Gutenberg and His Bible (1452)
It was on this date, September 30, 1452, that the first book printed with moveable metal type came off the press invented by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. What we know about Gutenberg is little: he was born about 1400, died 1467 or 1468 at Mainz, and he was a goldsmith's guild member. This is where he learned to cast metal to resemble the brush script of hand-lettered books. But we know nothing of his personality, the time and place of his invention, and what part he personally took in the production of the printed books that issued from his press.
Fortunately, we do know about that first book: it was a Latin Bible printed in 42-line pages. A hundred or so were printed on vellum, and of the 47 surviving copies, the finest known was acquired by the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC, in 1930. It is still on display. And the Bible is still a fascinating glimpse into ancient superstition and, by modern standards, childish naïveté coupled with unabashed brutality.
Most Christians in the world today still take the greater portion of the Bible literally, having never read about it beyond childhood Sunday school lessons, so such biblical criticism as Thomas Paine's Age of Reason and Robert Ingersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses are as relevant today as they were when they were written. Many Christians still revere and promote the Ten Commandments, even when they can't recite them.
The oldest books of the Bible – Amos, Hosea, Micah, and the First Isaiah – date from the 8th century BCE, and are so morally reprehensible, that the preacher who rattles on about the superior morality of the Hebrew prophets must have borrowed that rattle from a troglodyte! It had by then been 2,000 years since a high moral code had evolved in Egypt and Babylonia, so the Hebrew tribes were backward savages in comparison.
When the Hebrews came into close contact with the higher culture of the Babylonians, they took the opportunity to rewrite their history to make it appear coherent, triumphant, priest-dominated – and to expunge their early polytheism. In fact, at the Dispersal, the very time when the Hebrews were making progress in attaining or assimilating into civilization – 400 BCE to 100 CE – the canon was closed and no additions to God's word were allowed.
Of the Ten Commandments, for example, no civilized society makes crimes of eight of them. Only murder and theft are part of the criminal code, and they are so obviously wrong – who wants to be murdered or stolen from? – that it is insulting to think that divine instruction was ever necessary. So to say the Bible is useful in a moral sense is as laughable as promoting it as history, unless we find it useful to teach about immorality as well as literary and historical fiction!
The Bible itself is not one book, but a collection of 66 books – the word "bible" is a plural diminutive of biblos, (Greek τα βιβλια) meaning "the little books" – written, or edited and compiled, in different areas of the world, by wholly different, and mostly unknown, persons, in different times and diverse languages. Like all holy books, the Bible was written to persuade and to indoctrinate. And what a marvelous method for spreading the word far and wide was the scientific invention of printing! This date in human history could be considered the beginning of the end of humankind's childhood and the dawn of the age of literacy. Printing was perhaps the single most important human invention.
So why didn't God think of that?
Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
"God is too absent from his work, and there is no trace of the wonderful balm of mysticism."