Telling the Bible's Story

More than a museum

1569 Biblia del Oso

1569 Biblia del Oso, first translation of the Bible into Spanish from the original languages. Image: Maná Museum

Today in many parts of the Americas and the Western world, it’s no secret that biblical knowledge is waning. Maná Museum of the Bible, an Alliance organisation in Mexico City, wants to encourage knowledge of the Bible and its origins, and nurture a desire to read it as well as translate it. 

It may come as a surprise that a museum is among the Wycliffe Global Alliance organisations. But the Maná Museum’s leaders share a passion for inspiring people to explore the Bible, its history and theology. Through classes, conferences, exhibits and a resource library, Maná Museum is a hub for academic exploration, personal discovery and a treasure trove of artifacts and texts. 

‘Maná Museum is definitely more than a museum’, says David Cárdenas, director of Wycliffe Global Alliance Americas Area. ‘It is a ministry that contributes in unique ways through its gifts and experience to bless all those involved in the Bible translation movement in the Americas. As part of their involvement in the Alliance training participation stream, Maná Museum staff participate collaboratively in the strengthening of other training centres with the course The Image of God and Languages.’

The museum also provides material to Alliance and partner organisations for various events. For example, in 2019 Maná Museum collaborated with the Bible Society of Chile in providing materials to complement an exhibit of locally translated Bibles.  

Museum founder Dr Cristian Gómez. Image: Maná Museum

A dream realised

Museum founder Dr Cristian Gómez grew up in Mexico City in the 1970s within easy access to a rich heritage of cultural treasures in the capital city’s many museums. As a student with a deep faith in God, he noticed the lack of a museum that showcased the history of the book that is a world heritage treasure in its own right—the Bible. 

Gómez started a collection of Bibles, which soon grew from four to 100. He approached churches and other groups about creating a museum, but there were no takers. He began to put on exhibitions in cultural spaces like academic libraries and even metro stations. Eventually he became a professor, pastor and theologian, whose academic career has spanned the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and other institutions. 

New Testaments in Chatino languages of Mexico. Image: Maná Museum

In a step of faith in 2000, in spite of limited resources, Gómez established the Maná Museum in Mexico City. It was the first museum of the Bible in the Americas. (The Museum of the Bible in the US opened in 2017.) The museum holdings include 3,000 Bibles, New Testaments and Scripture portions in 400 languages, including many of Mexico’s indigenous languages. 

The museum has also amassed a sizable library of over 6,000 books on theology and Bible history. Gómez has spent 35 years collecting copies of ancient texts in order to expand education about the ‘most read and translated text of humanity’. 

A page from the museum’s facsimile copy of the Codex Sinaiticus. Image: Maná Museum

Included in the museum’s collections are:

  • Facsimile copies of the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus and the Bible of Saint Louis, known for its beautiful illuminated manuscript illustrations.
  • A copy of the first Spanish Bible printed in the Americas in 1836: the bilingual Latin-Spanish Vence Bible, in 25 volumes with an atlas. 
  • Facsimile copies of Luther's German translation, and Wycliffe’s and Tyndale's English translations.

The vision, Gómez says, is ‘to …prepare disciples who will continue in the next generations, serving all Christian communities and awakening interest in all sectors of society to know and value the Book of books…’.

Shining light on a forbidden book 

It is a vision that requires ‘swimming upstream’ against long established currents in Mexican culture. Translating the Bible—and even reading it in languages other than Latin—was forbidden in Mexico for 300 years. In the 1500s Roman Catholic missionaries from Spain initiated translation of catechisms and Scripture portions into indigenous languages. However, after the Council of Trent in 1545, to prevent the spread of heresy, church leaders decreed that the Latin Vulgate was the only reliable source of Scripture. They discouraged translations of God’s Word into vernacular languages without church approval and ordered translated portions destroyed. 

Nahuatl Gospel of Luke from 1831. Image: Maná Museum

It was not until 1827 that the British and Foreign Bible Society sent Spanish Bibles to Mexico. Even so, the first copies allowed were unwieldy and expensive 10-volume sets that included the Apocrypha and extensive church-approved commentary. Efforts to translate Scripture into indigenous languages resurfaced in Mexico in the 19th century, encouraged by reformers. (Maná Museum has one of a few extant copies of the 1831 translation of the Nahuatl Gospel of Luke.)

Yet, even when mid-19th century laws limited church powers and declared freedom of religion, these newly established freedoms did not set off a revolution of Bible reading in the country. Museum Director Areli Hernández notes that even today, many Mexican people have long been accustomed to relying simply on doctrine taught in the church—even if they have a Bible at home. 

Maná Museum Director Areli Hernández speaks with Steve Ottaviano of JAARS at the 2023 Global People Conversation in Bogotá. Image: Jim Killam

‘The [museum] founder's concern’, she says, ‘was to make available to Mexican society a space in which they could come to know what the Bible is, how it was formed, why so many translations of the Bible exist and what is the history of its translation, of [the biblical] canons’.  

