The Book of Kells: A Christian text

The people who created the Book of Kells were Christians, most likely monks. Like Islam and Judaism, Christianity shares the belief that there is only one (mono in Greek) God (theos in Greek). Popularly, these are called monotheistic religions. Very often these three religions are known as ‘Religions of the Book’, but that isn’t quite accurate for Christians, or indeed for Jews. It is more complicated than that.

  • Muslims have their Qur’an, which literally means ‘the recitation’. Muslims believe that the Qur’an was verbally revealed by God to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. In this way they describe themselves as ‘People of the Book’.
  • The Jewish people trace their origins in the writings of the Hebrew Bible. This Bible consists of three parts – the Torah (Teaching), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).
  • The Christian Bible is like a library of books, written by different people, telling the story of the relationship between God and humans from the very beginning.

folio 29r from the Book of Kells, a man holding a book Fig 1. The importance of the written word is emphasised throughout the Book of Kells by the multiple images of figures holding books (fol. 29r). © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

Christians hold the Hebrew Bible as foundational, calling it the Old Testament, or more properly the First Testament. The story of Jesus Christ is told in the New (Second) Testament, primarily in the four gospels. While strictly speaking the authorship of the gospels is unknown, tradition attributes authorship to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, followers and friends of Jesus Christ known as the evangelists. Christians believe Jesus Christ is the living Word of God. This is the centre of their faith.

The gospels were first written in Greek. As they began to circulate in the West, various Latin translations were created (known as the ‘Old Latin’ translations). In 382, Pope Damasus asked St Jerome, a leading biblical scholar, to produce a standard Latin version of the Bible. The translation of the Bible he produced was called the Vulgate, (the Latin word vulgate means ‘common’), and this became the ‘common’ version of the Bible in the Western Church.

The text of the Book of Kells is primarily the Vulgate, but there also are some elements of earlier, ‘Old Latin’ texts. About ten pages have been lost from the start of the book. The first surviving page (fol. 1r) contains the very end of a glossary of Hebrew names composed by St Jerome. Following this are a series of canon tables (fols. 1v–6r). Because the four accounts of Christ’s life in the gospels are not identical, the tables are a system that was intended to show where the same passages are repeated across the different accounts. After the canon tables come lists of chapter contents known as Breves causae and prefaces called Argumenta that characterise each of the gospel authors and attempt to explain the meaning behind each text (fols. 8r–26v). The remainder of the book is given over to the texts of the four gospels, with the last ten pages or so of the Gospel of John now missing.

folio 1r the first page of the Book of Kells, a guide to Hebrew names Fig 2. The end of a guide to Hebrew names on the (now) first page of the Book of Kells (fol. 1r). © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. folio 2v, from the Book of Kells, a canon table Fig 3. A canon table on fol. 2v. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. folio 12r, from the Book of Kells, the opening word of the Argumentum of Matthew Fig 4. The opening word of the Argumentum of Matthew ‘Matthew, who was of the Jews…; on fol. 12r. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

As the standard language of the Western Church, those educated in the Christian tradition learned Latin. However, as the eleventh- and twelfth-century addition of some land charters to formerly blank pages in the manuscript show, the everyday spoken language of those using it was most likely Irish.

The Book of Kells was created by people of faith, who believed in Jesus Christ as the living Word of God. Hence they sought to make the manuscript as beautiful as possible in both word and image. In this way they hoped that the Book of Kells would invite the viewers of the text into the central mystery of the Christian faith.

In the comments section below

  • Reflect on the Book of Kells as a religious text.
  • In the eighth century, do you think it might have been more important to create a lavishly decorated book to contain the text than it would be today?
  • Why / Why not?

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

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