Sam Bussan says he was almost ready to split for the day.
It was late one September afternoon, and Bussan, a junior at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, was getting ready to leave the school’s archives, where he worked.
But as he was walking out, Bussan spotted a sign on a shelf.
“Bibles four boxes,” the sign read.
“And I thought that was interesting,” Bussan said.
So he investigated.
He looked in one box, then another, he recalled in an interview.
Eventually, Bussan found a Geneva Bible, which may be more than 400 years old.
“More than anything else, it’s just very moving to have something that’s made it 400 years, sitting right in front of me,” Bussan said.
A find like this Geneva Bible is significant not necessarily because of the book’s age (which is sort of confusing, more on that later), but because of the larger story it can tell, said Zachariah Selley, associate head of special collections and college archives at Lewis & Clark.
“A lot of the ways we teach with this type of material is, we look at the history of printing, or the history of information, in context through the ages,” Selley said. “Not necessarily just looking at the content of a book.”
In other words, there’s more to take away from this Bible than just what it contains, Selley explained.
Something like this is unique, he said, because historians can look at its prominence as a way to disseminate information from the time.
“The 1599 Geneva version of the Bible is a perfect example of that, because it’s one of the best annotated, indexed and referenced versions of the Bible that had been printed and was available to the general public at the time, so it was very revolutionary in that way,” Selley said. “And it was very much kind of mass-produced, to be able to get that information out.”
Gordon Campbell – a historian for the Museum of the Bible, which is expected to open in 2017 – said the Geneva Bible was widely read in England; he called it “really kind of a study Bible, to be read by individuals.”
The Geneva Bible was “the first really competent translation of the Old Testament,” according to Campbell. And it had extensive notes, to help readers understand.
According to the Library of Congress, the Geneva Bible “is also known as the ‘Breeches Bible’ because in its translation of Genesis, Adam and Eve mask their shame by sewing pants, or ‘breeches,’ out of fig leaves.”
The Geneva Bible, the Library of Congress adds, “was used by the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England until it was gradually replaced by the King James Bible of 1611.
Now, about that 1599 date: Selley said the book’s age hasn’t been authenticated by an outside source, but staffers at Lewis & Clark have experience and training with antiquarian texts.
He noted that printers “did continue to publish editions of this Bible for several years with the same imprint title page.” After a bit more digging, he said that more information suggested that it might have been printed in the 1600s, not in 1599.
Still. We can all agree this is a really old book, right?
Hannah Crummé, the library’s head of special collections and college archivist, told the Oregonian that the Geneva Bible found at Lewis & Clark was in fairly good condition, with just a few ripped pages.
Here’s a little more on this particular book’s history, according to the newspaper:
“Crummé has traced the Bible’s ownership back to Francis Fry, a 19th-century Bible collector in England. From Fry, the Bible apparently went to a London bookseller, who sold it to the Rev. Clarence Baerveldt, a pastor in Waldport and Yachats, who gave it to Lewis & Clark. Along the way, it’s possible the Bible made a stop in the southern Oregon community of Roseburg – Crummé said she found a Roseburg address written on a page.
“Crummé thinks the Bible was put in storage in 1967, the year Lewis & Clark dropped its century-old affiliation with the Presbyterian Church and the year Watzek Library was built, providing a convenient basement.”
There are so many interesting things that Bussan, the student who found the Bible, has noticed, including a map that shows the location of the Garden of Eden and a title page, with “tiny little pictures of about a dozen different saints and prophets and historical figures” and other decorations.
“I’m interested in that,” he said. “Because I want to go through and see the significance of the people that they chose to put in, and see if I can determine why they selected those particular figures to put on the first page.”
Selley said he hopes Bussan’s find serves as a reminder to check out personal collections, because you might find something special, too.
“I would like to see other people rediscover material like this,” he said, “hidden away in their own collections, their own closets.”