In the same century that Spain found an outlet for its murderous religious practices in the New World, Joe Gutenberg invented the printing press, and Martin Luther used it to print copies of his 95 criticisms of the way the pope conducted Christian affairs. Little did these gentlemen dream that they might be giving birth to the most profitable publishing title the world has ever known – one that remains right up there today on the best-seller lists along with Ms. Palin’s “Going Rogue” or Joe Lieberman’s “Angst of my Churlishness.” According to the Boston Globe, “Year in and year out, the Bible remains the best-selling book in America.

Approximately 20 million are purchased annually. The average U.S. household contains 3.9 of these popular tomes.

Unfortunately, this opus never had a copyright. If there had been royalties paid and invested in Mideast desert, we could have free oil today and each Arab his own goat to milk, along with a few extra wives to beat. Instead, publishing profits have gone to various priesthoods, organizations and political structures – and few of these beneficiaries have been the kind of people willing to wash the feet of strangers, as one version of the Bible recommends. (Luther himself was a virulent and energetic anti-Semite.)

The opportunity for “non-official” publishers to profit from the Bible-printing business had to wait until churches (and Bibles) did not carry the imprimatur of government. Publication in England, for example, had been restricted to a very few church-approved printers. But with the American Revolution came freedom from religion, and the stage was set for anyone with a printing press to join the fight for what they hoped would be a a true version of this timeless masterpiece.

Many, if not most, of the resulting flood of publishers have been promoters with axes to grind. Originally written in several different languages at different times, it is vague and sometimes contradictory – and is wide open to interpretation. Consequently, it has often been rewritten to reflect the intentions of those who own the printing presses. Slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Governments use it to support death and destruction – including poison gas and nuclear clouds. Capitalists use it to justify survival of the fittest. Some, like the Mormons, take pieces of it to decorate an opaque view. And, as Maine has recently seen, some believe that it prescribes (and proscribes) for the civil rite of marriage– a throwback to the days of Luther’s Pope.

Some of those who publish the Bible employ sale techniques that would have caused either Moses or Jesus dyspepsia. Consider the $7 million promotion to peddle Pat Robertson’s version in truck stops, supermarkets and hardware stores. His sales pitch for “The Book” opened with an extravaganza Broadway launch at Grand Central, CDs, TV and radio ads, and specials with entertainment stars such as Glen Campbell.

Currently the most exciting aspect of Bible publishing is to redo the entire document, searching out offensive words or shades of meaning and replacing them with desired versions. This pastime is nothing new. Such editing commenced three centuries after Christ when the Roman Emperor Constantine hosted a jamboree of Christian pastors (aka “bishops”) in the small town of Nicaea, in what is now Turkey, to create an official Roman version. They picked and chose from a smorgasbord of folk tales, campfire songs, letters from acolytes, customs adapted from other religions, and myths to create their “approved” version. Today, we need no emperor-supervised conventions. The privilege of editing is pervasive, bottomless. Anyone with time and a word processor can edit as much – or all – of the Bible as energy and motivation provide.

“Specialty” Bibles now approach parodies. A few include:

The Sportsman’s Bible, with a camouflage cover and supplementary essays such as “God the Hunter,” and“Setting up a Ground Blind.”

The Veritas Journey Bible, several upscale styles to follow during travel, such as “Coach” –presumably not carried in first class.

American Patriot’s Bible, “For the ordinary man who loves this nation and believes it springs from Godly roots.”

Bible Illuminated, The Book – with glossies of such biblical scholars as Al Gore (take that, Geo Bush!), Bono, Angelina Jolie, plus a section titled “Eight Ways to Change the World.”

Mr. Schlafly (son of the “Right to Life” Phyllis) heads the Conservative Bible Project, which aims to produce a “Conservative Bible which rejects liberal wordiness, and renders the parables with their full economic market meaning.”

Well, then.

How about a version of the Bible justifying the Tea Bagger belief that the earth is only 6,000 years old? Or one explaining why Republican senators should have another six years in the U.S. senate to vote no against everything but their own pay raises?

Rodney Quinn, who lives in Gorham, is a former Maine secretary of state. He can be reached at [email protected]

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