, co-author of the exhibit catalog and a librarian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. "They could read the Bible in their own language instead of Latin. Having it available in vernacular helped increase literacy."
Among the books displayed are a Hebrew Bible printed in 1516; the first French Bible from 1535; the Renaissance's first complete Latin translation of the Bible in 1527; a "Commentary on Psalms," by John Calvin, from 1557; and the first Bible printed in any vernacular language, Johann Mentelin's German Bible, printed in 1466. Also on view is Johann Gutenberg's famous Biblia Latina, the first major work printed in Europe with movable type.
The exhibit reveals no smooth transition from the ecclesiastical control of that day to the open market in Bibles that continues today. "Many were willing to go to the stakes for their convictions then," Ms. Hotchkiss says.
William Tyndale, who was the first to translate the entire New Testament into English from Greek in 1526, was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1536. A complete Bible, which includes versions of Tyndale's translations, is included in the exhibit.
Preceding Tyndale, Martin Luther looms as the preeminent figure of the Reformation. Luther's translation of the Bible into German, although not the first, had a profound impact on German literature as well as religious awakening during and after the Reformation.
"Luther took components from a number of German dialects and brought them together just at a time when German needed to be codified," Pelikan says. "Luther's Bible, in a very real sense, created modern German."
On display are four of Luther's works. "I, poor monk, have sparked a new fire and bitten a big hole in the pocket of the papists because I have attacked confession," he writes pugnaciously in the preface of a translation of Luke written in 1521.