J. S. Bach’s Bible. The discovery of J. S. Bach’s Bible reveals his devotions to Bible reading and a faith in God. Devotional at MasterWorks Festival, 2003 by Terry B. Ewell. BDP #5.

<music: Vivaldi E minor Bassoon Concerto>

1. There were attacks on Johann Sebastian Bach and his legacy. In case you did not know, Bach is one of the most famous Christian composers, perhaps, that we have ever had. He lived in the 1700s and wrote many wonderful works. There was an attack on Bach and his faith and his life about forty years ago. 

2. This attack came from men who were some of the most reputed in musicology: Friedrich Blume. This man contended that Bach only wrote religious music because he was employed by the church. It was not a private matter that he wrote religious music it was rather a public matter. He wrote because musicians at that time were only employed by the church. It wasn’t a matter of his own faith or his own sincere devotion, but rather it was just for money, for his livelihood.

3. There were many people at the time that were shocked at this contention and sought to defend Bach. But after all it is hard to defend someone’s private life, which is something you don’t see. Obviously, Bach wasn’t around to defend himself. What goes on when someone is personally praying, in their prayer closet, and devotions in quiet times is hidden. 

4. It seemed that this would be an issue that would never be answered: that forever there would be this divide in scholarship that he really wasn’t a truly sincere Christian. He did it only for his livelihood.

5. This was the case until about 1971. There was a book found that turned this issue around. This wasn’t a book of letters or manuscripts; this book was Bach’s actual Bible. Now, this is not it here. [laughter]. My library card didn’t work to check out his actual Bible, but this is a copy of it. I want to share a little bit of it with you here today.

6. Christoph Hauptman wrote an article on finding Bach’s Bible. It was found in Concordia College in St. Louis, Missouri. This is an interesting story. We know that when Bach died there was an account of all of his possessions: his music, his manuscripts, and among that is a mention of his Bible. That book was lost for many years. 

7. It turns out that it made its way to America in New York. It was sold sometime around the turn of the century. A German speaking immigrant bought this book, had it in his possession for many years, and then donated it to this seminary, Concordia College. It was in its collection for many years. Christoph Trautmann came upon this in 1971 and had a chance to examine this book. He was astounded with what was contained in it and wrote an article about that.

8. In the scholarly community there was a debate about whether Bach wrote in this Bible. Maybe those who later had it in their possession did their own markings in it. So, there was another man, Howard Cox, who put together this book here. He went so far as to have handwriting analysis, ink analysis, and something called a photon milliprobe analysis. [audience—wow] Of course! 

9. Photons were used to look at the ink composition. They examined signatures of Bach on his own manuscripts of music and compared them with those in the Bible. There were some astounding things that they found out. Yes, with a high degree of certainty, this indeed was Bach’s Bible. Yes, those were his notes. Yes, we can draw some very interesting conclusions.

10. Bach purchased this Bible sometime around 1733, towards the end of his life. What we see in this Bible are his own personal devotions, comments, and markings for about 10 years or more. It is clear to me that he was someone who studied the Bible a lot. There are hundreds of pages that have his markings. 

11. How many of you here underline in your Bible? Do you do that? Bach did too! How many of you use color pens? Alright. Well, Bach used different colors as well. He also marked notes in the margins. These are things like you would do. I find that refreshing. J. S. Bach is doing in his Bible what you and I would do in your Bible.

12. The question comes up which book of the Bible was his favorite? I don’t know if for certain I have found his favorite, but I can tell you which book in the Bible, his last years, that he wrote the most comments upon. If I asked that of you, I am guessing that most of you might think it was the Psalms, right? I think that is the most logical one. Jude? [laughter] Well, that is your favorite book, why not for Bach? [audience member: Obadiah] Obadiah. [laughter] 

13. Well, his favorite book was Ecclesiastes. I find that stunning. If you know the book of Ecclesiastes it is about Solomon looking back on his life, looking back on everything you could possibly do in life, and finding that this is no fulfillment in life except in God. It is a book examining the summation of your life, looking at purpose, looking at “what did my life amount to?” I find that fascinating that this is the book that Bach looked at during the end of his life.

