Vol. XXVIII No. 3 — March 1950

The Great Light

The Volume of the Sacred Law which rests upon the altars of all English speaking Masonic lodges is “the rule and guide of our faith. In the lodge it is the center of Masonic practice; from it come most of the names in the ritual, much of the ritual itself; on it Masons take their obligations.

That one or both hands rest upon the Bible in taking an oath is a very ancient custom, but no one knows just where or when it first began. Anciently oaths were taken in many ways; by putting the hand on a scroll of the law; by elevating the hand and offering it as a sacrifice if the oath taken were broken; a man swore by his own head, agreeing that it might be cut off if he swore falsely. Abraham demanded that a servant put his hand beneath his thigh to swear. Kissing a cross in affirmation was not uncommon in Europe. Now, universally in courts of law, the holy book of some faith is that on which a man lays hand or hands to take an oath; usually it is the Bible.

The King James Version of the Bible is the universal Bible for all Christian churches except the Roman Catholic Church; the Roman Catholic Bible and the Bible used by Protestants and Masons are not identical. The Roman Catholic Bible includes the books of Tobias, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, I and II Macabees and parts of Esther and Daniel. To Protestants, these are parts of the Apocrypha. Protestants read them for interest, inspiration, and pleasure but do not regard them as a part of the canon; the Roman Catholic Church makes them canonical and therefore essential.

The Great Light in lodge is there not the book of any one faith; it is the book of all faiths, and if there be a candidate to whom it is not the sacred volume of his religion, it becomes the symbol of that book.

Of its contents, its inspiration, its teachings, all Masons are supposed to be well informed. Of it as something written, printed, translated, arranged, less is commonly known than the interest which it can excite deserves. Thousands of books have been written about it; no student of the Bible can get very far without at least three of these; a concordance, a dictionary and a commentary.

But these do not readily disclose many interesting facts about the Bible considered just as a collection of books and how it came to be. Here is a bare sketch of some of the information which has been gathered and published about that volume which has had a greater effect upon mankind than any other ever written.

The word Bible, meaning the sacred writings of the Jews, and the New Testament of the life, times and teachings of Jesus, is comparatively new as a name for the Scriptures. When Christ lived the Jewish division of their sacred writings was tripartite — The Law; first five books of Moses — The Prophets; Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Ezekiel and twelve minor prophets — The Writings; all the rest of the books of their time and teaching.

When Jesus lived no one knew the word Bible. The Great Teacher referred to “The Law and the Prophets” when speaking of the sacred writings.

Biblos is Greek for the substance of the reed from which was manufactured papyrus, the substance on which manuscripts were written. After a while it became the name of the roll or scroll on which was writing. By a long process of use, association, transfer from language to language, it finally became bible, meaning a book, and then Bible, meaning the book of books. Even as late as Shakespeare the word Bible was not in use; the word is not in any of his plays, although Holy Writ, Scriptures, Gospel, etc., are.

Now the word is universally used as the name of the collection of the writings which are recognized and is applied to no other volume or collection of volumes.

“When was the Bible written?” is an unanswerable question. Its sixty-six books were composed during a period of more than a thousand years. Few, if any, of the books bearing names of men were actually written by the men of those names. Much of many of the books of the Old Testament were first oral traditions, then perhaps committed briefly to stone or clay or even wood tablets; somewhere around the eighth century B.C. many Old Testament writings were put upon some sort of parchment or papyrus. Many of the books in the Bible are the work of many authors, mostly unknown. Copyists added comments and original matter. The books of the New Testament were written sometime during the first seventy — some authorities say fifty — years after the birth of Christ.

The original languages of the Scriptures were Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Aramaic, as a language of the Hebrews, is younger than the original Hebrew, so that most of the Old Testament was first written in Hebrew. But parts of some of the Old Testament books were written in Aramaic and occasionally show mixtures of the languages — Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin, the “handwriting on the wall,” is Aramaic.

None of the original manuscripts are known to exist. Our oldest Biblical manuscripts are copies. The King James Version states that it is “translated out of the original tongues” but this means the original language of the copies then in existence. The original clay tablets, stone tablets, parchment, papyrus, skins of animals, pieces of wood could not stand the assault of the years; climate, dryness, dampness, accident, fire, decay, have long ago destroyed them all. The oldest copies known are probably not earlier than the fourth century A.D.

The King James Version is the world’s Bible. Even when it can be demonstrated — as it has been demonstrated — that modern scholarship can provide more accurate translations in one place or another, the vast majority of those who love the Bible will not have it changed. The Revised Version was published, the New Testament in 1881, the Old Testament in 1885, the work of seventy-five of the world’s most noted scholars during a period of sixteen years. Some thirty-six thousand changes, mostly minor, were made in the King James Version. But the revision — and subsequent revisions — have never been very popular or acceptable. We prefer the beautiful English of the King James Version to the accuracy of modern scholars!

The Great Light was not always divided into chapters and verses; the original manuscripts, and the copies that we have as authoritative manuscripts, were without such aids to finding passages.

The process of division was long and gradual; the first Bible printed with numbered chapters and verses was as late as 1560. The system is now fixed and unalterable, though modern scholarship finds some fault with these artificial divisions when, as is occasionally the case, they make the text harder to understand. For instance, the first three verses of Genesis 2 obviously complete the story told in Genesis 1, since they narrate the blessing of God on the seventh (and last) day of Creation.

But although revisers have suggested other plans than the artificial divisions into chapters and verses, any changes now would make useless too many concordances, commentaries, dictionaries, encyclopedias of the Bible. One plan which has had some popularity is printing the Bible without versification, purely for pleasure reading, and leaving to students the standard text and its numbered references.

