A friend who also works in the book trade recently revealed that the section in one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar book stores most liable to theft is Bibles. I’m not really surprised, I guess. Faith can do strange things to people, giving them justifications for thievery in the name of a higher authority. What it really doesn’t reflect, however, is just what a financial liability a Bible can be. My friend speculated that people believe that the Bible should be free, and, in a sense they have a point. If it is the word of God, as they likely believe, then it should be in the public domain. The problem is, the Bible’s not as simple as all that. The problem begins with the fact that “the Bible” does not exist in any definitive form. Every single one of the original manuscripts has long been lost and we have copies of copies of copies, etc., of those putative manuscripts. And they are in foreign languages—technically dead languages, at that. (Although Greek and Hebrew are still spoken, the biblical forms of those languages died out long ago.) So, are the Hebrew and Greek texts in the public domain?
Maybe, but. The texts from which translators make English (or other modern language) Bibles are based on compilations of various documents that have come to represent the accepted, textually correct ancient language versions of the Bible. These are protected by copyright since they are relatively modern editions. Some of the older ones are available in the public domain, but they are outdated. Even skipping all that, when we get to English Bibles, such as the King James Version (but not the New King James Version, where the “new” modifies “version,” presumably, and not “King James”), the text is in the public domain but the printed book still costs money to manufacture. One of the problems with Bible mythology is that some think this implies that Bibles just drop down from God. In actuality, they have to be edited, typeset, printed, shipped, and stocked, and the people who do this work have to be paid. In short, free text is not free.
I work for a major (but by no means the biggest) producer of Bibles. Even in my short time at the press, I have come to realize that Bible publishing is complex and expensive. Sure, you can print cheap editions and give them away like the Gideons do, but they have financial backing to buy and distribute cheap words of the Lord. There’s a sense of entitlement here: if God spoke, wasn’t it to all people? What about the Quran? The Book of Mormon? Science and Health? Some may castigate the Bible, but it is a genre-defining true original. And although one of the ten commandments declares stealing is wrong, some wonder how this can possibly apply to Bibles. It’s the middle-men and women. Stealing a Bible is cheating someone from a bit of their livelihood. Even if the Almighty turns a blind eye.