Weatherford Democrat

October 18, 2011

Local Bible scholar presses forward with living history

Judy Sheridan
Weatherford Democrat

WEATHERFORD — In 1440, the Western world changed.

A German inventor, Johannes Gutenberg, came up with a method of inexpensive printing that made books ­— the status symbols of the rich ­­— ­ available to the common man.

Information that had been tightly held by those in power was now open to everyone, ushering in the beginning of the modern age.

When local historian Rusty Maisel demonstrates his half-ton replica of the Gutenberg press, the agent of that auspicious change, that’s the information he tries to convey.

“Before Gutenberg, common people did not have books and information,” he said. “Between 1450 and 1550 was the discovery of the Western hemisphere, the circumnavigation of the world, the Renaissance ... the Reformation.”

Maisel, who has lived in Parker County most of his adult life, has built eight replicas of the famous press in 20 years, each reflecting his most current research.

When he introduces his traveling museum, the Enduring Word, which also features rare Bibles, manuscripts and archeological artifacts, the 9-foot tall, 7-foot wide press is almost always the star of the show.

“It’s something that’s alive,” he explained, “and I let people print on it with me, it’s more fun.”

When Maisel and an assistant from the audience pull a large lever across the press, wood scrapes against wood, he said, making a loud, unpleasant sound.

The lever turns a 9 1/4-inch diameter screw, exerting 2,000 pounds of pressure.

“You need more than 100 pounds per square inch to press the ink into the paper,” he said, “but it prints beautifully.

“Humidity makes a difference, though. It’s an art almost more than a craft.”

Historians are not entirely sure how the original press looked, Maisel said, but experts have told him his design is probably close.

The press was most likely adapted from a wine press, he said, used to squeeze the juice from grapes.

Maisel’s most recent replica can do either, he said, depending on the parts he inserts.

“I plan to press grapes on it the week after Christmas,” he said.

The press may claim the lion’s share of the attention when Maisel gives his almost weekly demonstrations — in colleges, schools, churches and museums — but it is his collection’s authentic artifacts — valued at $1.5 million, that are the real standouts.

One, a cuneiform tablet dating to 560 B.C., records a proclamation from King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon about rebuilding the temple of the sun king.

“People once said [Nebuchadnezzar] was a myth,” Maisel said, “but it confirms the historical narrative of the Bible.”

Another highlight is a single page — a leaf — of a Gutenberg Bible, the first major book printed by Gutenberg in the 1450s. Only 49 people own single leaves, he said, 51 have complete Bibles.

Maisel also has one of the original King James Version Bibles, printed in 1611, 400 years ago. The 20-pound book is a large folio Bible, Maisel said, measuring 18 inches by 24 inches.

Other significant artifacts, collected over the span of 20 years, include accurate copies of Hebrew manuscripts dated from 1100 to 1400 and a complete Torah — the first five books of the Jewish biblical canon — dated 1400.

Maisel also believes he has a copy of William Tyndale’s last work — the New Testament book of Galatians — before the English translator was burned at the stake.

“It was published in 1535,” he said. “He was martyred in 1536.”

In addition to knowing a lot about early printings of the Bible, Maisel is an expert in the transmission of scriptural texts over time.

When giving a presentation to Christian audiences, he gives a short lecture about where the Bible originated. For others, he shares a history of written communication.

After a lifetime of research, Maisel said, he is convinced that the text of the Bible has been translated faithfully — with a few exceptions.

“I’m comfortable with the history of what we know,” he said. “I’m comfortable recommending reading the Bible.

“It’s the application that bothers me. I’m not so comfortable with theology. We know what it says. What does it mean?”

His own personal questions, Maisel said, have driven his education and research.

At the age of 40, he said, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Dallas Baptist University. He has also received an honorary doctorate in philosophy from a small Bible college in Georgia, which has since closed its doors.

Over time, Maisel said, he has earned 30 hours toward a master’s degree by completing coursework at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Brite Divinity School, the University of the Holy Land and Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations in Cambridge, England.

A highlight of Maisel’s professional life has been teaching as a visiting professor at Christ Church College at Oxford University in England. He was also invited to conduct a short seminar at Tyndale House, at University of Cambridge.

In addition, Maisel has curated some major exhibits, including Ancient Treasures of the Holy Land, with Hebrew University. The exhibit toured the eastern U.S. between 2004 and 2006.

A common reaction to his traveling museum and presentations, Maisel said, is that people want to read the Bible again.

“They decide it’s worth another look,” he said. “Christians do that.

“Sometimes it answers that one question that has kept them from moving forward in their personal faith,” he said.

“I like people to be closer to God,” he said. “Sometimes that is the result.”