Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Pearl Bibles and Six Thousand Errata.

As a literary curiosity, I notice a subject which might rather enter into the history of religion. It relates to the extraordinary state of our English Bibles, which were for some time suffered to be so corrupted that no books ever yet swarmed with such innumerable errata!

These errata unquestionably were in great part voluntary commissions, passages interpolated, and meanings forged for certain purposes; sometimes to sanction the new creed of a half-hatched sect, and sometimes with an intention to destroy all scriptural authority by a confusion, or an omission of texts — the whole was left open to the option or the malignity of the editors, who, probably, like certain ingenious wine-merchants, contrived to accommodate “the waters of life” to their customers’ peculiar taste. They had also a project of printing Bibles as cheaply and in a form as contracted as they possibly could for the common people; and they proceeded till it nearly ended with having no Bible at all: and, as Fuller, in his “Mixt Contemplations on Better Times,” alluding to this circumstance, with not one of his lucky quibbles, observes, “The small price of the Bible has caused the small prizing of the Bible.”

This extraordinary attempt on the English Bible began even before Charles the First’s dethronement, and probably arose from an unusual demand for Bibles, as the sectarian fanaticism was increasing. Printing of English Bibles was an article of open trade; every one printed at the lowest price, and as fast as their presses would allow. Even those who were dignified as “his Majesty’s Printers” were among these manufacturers; for we have an account of a scandalous omission by them of the important negative in the seventh commandment! The printers were summoned before the Court of High Commission, and this not served to bind them in a fine of three thousand pounds! A prior circumstance, indeed, had occurred, which induced the government to be more vigilant on the Biblical Press. The learned Usher, one day hastening to preach at Paul’s Cross, entered the shop of one of the stationers, as booksellers were then called, and inquiring for a Bible of the London edition, when he came to look for his text, to his astonishment and horror he discovered that the verse was omitted in the Bible! This gave the first occasion of complaint to the king of the insufferable negligence and incapacity of the London press: and, says the manuscript writer of this anecdote, first bred that great contest which followed, between the University of Cambridge and the London stationers, about the right of printing Bibles.1

The secret bibliographical history of these times would show the extraordinary state of the press in this new trade of Bibles. The writer of a curious pamphlet exposes the combination of those called the king’s printers, with their contrivances to keep up the prices of Bibles; their correspondence with the booksellers of Scotland and Dublin, by which means they retained the privilege in their own hands: the king’s London printers got Bibles printed cheaper at Edinburgh. In 1629, when folio Bibles were wanted, the Cambridge printers sold them at ten shillings in quires; on this the Londoners set six printing-houses at work, and, to annihilate the Cambridgians, printed a similar folio Bible, but sold with it five hundred quarto Roman Bibles, and five hundred quarto English, at five shillings a book; which proved the ruin of the folio Bibles, by keeping them down under the cost price. Another competition arose among those who printed English Bibles in Holland, in duodecimo, with an English colophon, for half the price even of the lowest in London. Twelve thousand of these duodecimo Bibles, with notes, fabricated in Holland, usually by our fugitive sectarians, were seized by the king’s printers, as contrary to the statute.2 Such was this shameful war of Bibles — folios, quartos, and duodecimos, even in the days of Charles the First. The public spirit of the rising sects was the real occasion of these increased demands for Bibles.

During the civil wars they carried on the same open trade and competition, besides the private ventures of the smuggled Bibles. A large impression of these Dutch English Bibles were burnt by order of the Assembly of Divines, for these three errors:—

Gen. xxxvi. 24. — This is that ass that found rulers in the wilderness — for mule.

Ruth iv. 13. — The Lord gave her corruption — for conception.

Luke xxi. 28. — Look up, and lift up your hands, for your condemnation draweth nigh — for redemption.

These errata were none of the printer’s; but, as a writer of the times expresses it, “egregious blasphemies, and damnable errata” of some sectarian, or some Bellamy editor of that day!

The printing of Bibles at length was a privilege conceded to one William Bentley; but he was opposed by Hills and Field; and a paper war arose, in which they mutually recriminated on each other, with equal truth.

Field printed, in 1653, what was called the Pearl Bible; alluding, I suppose, to that diminutive type in printing, for it could not derive its name from its worth. It is in twenty-fours;3 but to contract the mighty book into this dwarfishness, all the original Hebrew text prefixed to the Psalms, explaining the occasion and the subject of their composition, is wholly expunged. This Pearl Bible, which may be inspected among the great collection of our English Bibles at the British Museum, is set off by many notable errata, of which these are noticed:—

Romans vi. 13. — Neither yield ye your members as instruments of righteousness unto sin — for unrighteousness.

First Corinthians vi. 9. — Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God? — for shall not inherit.

This erratum served as the foundation of a dangerous doctrine; for many libertines urged the text from this corrupt Bible against the reproofs of a divine.

This Field was a great forger; and it is said that he received a present of 1500l. from the Independents to corrupt a text in Acts vi. 3, to sanction the right of the people to appoint their own pastors.4 The corruption was the easiest possible; it was only to put a ye instead of a we; so that the right in Field’s Bible emanated from the people, not from the apostles. The only account I recollect of this extraordinary state of our Bibles is a happy allusion in a line of Butler:—

Religion spawn’d a various rout,

Of petulant, capricious sects,

The maggots of corrupted texts


In other Bibles by Hills and Field we may find such abundant errata, reducing the text to nonsense or to blasphemy, making the Scriptures contemptible to the multitude, who came to pray, and not to scoff.

