Narrow, portable tables lined three walls of a hotel meeting room in Oklahoma City. They were filled with neatly arranged Bibles, church-related books and pages of ancient Bibles, some for sale and some just for display.
The tables held everything from a single page of the original 1611 King James Bible to a four-inch-thick German book, also from the 1600s, containing sermons and scripture commentary in 1,344 pages. Above the German book was a note asking anyone in the room whether they could identify the author; the title page was missing.
It was likely that someone attending the two-day convention of the International Society of Bible Collectors might have had the answer to the question. It was a small group, but the men and a few women making up this organization included seminary professors, former missionaries, pastors, a retired Air Force chaplain, authors, a retired physician and sellers of old Bibles.
When these people say “old,” they don’t mean Grandmother’s family Bible from 1900. For the most part, they collect Bibles from the 1600s and before, and they are fascinated with the story of the various translations and editions that have transmitted God’s Word from ancient Hebrew times to handwritten copies in the Middle Ages to Gutenberg’s revolution in the 1450s to the Bibles the pilgrims brought to America — which weren’t the King James Version, by the way, but the English-language Geneva Bible, which was more popular in 1620, especially with the Puritans.
The 2017 meeting was in Oklahoma City because that’s the home of Hobby Lobby, whose owners, the Green family, started collecting ancient Bibles and artifacts in 2009. The Greens have expanded that endeavor so fast that on Nov. 17, the Museum of the Bible will open in Washington, D.C., three blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
The D.C. museum won’t just show off dusty old Bibles; it is a high-tech, eight-story, $500 million facility funded by the Greens and private donations. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you will.
Much of the Green collection is stored in Oklahoma City when it isn’t rotated for display in Washington, and the ISBC members got to visit a cold warehouse to see items such as a piece of papyrus, around 2,000 years old, with Psalms 95-97 on it in Greek. A museum scholar displayed a letter written in 1518 by Martin Luther while on his way to be questioned at Augsburg, Germany. The letter includes the sentence, “I stand here fixed,” expressed three years before Luther reportedly said, “Here I stand” at a famous interrogation at Worms.
Back at the hotel meeting room, members of the Bible group spoke on such topics as “The 21st Century Relevance of a 17th Century Bible Translation,” in which Dr. Donald Brake said the 1611 King James version’s language still is important although modern translations can be better for study. Dr. John Hellstern discussed, “Bible Collectors: Why do we do what we do?”
And while there is a strong similarity to stamp or coin collecting, this group has an underlying commonality that goes beyond just accumulating stuff. I asked Hellstern about his work in England as a military chaplain, and he was proud that 103 soldiers had been baptized during his three years there. Part of the purpose of the ISBC, founded in 1964, is “promoting the preservation, study and understanding of the Bible …”
Several of the members give presentations in their hometowns that focus on the sacrifices people have made through the centuries to ensure that the Bible has been copied, printed and distributed. Brake, Hellstern and others have donated their collections to the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University.
And a stained edition of the Geneva Bible, printed in London the same year as the first KJV, rested on a table with a note that that read: “It survived 406 years! In a cardboard cover! … Maybe it is not good if yours survives that long! Read your Bible every day.”
I have the Bible collecting bug myself, which is why I drove to OKC for the convention. I restrained myself and bought only a $25 page from a 1582 Catholic Bible. I wasn’t in the market for the three-inch-thick French Bible from the 1200s, transcribed by hand on 4 by 6 pages with colorful embellishments. Its asking price was $50,000.
The next ISBC convention will be next fall in Washington, D.C. I’m not waiting until then to visit that new museum.
Mike Haynes taught journalism at Amarillo College from 1991 to 2016. He can be reached at the Amarillo Globe-News or email@example.com. Go to www.haynescolumn.blogspot.com for other recent columns.