Want to Put Yourself in the Bible? This Guy Did
One of Henry VIII’s top courtiers took biblical matters into his own hands.
Lots of people want to go down in history and even more want to be famous. But if joining the cast of Selling Sunset is out of reach you could do worse than to write yourself into history’s bestselling book of all time: the Bible. Recently published research reveals that one famous politician did just that. Thomas Cromwell, a courtier and religious reformer, cut and paste his own portrait onto the title page of Henry VIII’s special edition English Bible.
The Bible in question is known as the “Great Bible,” the first authorized English-language Bible. It was printed in 1538-9, at the behest of Henry VIII, and was purchased by or for every parish church in the country. Thomas Cromwell, a religious reformer, was the mastermind behind the project. At the time he was one of the most powerful men in the country. As Henry’s deputy for church affairs he was heavily involved in the commissioning and production of these Bibles, including two copies of a special hand-colored edition for Henry VIII himself.
When Eyal Polag, a senior lecturer in material history at Queen Mary University of London, and Paola Ricciardi, a senior research scientist at Cambridge University, examined one of these hand-colored Bibles they noticed something strange. When they used enhancing technologies (x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, high-res digital microscopy, advanced technical imaging, and reflectance spectroscopy) to examine the luxurious front page more closely, they found something.
In the black-and-white edition produced for parishes, Henry VIII is enthroned at the top of the page distributing the Bible to his subjects. Further down the page, in the middle register, two of Henry’s chief advisers and ministers—Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Cromwell, our hero—also pass out Bibles to the people. In the painted version, however, Cromwell gets a promotion: he has been moved up and now stands to Henry’s left, passively receiving the book from the King himself. “The transformation,” Polag and Ricciardi write, “was both careful and premeditated.” As early modern photoshop goes, the editors did an excellent job. So good that scholars say it was likely “a targeted campaign” orchestrated by Cromwell himself for political reasons. It is, the authors say, the earliest example of politically motivated photoshop.
Cromwell was neither the first nor the last to cut and paste portions of the Bible, but most others are interested in changing the actual words and meaning of the text. The most famous, to Americans at least, is founding father Thomas Jefferson, who used a sharp blade and glue to make his collage-book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (commonly known to us as the Jefferson Bible). Jefferson’s goal was to separate “the most sublime morality” of Jesus from the supernatural “dross of his bibliographers.” The latter, in Jefferson’s mind, comprised most of the New Testament, but was as easy to cut out of the text, he wrote to John Adams, as “diamonds from dunghills.”
The 84-page Jefferson Bible, which Jefferson never intended to be read as a “Bible,” celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. Its story is charted in historian Peter Manseau’s soon-to-be-released biblio-biography. The Jefferson Bible starts, somewhat confusingly, with “Chapter Two.” The reason? He thought the first chapters of all four Gospels were utterly useless. Instead his Bible began, somewhat ironically given his role in establishing America’s independence, with taxes. Jefferson allowed nothing in his life of Jesus that did not pass the reason test. Supernatural events, miracles, and angels all end up on the cutting room floor. Jefferson’s cut-and-paste Bible kept the ethics and inspired generations of later historians to sift the wheat from the chaff. The controversial Five Gospels, a translation of the Gospels (including the Gospel of Thomas) produced by Jesus Seminar scholars using historical methods, was dedicated to Jefferson precisely because he took scissors and paste to the word of God. Jefferson’s skepticism about the content of the books of the New Testament is one of the reasons why, despite recent efforts to rehabilitate him as a traditional Christian, his political rivals called him an atheist and warned voters against voting for him.
Though others didn’t use cut-and-paste, neither Jefferson nor Cromwell were the first to try and change the Bible. The second century Christian Marcion decided to cut most of the gospels from his canon and used only an edited version of Luke. Another Christian writer, Tatian, produced a synthesis of the four canonical gospels called the Diatessaron and left large portions of the story out of his version. Not everyone approved of this sort of thing: the third century North African lawyer Tertullian compared Marcion to a “Pontic mouse” that gnaws away at the edges of the Gospels.
More often, however, people added material into the New Testament. Under the influence of other gospels, both canonical and not, early Christians added additional verses to the otherwise abrupt conclusion of the Gospel of Mark. These versions included a resurrection appearance by Jesus and a divine commissioning of the church, the latter of which connected Christian readers and audience members to the Jesus story. Other scribes wrote an apocryphal story about Jesus forgiving a woman caught in adultery into the margins of a manuscript and, over time, this story migrated into the body of the text. Similarly, a great deal of effort was spent trying to connect 666, the number of the beast in Revelation 13:18, to a historical figure. As Garrick Allen has shown in his book Manuscripts of the Book of Revelation, one medieval text known as GA 1778, adds that the number of the beast refers “to the false prophet Muhammad.” A pretty audacious addition to the interpretive tradition.
For all his politicking Cromwell didn’t stay in favor for long. After engineering Henry VIII’s disastrous short-lived marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1540, conservatives at the royal court seized their chance to go on the attack and accused him of a long list of crimes including leniency to heretics and plotting to marry Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary. He was executed by beheading in July 1540. But, hey, at least—for a brief period—he got to be on the cover of the Bible.