The Literal Bible
and Gutenberg Bible
On view through September
Tues-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Karpeles Manuscript Museum
68 Spring St.
It's not the first time the Bible has been displayed in the circa 1856 temple on the corner of Spring and Coming streets. After all, this was a Methodist Church for more than a century until Hurricane Hugo tore the roof off. It then became the Karpeles Manuscript Museum.
But the Bible display this time around takes an approach more in step with historical study than with sermons.
Visitors to The Literal Bible and Gutenberg Bible exhibit are encouraged to consider the various ways in which meaning and interpretation can be applied to any manuscript, biblical or not: What questions can be asked of authorship, of historical context, of the relationship to other written works? How does translation from one language to another affect the original meaning, especially when the translation involves ancient languages and the cultural ideas of people who lived in a faraway place a long ago time?
"There may be people who are uncomfortable with both the questions raised and the interpretation of them," says historian Stephen J. White, executive director of the Karpeles Manuscript Museum of Charleston. "You have to be prepared for that."
What he hopes visitors will gain from the exhibit is a greater understanding of the ways in which scholars approach the study of manuscripts.
The exhibit includes loose pages from the Gutenberg Bible (a Latin translation of the Bible printed in the 15th century that is generally considered to have launched the era of printed books), a page from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, examples of the non-canonical Book of Jasher, a primary manuscript (the oldest known not in the hand of the author) fragment of an epistle from Paul, and a Proclamation of the Holy Crusades from the 1183 decree of Pope Lucius III.
The questions visitors are invited to consider while browsing the collection range from considerations of God and the creation of man to why certain ancient texts were included as biblical canon while others were not.
In particular, pages from the Book of Jasher, which describes a possible history of Methuselah, the extraordinarily long-lived grandfather of Noah, are presented to invite thought both on what constitutes canon and on interpretation of timelines.
"When we read that Methuselah lived for 969 years, we have to ask whether that is literal or whether we should interpret it as meaning he lived a very long time," White says.
The exhibit is intended to stimulate intellectual curiosity about manuscripts and encourage further study. A separate but related exhibit, part of the permanent collection of the museum, features Egyptian sandstone carvings.
The Karpeles Library, the largest collection of manuscripts and documents in private hands, rotates themed exhibits between nine museums throughout the United States, including Charleston.
One of the prevailing guidelines for the museums is that they play active roles in the communities in which they are located. In accordance with this, the Karpeles Museum has sought ways to better serve Cannonborough-Elliotborough, in particular the growing student population of the neighborhood.
"Especially during the school year, we have a steady stream of college students living in the area," says White, who teaches at the College of Charleston in addition to his role at the museum. "We encourage them to come in and see what we have to offer."
Then, with a laugh, he adds:
"Even if they are just coming in to get out of the summer heat, they're still very welcome to browse the exhibits."