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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

The Saint John's Bible

Double-page spread integrating text and illustration, with a motif of a butterfly fluttering across the text and a ravenEcclesiastes Frontispiece, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2006, The Saint John’s Bible, the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, Copyright 1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.The Saint John’s Bible is the result of a remarkable collaboration between Donald Jackson, one of the world’s foremost calligraphers, who leads a scriptorium in Wales, and Saint John’s University and abbey, a Benedictine foundation in Minnesota. Jackson had harboured a lifelong dream of creating a hand-written and illuminated Bible and in Father Eric Hollas, of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University, he found a champion and sponsor. The Saint John’s Bible, begun in 1998 and still in the process of creation today, was the magnificent result.

A committee of theologians, art historians and artists was formed at Saint John’s to formulate the guiding principles for the project and to discuss the vision and layout of each page. The Saint John’s Bible’s stated intention is to ignite the imagination and glorify God’s word through reviving the medieval tradition of manuscript production and illumination.

As well as the original manuscript version, held at Saint John’s, a full-size fine art reproduction, the Heritage Edition, has been produced, a volume of which is shown here. Bound in red embossed leather with silver clasps and printed on hand made paper, it richly conveys the beauty of the original manuscript.

The text of The Saint John’s Bible is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), a 1989 revision of the RSV produced by the American National Council of Churches. Among the notable features of the NRSV are its complete elimination of the use of ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘thy’ and ‘thine’ (the RSV had retained these forms in passages addressed to God) and its adoption of gender-inclusive language, ‘as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the situation of ancient patriarchal culture’ (in the words of Bruce Metzger, who chaired the committee of translators). The Saint John’s Bible uses the Catholic edition of the NRSV, which places the books of the Old Testament in a slightly different order from that used in the Protestant tradition.

The Saint John’s Bible, like a medieval illuminated Bible, seeks to integrate text and illustration, so that the one reflects and enhances the other. In these opening pages of the book of Ecclesiastes the transience of earthly life is poignantly suggested by the motif of the butterfly, which flutters across the text, its brief existence ending in the fragile detritus of fragmented wings. The raven, a recurrent image in The Saint John’s Bible, is a compliment to the Benedictine foundation of Saint John’s; the raven was traditionally depicted as the carrier of God’s message toSt Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine order. It thus revives the medieval convention whereby the artist compliments his patron, often by means of a visual symbol, in his work.

Note: The copy of The Saint John’s Bible displayed in our original exhibition was lent by kind permission of the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

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