Category Archives: The Bible as Book

One of my hobbies: exploring interesting, beautiful, or otherwise noteworthy Bibles.

My new article on The Saint John’s Bible.

After some months of showing and admiring The Saint John’s Bible, some months ago I wondered if I could find any of Donald Jackson’s better work so I could connect it with this amazing illuminated Bible. I approached the people at Saint John’s University, the patron of The Saint John’s Bible, to see if they would be interested in a short piece for The Scribe, the newsletter of the project. My piece was published recently, and it looks good! (Read here.)

"Crucifixion" in Luke

“Crucifixion” in Luke

Now, Donald Jackson is a god in the English-language calligraphy world. First, for many decades he was (and may still be, for all I know) the official calligrapher for the Royal Crown. (He’s British.) Also, working with this Bible has gotten me in touch with some local calligraphers, including Cari Ferraro who herself wrote a piece on this Bible. Every calligrapher I have met speaks with Jackson with a certain awe. The man is a prodigy who started calligraphy formally at 13. Yet by all reports, he is also very down to earth and supportive of young talent.

Still, because he built his fame in the pre-internet age, he does not have a website. So I had a heck of a time finding any of his earlier work. The only thing I could find was a catalogue of a 1988 exhibition of his work called Painting With Words. (Coincidentally, both Cari and my calligraphy teacher saw the exhibit, which came to Santa Clara’s Triton Museum of Art.) Thankfully, this catalog has a few pieces that reminded me quite a bit of some of Jackson’s illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible.

I just posted my article on my Academia page—go read it if you are interested.

Review: Qur’ans: Books of Divine Encounter, Keith Small.

After being away from here for a few months, I took a look at this blog and realized it didn’t fit with what I’m doing now. I originally started this blog as a place to talk about ancient languages—still one of my interests—but other things started creeping in too. I reorganized the blog to reflect that, and to make it look more professional in general. Enjoy.

The banner above is from Word Made Flesh, the frontispiece to John in The Saint John’s Bible.

I don’t have time to write any blog posts until August because of a book deadline I’m trying to meet, but it doesn’t take much time to repost some of the things I’ve been writing for other venues. Below is a book note I wrote for Theological Studies, out in the June issue.


Qur’āns: Books of Divine Encounter. By Keith E. Small. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2015. Pp. 170. $25.

quransSmall, a Manuscript Consultant to the Bodleian Library, Associate Research Fellow at the London School of Theology, and author of Textual Criticism and Qur’ān Manuscripts (2011), has produced a visually pleasing compendium of 53 Qur’ān manuscripts, most of them from the Bodleian Library. Each manuscript is shown in one photo and accompanied by a short description. In the first three chapters, S. explores the history of Qur’an manuscripts, and in the process delivers a gentle, non-technical introduction to issues in studying Qur’ān manuscripts, such as dating, orthography, script, colophons, palimpsests, materials.  He also introduces decorative elements, including carpet pages and gold leaf, and aspects of the manuscripts related to liturgy and recitation.

The second half of the book is organized thematically, and showcases European Renaissance encounters with the Qur’ān, global dissemination of the Qur’ān, and personal copies of the Qur’an. S. showcases Qur’ān manuscripts owned or produced by European scholars, including Robert of Ketton’s 12th-century Latin translation and Renaissance critical editions noting textual variants. His misleading overemphasis on the sympathy with which many of these scholars approached the Qur’ān creates a contrast with the next section. There, he provides the fascinating backstory to how some of the Bodleian’s Qur’ān manuscripts came to Oxford: “plunder in piracy and war” (89), or through former officers in British colonies (e.g., 126-127). This section’s vignettes provide a fascinating window into the past few centuries of Islamic history. The final section, on believers’ personal copies of the Qur’ān, includes talismans and even an undershirt with the Qur’ān written on it to ward off harm in battle.

S. excellently analyzes how details of decoration and calligraphy relate to Islamic theology and the believer’s personal encounter with revelation. I would have liked to see more examples of contemporary Qur’āns. While S. includes an appendix of recommended reading, it would be more useful for scholars if it had a bibliography for each manuscript. This book is aimed at the general reader, but is also of interest to scholars, and would also be a useful supplementary text for courses in art history, book history, or Islamic studies.

Review: Exploring the Book of Kells, by George Simms.

Since I began working with The Saint John’s Bible, I have become fascinated by the physicality of Bibles as books. Not just the art, but even the size, typography, and presence of critical notes in a text reflects and impacts the way we interpret the Bible. Art historians who study biblical manuscripts know this [links], but I rarely see it discussed in biblical studies circles. The physicality of the Bible is just one question that The Saint John’s Bible raises for biblical scholars.

So it was with some interest that I recently picked up George Otto Simms’ Exploring the Book of Kells. In 71 pages, Simms introduces this book, the most famous Anglo-Saxon illuminated biblical manuscript. The Book of Kells contains only the Gospels, and dates to c. 800 from the community of monks at Iona and later at Kells. Simms discusses the daily lives of the monks who created this Gospel book, with some charming illustrations of their daily monkish lives. He discusses some of the more famous illuminations and quirky marginalia in this manuscript, including the famous “XRI” page reproduced so often.

Though I learned a few things from this book, I’m not sure I would recommend it. It has very few color images, and no bibliography for further reading. Simms is not an art historian but a priest, so he misses out on some of the terminology a manuscript scholar would use. Still, this might be a good book for a younger audience.