Because the Bible is published in so many editions, forms, sizes, types, arrangements, it is difficult to visualize its size. No one has ever counted the words in the Bible accurately because no two counters will agree as to whether a compound word is one or two words. But it is generally agreed that 773,000 plus or minus is the number, with nearly 600,000 in the Old Testament and 173,000 in the new.

In a single volume of the modern edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica are more than a million and a quarter words; a single volume of Mackey’s Encyclopedia runs over a million words.

Our King James Bible has 1,189 chapters, 31,173 verses. It is said by printers that no perfect Bible has ever been printed; that in spite of literally hundreds of proof readings for any one edition some error is always to be found. But what is an error to a printer may be a matter of a fraction of an inch of spacing, a slightly jammed or crooked letter. As a general rule, and for the average reader, the Bible can truthfully be said to be printed without error.

But it was not always so!

One of the famous errors made by a printer was about a printer. In the “Printer’s Bible,” printed in 1702, the Psalmist is made to sing “Printers have persecuted me without cause” instead of “Princes have persecuted me without cause.” (Psalms 119:161)

The “Idle Bible,” printed in 1809, tells of “Woe to the idle shepherd that leaveth the flock” (Zachariah 11:17) instead of “Idol shepherd” which has quite another meaning. The word “Idle” then did not mean not working, but worthless — in current idiom, a tramp, a bum.

In the “Breeches Bible,” about 1560, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together “and made themselves breeches.” The King James version makes it “aprons.”

The “Wicked Bible,” 1631, admonishes all who read: “Thou shalt commit adultery” which brought the terrific fine (in those days) of three hundred dollars to the printers.

The “Unrighteous Bible,” 1653, also left not out of a verse which then read “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9)

The “Bug Bible,” 1551, renders Psalms 91:5, “So thou shalt not need to be afraid for any bugs by night.” The King James version makes it “afraid for the terror by night.” But the use of bug was not really a mistake; in those days the word meant ghost, apparition, spectre — it survives with us in bugbear and bugaboo.

The “Treacle Bible,” 1568, had “Is there no treacle in Gilead” instead of balm, and the “Rosin Bible” of 1609 has “no rosin in Gilead.” (Jeremiah 8:22)

The “Vinegar Bible,” 1717 — famous date in Masonry — gives the title to Luke 20 as “The Parable of the Vinegar instead of “Vinyard.”

Perhaps the world’s most famous Bible is the Gutenberg, the first Bible printed, probably in or near to 1450. Johann Gutenberg is credited with the invention of movable type and the printing of the first Bible; prior to this invention the only Bibles were hand written or the Biblia Pauperum, “Bibles of the Poor,” which printed a few pictures and a few verses, from carved blocks of wood on a page at one time.

The so-called “Jefferson Bible” is not a publication; it is the Bible Thomas Jefferson made for himself by cutting and pasting up parts which appealed to him. He titled it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” It is now in the National Museum in Washington. In 1904 an exact duplicate was printed and bound by the Government; these copies are now rare collectors’ items.

The italics used in practically all editions of the familiar King James Bible are not words which should be emphasized (the ordinary use of italics is for emphasis). The early English translators of the Bible manuscripts were not always able to find an English word which was a good translation of Latin or Hebrew or Greek. The italic words are really insertions, explanatory words, not actually in the original manuscripts.

The absence of quotation marks is a puzzle to many. This aid to reading was invented on the continent not long before the production of the King James Bible in 1611, but its use had not spread to England by that time. Most quotations in the Bible are specified by “It is said” or “It was said by them of olden time” or “The scriptures saith.” Nearly three hundred quotations from the Old Testament are in the New, but even with the explanatory words, the beginning and ending of such quotations are not always clear.

Modern King James Bibles of course contain the letter J but the original edition did not, I and J being practically identical; Cruden’s Concordance (1737) lists I and J words together. The one verse in the Bible which for many years was supposed to contain all the letters in the English alphabet does not have a J.

It is Ezra 7:21, “And I, even I Artaxerxes the king, do make a decree to all the treasurers which are beyond the river, that whatsoever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, shall require of you, it be done speedily.”

The reader will also note that JHS and IHS are the same. Incidentally, IHS does not stand for “In Hoc Signo,” nor “In Hoc Salus,” nor “Jesus, Heavenly Savior,” nor “I have suffered.” It is a contraction, dating from the Middle Ages, of the name Jesus — it is either the first three letters, or the first two and the last letter of the Greek word for Jesus. They are sometimes considered to be the initials of “Jesus, Hominum Salvator” — Jesus, Savior of Men.

No actual statistics can be compiled as to the number of Bibles which have been printed — the number is estimated as more than a billion. Mark 13:10 has Jesus say that before certain matters can happen “the gospel must first be published among all nations.” How many languages there are in the world can only be approximated. One figure gives the total number of languages in the world as nearly twenty-eight hundred and, if all dialects are added, more than seven thousand. The Bible has been translated and published in more than one hundred eighty languages and parts of it in more than a thousand more, so the missionaries and translators who try to bring the book to the native have still a formidable task ahead.

To Masons the Great Light is the very heart and core of the Fraternity. Without it no lodge may be holden. It lies open when the lodge is opened and is reverently closed when lodge is closed. Its spirit permeates and dominates; by its light men compose their differences, forgive each other their quarrels, pledge anew their faiths. No Mason approaches a Masonic altar without showing that he has always in his heart the part the Bible played in it when he was made a Mason. No Mason who does not know it can be wholly a Mason in his heart.

It is in the hope that knowing a little more about it may cause some to wish to know more of what is in it that these words are written.

The Masonic Service Association of North America