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Display Of Saint John’s Bible Comes To San Diego

Editor's note: This is a transcript of an interview by KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge.

A San Diego church has mounted an exhibition of a bible, which is the first hand-written and hand-illuminated bible that's been created in more than 500 years.

— The Saint John's Bible is the first hand-written, hand-illustrated bible commissioned in more than 500 years. It was just completed this summer. Until the end of this month, prints of the bible pages are on display at San Diego's First United Methodist Church.

I spoke with Tim Ternes, director of the Saint John's Bible Project at St. John's University in Minnesota. He said their object was to marry the bible's ancient text with the images from the modern world.

Tim Ternes: For example, the beautiful opening piece for the gospel according to Matthew has Christ’s family tree. And it’s not a typical family tree. It shows the roots of the three main religions of the world: Islam, Christianity and Judaism, all with a common root back to Abraham. And this family tree, which looks like a Menorah-like structure, is built on a beautiful bed of these beautiful strands of DNA. You’ve got the double Helix weaving all the way around, showing how we understand genealogy today.

Tom Fudge: One example of these modern images is the illustration that goes with the story of the Valley of Dry Bones, which comes from the book of Ezekiel. It shows bones but also eyeglasses and abandoned cars. Tell us why.

Tim: It deals with the bones of the modern world. If you think of the way we have made bones, go to any war. So they went back to the wars of the last century. They went to Auschwitz, where the eyeglasses come from. And then you see the things that we do to our environment, so you see the cars in there, defiling our earth. That is part of destruction, and they are bones, figuratively and literally, in our world today.

Tom: Is it in any way incongruous to show modern items and technology to go with text that was written thousands of years ago?

Tim: Absolutely not! They take these passages and take them into a new visual translation. These scriptures have been around for 2,000 years. If we want them to be around for another 2,000 years, we have to put them into the vernacular of today, which is a visual society.

Tom: The images in this bible, aesthetically, are very modern. The use of color and abstraction seem to speak of the artistic tastes of our modern times, and I suppose that was also intentional.

Tim: This is not a medieval bible. We are not trying to recreate history here. And so yes, the Technicolor volume has been turned up.

Tom: One of your collaborators at St. John’s has said he believes that once all the buildings on your campus are gone, this bible will remain. Do you agree with that?

Tim: Oh yes. If you came to our collection, at our museum, I could put into your hands a book that is 700 to 800 years old, that is made with the same methods and tools and materials that the St. John’s Bible has been made with. The St. John’s Bible is written on calfskin vellum with ancient soot-based inks with ground pigments and hand-cut quills. We’re using those materials to insure the St. John’s Bible will have a shelf life of between 1,500 and 2,000 years.

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