Bach’s Bible

Concordia Seminary, the Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary in Saint Louis, owns amongst its rare-book collection a three-volume Bible once owned by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

Bach affixed his signature, written carefully in small quill marks, to the title page of each volume, and he wrote some marginalia notes on various pages.

In the company of colleagues from Webster University and a few rare-book conservators from other Saint Louis institutions, I visited the library Friday to witness this Bible first-hand.

And I must say — to be millimeters away from a Bible in which Bach himself wrote annotations . . . well, this is a moving and powerful experience.

We entered the rare-book room to find two of the three volumes just sitting on a plain wooden table in the center of the room.  Had a candle been burning, this would have felt like an altar.

And it was, of a sort.

As I departed, I may have let the back of one index finger brush against the leather-bound cover of one of the volumes.

Bach was apparently a particularly religious man.  Read on.

From the Concordia Seminary website:

The 3-volume Bible commentary compiled by 17th-century theologian Abraham Calov and once in the library of Johann Sebastian Bach has been in the Seminary Library collection since it was given to the Seminary by the Reichle family of Frankenmuth, MI, in the 1930s. The volumes are the only known, i.e., identified, books from the library of Lutheran composer J. S. Bach. Calov is both editor and author of the commentary, using as he does both Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and primarily Luther’s comments on the text, adding his own commentary when no material is available in Luther’s works.  The work was printed in 1681-82. Some 25 marginal annotations of Bach, along with underlining and other marginal markings, are evidence of the composer’s use of the volumes.  Careful analysis of the handwriting, as well as technical analysis of the ink done in the 1980s, established the authenticity of Bach’s ownership.

Examples of the marginalia in Bach’s own hand:

The library also houses a number of 16th- and 17th-century books with illuminations and watercolors.  One of the more interesting books included a portion of a page written by Martin Luther (1483-1546).  This was pretty heady stuff, too.

Finally, the collection houses a 17th-century Spanish illuminated antiphonary with thick vellum leaves, all of which were damaged in a fire at some point in the intervening centuries.  I sang a little bit of a psalm, direct from the page (very large, at about 20″x40″) to God’s ears.  The book is a beautiful work of art indeed.


My colleague Kim Kleinman, who arranged the visit, penned a note this morning to several correspondents: “For me (probably the one with the least direct academic/professional/confessional connection to the excursion), it was a magical day. Magical for the treasures we saw–not just the Bach Bible but a manuscript of Martin Luther, the spectacular Spanish antiphonary, a Haggadah, and a hand lettered almanac–and for the levels of expertise those of you who could be there brought to the discussion.”


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