Earlier this week, Bonhams auction house in New York sold a Bible with a handwritten gift inscription from Elsa and Albert Einstein. The Einsteins had given the book to Harriet F. Hamilton in 1932. The Bible sold for $68,500 including the buyer’s premium.
The couple inscribed the book separately. Albert Einstein wrote a few lines in German, praising the book and recommending that Harriet read from it often. Is Einstein’s advice surprising based on his known views about Biblical literature around the early 1930’s? Do Einstein’s remarks in 1932 contradict the less enthusiastic words that he wrote about the Bible to Eric Gutkind in 1954, which were discussed last year on the Uncertaintist?
No and no.
What Einstein wrote in 1932, in German with an English translation
The Bonhams catalog offered a rough and tentative transcription, which won’t be used here, but may be encountered elsewhere on the web. Based on the photograph, Einstein’s handwritten German actually appears to be:
Dies Buch ist eine unerschöpfliche Quelle der Lebensweisheit und des Trostes. Lesen Sie oft darin und geschenken Sie dabei
Which, in straightforward translation, is:
This book is an inexhaustible source of wisdom and comfort. Read in it often and gifts for you,
It is crucial for discussion of the inscription’s place among Einstein’s other religious comments to establish whether the Bible in question, “This book,” is a Jewish Bible, which is the Tanakh alone, or a Christian Bible, with both the Old and New Testament bound together in a single volume. The Uncertaintist asked Christina Geiger of Bonhams, and she stated that this Bible contained both Testaments.
Comparison with a then-recent comment on the Gospels
A few years before he inscribed this Christian Bible, Einstein had commented enthusiastically on the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus and the eloquence of Jesus’ sayings found there. The following exchange is from George Sylvester Viereck’s Glimpses of the Great (Duckworth, London, 1930), “What life means to Einstein,” pp. 373-374. The interview first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post (October 26, 1929, page 17; this appears on continuation page 117).
(Viereck) “To what extent are you influenced by Christianity?”
(Einstein) “As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”
(Viereck) “You accept the historical existence of Jesus?”
(Einstein) “Unquestionably. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus.”
(Viereck) “Ludwig Lewisohn, in one of his recent books, claims that many of the sayings of Jesus paraphrase the sayings of other prophets.”
“No man,” Einstein replied, “can deny the fact that Jesus existed, nor that his sayings are beautiful. Even if some them have been said before, no one has expressed them so divinely as he.”
Einstein’s 1932 comments about a Christian Bible are fully consistent with this ca. 1929 appreciation of the Gospels, and his positive assessment of the person, life and sayings of Jesus.
Comparison with comments in 1954
Nor was Einstein hostile to the Tanakh as adult reading material. Bonhams included a notorious non-quote in its lot description, saying incorrectly that Einstein had told Gutkind that the Bible is a
collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish
Bonhams covers itself, however, by attributing the canard to the 2008 Bloomsbury auction literature. That is within arguable “trade practices,” for one auction house to rely upon another house’s statements.
The “Bible” Einstein described in 1954 was the Jewish Bible, as it had been discussed by Gutkind in his book. Gutkind wrote about the Tanakh, and wrote about it from a distinctive, highly personal perspective. And when the pretty childish embellishment is removed, what Einstein said to Gutkind about the Tanakh wouldn’t deter a mature reader from finding wisdom, comfort and gifts there, among honorable legends, albeit primitive ones.
[Your book] is written in language that is inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends.