Vol. XXVII No. 2 — February 1949

Our Volume of the Sacred Law

Of the Three Great Lights, the Volume of the Sacred Law — the Holy Bible for Christians and Jews — is known as The Great Light.

It rests upon every Masonic altar. It is “the rule and guide of our faith and practice.” On it all candidates are obligated. Quotations from it occur many times in our ritual. Its teachings are emphasized, its influence on our Fraternity is great, and, presumably at least, every Mason has read it, does now read it.

It is the commonest book in the world; no one knows just how many Bibles have been printed but well over one billion. It is, in some editions, the most inexpensive book in the world; millions of copies are given away and millions more sold for but a few cents. The contents of no other book is so well-known.

But to know the letter is not necessarily to know the spirit; to know the spirit is not necessarily to know the letter. Even among those who know the contents of the Bible well, and love it much, is often to be found little knowledge of the book, as a book.

If we lay aside for the moment its contents, teachings, poetry, history, romance, drama, we may see a little of that great body of information about the Bible which is of intense interest to Masons.

When did the Bible come into Freemasonry? No one has yet had the temerity to fix any day, even any year, as the beginning of a practice that now has the sanction of important Masonic law; that no lodge can exist, or hold a communication without the Three Great Lights in Masonry, of which the first and chief is the Volume of the Sacred Law.

Somewhere between 1717 (year of the revival, the formation of the mother grand lodge) and 1750, the Holy Bible became the Book of Books to Freemasonry. Early lodge minutes give us here and there a word, a phrase, a date. From these can be pieced together a his tory of sorts; doubtless true in the main, doubtless as mistaken in its details.

Not until many years after the appearance of the first Bible in print (15th century) did Bibles become inexpensive enough to be possessed by the man or lodge of ordinary resources. Masonic obligations in early days were taken on the Old Charges, contained in some Manuscript Constitution. In 1560 the Geneva Bible was published, the first to use chapters and numbered verses. If any Mason or any lodge used a Bible thus early this was probably the one.

The King James Version - the practically universally used Bible of our times - was not printed until 1611.

In 1717 one John Baskett, an Oxford printer, published the Bible; it became popular with Masons as with many others, and perhaps was among the first officially used in lodges. It is often mentioned in early lodge inventories.

But for more than half the life of the fraternity (supposing that Operative Masonry began to change into speculative some four or five hundred years ago) it was the Old Charges, not the Bible, which was used to give solemnity to the obligations. When the Bible first came into lodge use, apparently it was for the same purpose as now in a court of law; to make the obligation binding, to put the threat of spiritual punishment behind perju ry. We use it thus, but for much more. Our Great Light is “a rule and guide of our faith and practice.”

Early Freemasons, like the majority of their fellows, could not read. The greater number of men and women of the Middle Ages had never heard of the Bible. If they had heard of it, they never saw one; early Freemasons would not have dared to use a Bible in lodge even if they had one, as it was strictly the property of and jealously guarded by the church, which forbade laymen to possess or to use a Bible. It was for the church and the priest to say what men were to know, what stories from the Bible they could hear.

But when from early presses Bibles became first a trickle, then a stream and finally a flood, when illiteracy gave way to schools and reading was no longer an art only for the wealthy, the educated, the priest and the lawyer, the church had to give way; the Bible was too strong, too necessary for people. It burst the priestly bonds and became the precious possession of all.

It was then that it came into lodges, first as a mere aid to making a promise binding, then, gradually, as a substitute for the Old Charges, which the Bible finally displaced altogether as a book on which to take obligation.

It is not provable, but seems probable, that the name, “The Volume of the Sacred Law” came into use because the Old Charges, first the sole occupant of the pedestal (altar, as we now have it) was “The Book of the Law.” As such, these persist in modern Masonic ritual as “The Book of Constitutions, Guarded by the Tiler’s Sword.”

The Bible was not originally in a lodge either a book of religion or a book of faith, or a book of either Protestant, Catholic, or Jew. Lodges have never adopted a creed, become churches, made theological tests. Some early grand masters were Catholic in faith, and until some time after the first Papal Bull against Freemasonry, many Catholics were Masons, and used freely the King James Version in their lodges, although, as is well known, the Catholic Bible includes a number of books in its canon which, if they appear at all in the Bibles of today, are the Apocrypha — “the hidden books” — which are not within the Protestant canon.

The very word bible is comparatively new, as applied to the Scriptures. The Jews divided their sacred writings into three parts: The Law (first five books of Moses); The Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor Prophets); and The Writings, the rest of the sacred books. Jesus referred only to “The Law and the Prophets.” Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures does the word bible appear. Bible comes from biblos, the Greek word for the bark of the papyrus; biblos became biblion, and the plural, biblia, which means “small books, little writings.”

Chaucer uses the word to mean any book; note our own use of bibliography, a list of books; bibliophile, a lover of books. Shakespeare knew his Bible well, but never once called it by that name; he speaks of Holy Writ, the Scriptures, the Gospel, etc. And the word bible is not used in the dedication of the King James Bible!

In the sense that its use came after printing it is a modern word just as its use in lodges, now universal, is modern compared to the age of freemasonry as a craft.

No original manuscripts of the Bible are anywhere in existence. The King James Version scholars did indeed state that their work was “translated out of the original tongues” but they meant Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and possibly some other ancient languages, not “original documents.” The original writings have long since perished. Papyrus rotted and dried up, clay tablets were broken, even animal skins (parchment) does not escape the ravages of time, loss by fire, flood, theft, and willful destruction. It is doubtful if the “original writings,” which were copied and recopied, were in the handwriting of their authors; many if not most of them were probably dictated, just as the Apostle Paul is known, from his own words, to have dictated his letters. He speaks of “the salutation of me Paul with mine own hand” and again “the salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token of every epistle: so I write.” In 2 Thessalonians 3:17 the secretary identifies himself: “I, Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord.”

