VATICAN CITY — Today's must have-items are sleek hand-held devices that let us download a thousand apps and perform a dozen tasks at once. But for faithful Christians down the generations, the must-have item has been a copy of God's Word in their own hands – a dream some have been willing to give up their own lives for.
While a few clicks on the web or a trip to the local bookstore are all Americans need to get their hands on a Bible, the story of recording and preserving Scriptures over thousands of years has often been one of struggle, suffering and painstaking personal effort.
Most of all, it is a story of the extraordinary survival of God's word in spite of the odds, says Dr. Scott Carroll, the driving force behind a major new Bible exhibition launched at the Vatican today.
He has exhaustively scoured collections from the States to China in search of items for "Verbum Domini," a stunning collection of 150 biblical antiquities set in a quiet wing just off St. Peter's Square. Most of the rare biblical texts come from The Green Collection, owned by Christian family behind Hobby Lobby, the nation's largest privately owned arts and crafts retailer.
"From the sublime to the simple," Dr. Carroll, director of The Green Collection, has endeavored to choose items that will communicate the wider historical context of the Bible and foster a greater appreciation of the book that so many freely enjoy today.
In the first room, glass cases holds rare scrolls, among them a Jewish Old Testament scroll dedicated in Poland in 1934, not long before the Nazis invaded and began a campaign of extermination against the Jewish population there. Another scroll is one of only a few to have survived the Spanish Inquisition.
A small glass cabinet displays two paper cut outs in the shape of shoes with portions of the Old Testament written onto them. These were hidden inside shoes to prevent Nazi officials from finding them – a poignant example of the lengths people would go to stay close to God's word.
"They tell the story of the survival [of Scripture] through terrible times," said Dr. Carroll as he led The Christian Post and other media outlets on a tour through darkened rooms and past thousands of years of scriptural history.
Some of the earliest known fragments of the Psalms, Gospels, Romans, and Hebrews are among the carefully selected items on display, as well as personal effects that were engraved with Scripture by their owners of centuries ago.
In the section on the English-language Scriptures, a near complete copy of William Tyndale's New Testament points to the personal cost that was borne to translate the Bible into the common vernacular. A Bible in which the veneration of Thomas Becket has been scored through recalls the difficult years of the Reformation. Their beliefs would cost both men their lives.
The exhibition culminates with copies of King James's translation of the Psalms and a first edition of his New Testament side by side with a rare Catholic Bible.
Their juxtaposition demonstrates the "interfaith complexities of the Bible," Dr. Carroll explains.
Whatever the tradition or faith or persuasion of the visitor, his greatest desire is to see them moved and inspired by what they see.
"When you see the work that went into preserving the Word of the Lord it makes you appreciate it and not take it for granted," he told The Christian Post.
"We don't want it to be a passive experience, we want it to be an active experience."
Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, said he hopes people will go home encouraged to read the Bible more frequently.
"The Bible has become commonplace and it's not necessarily read and known as it has in the past.
I think we probably have the most ignorant population we've ever had because we don't teach it in our schools like we used to," Green told CP.
"We want to encourage people to be reengaged, read with their Scripture, and be reacquainted with God."
Verbum Domini is a free exhibition on display at the Vatican until April 15.
Christian Post Reporter Katherine T. Phan contributed to this report.