Across Centuries and Continents, Form of the Bible Is Ever Evolving

Harvard University exhibit traces changes in content and presentation of Scriptural texts

MANY a Christian or Jew has carried a well-worn, beloved copy of the Bible through life's triumphs and challenges. Yet what many people have considered their Bible, especially in centuries past, has taken quite a different form from the standard Bible versions so common today. Many believers have instead turned to Bible presentations that have included everything from commentaries and illustrations to versified abbreviations and dialogues.

A current exhibit at Harvard University traces these presentations, emphasizing how they have changed over the centuries. The exhibit, ``Sacred Stories, Eternal Words, and Holy Pictures,'' focuses on the presentation of what are termed children's Bibles - works that present Biblical material in simplified form for beginning readers.

The term ``children's'' is somewhat misleading, however, since these Bibles reached an audience far wider than the young: Particularly in earlier centuries, children's Bibles were often the Bibles of the common people. The exhibit notes, written by guest curator Ruth Bottigheimer of State University of New York at Stony Brook, point out ``the pressing task of mediating `the Word' to the adult illiterate and the youthful preliterate, whom educators, authors, and publishers regarded as a single market in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.''

Still, children's Bibles have had specific applications for young readers. Commonly used in schools at various times and places, the Bibles have not only shed light on Scriptural content but have also provided a medium for learning languages such as Latin. These educational materials have taken the form of ``catechisms, biographies, dialogues, devotional writings, Bible epitomes, versified abbreviations, and only very occasionally the Bible itself,'' exhibit notes say.

In tracing the evolution of children's Bibles, the exhibit marks the long-lasting influence of several early works. Peter Comestor's ``Historia Scholastica'' (``Scholastic Bible History''), completed around 1170, was translated into every Western language and initiated a tradition of including commentary with Bible stories. Nicolas Fontaine's ``L'Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament'' (``The History of the Old and New Testaments,'' 1670) reinforced the use of commentary and made its practice more openly acceptable.

In addition to its narrative style, Fontaine's text included illustrations and explicit commentary - two elements common to many children's Bibles. The exhibit includes a special section on illustrations, showing how Bible illustrations of the garden of Eden have evolved over the centuries from depicting both Adam and Eve reaching for and holding the forbidden fruit, to Eve alone bearing the apple.

OTHER Bibles in the exhibit show how Scriptural content has changed for the specific needs of a time and place. John Taylor's ``Verbum Sempiternum'' (``Eternal Word,'' 1614), was distributed in America with small changes reflecting experience in the New World.

``Helden und Abenteurer der Bibel'' (``Heroes and Adventurers of the Bible,'' 1930), a Jewish children's Bible by Joachim Prinz, addressed the danger that National Socialism posed for Germany's Jews, affirming Jewish identity and heroism. The opening story in this Bible features Deborah and Jael, described as ``very clever'' and ``intelligent, courageous, and sensitive.''

The exhibit also traces more far-reaching changes in Biblical content over the centuries. Earlier Bibles tended to include more austere stories, such as Johann Hubner's ``Zweymahl zwey und funffzig Biblische Historien'' (``Twice Fifty-Two Bible Stories,'' 1714), which included cautionary stories as negative examples. Lot and his daughters, Joseph and Potiphar's wife, and David and Bathsheba were popular stories in these earlier Bibles.

Starting in the 19th century, however, children's Bibles generally omitted Old Testament stories with sexual themes. These Bibles instead favored stories like Noah's ark, Joseph and his brothers, and David and Goliath.

Among modern children's Bibles, the highest level of popular appeal has been achieved by Bible stories in comic-book form, the exhibit notes say. Pairing Bibles with well-known personages is also popular: ``Characteristically, public personalities - the ethical import of whose work can be understood as directly, or even remotely, related to religious values - have been drawn into the composition of Bible stories.'' TV performer Shari Lewis, novelist Pearl Buck, and singer Pat Boone have all been identified with children's Bibles.

Considering the many-century span of the exhibit and its focus on Bibles in both Europe and America, ``Sacred Stories, Eternal Words, and Holy Pictures'' covers an immense amount of information requiring careful study. This is possible, given the 110-page supplemental guide for the exhibition.

Professor Bottigheimer's synthesis of such a wealth of information may perhaps be similar to one Bible's treatment of the book of Genesis: ``Verbum Sempiternum,'' a miniature Bible, condensed into 16 lines the stories of creation, Noah's ark, the children of Israel's exodus from Egypt, and Joseph and his brothers. Thankfully, unlike this adaptation of the Bible - which ends with the couplet ``He pardons them that did his death devise;/ He sees his Children's Children, and he dies'' - Bottigheimer's Bible exhibit imparts a fuller understanding of an ever-changing genre.

* `Sacred Stories, Eternal Words, and Holy Pictures' continues at Harvard's Houghton Library in Cambridge, Mass., through Oct. 28.

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