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The Bible: The diverse market for the most read book in the world (now sold by Donald Trump)

This collection of texts, written by different authors at different times, comes in all different styles and formats: camouflage Bibles, Bibles for women, cartoon versions and biblical word search puzzles. The Republican candidate has entered the business

presidente Donald Trump sosteniendo una Biblia fuera de la iglesia de St. John, frente a la Casa Blanca, Washington
Donald Trump, holding a Bible in front of St. John's Church, across from the White House, Washington, June 1, 2020.Patrick Semansky (AP)
Sergio C. Fanjul

The King James Bible is considered one of the best translations of the sacred text, and also one of the great works of 17th century English literature. Now there is the God Bless the USA Bible, which includes the King James Version translation along with a copy of the U.S. Constitution and other founding father documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. As for the cherry on top, it has the handwritten lyrics of God Bless the USA, by country singer Lee Greenwood. It costs about $60, and on the cover, there are the Stars and Stripes. This is the product that Donald Trump has agreed to sell. If it is true that the Bible is the best-selling book in history, it can’t be a bad investment. And, moreover, Trump’s Bible endorsement is also an act of political propaganda.

“All Americans need a Bible in their home, and I have many: it’s my favorite book,” Trump says in a promotional video. “We must make America pray again,” he adds, paraphrasing his motto “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). It is not the first time that the Republican has promoted a product: he has also sold sports shoes (some with a gold finish) and perfumes.

The Book of Books

The Bible is a book, made of ink and paper, but it is a very particular book: it is the Book, with capital letters. It has served as a spiritual guide to countless individuals and societies, and because of its teachings and interpretations, heretics have been persecuted and wars have been started. It is the story of the creation of the Universe, of God’s pact with the Jewish people, of a prophet born in Palestine in the 1st century who preaches love and poverty and creates a new religion that spreads throughout the world. “The greatest influencer in history,” as a recent musical described Jesus Christ.

“The Bible is a collection of books, independent in origin, written by different people at different times in history, said to have been inspired by God,” explains expert Javier Alonso, a Semitic philologist, biblical scholar and professor at IE University in Spain. These books were gathered in an editing process: first the Old Testament, which was believed to be finalized by the Council of Jamnia, around 90 AD; then, the New Testament, which was formed gradually until the third century. “In this a canon is made with the texts that reflect the main trends of Christianity at the time, and other trends are set aside, such as the Gnostic ones,” adds Alonso. Gnosticism, and the famous apocryphal gospels, were considered a heresy.

Biblia
An inmate shows his Bible in the cells of the Usme police station in Bogotá, Colombia on March 23, 2023.Diego Cuevas

According to legend, at the First Council of Nicaea, held in 325 AD to impose orthodoxy, a dove flew in and landed on the four canonical gospels: Luke, Matthew, John and Mark. “The most radical currents disappear and Paul’s current prevails... Precisely seven of Paul’s letters are the only biblical texts whose author we know, because the evangelists are unknown to us,” says the expert.

The Bible continues its path: although the Old Testament is written first in Hebrew and then translated into Aramaic until it is translated into Greek; The New Testament is written directly in Greek. From there it will be translated into Latin, whose most widespread version, the Vulgate, will be the model for modern European languages. The first book that Gutenberg printed, in the mid-15th century, is the Vulgate: the invention of the printing press greatly helped its dissemination.

The Bible market

But in addition to a text with a long and troubled existence, the Bible is an object that is bought and sold. In 2020, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the Bible sold 100 million copies, in 100 countries and 23 languages. The British Bible Society estimates that between five and seven billion copies have been sold throughout history. And it was also the book most stolen from American libraries, according to the Guinness Book of Records. It is found in churches, some schools, on the nightstand of many hotel rooms. The Association of American Publishers found that in the first 10 months of 2023, profits of religious publishers had increased 7%, to $674 million.

“In recent times, the Bible publishing market has experienced a series of significant transformations,” say the Verbo Divino publishing house, which in its 75 years of existence has distributed around 100 million copies. “The way it is produced, distributed and consumed has evolved over time,” they point out. Digitization has also impacted the market, with electronic Bibles and cell phone apps that offer easy access to Scripture becoming increasingly popular.

A King James Bible, from the year 1617, at the Museum of the Bible in Washington.
A King James Bible, from the year 1617, at the Museum of the Bible in Washington.JIM LO SCALZO (EFE)

Another phenomenon is the diversification in translations, formats and presentation styles: there are Bibles for children, illustrated Bibles and the Bible Express (summarized in 100 stories). A Woman After God’s Own Heart Bible, edited by Elizabeth George, focuses on women. There is also the comic version of The Book of Genesis by the underground author Robert Crumb, which features very literal illustrations.

And there is The Book of Genesis published by Blackie Books, translated again from Hebrew by Javier Alonso, in what is presumed to be the only version that did not go through a religious entity first. This version, for example, avoids the word “God” and talks instead about Yahweh and Elohim, who, at times, seem like different gods: the first more humanized, the second more distant and mysterious. It’s a secular vision, in prose, that can be read as a novel or as a mythology. There are also Bibles with flowery covers and ones that have been camouflaged not to look like a Bible. And of course all the word search puzzle books based on the Scriptures.

Translation and critical apparatus

Editing the Bible comes with certain particularities: on the one hand, the rigorousness of the translation (as it is a sacred text, every word matters) and, on the other, the importance of the critical apparatus, the set of notes and variant readings based on footnotes, cross-references and other elements aimed at improving comprehension. “This apparatus provides additional information on the historical, cultural and linguistic context of the texts, which enriches the experience of reading and studying the Bible,” says the Verbo Divino publishing house. The so-called Study Bibles include different resources such as maps, introductory essays and timelines.

As a literary artifact, the Bible also has its peculiarities. “It’s a mix of genres, of voices, and there are books with different qualities,” says Alonso. For example, the Song of Songs is considered a masterpiece of poetry, while other parts of the Bible are historical narratives with no major literary value. The Books of Kings, for example, is historical in nature, and includes a part of the history of the people of Israel, while The Book of Genesis falls within the mythological narrative.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump and a Bible cover.

Trump’s initiative has not gone down well in all Christian circles and has drawn criticism on social media. Reverend Benjamin Cremer said Trump was a “demagogue co-opting our faith and even our holy scriptures for the sake of his own pursuit of power.” For his part, Pastor Jason Cornwall sees the matter as a violation of the Ten Commandments, according to Miguel Jiménez, chief correspondent of EL PAÍS in the United States.

The proceeds will not go to fund Trump’s campaign, according to God Bless the USA Bible’s website. According to The New York Times, the company has paid Trump to advertise its Bibles, and the former president will get royalties from purchases. If Michael Jordan shook up the advertising industry in the 1980s with his collaboration with brands such as Nike or McDonald’s, the last link in this chain could be seen in Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, trying to sell Bibles to conservative voters.

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