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The 9 Million-Dollar Book: St. Cuthbert’s Gospel

As you might have read, the British Library recently ponied up $9 million to purchase the oldest complete European book in existence, the St. Cuthbert Gospel. This small volume, hand lettered, mostly in black letter accented with red initials, carries the Fourth Gospel in Latin.

In principio erat verbam, it begins. “In the beginning was the Word.” It’s the same Gospel of John that you know, complete with its seven “I Ams” and seven miracles. This book is, I believe, the most lyrical and memorable in the New Testament and perhaps in the entire Bible.

Of course, in St. Cuthbert’s time, the 7th century, Amazon.com had not yet gotten the Kindle off the ground. In fact, Gutenberg’s printing breakthrough remained more than 700 years in the future. Books in those days of parchment–paper made from carefully prepared sheeps’ skins–and quill pens were rare and precious items. They weren’t quite $9 million precious, but they were precious.

So how did that precious volume wind up in St. Cuthbert’s coffin after his death in 687 only to be discovered over 400 years later during a spate of sepulchral spring cleaning? Did Cuthbert, by all accounts a fine churchman, create this gospel by his own hand? Did he read it for his own devotional life? Opinions vary on these questions and no one can say for sure. The notion that an admirer tossed the book into Cuthbert’s coffin a few years after his death seems unlikely, but who knows?

Regardless of whether a dying Cuthbert called near his closest associate and gasped, “Bury me with this gospel” or an overzealous admirer chose an odd and expensive way to demonstrate his loyalty, it must be agreed that the inclusion of the book in the coffin suggests a very high opinion of the deceased and for the Word of God.

Whatever one thinks of burying the man with a book of scripture, I believe the story of St. Cuthbert’s Gospel as related in various venues over recent weeks raises some interesting question for a reader in the days after which the Kindle has emerged powerfully.

What if every reader of John’s Gospel created his or her own handwritten version. Regardless of how many times we have read “In the beginning was the Word,” we’ll take in those words differently when we write them. (I suppose there’s something to be said for typing the words, which would mean that I have achieved that benefit from three typings in two different languages over the past 400 words.) Would I cherish that copy of John’s gospel in the same sense that I do the printed words in a study Bible or the virtual words stored on my iPad?

The modern reader, and especially Catholic-averse Evangelical readers, might take a dim view of the St. Cuthbert story–particularly the part during the twelfth century when visitors to Durham Cathedral could wear the book, enclosed in a leather bag, as a sort of holy talisman. That same reader, however, can learn a lesson in the preciousness of the Word.

The British Library raised $9 million to purchase the book last month. Does that accurately appraise the value of the volume? Only the individual can make that determination. As much as I appreciate the artistry of John’s Gospel, its actual value will outlive bank accounts and the endurance of this mortal frame.

The British Library has digitized the book for your perusal. Bone up on your Latin and check it out.

Posted in Biblical Literature, Medieval, News.

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