The Saint John’s Bible Illuminates the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women
By Sarah Jobe
I struggled to lift the three-foot-long Bible out of its metal case. I was about to bring it into a women’s prison in Raleigh, N.C., and I knew the Bible would have an easier entrance into the facility if I left all the metal behind. A memo at the gatehouse said that The Saint John’s Bible was approved to enter and posters had been put up throughout the prison announcing its arrival, but prisons thrive on routine—and this Bible was like nothing we had ever seen.
The Big Bible
On November 14, 2019, The Saint John’s Bible traveled to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women (NCCIW) as a part of Duke Divinity School’s ongoing commitment to teaching in North Carolina prisons. Lauren Winner, associate professor of Christian spirituality, had been granted permission to bring The Saint John’s Bible to the prison for her regular Duke Divinity class being taught there that night, and Chaplaincy Services at the prison had asked Professor Winner if she might also give a public lecture to the wider prison before her class. Renowned art is a rarity behind locked gates, and the public lecture would allow more people to get to see The Saint John’s Bible during its visit to prison.
To my surprise, I entered the prison to a knot of officers looking expectantly my way.
“Is that it? The Big Bible?” one of them asked. “We were just talking about it!”
I laughed. I had never seen them this excited about anything. Taking advantage of the moment, I said, “It is! And I need a volunteer.”
Before the words were out of my mouth, Officer Shah had jumped towards me waving his hand. We would not be permitted to take pictures of The Saint John’s Bible inside of the prison, but I had hoped that if the Bible’s entrance went smoothly, I might find a way to way take some pictures of it outside of the facility. I needed one of the officers to hold the Bible for me.
Officer Shah’s face fell a little. “Chap, you remember I’m a Muslim, right? Am I allowed to hold it?”
“Shah, as a Muslim you’re probably the best person I could pick to hold it,” I said. “You know better than us Christians how to treat holy books with respect.”
A smile broke out on Officer Shah’s face. “Chaplain, you know that about us? Then let me go wash my hands!”
The Only Other Voice
Bibles have always had a privileged place in America’s prisons. In Reading Is My Window, Megan Sweeney explains how even when the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it constitutional for prisons to limit the access of incarcerated people to reading materials, an exemption clause was provided for the Bible and other sacred texts.
Rev. Kaye Ward, an ordained minister who was called to the ministry while taking Duke classes during her incarceration, describes her experience of having a Bible in prison.
“The first night [in prison], I’m sitting there realizing that I have only one item that belongs to me in this place: my Bible. Now, is God speaking to you? Is he telling you something? That’s the only thing you were allowed to have in here! I hope they never take that away. Because, the first night I was there, I read most of the New Testament! I stayed up all night long, because the lights were on all night, blaring in my face.”
In a place where God’s Word is routinely the only other voice in a person’s cell, the coming of a hand-written, hand-painted, larger-than-life Bible was a big deal.
“Is that it? The Big Bible?”
Her eyes were glittering behind her glasses, and her green uniform was shaking with excitement.
“I can’t wait to see it! I’ve been telling people about it all day—I think we’ll have a big crowd!”
We walked to the very back of the prison, to a double-wide trailer that we call the Hope Center, which serves as both the prison’s chapel and school. The chaplain’s clerk helped me set up the stand on our chipped, wooden altar. It just barely fit. We washed our hands, slowly unzipped the case, and gently laid The Saint John’s Bible on the stand. It opened naturally to the front of Matthew’s Gospel, to a blazing orange menorah representing Jesus’ family tree. The chaplain’s clerk had tears in her eyes.
“If I skip dinner, would you let me stay here and look at it?” she asked.
Professor Winner and I had planned for 50 people to attend the event, and I had my doubts that we would have that many show up; we were, after all, offering an academic lecture and the chance to look at a Bible, perhaps the only object that everyone in the prison already has.
The prison’s loudspeaker blared: “All offenders who want to look at The Saint John’s Bible, report to the Hope Center. I repeat, all offenders who want to look at The Saint John’s Bible, report to the Hope Center.” A sea of green uniforms streamed down the sidewalk. It took thirty minutes just to get everyone inside the trailer. I watched as each woman would sign her name to attend the event and then stop in awe at the Bible opened on the altar. I stood behind the Bible, slowly turning its pages, and women clustered tightly around it, reluctant to move toward their seats.
St. John’s and Duke Divinity School had loaned us the volume that contained the Gospels and Acts. The pages were filled with bold-colored, illuminated pictures of the “greatest hits” of the Christian faith. As each new image flipped open, the crowd would gasp, calling out the story, noticing details, wondering aloud, and asking questions. I had to gently and persistently encourage people to keep moving toward their seats, so that everyone could get in the building. As she turned away from The Saint John’s Bible, one woman whispered to her friend, “It was worth it to have to come to prison, just to get to see this.”
