In 1997 Time-Life Magazine published a list of the most important inventions of the second millennium, and the top spot was awarded to the moveable-type printing press invented by Johann Gutenberg. The very first book to be printed on this history-altering invention was the Bible—specifically, the Latin Vulgate—now known as the Gutenberg Bible.
Little is known about Johann Gutenberg, the man. He lived from approximately 1395 to 1468, making him a contemporary of Christopher Columbus and Joan of Arc. He lived in Mainz, Germany, and was probably trained as a goldsmith or gem-cutter. We don’t know what he looked like, whether he was married, or where he is buried. We think that Gutenberg began working on his famous Bible in about 1450, after ironing out the wrinkles in his new and improved version of the printing press.
Prior to the publication of the Gutenberg Bible in 1454 or 1455, pages of books were either hand-copied or stamped from a single block of painstakingly carved wood. One of Gutenberg’s innovations was to use metal letters, individually cast and thus able to be rearranged and reused. He also developed a new formula for ink and made improvements on the press used for making the impression on the paper.
The Gutenberg Bible was printed in three volumes. All total, each Gutenberg Bible contains 1,282 pages—large pages (17 x 12 inches). Each page has two columns each containing 42 lines of text (for this reason, the Gutenberg Bible is sometimes called the 42-line Bible). The text is ornately styled, in the fashion of the scribes who worked by hand. Each chapter of the Bible begins with a large, illuminated (colorfully decorated) initial letter. Other artistic flourishes adorn the spaces around the text, making the Gutenberg Bible highly sought after as a beautiful work of art as well as an important publication in its own right.
It is unlikely that Johann Gutenberg made much money from the publication of his Bible. He lost some of his printing equipment and half of the Bibles he had already printed in a lawsuit. Gutenberg later opened a second printing shop, but it is doubtful that he ever recouped his losses.
Modern scholars estimate that Gutenberg made about 200 copies of the Bible in his first printing. Of those, fewer than 50 are still in existence, and of those only 21 are complete copies.
The publication of the Gutenberg Bible changed the world as few other events ever have. With the moveable-type press, books that were once too expensive and too rare for anyone but the upper class were now cheap enough and common enough for many others. People who never bothered to learn to read now endeavored to become literate. The result was an explosion in knowledge and a hunger for information that revolutionized society. It is no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation began less than a century after the release of the Gutenberg Bible. All across Europe, the Reformers were using Gutenberg’s invention to produce, for the first time, Bibles in the language of the people. God’s Word spread like wildfire across the continent, changing history forever. The teaching of God’s Word gives light (see Psalm 119:130).