By Kay Carter
It’s fair to say that Cambridge University Library is significantly more attractive from the inside than the out. Designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s, in a style described as “rationalist-fascist”, its looming 17-storey tower and faintly menacing, prison-like windows belie a rather cheery interior.
I make my way to the first-floor South Corridor, which is punctuated by secluded study nooks with ornate carved doors. Beyond the friendly portraits of notable alumni is the Anderson Room, and on the left-hand side as I enter I find the door I’m looking for. It swings immediately open to reveal the beaming smile and welcoming handshake of Dr Onesimus Ngundu, who ushers me in to one of the largest collection of printed Bibles in the world.
Dr Ngundu is the Research Assistant responsible for the Bible Society’s collection of books and papers, which has been housed at Cambridge University Library since 1985. It comprises more than 43,000 printed Bibles, and has primary resources for the study of Bible translation in more than 2,000 languages. “This unique collection is the legacy of mainly British missionaries overseas,” he says. “Looking after it is not only a great responsibility but also a privilege.”
Ngundu is from Zimbabwe and was previously Principal of Harare Theological College. He came to Cambridge for a sabbatical in 2002 and stayed on at the university to research his PhD on the History of Church Marriages, during which time he become part of the academic community at Tyndale House. In 2010 he joined the staff of the University Library as Research Assistant, with the responsibility for facilitating scholarly study and curating the treasure trove of materials collected by the Bible Society since its foundation in 1804.
Laid out across a large table near the door, a number of books are reclining on upholstered stands and, in what is clearly a labour of love, Ngundu starts to explain the significance of each. He begins with the Erasmus Bible, the first New Testament ever published in its original Greek. “Pick it up,” he urges, “you can touch it.” Assuming, therefore, that it must be a facsimile, I lift it from its cushion and ask when it was printed. “1516” Ngundu replies. “It’s a first edition.” I am very, very careful as I place it back on its stand.
The next Bible on show is another first edition — a Luther New Testament from 1522, the first printed New Testament to be translated into German directly from the original language. This time I keep a respectful distance. “I always put the Erasmus Bible together with Martin Luther’s New Testament,” says Ngundu. “Reading the New Testament in its original Greek caused Luther to see that it is the condition of the heart that matters to God, not the paying of indulgences.”
Smaller than the Luther and the Erasmus, I hazard a guess at the third Bible on the table — a Tyndale New Testament, the first English New Testament to be translated directly from the original language, the copy in front of me is a second edition from 1534. “Of course, it was illegal to translate the Scriptures into English then,” says Ngundu, “so Tyndale crossed over to continental Europe to do it. He took advantage of the traders and he would load up all the New Testaments into boxes and send them over to Church leaders in this country.
“In 1536 they murdered Tyndale, but he did not die in vain. When the King James version was created in 1611, 83% of the New Testament of the King James Bible was the same as William Tyndale’s Bible.”
Ngundu indicates a handsome volume. “That is a first edition of the 1611 King James. In 2011, a service was held at Westminster Abbey to mark its 400th anniversary, attended by 2,500 guests. The Queen, as the patron of the Bible Society, was a very special guest and the then Archbishop of Canterbury gave a message on the impact and influence of the English Bible in British history.
“Tyndale’s work continues to challenge me in each given moment. He gave up his opportunity to lecture at Cambridge University and said, no, I’m not interested, my interest is in translating the Scriptures. Our calling may make us give up something important, and that may look ridiculous in the eyes of the world, but in the end it’s good that Tyndale did what he did.
“In this collection,” he continues, “we are thinking of two things. First, we’re preserving transmission of Scripture as the printed word, from hand transmission to printed transmission.” He points to a large painting on the wall. “This is the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. He is dictating the Gospel of John to a young man, and this captures what was considered a very important part of Church leadership — to see to it that manuscripts were transmitted for the sake of the next generation.
“Second, we are celebrating those who worked long hours to give people across the world Scripture in their mother tongue. We know that some left this country carrying their own coffins, going to West Africa, where because of the mosquitoes they knew they would not come back. They were right. None of them came home, they all died on the mission field. They understood the importance of what they were doing. The collection is a daily reminder of the sacrifices that Christian missionaries made to present native languages in written forms, eventually translating the Bible into respective mother tongues.”
We head downstairs to where the international collection is kept. “This Bible is one of my favourites,” says Ngundu, picking up an edition covered in rough animal skin. “We call it the Malagasy Bible and it’s from Madagascar. The Bible had only just been translated into Malagasy in 1835 when persecution broke out against Christians. Christians were slaughtered, including by being buried alive, but before they were murdered they said to each other, we should bury Bibles in the caves or wherever we can for the sake of our children and for posterity. Those who survive, if they can remember where we would have put them, can dig them up. So they buried them all over. They even went to the extent of killing their own animals to provide covers for the Bibles, for the love of the Scriptures. They said, you can kill us but please do not destroy this book, it is a book of life. This one was found 20 years after the persecution, and it is the only one they were ever to recover.”
Sometimes Bibles are threatened by wider social forces, not specifically targeted at Christians. “We have the largest collection of Chinese Bibles in the world,” explains Ngundu. “With the introduction of the Cultural Revolution in China in 1951, the government made Mandarin the official language of the country and outlawed all other Chinese dialects, and ordered literature in other dialects to be destroyed. So the Bible Society branch which was in China took all the Bibles in Chinese dialects and sent them to London for preservation. Today, any Chinese PhD students interested in the translation of the Bible into the once-common dialects, come to Cambridge to consult our collection.
“We often have readers from Tyndale House come to visit the collection. One saw the Bible in his mother tongue here in the collection for the first time. He is from Botswana and his mother tongue is no longer used because in 1960 Botswana adopted a national language, Tswana. He had never seen anything in print in his own language, but his grandmother had always told him there was a time when the Bible was in their mother tongue. When he saw it he began to weep out of joy and excitement. Before returning to Botswana the Bible Society made him a facsimile copy. He went back a very happy and grateful man.”
The oldest printed Scripture outside the Western world is the Malay Bible, dating from 1651. A Muslim country, Malaysia has a strong tradition of freedom of worship and Church gathering. “For some reason,” explains Ngundu, “about four years ago a group claimed a monopoly over the use of the word Allah for Islam. Until then in Malaysia you would use the word Allah for God whether you were Christian or a Muslim, and Christians had used the word Allah for God since the beginning.”