The earliest known copies of the Bible now in existence are the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus codices, believed to be made about the 4th century A.D. These are in Greek. There are several thousand manuscript copies of all or parts of the Bible, which date from the 4th century to the invention of printing; as few early manuscripts have dates it is difficult to be sure of the time of their writing except for internal evidence.

Uninformed people believe that our English translation was made directly from the originals; this of course is ignorance, like that of the indignant reader who protested the language of the Revised Version by saying “The English language was good enough for Jesus and the apostles and is good enough for me!”

The invention of printing and the first printed Bible (often called the Gutenberg Bible, from the inventor of printing, though it is doubtful that Gutenberg actually printed it) marked the end of manuscript copies and the beginning of the spread of the Bible throughout the world. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention was moveable type, which could be used, recombined and used again. Prior to this invention printing was done from carved wood blocks. Gutenberg conceived the idea of moveable type of metal, and his discovery of the punch (which makes the matrix), the matrix (which form the letter), and the mould (which holds the molten metal) was undoubtedly the greatest ever made by man for man since the invention or discovery of language.

What must have been the thoughts, the joy, the happiness of men when at last they could see with their own eyes what hitherto they had known only in tales from mouth to ear, can only be imagined. The stained glass window, the picture drawn by an artist, the “block books” of the pre-printing era gave snatches, hints, small excerpts from Biblical stories. Doubtless the priests did all they could to translate their precious and concealed manuscripts into speech for their congregations. Suddenly came a river of books! Printing, at first almost as expensive as manuscript copies, was quickly improved, and Bibles began to pour from the hand presses of those days. What it meant to a Bibleless world is better imagined than described!

The invention of printing and its application to Bibles was to have some odd results; one of these was the apparent impossibility of printing a Bible without an error — sometimes an absurd error.

Thus we have the so-called “Printers Bible” of 1702, in which the Psalmist is made to say “Printers have persecuted me without cause” instead of Princes have persecuted me,” etc.

In 1809 appeared the “Idle Bible’ in which is Woe to the idle shepherd that leaveth the flock instead of “idol shepherd.” Idol in those days meant “worthless, counterfeit, no good.” The Revised Version changes the King James idol to worthless.

The “Breeches Bible” (Geneva Bible, previously referred to) was printed somewhere about 1557-60. Here, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches.” King James Version makes it aprons. The “Breeches Bible” had more than 160 editions and was very popular, much more so at first than the Great Bible, as it was called, then used in English churches.

The “Wicked Bible” (sometimes called Devil’s Bible or Adulterous Bible) was a King James Version printed in 1631 in which “not” was left out of the Seventh Commandment, making it read “Thou shalt commit adultery” (!). Every copy of the edition was ordered destroyed and the printers fined heavily, but a few copies escaped and are now almost priceless.

The “Unrightous Bible” is a King James Version printed in 1653 in which is “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?” Whether the second not was omitted accidentally or in malice is anyone’s guess.

“So that thou shalt not need to be afraid for any bugs by night” was the rendering of Psalms 91:5 in an English translation printed in 1551. In the King James Version the words are “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night.” But this was not a printer’s, nor even a scholar’s error; merely a choice of a word. In those days the word bug meant “ghost, bogey, goblin, evil spirit.”

A King James Version printed in Oxford in 1717 (The Baskett Bible, hitherto referred to) speaks of the “Parable of the Vinegar” instead of the “Parable of the Vineyard” — hence the “Vinegar Bible.”

Our Bible was written by many men over a period of at least a thousand years. Parts of the Bible are the work of many editors, commentators, scribes. Literary property was not known in those days; writers felt free to change, alter, add to, existing records. Much of the old books of the Bible were transmitted orally from generation to generation, of course getting changed in the process, just as Masonic ritual suffers changes by “mouth to ear” instructions, for instance, did not reach its present form until about a hundred years before the Man of Galilee. Much if not all of the New Testament was composed, written, dictated, reduced to writing during the latter part of the first century after the birth of Christ.

Curiously enough, this great collection of books, which has had a more profound effect upon man than any other ever written, uses comparatively few words of the large English vocabulary. English today contains some half million words; the Bible uses only some 7,000 (an exact count is impossible because of differences of opinion as to what is “a word”; for instance, work, worked, working may be counted by one compiler as one word, by another as three words). But no count has more than 10,000 different words used in both Testaments.

There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible; 31,173 verses; 773,691 words; (the count differs with different enumerators for the reason given above); and it is estimated that there are slightly more than 3,500,000 letters in the Bible — 3,500,000 chances to make an error in any printing! The longest verse is Esther 8:9, which has ninety words; the shortest is John 11:35, two words — “Jesus wept.”

Italics in the Bible are not for emphasis; they are words inserted to make translations readable, printing these in italics is a scholar’s device which dates from about 1556.

No version of the Bible has ever had the spread, popularity or reverence given the King James. The Revised Versions of 1881, 1885 and 1901 — which made some 36,000 changes in the language of the King James Version — though thought by many to have improved the accuracy of translation and come nearer to the original writings in form, to most seem to have sacrificed much in poetry, imagery and beauty.

The King James Version has covered the earth. It has been translated wholly into nearly two hundred tongues and partially into nearly eleven hundred. It is the foundation on which all Christian churches and Jewish synagogues are erected.

And it is the “stone of foundation” of all Masonic lodges.

The Masonic Service Association of North America