This course follows the story of the Bible from its formation as a book in Palestine and Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries to the rapid expansion of Christianity in the Global South today. When Donald Trump held up the King James Bible in Washington after demonstrators were dispersed with tear gas, what did that moment tell us about the contested place of the sacred book in modern society? The Bible has always been a source of unity and division. We shall ask how the Bible has shaped, reflected and expressed the myriad of cultural and historical settings it has inhabited. We will learn about the great fifth-century translator St Jerome, the Book of Kells in medieval Ireland, medieval mystery plays, the New Testament of Martin Luther, the King James Bible, the inspiration for missionaries and voices against imperialism and colonialism, Jesuits engaging with Confucian scholars in China, Victorian novels, the speeches of Martin Luther King, and the digital Bibles of today’s world, including mega churches in Brazil and Nigeria.
The Bible embraces every aspect of human individuality and community, generating narratives of asceticism, martyrdom, churches as the body of Christ, mysticism, colonialism, radical-charity, anti-Semitism, and, more recently, queerness and environmentalism. The Bible as a book is our focus, but as a book in motion – interpreted, venerated and used as a symbol for beliefs and prejudices. The diversity of stories over the centuries engages and challenges us to think in new ways about a book that we thought we knew. It has never been one thing – never static.
The Bible remains by far the most printed and influential book in the world. When the nineteenth-century explorer Constantin von Tischendorf visited the Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert he “discovered” the oldest complete version of the Bible. Who could have known that the precious manuscript of the first full Bible that was found in the desert of Sinai would lead us to one of the most popular apps of the twenty-first century – the Apple Bible app? Let’s find out!
Structure and Approach
In this course, we will reflect on the Bible’s many forms, from its earliest codices to today. Participants will be invited to share their own experiences of the Bible. We shall read together draft chapters of my forthcoming book on the Global Bible, listen to podcasts and sermons on YouTube, and view Bibles at the Beinecke Library and in the Divinity School Library. We shall discuss the relationship of text and illustrations, forms of interpretation, and the material manifestations of the sacred book.
- The formation of the Bible as a book and its spread in West and East to 1000 CE.
- The Medieval and Reformation worlds
- Missions and liberation in Africa and China
- The global Faith: Pentecostalism
- Contemporary cultures
The readings will include chapter drafts of my book The Bible. A Global History. They will be sent out in advance. There will also be a selection of primary sources. Additionally, we will make use of Podcasts and YouTube videos. I will also send out a short list of books that can be read in advance.
A native of Canada, Bruce Gordon taught at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he was professor of modern history and deputy director of the St Andrews Reformation Studies Institute. He came to Yale in 2008. His research and teaching focus on European religious cultures of the late-medieval and early modern periods, with a particular interest in the Reformation and its reception. His John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Princeton 2016) looks the reception from the sixteenth century to the age of YouTube of one of the defining works of the Reformation. He is the author of Calvin (Yale, 2009), a biography of the Genevan reformer, and the Swiss Reformation (Manchester, 2002), a Choice Magazine “Outstanding Publication” (2003). In addition, he has edited books and written widely on early modern history writing, biblical culture, Reformation devotion and spirituality, and the place of the dead in pre-modern culture. He was principal investigator for a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom for a project “Protestant Latin Bibles of the Sixteenth Century”. He received a Horace W. Goldsmith Award from Yale University to develop an online course (MOOC) called ‘A Journey through Western Christianity’, appeared in 2016. In 2021 he published The Oxford Handbook of Calvin and Calvinism (Oxford) and Huldrych Zwingli. God’s Armed Prophet(Yale). He is currently writing The Bible: A Global History for Basic Books in New York. He teaches and supervises graduate students in a broad range of medieval and early modern subjects and their resonances in contemporary historiography and society. He has received honorary degrees from the University of Zurich, Switzerland (2012), and the University of King’s College, Dalhousie, in Canada (2019).