On 5 December 2016, Sotheby’s had an auction of one of the world’s largest private collections of Bibles and manuscripts. The collection was Charles Ryrie’s, former professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Seminary. For many years I would take my students to visit his home and see the treasures in his collection. Every year he would bring out new marvels that astonished me. I never saw the whole collection, but he was always generous in bringing out scores of volumes.
Ryrie died earlier this year. He was just a month shy of his 92nd birthday. I had been keeping a close eye on his collection and had discussed it with him many times over the years. Among other things, he owned three Greek New Testament manuscripts, one of only eleven vellum Luther Bibles in the world, and the finest copy of the 1611 King James Bible anywhere. He also owned several of Erasmus and Stephanus editions of the Greek New Testament, a couple of leaves of the Gutenberg Bible, and virtually every major English Bible from Wycliffe to the KJV. Altogether, nearly 200 items were auctioned.
Benton Gospels—Codex 669
His Wycliffe Bible sold for $1.4 million, which was way over the anticipated price. The KJV sold way under its expectations—only $320,000. The Greek New Testament manuscripts were auctioned for $140,000 to $250,000. Codex 669, the Benton Gospels manuscript, was the most important (and most expensive) of these.
Sotheby’s does not let one know who the bidders are. We’re all given a paddle number and we bid with that, protecting our identities. But clearly someone was buying up a lot of these treasures, and the desire to get them no matter the cost (or so it seemed) certainly brought the price up. I bid on two small items, which quickly escalated out of my price range.
Ryrie did not own junk. His printed books were in excellent condition. The selling price reflected this. The very first published Greek New Testament, Erasmus’s Novum Testamentum (1516), sold for $24,000. The third edition (1522)—the first one to have the comma Johanneum in it—was a bargain at $5500.
Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum (1516)
A second edition of Tyndale’s New Testament (Ryrie owned nearly a dozen of these!) sold for $75,000. There were also several copies of the Matthew’s Bible ($22,000), Coverdale Bible ($11,000–$21,000), Great Bible ($4,000–$28,000), Geneva New Testament ($30,000), Bishops Bible ($48,000), Douay-Rheims Bible ($18,000), a rare copy of the KJV ‘Wicked Bible’ (1631; so-called because the printer left out the ‘not’ in the seventh commandment; thus, “Thou shalt commit adultery”!) for $38,000.
The Luther vellum Bible sold for $260,000. It is probably the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen. This was more than double the expected sale price.
A rare Complutensian Polyglot (only 600 were printed) came in under expectations at $70,000. This included actually the first printed Greek New Testament, though it was not published until six years after Erasmus’s work was out. The Textus Receptus—the Greek that stands behind the KJV—was essentially Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, with some wording from the CP as well as later editions of the Greek New Testament that were largely based on Erasmus.
A very rare certificate of ordination signed by Luther brought $60,000. And the third edition of Pilgrim’s Progress netted $75,000—as much as three times the expected sale price. Finally, the Gutenberg leaves each garnered only $38,000, way under what was anticipated.
The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts owns a 10th–11th century Greek copy of Luke’s Gospel that was appraised at a price that is significantly lower than any of these Greek New Testament manuscripts. Now we have more recent comparisons and the value of such a manuscript can be weighed in light of these other manuscripts. I think we need to up the insurance value!
I hope that these books and manuscripts have found decent homes, and that the new owners will take the best possible care of them. And I also hope that the owners will reveal who they are and make known their remarkable volumes to others. I especially would like to see them digitally preserved and the images posted on the Internet—in particular, the Greek NT manuscripts. CSNTM would be more than happy to digitize these manuscripts. It’s a good time of year to express such hopes. This is more than my bucket list—it’s my Christmas list! Owners, please do not hide your light under a bushel, but let the world see these historical items that all of us may be enriched by Ryrie’s collection.