14. I want you to picture this as I read this summation. Bach had a study Bible. It was a translation made by Luther, which was then put together by D. Abraham Calovio. Calovio was the author who furnished the study guide and preface. I want you to picture this. I have been thinking about this myself. What would it have been like if I had been able to sneak into the room where Bach was having his devotions? What would it have been like when he was reading this particular passage?

15. Consider that it is late at night. Imagine that he has had a long day at the church. Being a church musician will wear out anybody. He has had a long day, light has failed, he has a candle beside him, and his Calovio Bible open. You can look at him with his gray hair, stooped over reading this book. You can see the worry that has been etched into his face all of these years. You can recall all of the children that have died: the grief and the misery. And the financial hardship that he has been put through. 

16. I know that at the end of his life many people did not appreciate his music. There were critics that said, “your music is too turgid, outdated, and old-fashioned.” He continues to write week after week for the church, plodding on. Think of the heaviness of the day. Then he comes to this and he is reading in the preface, he starts to read this in Ecclesiastes:

17. The main point that Solomon speaks about and treats throughout this book is that there is no greater wisdom on earth under the sun than doing one’s duty with devotion and with fear of God. Further, that we should not be fearful if things do not go the way we would like. But that we be satisfied and have God’s will done in all matters large and small. 

18. In conclusion, that one be satisfied and content with whatever God provides, following the proverb: as God ordains, that will be my pleasure. And thus, let us not trouble and consume ourselves about worry about what the future will or should bring, but rather remember that God has given me this office and work that I perform it willingly and with devotion, and that if my efforts and proposals do not turn out the way I hope, then may God’s will and power prevail.

19. Can you see Bach reading that? Oh, God, thank you, thank you Lord. You have given me this office and I can minister to you God. Thank you, Lord, for the troubles that you have given me, and I can minister through them. Thank you, God, for the help that you have given me, the wife you have given me, the children—those that have survived. Thank you, Lord, that you have given me a duty and I will perform it dutifully.

20. There are some lessons that I have learned from this as I have been contemplating Bach and his Bible and his own devotions here. First, we should serve God and do our duty. He has given to each one of us here a special duty to do. We should do that.

21. It says in Colossians, “whatever you do in word and in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father.” We should do everything; and this is what Bach is doing. You can see this in his private devotions. This is what he highlighted. This is the insight to truth in that one evening that refreshed his soul. I want it to refresh your soul as well.

22. Another thing is, seek God in a private place in a secret place. We are so fortunate that this Bible has been discovered so that now we know without a doubt that Bach was devoted. Bach had so much to give because he was filled by the word of God. He studied it and meditated upon it. He sought to love the Lord with all of his heart, soul, and mind—he applied himself.

23. The third thing that I have come away with is: don’t give up the fight. Bach is at the end of his days. He could have said “I give up. I have worked so hard, Lord, but I can’t go any further.” That is like running a race and running it well and then 100 yards short of the finish line just stopping and laying down. 

24. No, Bach ran that race to the end! He was faithful to the end. I am encouraged. As I get more and more grey hairs, as my posture stoops, as lines are etched into my face, I know that I can be faithful to the end in all of this.

25. Let me close with this scripture from Hebrews:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, ...including J. S. Bach… let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

26. Lord, as we get ready for our quiet times, I want everyone here to be encouraged, to be faithful to you, God. Lord, just as you met Johann Sebastian Bach that day when he wrote in his Bible, the day when he underlined those words, I want you to meet, Lord, with each person in this festival. 

27. Meet with them as they look at their Bibles. Have a special word for them. We know that your revelation is fresh every morning. You have a new word for us each day. I ask Lord for that blessing. Minister to each one here, in the Lord Jesus name, amen.

Cox, Howard H., Editor. The Calov Bible of J. S. Bach. Studies in Musicology, No. 92, George Buelow, Series Editor. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Terry B. Ewell. All rights reserved.