It is affirmed, in the manuscript account already referred to, that one Bible swarmed with six thousand faults! Indeed, from another source we discover that “Sterne, a solid scholar, was the first who summed up the three thousand and six hundred faults that were in our printed Bibles of London.”5 If one book can be made to contain near four thousand errors, little ingenuity was required to reach to six thousand; but perhaps this is the first time so remarkable an incident in the history of literature has ever been chronicled. And that famous edition of the Vulgate, by Pope Sixtus the Fifth, a memorable book of blunders, which commands such high prices, ought now to fall in value, before the pearl Bible, in twenty-fours, of Messrs. Hills and Field!

Mr. Field and his worthy coadjutor seem to have carried the favour of the reigning powers over their opponents; for I find a piece of their secret history. They engaged to pay 500l. per annum to some, “whose names I forbear to mention,” warily observes the manuscript writer; and above 100l. per annum to Mr. Marchmont Needham and his wife, out of the profits of the sales of their Bibles; deriding, insulting, and triumphing over others, out of their confidence in their great friends and purse, as if they were lawless and free, both from offence and punishment.6 This Marchmont Needham is sufficiently notorious, and his secret history is probably true; for in a Mercurius Politicus of this unprincipled Cobbett of his day, I found an elaborate puff of an edition published by the annuity-granter to this worthy and his wife!

Not only had the Bible to suffer these indignities of size and price, but the Prayer-book was once printed in an illegible and worn-out type; on which the printer being complained of, he stoutly replied, that “it was as good as the price afforded; and being a book which all persons ought to have by heart, it was no matter whether it was read or not, so that it was worn out in their hands.” The puritans seem not to have been so nice about the source of purity itself.

These hand-bibles of the sectarists, with their six thousand errata, like the false Duessa, covered their crafty deformity with a fair raiment; for when the great Selden, in the assembly of divines, delighted to confute them in their own learning, he would say, as Whitelock reports, when they had cited a text to prove their assertion, “Perhaps in your little pocket-bible with gilt leaves,” which they would often pull out and read, “the translation may be so, but the Greek or the Hebrew signifies this.”

While these transactions were occurring, it appears that the authentic translation of the Bible, such as we now have it, by the learned translators in James the First’s time, was suffered to lie neglected. The copies of the original manuscript were in the possession of two of the king’s printers, who, from cowardice, consent, and connivance, suppressed the publication; considering that the Bible full of errata, and often, probably, accommodated to the notions of certain sectarists, was more valuable than one authenticated by the hierarchy! Such was the state of the English Bible till 1660!7

The proverbial expression of chapter and verse seems peculiar to ourselves, and, I suspect, originated in the puritanic period, probably just before the civil wars under Charles the First, from the frequent use of appealing to the Bible on the most frivolous occasions, practised by those whom South calls “those mighty men at chapter and verse.” With a sort of religious coquetry, they were vain of perpetually opening their gilt pocket Bibles; they perked them up with such self-sufficiency and perfect ignorance of the original, that the learned Selden found considerable amusement in going to their “assembly of divines,” and puzzling or confuting them, as we have noticed. A ludicrous anecdote on one of these occasions is given by a contemporary, which shows how admirably that learned man amused himself with this “assembly of divines!” They were discussing the distance between Jerusalem and Jericho, with a perfect ignorance of sacred or of ancient geography; one said it was twenty miles, another ten, and at last it was concluded to be only seven, for this strange reason, that fish was brought from Jericho to Jerusalem market! Selden observed, that “possibly the fish in question was salted,” and silenced these acute disputants.

It would probably have greatly discomposed these “chapter and verse” men to have informed them that the Scriptures had neither chapter nor verse! It is by no means clear how the holy writings were anciently divided, and still less how quoted or referred to. The honour of the invention of the present arrangement of the Scriptures is ascribed to Robert Stephens, by his son, in the preface to his Concordance, a task which he performed during a journey on horseback from Paris to London, in 1551; and whether it was done as Yorick would in his Shandean manner lounging on his mule, or at his intermediate baits, he has received all possible thanks for this employment of his time. Two years afterwards he concluded with the Bible. But that the honour of every invention may be disputed, Sanctus Pagninus’s Bible, printed at Lyons in 1527, seems to have led the way to these convenient divisions; Stephens, however, improved on Pagninus’s mode of paragraphical marks and marginal verses; and our present “chapter and verse,” more numerous and more commodiously numbered, were the project of this learned printer, to recommend his edition of the Bible; trade and learning were once combined! Whether in this arrangement any disturbance of the continuity of the text has followed, is a subject not fitted for my inquiry.

1 Harl. MS. 6395.

2 “Scintilla, or a light broken into darke Warehouses; of some Printers, sleeping Stationers, and combining Booksellers; in which is only a touch of their forestalling and ingrossing of Books in Pattents, and raysing them to excessive prises. Left to the consideration of the high and honourable House of Parliament, now assembled. London: Nowhere to be sold, but somewhere to be given.” 1641.

3 A technical printing-term for a sheet containing twenty-four pages.

4 The passage is as follows, and is addressed by the apostles to “the multitude of the disciples,” who desired an improved clerical rule:—“Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”

5 G. Garrard’s Letter to the Earl of Strafford, vol. i. p. 208.

6 Harl. MS. 7580.

7 See the London Printers’ Lamentation on the Press Oppressed. Harl. Coll. iii. 280.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37