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Producing Bible by hand is labor of love, faith for Dallas man

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A UMNS photo by Steve Smith

James Pepper shows one of the highly decorative, illuminated pages from the "Pepper Bible."
Feb. 7, 2006

By Steve Smith

DALLAS (UMNS) — The embodiment of James Pepper’s life during the past 18 years is spread out over the floor and tables of his apartment and in a special room set aside for him at Highland Park United Methodist Church, where he attends and volunteers.

Since 1987, Pepper, an investment manager, has painstakingly copied portions of the Bible word for word, and he’s doing it the old-fashioned way, like scribes did centuries ago: with stylus pen and black ink on plain sheets of drawing paper, and with ancient styles of calligraphy. He shuns using a computer.

After spending as many as 16 hours on some days sweating over handwriting the entire New Testament, a task he completed in 1995, Pepper is days away from completing another phase: an illuminated manuscript of the Gospels — 304 entirely handmade, highly decorative pages in a 550-page, four-year project.

Like the ancient scribes who placed items in their Bibles from their world, Pepper has added multicolored drawings of the Space Shuttle, Skylab, Texas flora and fauna, the Titanic, and the World Trade Center towers, where three of his friends perished during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He says the “Pepper Bible,” as he calls it, is among only a small handful of handwritten, illustrated Bibles made in nearly 500 years.

“There is nothing like trusting in God that the page will turn out right, to be inspired at the moment the pen touches the page; only then will you know what to do when you write the Scripture,” Pepper writes on his Web site, “You have to rely on your faith and the inspiration of God to make the pages turn out as beautiful as possible.

“It is this spontaneous interaction with the Holy Spirit that makes handwritten Bibles so amazing. You cannot plan this on a computer; you have to do it yourself.”

An illuminated manuscript is a handmade and handwritten book decorated in colorful letters and drawings without using printers and computers. Illuminated Bibles were common during the Middle Ages, but printing technology eventually made them obsolete.

Benedictine monks at St. John’s University on Collegeville, Minn., recently created 1,150 pages of illuminated pages for their own Bible, which they value at more than $3 million. But they used computers to design the pages, although much of the writing is done by hand. They are working with Donald Jackson, scribe to the queen of England and one of the world’s leading calligraphers.

Seeking a publisher

Pepper is looking for a company to publish and print his Bible as a “high-end edition” much like the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, a King James version designed illustrated by Barry Moser, and use the proceeds from sales to help rebuild churches destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Pepper says he doesn’t know how much his Bible will cost, but he would like to recover his investment, adding that he couldn’t begin to peg the amount of money he has poured into the project.

Despite not using a computer, he is considering whether to put his final creation on DVD so anyone can view his Bible.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Steve Smith

Every page of the "Pepper Bible" is made by hand. James Pepper shuns the computer and other high-tech tools.
Pepper has received tons of publicity in the local press, and his works have been displayed at the Biblical Arts Center, a nondenominational museum in Dallas.

Scott Peck, director of the Biblical Arts Center, told the Dallas Morning News in 2005 that Pepper’s work was a rarity. “I freed up the gallery just for this,” he said of the exhibit, featured last March and April. “No one else is doing this type of work. The only other project that I know of is the St. John’s Bible in Minnesota.”

Church leaders from throughout the world also have praised his work.

“It is given to very few to undertake, or even contemplate, a labor of such Herculean proportions,” wrote the Anglican archbishop of York in a 2001 letter to Pepper. “What you have done represents an achievement which, so far as His Grace is aware, is quite without parallel in modern times. It is a powerful witness to the living God.”

And from Roman Catholic leaders at the Vatican came this in 2002: “His Holiness prays that your work will help you to discover each day in the inspired writings of the Old and New Testaments a support for faith, food for the soul and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life.”

Pepper told United Methodist News Service that he may begin a similar project on the Book of Revelation, complete with illuminated images of dragons and other monsters depicted in the New Testament’s last book.

He views his work with reverence, choosing carefully the words to describe the pages spread out on a table.

“It’s a calling, it’s not a hobby,” he says. “It’s the religious aspect of it that leads me to say this is a calling. It reflects who I am. You can always change hobbies, but I would rather be doing this the rest of my life.

“It’s just something I have to do.”

Lifelong interest

The “calling” came as early as age 5, when his father, who worked as a book publisher, would take him to the museums of New York City, where the child would look in awe at the ancient Bibles on display.

“Every time I saw them, I knew I could do it, that this is something I was supposed to do,” Pepper says.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Steve Smith

A page from the "Pepper Bible" shows James Pepper's illustrative style.
He started on his New Testament project when his grandmother suffered a stroke. After his grandmother’s death nine years later, Pepper began caring for his mother, who had cancer. He completed his 677-page, 110-drawing New Testament in 1995, in time for her to see the project before she died.

Pepper had completed a few books of the Old Testament when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, killing four of his friends. To commemorate the tragedy and honor his friends, Pepper created a Gospel book similar to the Book of Kells, the ancient illuminated Gospel of Dublin, Ireland, and then he started on his Gospels project.

Another Pepper creation is an Interlinear Polyglot in Greek, English and Latin, which he conceived by translating the Compultensian Polyglot of Accala, Spain, from the early 1500s. “Polyglot” means the translations are done in multiple languages, and interlinear indicates that each line of text is lined up with its translated counterparts.

“You have to let go and allow yourself to be guided by the Holy Spirit as you write the page,” Pepper writes on his Web site. “This is something that cannot be planned. You have to go with the flow of the Scripture, your inspiration and the work of the Lord. The result is a tangible expression of one man’s faith.”

Pepper told United Methodist News Service that he hopes his creations will allow him to “bring people back to the church,” especially considering the reverence that ancient Bibles have for many people, even if they haven’t been in a house of worship in years.

“It’s good to know that this is inspiring people who have fallen away from the church to go back, because they see something that they think is impossible and they think, ‘Well, this guy has enough faith to do this,’ so all I have to do is walk in the door,” Pepper says.

One of his “great moments,” he says, occurred at the Biblical Arts Center, when his work was being displayed. Busloads of schoolchildren spent a morning drawing Bible pages on the floor of the gallery. As they worked away, they reminded Pepper of a major reason why he takes on such an arduous, tedious task.

“They were busy writing away, and some were doing their own thing, writing a Bible verse and going with it,” he says. “That’s what this is all about: to encourage people to break out and express their passion of God in ways they might not have thought of before.

“I encourage everyone to take up the pen and write a passage and decorate it and just go for it.”

*Smith is a freelance writer based in Dallas.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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