Biblical manuscripts reproduced through photography and illumination

May 26, 1991|By Religious News Service

JERUSALEM -- Michael Falter says his interest in rare Bibles began more than a decade ago during a tour of the British Museum.

Mr. Falter recalls staring at an old Bible through a glass case, wishing that he could see more than just two pages.

He didn't have to wait too long. In 1985, Mr. Falter produced a collectors' edition of a Hebrew Bible compiled in the 18th century from ancient manuscripts by the Rev. Benjamin Kennicott, an Anglican clergyman.

Today, the 40-year-old Mr. Falter is a top publisher of old religious manuscripts, and he is working on a project with international implications. It is a Medieval Bible commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th century and written by a Spanish rabbi.

The work is known as the Alba Bible, and its reproduction has been ordered by a Spanish Jewish industrialist as a present to Spanish King Juan Carlos. The Bible is meant to

serve as a symbol of reconciliation between Spain and the Jewish community on the 500th anniversary of the Inquisition, which began in 1492.

The Alba Bible was commissioned in 1422 by a Catholic cleric from a rabbi in Castile. Historians say the rabbi at first refused to write the Old Testament in Spanish with illustrations, citing the commandment "Thou shall not make graven images."

But the rabbi eventually relented, and after eight years, the Bible was completed. The Alba is 1,026 pages, nearly every one of which is decorated with miniatures or gold.

Mr. Falter says he uses three criteria in determining what to publish. The work must be important, it must be in good condition and it must be attractive.

Mr. Falter says it takes years to acquire permission to handle the manuscripts, which are usually in the possession of major libraries or museums. He photographs each page, using a special light to prevent the ancient pages from being harmed. The pages are then illuminated and their colors separated into five to nine shades.

The price is not cheap. The Kennicott Bible has been priced at $6,700 and was printed in one edition at 500 copies.

That Bible is named after an English Christian Hebraist born in 1718 who served most of his life as a canon in the Christ Church in Oxford. He and his daughter roamed Europe for Hebrew manuscripts, and his 922-page Bible became one of the most treasured of such works, with only 30 scholars allowed to study it in 200 years.

Mr. Falter says he finds more interest in Bible collecting in the United States than in Europe. The result is that most of his customers are Americans, who he says seem to find it easier to pay for his high-priced reproductions than Europeans.

"Pretty much all of the collecting libraries, all of the university libraries have bought our books," Mr. Falter says, as well as "many temples and a number of non-Jewish institutions."

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