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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2010 Archives > November-December 2010 > Illuminating the Story: A Labor of Love

Illuminating the Story: A Labor of Love

By Jane Dennis

Watch James Pepper’s story on UMTV

Like scribes of old, James G. Pepper is pouring out his heart and soul and painstakingly creating a hand-lettered and hand-illustrated, one-of-a-kind version of the Bible.

For the past 23 years, the United Methodist layman from Dallas has been creating this complex work of art and inspiration he calls the Pepper Bible. After reproducing the Scriptures by hand in calligraphy, he adds intricate illustrations, "just like an ancient manuscript," he explained. Pepper believes his is one of only a handful of handwritten, illustrated Bibles produced in the last 500 years.
James Pepper shows one of the highly decorative illuminated pages from the Pepper Bible.
James Pepper shows one of the highly decorative illuminated pages from the Pepper Bible."
UMNS FILE PHOTO/STEVE SMITH

Pepper uses the technique called illumination, a form of manuscript decoration with colored, gilded pictures, decorated initials and ornamental border designs. Illumination dates to early Christendom and was common during the Middle Ages, before the printing press replaced the need for handwritten Bibles.

Pepper has already completed an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels, a separate and complete New Testament and several books of the Old Testament. His work is resplendent with original artwork. The Gospel of Luke, for example, contains 25 full-page illuminations and 440 illustrated first initials to passages. Illuminations introduce and enhance each chapter and many individual verses.

"It's a very beautiful book," Pepper said. "People seem to like it."

Bible artist and scholar

Pepper uses the King James Version of the Bible. Before putting pen to paper, he researches the history and context of the passage. "I understand the Bible a whole lot better than I did before," he admitted. "I know the history of the Bible and how it was put together. I know why things were written the way they were."

He began recreating the New Testament in calligraphy when his grandmother suffered a stroke. After her 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.

Next, he plans to tackle the Wisdom books—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. The lettering of numerous other books of the Bible is "about halfway finished," he said.

"My ultimate reason for doing this is to spread the gospel and to inspire people with the beauty of the pages."

Illumination requires patience and persistence. It can take from one hour to several hours to create a single page of calligraphy verse. Adding the detailed illustrations sometimes take weeks. "I really have no idea how much time I have put into this," said Pepper, who works as an administrative assistant by day and a calligrapher and artist in the evenings and on weekends.

Images come from nature, history

He draws each illumination on 11- by 14-inch paper, commonly using themes from nature. Other images, such as the Space Shuttle, the Titanic and the World Trade Center towers, come from recent history.

Pepper uses colored art pencils, watercolors and pen and ink, enhanced with metallic paints that add a rich and vibrant light to the works.

"You're applying metals on the page so light will reflect the color," he explained. "When you combine it all together, it becomes this wonderful work."

Pope John Paul II blessed Pepper for his work. Other church leaders and Bible scholars have applauded the project.

"It's a beautiful work that he's done," said the Rev. J.D. Landis, senior pastor of Swartz Creek United Methodist Church near Flint, Mich., and a self-described student of early biblical texts. Landis stumbled upon Pepper and his illuminated Bible project via an Internet search for sources of biblical text in Greek and Hebrew. He was immediately impressed with Pepper's knowledge of the Bible and its origins.

"I was thrilled that a modern United Methodist layperson was doing something with the Bible in calligraphy and design, much like our ancient scribes and Old Testament people had years ago," Landis said. Pepper's carefully crafted illuminated Scriptures are "something to cherish."

In 2008, Pepper led a multi-generational workshop at Swartz Creek on the Bible and how Scriptures have been preserved. Pepper displays "a deep understanding of the roots of our Bible," Landis said, "and that makes it interesting to more people."

Go to church, read the Bible

Eric White, curator of special collections at Southern Methodist University's Bridwell Library, described Pepper's work as "a refreshing project" filled with "good, interesting, original works of art."

Copying and illuminating the Scriptures entirely by hand is similar to the way Bibles were created in medieval times. Yet, generally, a church or monastery would commission the creation of a Bible "and someone was being paid to do the work," White said. Pepper is doing it "for the love of it."

Pepper hopes his creative work will "inspire people to go back to church ... and to encourage people to open up the Bible and read it."

A seventh-generation Texan, Pepper grew up in New York City. He has lived in Dallas since 1995 and is a member of Highland Park United Methodist Church. He earned a degree in art from Trinity University in San Antonio.

The Biblical Arts Center, a nondenominational museum in Dallas, has exhibited portions of the manuscript. Posters, prints and note cards incorporating his designs can be seen at his website, www.pepperbible.com.

While Pepper seeks a publisher for his manuscript, various parts of it are scattered among family and friends. After working tirelessly for more than two decades, he considers it prudent and protective not to keep his handiwork in a single location, lest some danger or disaster befall his masterpiece of a lifetime.

Jane Dennis is a freelance writer from Little Rock, Ark.

Every page of the Pepper Bible is made by hand. James Pepper shuns the computer and other high-tech tools.
Every page of the Pepper Bible is made by hand. James Pepper shuns the computer and other high-tech tools."
UMNS FILE PHOTO/STEVE SMITH




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