How the Bible Looks

David Watt, Assistant Professor of English, University of Manitoba

        The 1611 King James Bible takes up a rich tradition of book production, using a two-column layout, chapter and verse divisions, a variety of typefaces, and illuminated capitals. All of these features had been developed in medieval and renaissance bibles.  

        The use of a two-column layout for biblical texts can be traced back to the preservation of Hebrew Scriptures in scrolls. The scrolls that preserve scripture are typically attached to rollers at each end so that they can be unrolled horizontally. This means that three or four vertical columns of text appear at any given time when the scroll is being read. The earliest surviving copy of the New Testament as a book, the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, attempts to reproduce the appearance of biblical scrolls by presenting four columns on each page. As you can see by looking at Dysart 3, the two-column layout is better suited to the shape of the medieval book; it may also more closely reproduce the appearance of the scroll, for four columns are visible when the book is open.

        The King James Bible’s use of chapter and verse numbers is also indebted to earlier practices, though this may be less obvious. Dysart 3 does not use numbers to identify the psalms or to mark their internal divisions. Instead, it divides the psalms by means of capital letters and spacing them out on the page. The aim of these divisions is also different. While the King James Bible employs chapter and verse numbers to help readers find particular passages, Dysart 3 uses the verses of the psalms to help readers find their way in the commentary. The scholars for whom Dysart 3 was designed would have known the psalms themselves by heart; the psalms themselves thus provide an effective cross-referencing system in this case. Other systems were needed, however, for the rest of the bible. By 1239, the Dominican order had developed a system for standardizing chapter and verse divisions. They used numbers for chapters and divided the chapters using letters. The Great Bible (1539) employs this system. The Bishops’ Bible (1568) also employs this system, though it includes verse numbers as well. The King James Bible’s exclusive use of chapter and verse numbers articulates an ambivalence towards the biblical tradition: on the one hand, its provision of a cross-referencing system is deeply rooted in earlier practices; on the other hand, its rejection of the alphabetical system marks a significant break with practice that was centuries old.

        The King James Bible’s use of various typefaces likewise articulates its ambivalence about traditional conceptions of the bible as a book. The distinctive black-letter typeface used for the main biblical text makes a strong statement about its authority. This kind of typeface remains almost as closely associated with the bible today as it has been since Gutenburg first printed the Bible (1453-55). Gutenburg designed his type to look like the gothic script that had been used widely across Europe since the early twelfth century and which we can see in Dysart 3. The letters in most of the bibles in this display are based on this system of script. The one exception is significant. The Geneva Bible’s use of a humanist typeface gives the impression that the bible, like other humanist texts, invites interpretation. This was not the impression that James wanted his bible to make. The King James Bible’s use of black-letter typeface for the main text and elimination of interpretive notes may be read as a direct rebuttal of the kinds of practices encouraged by the Geneva bible. Nonetheless, the 1611 bible seems to make some concessions to the Geneva bible’s popularity, using humanist typefaces in the chapter summaries and reference notes.

        Humanist influences infiltrate the King James Bible in another, rather unexpected, way. An image of Neptune appears in a decorated capital “T.” Though the connection between classical motifs and biblical themes was an interest of the humanists, decorated capitals themselves were not a humanist invention: they were used to divide text for many centuries in manuscripts as well as early printed books. Like the Great and Bishops’ Bible, the King James Bible employs woodcuts to standardize the appearance of initials. This contrasts the practice in other bibles, such as the Gutenburg Bible or the Octavianus Scotus’s 1489 Latin Bible and commentary, where space was left for hand-painted initials. These earlier books show the extent to which early printed books relied upon practices in place for the production of manuscript books, and how these practices often led to wide variations in the aesthetic appearance of individual copies of a given book in a larger print run. They also demonstrate the functional importance of the capital letters for finding one’s place in the text, especially for readers attempting to cross-reference between the text and commentary. The aesthetic and functional importance of capitals may have been what led Robert Barker to use the wood-block image of Neptune in his printing of the bible. In the tradition of printers needing to overcome a lack of resources, he seems to have decided that it was preferable to use a slightly inappropriate capital to establish consistency across the print run than to invite readers to complete the book in their own, perhaps idiosyncratic, ways.