The Christian Bible has a unique place in the history of the book. Before the advent of printing in the West no text was so frequently revered by the faithful, laboured over by scribes and illuminators, studied by scholars and coveted by the rich and powerful. Surviving handwritten copies, or manuscripts, of the Bible include the finest specimens of their times of the arts of calligraphy, illumination and book-production; some, although more humble in outward appearance, preserve unique or significant readings that shape the modern text of the Bible. Many Bibles were written and decorated by monks and other members of religious communities, as part of their life of sacrificial praise of God, others by professional craftsmen for lay readers. Some were intended for personal study and meditation, some for reading and as a physical symbol of the Word of God within a Christian community, and others for evangelizing or for missionary purposes. Bible manuscripts thereby reveal not only the remarkable history of an extraordinarily influential text, but also map the development of the book before the invention of printing.
A small selection of biblical manuscripts held in the British Library is illustrated here, divided chronologically into five sections. Click on the image for a brief description of each manuscript included, and a short explanation of its importance within the history of the Bible. Further illustrations and manuscripts are available by searching the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts for ‘Bible’, ‘Psalter’, ‘Gospels’, and ‘Testament’. For images of these and other biblical manuscripts in printed format see Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, Bible Manuscripts: 1400 Years of Scribes and Scripture (London: British Library, 2007).