The beginning of an affair

In my Christmas reading pile, I received the amazing book by Christopher de Hamel, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. De Hamel gives us an up-close-and-personal introduction to some of the rarest and most valuable manuscripts held in libraries today. It’s as if we are sitting beside him as he carefully leafs through these priceless books.

The most famous manuscript in the book is probably The Book of Kells, a ninth-century Irish illustrated manuscript of the gospels. A close look at these manuscripts reveals something striking about the people who spent their lives making them, and it’s this: they clearly delighted in the word of God.

The Bible – or even just a part of the Bible – was worth pouring your life into.

The Bible was not for them a book which could be produced in the millions on cheap paper and purchased with a few dollars, or found in a hotel room. On the contrary: the Bible – or even just a part of the Bible – was worth pouring your life into. They wrote not on paper but on parchment made from animal skins. A single book may require many hundreds of animal skins to be processed into parchment. The cost was astronomical.

Then there was the labour. The attention of the scribes to the detail and appearance of their work was an expression of sheer devotion. The lavish illustrations were in themselves a sign of the dedication of the illustrators. Who knows how many hours in dim light in cold libraries went into the making of these books? How many eyes lost their strength? How many hands became crabbed with writing?

And there’s another miracle to consider, as well. The Book of Kells is a manuscript of the famous Latin version of the Bible called the Vulgate, which was the work of St Jerome. In his turn, Jerome did his work in a monastery in far-off Bethlehem in the fifth century, translating into Latin from Greek and Hebrew. How is it possible that the writings of the Jewish disciples in the first century, in Greek, would find themselves reproduced, in Jerome’s Latin, in an extraordinarily beautiful form, eight hundred years later and thousands of miles away?

It is the evidence that the words it records are not simply any old text…

When we stare at the pages of The Book of Kells, we are looking not just at a beautiful work of art, but at something far deeper. It is the evidence that the words it records are not simply any old text, but held to be as precious as jewels by the chain of people who, crossing massive cultural divides and the distance of centuries, would have agreed on little else.

We could add to this story, of course, the dedication of Bible translators like Australia’s Lancelot Threlkeld, who translated the Bible into the language of the Indigenous people of the Lake Macquarie region in the 1820s; or Martin Luther, who spent his imprisonment in the Wartburg Castle translating the Bible into German; or Brother Andrew, who smuggled Bibles into Communist countries in the 1950s and ’60s at the risk of his life.

“…Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” – Jerome

What is it about these words? Clearly, the Bible has been the great love affair of many people’s lives. It isn’t because there’s something magic or talismanic about the words in and of themselves. It is not a book of spells. Rather, those who gave up everything to translate, copy, comment on, transport, smuggle and share the Christian Bible believed that these words were the source of life itself. The great Jerome put it this way:

“Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, and if the one who does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God, then ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

Put it simply: the Scriptures are Christ’s book. You can’t have Christ – the most precious gift ever given to human beings – without his book. It has become almost fashionable to pit Christ against the Bible – as if the Bible obscured rather than revealed Jesus.

The Bible is not a replacement or an alternative to Jesus Christ.

But the testimony of the makers of The Book of Kells – and of many others besides them – is that this is complete nonsense. Their love of the words and the pages of the book was because the real Jesus – the one in whom is found the mercy and love of God – is contained within it. The Bible is not a replacement or an alternative to Jesus Christ. But it is the only window through which one may look at Jesus Christ. This book contains a saving word for us all.

And so, devotion to the word of God in the physical text of Holy Scripture is not evidence of a false worship or a mistaken allegiance. One of the greatest pieces of literature in the Bible is Psalm 119. It is, to put it simply, a love song to the word of God. The poet simply can’t get enough of the words of Scripture. He delights in them; they are his guide. Let me quote just a few verses (9-16):

How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.
Praise be to you, Lord; teach me your decrees.
With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.
I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.
I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.
I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.

For the psalmist, love of the words of the holy text is the way in which he submits to God himself. His relationship with this book is his relationship to the Lord. It is his joy, his life. And he is quite deliberate about the kind of actions that he takes to make the word of God shape him. He meditates on it. He works hard at it, poring over the pages. He memorises the words, and repeats them to himself.

It isn’t just in his head; it is in his heart – that is, these words are part of his innermost self, because he wants to be close to God and to have God’s mind.

We need to remember the remarkable benefits we have from this book.

Let us not ever despise the Bible, or hold cheap the idea of knowing the Bible better. It is a tragedy to hear that there are Christians who have had all the opportunity in the world and yet who don’t know the Bible at all well. It is simply staggering to hear “biblical Christianity” being despised – there is no other type of Christianity!

We need to remember the remarkable benefits we have from this book. We have in it an insight into the mind of our creator. We have in it, as my friend the scholar Ashley Null puts it, his means of “telling us, turning us and tethering us to himself.” We have no other lifeline than we find here in its pages, no better guidance.

If we could only copy some of their devotion to the word of God!

We can’t live on bread alone – but we need the word of God. And here we have it! How could we ignore it? So often we live on a thin gruel, not realising there is a gourmet meal waiting for us – and then we complain about it, or somehow resent the gift we have been given.

As a Christian, you should have habits and practices that embed the word of God into your life – that make it part of you.  We are rightly afraid of a dry legalism that makes us think we are right with God just because we perform certain activities. Even reading the Bible can become like that.

But that shouldn’t put us off – as human beings we need all the help we can get. We get tired, distracted and bored. Like anything else, reading the Bible takes practice – and practice inflames our love, as we experience in the Bible the amazing love of God in Christ.

I don’t think that many of us will find ourselves in the painstaking copying out of the Bible, as the scribes of The Book of Kells and countless other hand-written manuscripts did. But if we could only copy some of their devotion to the word of God!

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.