The iconic book: The image of the Christian Bible in myth and ritual

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




James W. Watts


Bible history, Heavenly book, Icons, Bible rituals, Materiality, Christian history

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Biblical Studies | Religion


In a 1980 address entitled "America's Iconic Book," Martin Marty claims the Bible is a ubiquitous image that is taken for granted in American culture. It structures and organizes experiences based on its prominent visibility as it is carried in rituals, enshrined in homes, illustrated in and as religious art, encapsulated in monuments, and lauded in miracle stories. This dissertation builds on Marty's identification of the Bible in America as an iconic book that often is revered as an object of power more than as words of instruction, information, or insight. However, my study covers a broader scope, showing the development of the image of the Bible in the history of Christianity. In various historical contexts, iconicity of the Bible is demonstrated through both myth and ritual, paralleling theory (i.e., verbal explanations) and practice (i.e., how people act). This dissertation concludes with Protestant American attitudes and actions similar to those that Marty analyzes.

My thesis is that the Bible as both text and physical entity has been and continues to function as an icon--an image that mediates between the material and spiritual world and thus is a locus of religious power. While most people would readily agree that the Bible is an iconic book, an immediately recognizable symbol with connotations of admiration or veneration, my argument is that a more careful and detailed examination of the Bible as an icon that functions as a material mediator enhances our understanding of the power and status given to this book


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