So Great a Cloud of Copyists

One of the cornerstones of the Reformation is the phrase “Sola Scriptura” — Latin for “Only Scripture.” The idea was that instead of relying on the authority of the [Catholic] Church for matters of faith and doctrine, we should rely on Scripture alone.

So let’s pause a moment and consider what has made the availability of Scripture in our time possible at all, considering that our Scriptures were penned two to four thousand years ago on the fragile writing materials available at the time.

The answer is: a great host, a great multitude of unnamed and unsung copyists down through the ages, copying fresh copies of the Scriptures to replace aged and decaying ones.

Just for grins I’ve guess-timated how long it would take to make a hand copy of the Scriptures: I timed myself copying out by hand a mix of prose and poetry from the Bible, filling one 8.5 x 11 page. I tried to be careful, but I wasn’t trying for calligraphy (beyond me if I wanted to!) — many ancient hand-copies of the Scriptures are definitely calligraphic. And I have a modern fountain pen — don’t have to chase down crows or cut quills or mix my own ink. So the time it took me is certainly MUCH less than would have been manageable by ancient copyists (although it’s hard to say how good and fast they could get with a lifetime of practice). Nevertheless, as a first rough data point: I managed 13 verses in about 13 minutes, or roughly a minute per verse.

Altogether in the Bible there are about 31,000 verses (23,000 in the Old and 8,000 in the New Testaments). At the current Federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour (that’s $15,000/year, which might barely support a monk living under a bridge, subsisting on tree bark) that works out to the labor cost of copying one Bible being at least $3,700. Plus materials (which weren’t cheap), plus binding. How many of us would be willing to spend $5000, $10,000, likely more to own a Bible? Furthermore, with the cost of reading materials this high, how many of us would have any reason to learn to read, when we could never afford to own a book, and there were no public libraries or other access to reading materials?

Many things came together to make the Reformation possible, but an enormously important one was the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg (1400-1468). Martin Luther (1483-1546) was not the first to translate the Bible into a vernacular (German), but he WAS the first to pen a translation and have it printed on the PRINTING PRESS — making the Scriptures available to the masses at a cost within their reach for the first time.

Finally, may I point out that copyists until the printing press were either Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Jewish. So as we consider the Bibles we own, and the Bible that we ceremonially honor in procession on Reformation Day: let us also honor millennia of Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish copyists, and Gutenberg (also Catholic — the Reformation occurring after his death). While popes and princes through the millennia were hogging history’s headlines, countless unsung copyist worker-bees down in the trenches labored unknown and unthanked to make ‘Sola Scriptura’ possible for us today.

(Note: the title of this blog is an allusion to Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”)