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The Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress : A Resource Guide

Frequently Asked Questions

[Herbert Putnam with the three volume Gutenberg Bible].1930 Dec. 10. Photographic print. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Rare Book and Special Collections Division receives queries about many aspects of the Gutenberg Bible, and we have attempted to answer some of the most frequently asked questions below.

This is not an exhaustive list, so if you have additional queries, please use the Ask-A-Librarian service, and a member of the reference staff in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division will answer your question in a timely manner.

For more information about Johannes Gutenberg and the Gutenberg Bible, please see the Selected Bibliography and Related Resources within this LibGuide. The resources gathered in this guide have been limited mostly to materials written in English; however, patrons wanting research materials about Gutenberg or the Gutenberg Bible written in other languages may benefit from contacting a reference professional in one of the Library of Congress Divisions specializing in international materials.

More about reference services for the International Collections can be found on the Library's website (scroll down to the middle of the page).

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: On what material is the LC copy of the Gutenberg Bible printed?

A: The Library of Congress has a copy of the Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum, which is the skin of a calf that is specially treated for use as a writing or printing surface. The Library of Congress is one of only four institutions with a complete, vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Other institutions in this category include the following: the Göttingen State and University Library, the National Library of France, and the British Library. For the complete census, see Eric M. White, Editio Princeps (2017): p. 307-353.

Q: Of what material is the binding of the LC copy of the Gutenberg Bible constructed?

A: All three volumes of the LC copy date from the mid-sixteenth century (c.1560), and all three volumes are bound in wooden boards that are covered with white pigskin. The pigskin is tooled with roll-stamp designs that make a plain impression in the leather. Two different roll-stamp designs are distinctive. One roll depicts Christ, the apostles John, Peter, and Paul, and another stamp depicts Faith, Hope, Charity, and Justice. Scholars believe that these imprints suggest that the Gutenberg Bible was still being used in a Catholic worship setting in the late sixteenth century, and the particular designs may help historians to identify the bindery. For more information on the significance of the binding, see Eric M. White, Editio Princeps (2017): p. 99.

Q: How large is the the LC copy of the Gutenberg Bible?

A: The LC copy of the Gutenberg Bible is 407 mm tall and 300 mm wide.

Q: How many lines are in each column of the Gutenberg Bible?

A: The Gutenberg Bible has 42 lines of type in each of its two columns. Consequently, scholars also refer to the the Gutenberg Bible as the "42-line Bible" and the "B42."

Q: In what Language was the Gutenberg Bible printed?

A: The Gutenberg Bible is printed in Latin.

Q: What version of the Bible was used to create the Gutenberg Bible?

A: The Gutenberg Bible contains the Latin translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament that was mainly the work of Jerome (c.345-420 CE), who began his translating around 380 CE. Over the centuries, manuscript copies of the Latin translation were subject to changes and revisions, and an attempt was made in the twelfth century in Paris to create a standardized sequence to the books and presentation of the Latin Bible. This version became known as the "Paris Bible," and the Gutenberg Bible is based on an emendated version of the Paris Bible that was common to this area of the Rhine in the 14th and 15th centuries. Sold widely across Europe, the Gutenberg Bible and its many printed descendants became the standard version of the Latin scriptures for the following centuries.

Q: How many copies of the Gutenberg Bible were initially printed?

A: The total number of bibles printed was likely at least 120 paper copies and perhaps as many as 40 vellum copies.

Q: The LC copy of the Gutenberg Bible has three volumes. How are the volumes divided?

A: Volume 1: Genesis - IV Ezra. Volume 2: Tobias to Ezekiel. Volume 3: Daniel through the Apocalypse of John.

Q: The LC copy of the Gutenberg Bible is kept on display in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building. Who is responsible for what page is displayed and how is this decision made?

A: The Conservation Division at the Library of Congress oversees the material safety of the Gutenberg Bible display. A member of the Conservation Staff changes the Gutenberg volume every six months (rotating between the three volumes), and changes the page to a new opening every three months. Because the LC copy of the Gutenberg Bible is not very decorated, staff members prioritize displaying an opening that has some visual interest (usually the start of a chapter, which often has a modestly decorated capital). Finally, we make an effort to choose an opening in the volume (beginning, middle or end) that is different from recent openings, to help to avoid any preferential opening or undue stress on the spine.

Q: How much did the United States Congress appropriate for the purchase of the Library's Gutenberg Bible?

A: The Gutenberg Bible was a part of a larger sale of 3,000 fifteenth-century imprints (called "incunabula") that were all a part of the collection of Otto Vollbehr. Congress authorized an appropriation of $1,500,000.00 for the 3,000 incunabula as well as the Gutenberg Bible. A summary of the bill, known as the Collins bill, can be found on page 2 of the Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1930. This report is available on Hathitrust Report of the Librarian of Congress yr.1929/30 External