The word of God has appeared in many forms over the centuries, as scribes and printers have transmitted holy writings by hand and machine.
Now two Southern California universities are preserving some of this history with separate sets of rare religious texts that originated 1,500 years apart but share a common biblical thread.
Azusa Pacific University has acquired five fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest known versions of the Hebrew Bible.
The 2,000-year-old shards, featuring passages from the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, will be exhibited in May at the evangelical Christian university in the San Gabriel Valley.
At Loyola Marymount University, a leaf from one of the first Gutenberg Bibles is now available for public viewing at the Westchester campus.
The double-sided page, including chapters from the Book of Isaiah in black gothic script, was printed in the 1450s by Johannes Gutenberg, who is credited with inventing the movable-type printing press.
Biblical scholars say the artifacts offer tantalizing new research possibilities and provide the public with rare glimpses of history.
"You get a tingle from this stuff that you don't get from looking at an image on the Web," said Stephen Tabor, curator of early printed books at the Huntington Library in San Marino, which owns a nearly complete Gutenberg Bible and has exhibited photos of the Dead Sea Scrolls. "It's the opportunity to re-verify for yourself that history is real."
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd in a cave near the ruins of Qumran, east of Jerusalem. In all, more than 950 worn and incomplete scrolls were eventually recovered from 11 caves, setting off decades of sometimes turbulent jockeying by scholars eager to study manuscripts that date from about the time of Jesus.
The five fragments in the Azusa Pacific collection, each about the size of an adult's palm, are stored in a campus safe until they can be readied for the May exhibition that will use artifacts to tell the history of the Bible.
The university bought four of the fragments from a private rare-manuscript dealer in Venice. The fifth came from a Christian ministry in Phoenix that collects biblical artifacts.
University officials would not say how much they paid for the pieces, which include a fragment from the Book of Daniel.
But Robert Duke, an assistant professor of biblical studies, sounded almost giddy as he described the university's new acquisitions. "They are 2,000 years old, and you can still see letters . . . with the naked eye," he said.
The university released a photograph of one fragment that already has been studied by an outside researcher. The brownish-colored section with frayed edges shows part of the 27th chapter of Deuteronomy. In it, Moses delivers a discourse from God, telling the Jewish people to build an altar of stone once they cross the River Jordan into the land of Israel.
The fragment lists the location for the altar as Mount Gerizim. Modern Bibles mentioned another site, Mount Ebal.
James H. Charlesworth, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, said the difference suggests that the fragment may be an original copy of Deuteronomy that was altered at some point by warring factions of Jews.
"We finally found the original text of Deuteronomy," said Charlesworth, who directs the seminary's Dead Sea Scrolls Project. "This is sensationally important."
Azusa Pacific said it is only the third U.S. institution of higher education to acquire fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And some scholars say the purchase has elevated the name of the 8,500-student campus virtually overnight. "They are now on the map," Charlesworth said.
Loyola Marymount officials believe their new Gutenberg acquisition also will attract scholarly attention. Cardinal Roger Mahony presented it to university officials at the recent dedication of LMU's new William H. Hannon Library.
The leaf was part of a damaged Gutenberg Bible that was broken apart in the 1920s by a New York book dealer who labeled it a "noble fragment."
It contains two complete chapters and portions of two others from the Book of Isaiah, which speaks of God redeeming the people of Israel from the miseries imposed by their enemies.
"Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped," the Latin text reads. "Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall be free."
Gutenberg's medieval Christian audiences would have interpreted the words as prophesying the coming of Christ, scholars say.
Resting in a black goatskin cover, the page is 15 inches long and has two even columns of text of 42 lines each. The beginnings of verses and paragraphs are decorated in blue and red, an attempt to mimic hand-written Bibles that preceded mass-produced versions.
"It was appropriately high quality for the word of God," said Stephen Shepherd, an English professor at the campus who specializes in medieval English literature, manuscripts and early printed books.
University officials believe the leaf is worth $50,000 to $100,000. The cream-colored page is largely blemish-free except for a few small stains.
"It's beautiful," said Cynthia Becht, head of the library's archives and special collections. It's "a great example of what the Gutenberg Bible meant to the history of civilization."