We spent the afternoon listening to Professor Winner tell us the history of illuminated Bibles. We watched part of a video produced by St. John’s Abbey that taught us about quills and calf skins and the theology of “lighting up” words with gold and image. We learned about visio divina, a form of prayer that involves gazing on a picture, and we had colored copies of images from The Saint John’s Bible that women could keep. For 30 minutes, we moved silently between stations where women could spend more time looking at the Bible, engage in visio divina, or even try their hand at illuminating a biblical text. Winner had even brought us bright gold markers to supplement the prison’s art supplies.
I challenged the women to think about illuminating one of the prison texts at the illumination station that afternoon. Almost every woman who took the challenge chose to illuminate the moments before Peter’s miraculous escape: Peter in his cell with swirls of gold-marker illumination breaking his shackles; Peter lying on his cot with chains draped over his blanket and an officer on either side of him; a modern barbed-wire fence with an illuminated cross above it with the words, “My Savior, My Chain Breaker,” radiating above the gates.
A Savior in Prison
The Gospels and Acts are full of stories about prison. Jesus himself is arrested, put on trial, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Jesus is an executed criminal who finds life after the grave—and life after prison—as an enduring testimony to the power of God over the darkness we impose upon one another. Peter and Paul spend much of their ministries in and out of prison in the book of Acts. The church supports these repeat offenders both with provisions while they do time and by being the first stop for prayer and support when they get out. The book of Acts contains two miraculous jailbreaks, one that ends with the execution of the officers in charge (12:19) and one in which the officers are spared due to the thoughtfulness of the people they are incarcerating (16:26–28). The book closes with Paul placed under house arrest. And yet nowhere in The Saint John’s Bible volume of the Gospels and Acts is there an illuminated image of our saints and Savior in their prisons. [Editor’s note: After hearing the story of The Saint John’s Bible’s visit to NCCIW, St. John’s Abbey is now considering another commission to create an illumination of one of the prison narratives in the New Testament.]
Looking at that Bible, I was breathless. It’s like my breath left and the breath of God was filling me.
At the end of the event, Professor Winner invited us into a time of open reflection on what we had experienced with The Saint John’s Bible. A heat and a holiness filled the silence of the small space, but slowly women began to speak.
“Looking at that Bible, I was breathless. It’s like my breath left and the breath of God was filling me.” one said.
“Yeah, that Bible did something to me. I feel like a first-time believer again, like I just got filled with the Holy Spirit,” added another.
Then one woman said, “I probably won’t ever see anything like this in my life again,” and the room was filled with a chorus of murmured agreements.
Thank you to St. John’s Abbey and the Duke Initiative for Theology and the Arts for loaning us such a profound work of art and faith. Thank you to Duke Divinity School, North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, and Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women for continuing the work that keeps seminary-style learning going behind prison walls. Thank you to the Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner for always imagining (and doggedly requesting permission!) for things we don’t normally imagine in prisons. Thank you.
Rev. Sarah Jobe D’06 is a chaplain at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women through Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women and on staff with Duke Divinity School’s Certificate of Prison Studies. She is also pursuing a Th.D. in theology at Duke Divinity School.
The Saint John’s Bible
The Saint John’s Bible was commissioned in the late 1990s by Saint John’s University in Minnesota to bring the Bible with contemporary flourishes and interpretation to a modern audience. It was created by a group of 23 scribes, artists, and assistants in a scriptorium in Wales under the artistic direction of Donald Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords. The team worked in conjunction with a committee of theologians, scholars, and artists from Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn. After 15 years of work, the pages were completed in 2011 and given a permanent home at Saint John’s Abbey and University.
The Saint John’s Bible incorporates many of the characteristics of its medieval predecessors: it was written on vellum using quills, natural handmade inks, hand-ground pigments and gild such as gold leaf, silver leaf, and platinum. Yet, it employs the modern, English translation of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, as well as contemporary scripts and illuminations. It comprises seven volumes and is two feet wide by three feet tall when open. Along with the original, 299 copies were made available for purchase or loan.
Two volumes of one of those copies are now at Duke Divinity School, to be displayed, used in teaching and loaned out for study by scholars around campus and beyond.
The Saint John’s Bible: Pages from the Heritage Edition on Exhibition in Duke Chapel
Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA) at Duke Divinity School will sponsor an exhibition of artwork from the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible that will be on display in Duke Chapel from Jan. 17 to March 8. The exhibition is free and open to the public during Duke Chapel’s operating hours. Registration is not required.
DITA will hold docent-led tours of a volume of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible most Wednesdays and Thursdays from 12:00-1:00pm in the Duke Divinity Library Methodist Reading Room. A series of in-depth workshops for students, faculty, and community members will also be scheduled throughout the spring semester. More information and specific dates are available from DITA.