Inviting personal exploration

The museum welcomes people regardless of their faith or denominational leanings to explore firsthand the evidence and documents of the history of this most loved and ‘reviled’ book. Areli says visitors ask questions such as: Which was the first Bible? Why are there more books in the Catholic version? Why was it forbidden to translate or read it in other languages besides Latin? How are these translations into indigenous languages done? 

Visitors to the Maná Museum learn about the Bible exhibits. Image: Maná Museum

They also show a deep spiritual hunger, she adds. Some students come because their professors tell them to come, but they’ve never read the Bible. Many live in a cultural context that discourages the practice. Once they come to the museum, they become interested in reading the Bible for themselves. 

Learning about the Bible’s history. Image: Maná Museum

‘We simply want to show that the central message of the Bible is something they can understand from reading it directly’, Areli says, ‘and that it is intrinsically linked to the love of God in Christ. And many of them become interested in taking courses, which provide a broader space to dialogue, debate or investigate more about the foundations of each person’s beliefs’. 

Envisioning the church

Another role Maná Museum fills, through its exhibits and conferences, is helping the church understand the importance of Scripture translation. Today in Mexico, many Catholic and Protestant churches alike support, and participate in, Scripture translation into vernacular languages. 

Announcement of The Bible for all Peoples of the World exhibit held in Oaxaca in 2022. Image: Maná Museum

In 2022, Maná Museum partnered with the Franciscan order to host a Bible exhibit at the Temple and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi (Templo y convento de San Francisco de Asis) in Oaxaca. Titled The Bible for All Peoples of the World: Toward 500 Years of the Gospel in Mexico, the exhibit included displays on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Latin Vulgate, the first translation of the Bible into Spanish from original source texts published by Casiodoro Reina in 1569 and translations into seven indigenous languages of Mexico. 

Museum staff with collaborators at opening day of the Oaxaca exhibit. Back left to right: Brother Vicente (Vicar of the Parish of San Miguel Arcángel, Panixtlahuaca), Martin Eberle (SIL Mexico), Victor Méndez (Maná Museum), Brother Joel Cosme (Provincial Minister, Oaxaca). Front left to right: Betiana Moncada, Areli Hernández (Director, Maná Museum), Aracely Velázquez. Photo: Maná Museum

‘I am very thankful for the engagement of Museo Maná’, says Marc Schwab, director of SIL Mexico. ‘They do a lot to bring the Bible into thoughts and conversations of churches and individuals in Mexico, sharing about the history, impact and importance of the Bible. And, more than that, they also share about the needs as well as about the progress of Bible translation into the indigenous languages of Mexico’.

By sharing the Bible’s history, the museum seeks to build passion for its message and its translation.

‘We long to see that the church, both indigenous and nonindigenous, grows in understanding of the history of [God’s written] revelation’, Areli says, ‘and sees the value of its formation. So that involves helping each person appreciate each translation as a historical act of great value. Then they can tell the world that the Bible is the most important cultural act in the history of humanity, and that to know its spiritual message is a universal human right’.

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A risk worth taking:
Translating the Bible into Spanish

When the Protestant Reformation spread to Spain in the 16th century, it particularly centred in the San Isidoro del Campo monastery in Seville. There, a monk named Casiodoro de Reina and others in the order adopted Protestant beliefs from studying materials written by Martin Luther and others. Reina and his fellow monks adopted the Reformation emphasis on access to Scripture in the vernacular and the freedom to exercise personal interpretation, rather than having to read it in Latin and be instructed by clergy. Just as contemporaries Martin Luther and William Tyndale risked their lives to translate the Bible into German and English, Reina risked his to translate the Bible into Spanish. He fled to Geneva in 1557 with 11 fellow monks just before they were arrested by authorities. (Some of the monks who remained behind were martyred by Inquisition leaders.) 

First page of Genesis in 1569 Biblia del Oso. Image: Maná Museum

Reina moved around to escape the Inquisition. He continued the translation, likely with the help of colleagues, referring to earlier translated portions of the Scriptures in Spanish and to Hebrew and Greek source texts. Reina published the complete Bible in Spanish in 1569 in Basel. It came to be known as the Biblia del Oso, or Bible of the Bear, because of a printer’s imprint on the front page that shows a bear eating honey. Under the illustration is printed a quote from Isaiah 40:8 in both Hebrew and Spanish: “the word of our God will stand forever.” Maná Museum possesses one of the only surviving copies of the Bible. 

Title page of the 1569 Biblia del Oso. Image: Maná Museum

After Reina’s death in 1594, a fellow monk from San Isidoro, Cipriano de Valera, published a revision in 1602, and that became the widely used Reina-Valera Bible which has been revised and updated in various editions up to the present day.

 

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Stories: Gwen Davies and Jim Killam, Wycliffe Global Alliance 

Alliance organisations may download and use the images from these articles.

Special thanks to Alan Arriaga Robles (Director of Origines International Schoolhouse) for help with interview interpretation.

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