by Benjamin Crawford

I was recently in Hong Kong, a former colony of the British Empire, for an exhibition commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Ancient scrolls, medieval manuscripts and early printed books told the story of how the Bible was written and preserved. Historic displays lined the walls, as tens of thousands came in tribute to the global impact of the Book of Books. 

Yet amid all the treasures therein displayed, the center of the exhibition hall did not contain the relic of a saint nor the remnant of a scroll…but instead, in that place of honor, stood a plain wooden example of a humble printing press.

In the 1440s, a generation before Columbus set sail to the New World, a man named Johannes Gutenberg was on brink of an exciting invention that would unexpectedly alter the course of human history. That invention, the world’s first movable-type press, would enable the spread of the gospel in ways that a previous generation could never have imagined.

Today, the words on this page are taken for granted. We read and write with ease. Through the advent of social media, words written in a moment may be instantly published and simultaneously hurled around the world.

The world’s first movable-type press enabled the spread of the gospel in ways that a previous generation could never have imagined.

But prior to Gutenberg, the mass dissemination of any written message was a painstaking and difficult task. The publication of a magazine would have been a virtual impossibility. It was necessary for every recorded word to be written by hand…and a large book, such as the Bible, could take as long as two years to produce a single copy.

The World’s First Printed Book

Born in the German city of Mainz around 1397, Gutenburg developed his printing process while living in Strasbourg. Returning to his hometown, he opened a workshop. And it was there where his first large-scale printing project began – the publication of the Bible in Latin, including both the Old and New Testaments in two large folio volumes.
Known today as the Gutenberg Bible, the “world’s first printed book” was completed in 1455.

It is estimated that between 160-180 copies were printed. Around fifty of those copies still exist today, including surviving fragments. Most are the property of national governments or public institutions, while a select few remain in private hands.

At time of publication, a copy sold for the equivalent of three years wages at a clerk’s salary (interestingly enough, now over five centuries later, I recently examined a single ornate page of the Gutenberg Bible that was for offered for sale at a similar price). Despite its seemingly high cost, the price of a newly printed Gutenberg Bible was merely a fraction of that of a manuscript Bible that had been written by hand.

Were he alive today, Gutenberg would be utterly amazed to see copies of the Bible may now be freely given away.

​Nevertheless, it was Gutenberg’s press that would relentlessly drive down the cost of books, multiplying production and giving rise to a new information age. By the year 1500, it is estimated that at least half a million printed books had entered circulation. Literacy levels rose as priced dropped.

Fueling the Reformation Fires

By the early years of the Renaissance, book fairs were familiar sights in cities across Europe. And if the power of the pen was mightier than the sword…the power of the press provided the means to marshal a modern army.

In 1517, when a little known priest named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a German church door, he had multiple copies to hand out.

In 1525, when William Tyndale published the first printed English New Testament, all the power of the Church of Rome was insufficient to stop its distribution. When the bishop sought to buy and burn every copy of Tyndale’s work, the funds were merely placed into printing additional copies. And when Tyndale was burned at the stake with copies of the English Bible about him, the printing presses of Europe continued the forward march of that mighty army, until he being dead yet speaketh.

In the King James Bible, the crowning jewel of English Bible translation, the work of William Tyndale is overwhelming reflected throughout the New Testament. Scholars state that over 80% of its text may be said to be “his work.” Thus our common English version provides a direct line to the earliest days of those first sacrificial printings.

The printing press, as designed by Gutenberg, would remain largely unchanged until the nineteenth century. At that time, there was no question that a rugged piece of medieval machinery had literally changed the world. And the influence of the Bible – wisely chosen as the world’s first printed book – only continued to grow.

With over one billion copies in print, the Bible remains the best-selling book of all time. It has been translated into every major language. Copies have been carried to every nation around the globe. And in 1971, a copy of the Bible became the first printed book to make landfall on the surface of the moon.

When setting the letters of his press for the first time, the hands of Johannes Gutenberg were pushing back the darkness. And were he alive today – I believe he would say, “That is a story that should be in print.”