I have a theory. It goes like this—the people who knew God’s word better than anyone else were probably those monks who used to copy the Bible by hand back in medieval times.
Writing scripture by longhand was basically all those monks did all day, everyday. And they had to go super slowly, because can you imagine making a mistake? Plus, they were writing with quills and ink on parchment in poorly lit monasteries.
Those monks defined what it meant to dedicate their lives to God.
To put that theory into (limited) practice, I decided to do something similar. No, I didn’t take a vow of silence or start wearing sackcloths and shave my head. I did something else.
The Handwritten Bible
Last year, I started copying the Bible out by hand during my daily devotional time. Granted, it was with a ballpoint pen on a notepad while sitting comfortably in my air-conditioned home. But it’s still as close to I’ll ever be to a Franciscan monk.
Not surprisingly, I’m not the first person to do this. Back in 2013, a guy in New York wrote out the King James translation by hand. It took him more than four years of 14-hour-per-day work to complete this endeavor. Impressive.
Today, the Bible is available for free and always available online—which is a great thing. However, with this accessibility, it’s easier to take God’s word for granted.
Those old-school monks wrote the scriptures by hand because that was the only real way to spread God’s word back then. Literacy was limited and paper was expensive, so it was a real sacrifice to mark it down on paper.
I’m not going in order, because those first few books of the Old Testament aren’t the most riveting, to say the least. Instead, I’ve selected specific books, alternating between the Old & New Testaments.
And I’m not finished yet, because it takes a long time to write the Bible by hand. But here are the biblical books I’ve copied so far and some things I’ve learned along the way.
1. Handwriting is Slow
It took me about two years to read the entire Bible. But writing it out by hand is even slower. While reading, I could get through about three or four chapters per day. But it takes me an average of about three or four days to finish writing out one chapter by hand.
I pride myself on my legible handwriting and I’ve intentionally kept a slow pace to ensure that my penmanship isn’t compromised.
My hand also starts cramping up after about 20-30 minutes of writing. Because so much of my other writing is done digitally, my hands aren’t used to this kind of strain.
This slow pace has also helped to remind me how long the Bible is. Although it varies by translation, most Bibles have about 800,000 words. Most books are about 50,000 to 100,000 words. By comparison, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy had about 450,000 words combined. Either way, that’s a lot of words.
2. The Time Makes You Think
When reading the Bible, it’s easier to glaze over certain words or phrases. I read fairly quickly and have certainly missed the finer points while reading through scripture. That’s less of a concern while copying every word down by hand. I don’t miss nearly as much.
In fact, I’ve started having the opposite issue. Writing the Bible by hand has caused me to focus more on the individual words and sentences, rather than understanding the overall message of each book. I’ve started to lose the forest for the trees.
And I’ll admit that my mind starts to wander from time to time—especially while copying down those long lists of hard-to-pronounce names and places. There are certain parts of the Bible that are more captivating than others. Staying focused takes discipline.
3. Biblical Grammar is Weird
Part of my day job is as an editor. Plus, I graduated college with degrees in journalism and English. Words are kind of my thing. As such, some of the strange phrasing and sentence structure of the Bible has begun to stick out to me.
For instance, there are a lot of run-on sentences in the Bible. This probably has something to do with the text being over two millennia old and translated from a few different ancient languages. My proverbial hat is off to the modern day translators—but the sentences are still a little long winded.
Part of the issue is also probably that I’m used to writing short, to-the-point blog posts. While the Bible is a lengthy religious text written in a time before public education. It’s a different kind of writing than a modern audience (myself included) is accustomed to.
So I’m probably reading too much into it. But I now better understand Eugene Peterson’s motivation for updating something phrasing with his Message translation.
4. Inspiration Isn’t Automatic
To be honest, this practice hasn’t yielded the results I expected. I was hoping to grow intimately closer with God as a result of writing out his words. But there are times that I treat this time more like a homework assignment—something to get finished a move on with my life.
There is certainly something to be said of the discipline that it takes to sit down and write that long by hand on a daily basis. It’s a habit that’s helped to keep my mind focused on God and remind me of the Bible’s daily relevance. But that’s clearer some days than others.
You can’t expect to do anything spiritual and expect that it will automatically connect you with God. That includes prayer, church attendance, and tithing. God deserves our time and attention.
In other words, just acting like a monk does not make you as holy as one.