The Good Word through the ages on display

By Lucinda Jolly Time of article published Jun 28, 2011

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THE BOOK OF BOOKS. An exhibition of Bibles and Christian manuscripts.

Curated by Melanie Geustyn, principal librarian, of the National Library, and Hanlie Rousseau of the South African Bible Society.

At the National Library of South Africa until August 31. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, also known as the “Authorised Version”.

In commemoration, the South African Bible Society asked the National Library to host an exhibition of Bibles and medieval manuscripts with a focus on the scriptures in the 11 vernaculars.

The King James Bible is reputed to be the most printed book in the world and was the first book to be read in space by the astronauts of Apollo 8 in 1968.

Its local importance is that it was the first Bible to go on the shelves of the National Library of South Africa. A bulky presentation copy, leather-bound with brass hinges, was given by the 16-year-old Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, when he opened the library in the mid 1800s.

In the 1600s, King James I of England was asked by the clergy for a new translation to end all translations which would replace the Bishop’s Bible. According to historians they wanted a people’s bible. It took six years and involved 50 diverse practitioners of the Christian faith including puritans, laymen and Anglicans.

It was printed to compete with the Protestant Geneva Bible.

Controversy dogs this version. One of the reputed ironies that surround this Bible is that Protestant churches view the KJB as the only legitimate English language translation and yet it is not even a Protestant translation. Furthermore, the original KJB of 1611 is really the 1769 version which is 95 percent the same as the Geneva Bible which predates it by 50 years.

English literature draws heavily on the Bible, whether acknowledged or not. Think Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies,and even Life of Brian.

Linguist David Crystal insists that there are 257 English expressions in the KJB such as a “fly in the ointment” or “a thorn in the flesh”. His critics, however, say that these are also found in older versions of the Bible.

Writer Jeanette Winterson, whose mother taught her to read from the Book of Deuteronomy, writes that Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale at the same time as the KJB, both of which are meant to be read out aloud. The author Melvyn Bragg goes to the extreme in suggesting that the KJB is the DNA of the English language.

The exhibition is drawn from the rare book collection, particularly the Grey Collection which was presented to the library by Governor Sir George Grey before he left for New Zealand.

His collection of 5 000 books included 114 medieval manuscripts and 119 books printed before 1500. It was Grey who, before he left, wrote to every mission station to request that a copy of whatever was published by them be housed in the National Library.

As a result, the national library has the best collection in Africa and is world-renowned.

The Book of Books is divided into categories which are housed in handsome glass and wooden cases. The walls of the domed room in which they are housed have been painted an Indian red and create a striking backdrop for massive copies of pages from illuminated manuscripts which take on the appearance of large medieval tapestries.

For the opening and on the last day of the exhibition, exquisite medieval manuscripts – in particular the 9th century Four Gospels which are the oldest manuscripts in southern Africa, various Book of Hours or medieval prayer books as well as the Office Books – will be on view.

The first books of Chronicles from the 1611 KJB take pride of place. Another highlight is the display of the original notes of the missionaries from the 1800s involved in translating the Bible into the various South African vernaculars.

Among the curiosities, are the smallest Bible in the world which is size of a pinky fingernail and a shorthand Bible.

No matter what your religious or spiritual persuasion, this a great opportunity to see the jewel-like illuminated manuscripts which one would normally have to travel far further afield to see. A comprehensive leaflet accompanies the exhibition.

l The National Library of South Africa is at 5 Queen Victoria Street. Gallery hours are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 9am to 5pm, and Wednesdays from 10am to 5pm. Call 021 424 6320 for more information.

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