From Duluth Budgeteer News
Arts & Entertainment
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Sunday, July 27, 1997


Bible collection the key to local history 
Keepers of the Word 

Jodi L. Wallin  
Budgeteer News  

Don Pearce curatorWhen settlers came to the Duluth area, they brought with them their most treasured  possessions.  Those personal belongings and artifacts tell a great deal about the people who came to this country and adds to the history of the area.  Part of that history is found in the Bibles people brought with them from across the sea and were later translated into local languages. 

Bibles in Swedish, Polish, German and Norwegian from our ancestors can be found in a special display at the University of Minnesota-Duluth now until September. 

"They tell us the history of the area's people, not just Christianity," said Don Pearce, curator of the Ramseyer Bible Collection.  "The people that brought them here. Where did they come from? Where did end up?"  Those are the types of questions the Bibles bring about.  Immigrants brought their Bibles over to American in their steamer trunks.  The first book in the collection, a Swiss-German Bible brought over by Rev. Henry Ramseyer, cost his family six horses.  "It's indicative of the importance  (of a family Bible) to a person," Pearce said. 

"The Scriptures of Minnesotans," display on the third floor of the Library features 25 books that trace the history of the early immigrants through the later arrival to the area, like the Vietnamese.  There are Bibles published in Duluth in the 1880's in the Finnish language as well as translations in Ojibwa.  The display's oldest Bible, a 1712 German translation, is a highlight, but the translations don't stop there.  They continue all the way to the present with the 1993 Black Bible Chronicles that tell of Christianity in the current cultural language of African Americans. 

The display is a minute portion of the 1,800 volumes that make up the Ramseyer collection.  Housed at the Library, the collection dates back to the 13th century with a Jewish Torah and encompasses 406 languages.  Though the primary focus is Christian Bibles, the collection includes several scrolls of the Torah and two 15th century manuscript copies of the Koran.  Sermons, hymns, devotionals and commentaries are a part of the collection as well. 

With translations in over 400 languages, obvious questions about the accuracy and meaning of the text surface.  "you can't translate (directly) from language to language," Pearce said.  "That's what I find fascinating is this question of translation.  In some languages we don't have equivalents.  How do you translate 'Jesus is the cornerstone' in a society where there is no cornerstone?  How do you translate the 23rd Psalm into Eskimo?  Sheep and green grass don't exist there. (It brings up) the whole question of literal translation." 

Ad in local newspaper describing the display"Do you want a precise rendering that you won't understand or do you want something you can understand?"  Asked Pearce.  "Some of these words don't have the same meaning anymore, there's always some change.  Sometimes its a problem of  our own language.  English has moved meanings.  The church in the first century A.D. was different than it is now.  In literal translation it's very hard to pin that down.  We're only now beginning to know what the Greek and Hebrew meant."  Pearce said.  "It's not the word of God that's shifting, our understanding is shifting.  We should be growing and understanding more.  We continue to look at it, understand it and reinterpret it.  It's not a solid. fixed thing."  Especially in light of new findings in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have only been made open to a wide range of scholars in the past decade.  "The Dead Sea Scrolls have given us a lot more information on the Hebrew text," Pearce said. "(They're ) catching a lot of errors that have been made over the years." 

Even the King James Bible, which has been considered the authority in Bibles, was a politically authorized version, not a theologically authorized version, as so many have believed, said Pearce.  It was developed to offset the popularity of a Calvinist unauthorized version, which was highly anti-organized church. 

The Ramseyer's collection of Bibles come in 43 Native American languages from the Americas, including a first edition New Testament in Cherokee invented by Chief Sequoia.  Editions run from the old and unusual - the Catholic Lectionary can be found in the Aztec language - to the newest and most modern - the complete King James Version in laser on the business card size piece of plastic.  There are new version coming about at the rate of one a year, said Pearce.  One of the newest is called "Rapping With Jesus" and is written in, of course, rap.  There are now non-gender translations available.  Ironically, God has no gender in the original language. 

It is also ironic that the older the book, the more likely it will endure.  The Torah is made of sheepskin.  "That will last forever," Pearce said.  On the other hand, a first edition of the Bible printed as a magazine supplement in New York in the 1880's has paper  "so bad you can barely touch it."  Newspapers from the era are turning to dust.  "Some of the early things are extremely durable.  We have a 17th century Greek text, it's 400 years old and doing extremely well." 

"A lot of things are so fragile we have to restrict how they're handled," Pearce said.  The high heat and humidity of the Library in the summer months are not ideal situation to store books," he said.  "We'll have better facilities in the new library." 

The entire collection is open to the public, with a bibliography available at the Research & Information Desk at the Library.  Those wishing to study or examine the books in storage need to make arrangements before hand.  The collection "The Scriptures of Minnesotans" currently on display can be viewed any time the Library is open.  During the summer months the Library at UMD is open from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.  Monday through Thursday:  7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. 

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