That Tattered Old Bible

by Don Heese
(Bible Editions & Versions – Jan/Mar 2002)

A book-dealer friend once said to me, “I don’t see why anyone would ever want to buy an old Bible that was a cripple. Why not buy one in pristine condition?” I suppose the answer to this question depends on a person’s viewpoint regarding his own personal collection.

First, let us ask, “Why is this Bible tattered?” The cover is worn out and falling off the book. The pages are dog-eared from being turned many times. Some of the pages are loose and falling out. It probably got in this condition because its owner was devoted to the Word of God. They literally read that book to death! Most likely that Bible was a great comfort to them for many years. They used it to teach their children, and the children learned to follow God because of their teaching. So, a worn out Bible often means that someone used it regularly. I have purchased Bibles that were in great condition. Obviously they had never been used. They lay on a shelf or in a box for years, never being opened. But I like adding tattered old Bibles to my collection! Some of them I have restored, while others I kept just the way they were as a testimony to someone’s love for God’s Word.

Another reason I add tattered old Bibles to my collection is due to their historical value. I consider myself to be an historical collector. Any museum, or individual collector, who loves the Bible would give his next month’s paycheck for a first edition of Tyndale’s New Testament. The 1525 copy of Tyndale’s first issue, referred to as the “Cologne fragment,” was a tattered volume! Its title page is gone, and it ends part way through the book of Matthew. Yet today, its value is well in excess of one million dollars. The second printing was dated 1526. And it has survived in only two incomplete copies. One of them recently sold for $1,500,000!

Few early-printed English Bibles can be found in complete condition. They are literally worn out from use. Yet today, it takes many thousands of dollars to buy one of them. I have a number of 17th Century English Bibles in my collection. And I do not think I have even one perfect copy! If you want a well-rounded collection, you are going to have to include a few tattered old Bibles.

My personal collection is primarily focused on Bibles printed in America. One of my prize volumes is the first English Bible printed in America by Robert Aitken. When I bought it, it was a cripple. It had several pages missing. I added facsimiles of the missing pages and had it rebound. About a year ago a well-known book dealer listed an Aitken Bible with more missing pages than mine. His price was $50,000. That isn’t a bad price for an old cripple! I also have copies of all three of the first German Bibles printed in America. None is in perfect condition, but they are historical treasures, even though crippled.

I guess I have purchased hundreds of tattered old Bibles over the years. Many of them are not even listed in Hill’s, The English Bible in America, which is the most complete catalogue of English Bibles printed in our country. In some cases I may have obtained the only copy in existence, to my knowledge. I feel honored to be able to preserve these tattered volumes for future generations.

Let me encourage you to take another look at those old tattered Bibles. If you are buying books for your own library to be used in personal study, you would be better off with a beat-up copy of a rare translation than to have no copy at all. If you are collecting with the hope that your collection will appreciate in value, and it will, you would do well to look at beat-up copies of historically-significant issues. You might not have the chance for a better one in the future. Buy it now, even if more discriminating collectors want nothing to do with it. Remember, that tattered old Bible was valuable to someone in the past. And it might be again, to someone else, in the future.