A letter from Jonathan Seitz in Taiwan
Greetings from Taipei!
A couple of months ago after worship at the local church we attend I took Sam into the church library. (He likes to borrow the children’s books, which include series of animal and dinosaur books.) I was surprised to find someone carefully copying a page of the Taiwanese Bible. He had a large sheet of paper, perhaps three times letter size, and was carefully writing out the characters and romanized words of the Scriptures. I asked him about it, and he said that it’s a project for the hundredth anniversary of the congregation, Suanglian Presbyterian Church. Under the leadership of Pastor Chen and one of the church deacons the congregation will copy out the entire text of the Bible by hand this year. I’ve since learned that many Taiwanese Presbyterian churches do this. When they finish the hand-copied Bible it is bound and kept as a sign of the congregation’s love of the Bible.
A few weeks ago I visited the library again to take a picture, and this time found a half dozen church members copying out their pages. Some stood, while others sat. Those who decide to participate, I learned, copy out one sheet at a time, front and back. A two-sided page takes about five hours, sometimes because the person doing the copying must restart if they make a mistake. One person I talked to was on her fifth attempt at a perfect page. With more than a thousand pages to copy, it is perhaps the equivalent of a year or more of continuous copying by one person. Given all the uses we have for our time, it may seem like a strange practice. Nonetheless, it was interesting to me because it echoes a long history of devotional copying. Emily and I are both students of how texts are used (she through librarianship and the history of the book; I through the history of Christianity and its interaction with other religions).
In monasteries the room where texts were copied out was known as a scriptorium. Hand copying was the traditional way of reproducing texts, and when a new library was created, hundreds of texts might be recopied over a period of years. In class recently we watched a BBC documentary that mentioned an ancient Bible of Ethiopian Christians, with its unique scripts, which is brought out regularly for Christian festivals. Text copying also has religious resonance in other traditions. In East Asian religious culture, Buddhists who copied (and/or distributed) texts saw the practice as conferring merit. Sometimes these works were commissioned on behalf of a deceased family member. In popular religion, the written word is sometimes used for incantations, which are burned and can then be eaten as a medicine (the closest Christians come to this is probably the image of John consuming the scroll in Revelation 10). Newly ordained Daoists also must often copy their teacher’s texts. For most of human history, hand copying has been the norm for reproducing scriptures. Jewish tradition has long prized devotional Torah copying, a process that also has exact rules about how the scroll is to be copied and used in worship. For Christians, scripture copying is less common but not unheard of. In December of last year the St. John’s Bible, a modern handwritten NRSV Bible, was brought to conclusion. It used 250 calfskins and is an “illuminated” (illustrated) Bible intended to be used for meditative reading. In reading about the Bible, I found that the organizers made an overt nod to lectio divina and the process of using prayerful reading as a form for devotion or worship.
Despite this rich history of textual history, I don’t think I’ve ever known someone who copied out large portions of the Bible by hand. Indeed, when I started using a pen and paper to take notes in my Chinese class I found my hand cramping up. In an age of “cut and paste,” many of us find that penmanship is a lost art and that the only fonts we know are computerized.
Popular theologians sometimes warn us against bibliolatry—the idea of worshipping the Bible rather than the God it describes. There’s something to this, and it’s true that we Christians prize the Bible as the Word proclaimed, as the written revelation that leads us to Christ, the Word incarnate. Nonetheless, I was struck by the happy joy of a library full of middle-aged and elderly Taiwanese women and men copying out the Tai-ki Seng-Keng, the Taiwanese Bible. I loved that the project was the work of many members of the church, copied out by many hands, and that so many people were passionate about participating. There are an almost infinite number of ways to commemorate the birth of a church, but I found this one especially touching.
The church here finds other ways of showing its love for the Bible. Last month Paul McLean, a Canadian missionary, shared in our chapel about the completion of a full translation of the Hakka Bible. A leader from the Taiwanese Bible Society, Andrew Tsai, also talked about ongoing work on translations of several indigenous Bibles. A friend of mine and a recent Ph.D. graduate of Taiwan Seminary, Tsai Ming-Wei, is at work on a Mandarin study Bible for the Bible Society. A new Taiwanese translation of the Bible is currently under way (the New Testament is already finished).
We have been and aspire to be “people of the Book.” We learn about faith by reading, discussing, and sharing the Bible. To God be the glory!
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 205