Somewhere inside the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City is a big chunk of metal fused to a Bible. Well, half a Bible. Its scorched pages are open to Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount. An anonymous firefighter reportedly found the artifact in the rubble under the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Now it’s on display as what a 9/11 photographer called a reminder “that the Bible’s message survives throughout time.”

The Bible—not just that one—has been through a lot. Everyone’s heard a story. They turn up surprisingly preserved in natural disasters and fiery auto accidents.

A Tennessee woman who lost everything when her mobile home went up in flames praised the firefighter who recovered three Bibles. In Floyd County, Kentucky, a fireman found a mostly intact Bible and a print of The Last Supper among the ruins of a devastating house fire. In Wisconsin, The Springs United Methodist Church was gutted by a fire in March of 2019, but a sturdy 150-year-old Bible survived—for the second time.

A group of college students helping clean up after a deadly tornado in Cookeville, Tennessee, last spring found a Bible face-up and open to Jeremiah 46—“Do not be afraid, Jacob”—in the rubble. In July of 2019, two teenage sisters narrowly escaped their Jeep Liberty when it caught fire and exploded near Fort Myers, Florida. After firefighters put out the blaze, they recovered a Bible from the front seat.

And there aren’t just recent examples of the Good Book’s “miraculous” endurance. In World War I, British Soldier George Vinall’s Bible stopped a bullet that probably would’ve killed him. A Bible at a museum in Tennessee made it onto a lifeboat as the Titanic sank.

Despite all the rescued Bible relics, Zondervan, one of the world’s largest Bible distributers, promises its copies of the Holy Book are perfectly destructible. Vice president Melinda Bouma said that though Zondervan deliberates over every detail—fonts, ribbon markers, gilding on the edges of pages—the books are as physically vulnerable as any other.

“Nothing about the Bibles we produce is inherently flame- or water-resistant,” Bouma said. All the while, “we rejoice every time we hear of a Bible surviving.”

A Bible on display at the 9/11 memorial in New York
Image: Carmine Galasso / AP

A Bible on display at the 9/11 memorial in New York

Bible experts appreciate these accounts as signs of how much Christians cling to the Word—and the God it testifies to. Scott Ross of the American Bible Society (ABS) has a favorite survival story, a woman whose Bible and Bible-reading chair survived a tornado that destroyed her house. “That’s a whole different level,” said Ross, the ABS director of church partnerships. “You can’t attribute that to glue or binding or leather.”

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Ross can only see it as a sign of God’s providence. The Bible’s owner said she’d chosen to read the Word in that chair every day after hearing a sermon about finding a specific spot in which to spend time with Jesus. “She was delighting herself in the Lord through his Word,” Ross said, referencing Psalm 37, “and he was giving her the desire of her heart, which was keeping her Scripture.”

So what’s going on here? Is it a miracle when a thousand tissue-thin pages make it through a disaster?

All we have left

It’s true that victims of traumatic events are looking to find God, even in physical symbols in the midst of the rubble, according to Jamie Aten, a disaster psychologist, an author, and the founder of Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute. Aten has jumped into the aftermath of dozens of disasters in recent years, researching how survivors make meaning of their traumas. He’s seen firsthand the religious symbols that survive against all odds.

There was a steeple in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, still pointing skyward when everything around it was in a heap. Somewhere near Biloxi, a beloved old church bell survived that same storm. After seeing the flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in late summer 2016, Aten was deeply moved when he walked by a house with piles of rotting belongings at the curb, waiting for trash pickup. Behind the piles, undamaged in the yard, was a Christmas nativity.

Aten said regardless of whether they’re miracles, the survival of religious items can be a great encouragement. Many survivors have told Aten that the surviving artifacts feel like symbols of the only thing they have left: their faith.

He said he’d never discourage anyone from finding hope in the recovery of religious artifacts or the Bible, but there is reason for caution.

“Where it does become a negative is when we turn our symbols into shrines,” he said. He’s seen it happen before—families or communities start rallying around an object, like thrill seekers driving cross-country to see Mary Magdalene in a piece of toast. In those cases, Aten tries to help survivors think of their symbols like gravestones: They’re helpful when they prompt us to remember our loved ones. They’re problematic if we think they are our loved ones.

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The Bible isn’t a gravestone, though. John’s gospel calls God the Word. Scripture might be printed on manmade pages, but evangelicals believe the words are Spirit-inspired and from God himself. To many, that alone might elevate the book’s survival after a disaster to something supernatural.

Ross at ABS says God’s choice to preserve physical Bibles might be a statement against cultural attacks on its contents. “These signs in the natural world, so to speak, of God preserving the Scripture on the dashboard of a car that’s been incinerated or a tornado—they’re almost like signs … of God saying, ‘Historically I’ve preserved this. You’re not going to tear it apart.’ ”

The rug under us

Aten looks at Bible survival stories from two perspectives: the theological and the psychological. The psychological side, he says, can’t answer every question. There’s room for mysticism and miracles. In fact, he says, maybe it’s because God understands our psychology that he sometimes sees fit to save our holy books.

Wendy Crawley sheepishly cops to spotty church attendance. She laughs remembering Sunday mornings growing up in Augusta, Georgia, when her mom took her to the early service at the Episcopal church so they could “beat the Baptists to the breakfast bar.”

But she’s always kept a Bible. “It was there if I needed it,” she said. Whenever it caught her eye, there on her nightstand, she recalled her favorite verse: “He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).

Two years ago, Crawley was driving home from her job at a hair salon in North Augusta when she heard sirens. She pulled over, let the fire trucks pass, and started home again, only to follow them right to her house.

The fire may have started with a faulty space heater, or maybe one of the dogs bumped the heater too close to the couch. When she pulled up to the house, she found her husband distraught on the lawn, with burns on his head and face.

“He got trapped in the house because he went back in to get the dogs,” Crawley said. The couple’s autistic son had a therapy dog named Sugar, an Italian mastiff; and the family had a bossy little chiweenie named Princess. Despite his heroic attempt, Crawley’s husband couldn’t find them in the flames. They died, and the house was a total loss.

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Crawley was in shock while she watched it burn. A few neighbors who came to the scene told her later that she kept repeating the same thing: “Something good’s gonna come from this. Something good’s gonna come out of this.”

When the firemen left, Crawley and her husband walked through their shell of a house. “What the fire didn’t burn, the water [destroyed],” Crawley said. But when she got to her back bedroom, Crawley saw her Bible on her charred nightstand—right in the middle of her house that was no longer a house. “It was wet, and it smelled funny,” she remembered. “Why didn’t it burn?”

A Bible discovered after a tornado in Cookeville, TN
Image: Courtesy of Jorja Gust

A Bible discovered after a tornado in Cookeville, TN

Aten and his researchers have learned over the years that our worldview is one of the most resilient things about us. “Faith, and our worldview—whether that has faith in it or not—tends to be one of the resources everyone can still access, even when everything else feels lost,” Aten said.

In other words, what we believed before a disaster will usually be reinforced in the way we interpret the disaster. “We bring ourselves to it,” Aten said. “And our communities, and cultures, and all those things play into it.” That means what the survival of a Bible or other religious item means to someone depends on who that someone is.

Crawley’s not sure whether her Bible’s survival was a miracle or not. But after the fire, as she stood crying in the shower, Crawley knew why God had preserved it. “I just said, ‘Wendy, he’s not gonna pull the rug out from under you,’ ” she said.

In the months following, the Crawleys’ marriage teetered. Her husband blamed himself, she said, even though no one else did. But they worked through it, and Crawley says today the two are “back to the team we used to be.” They mourned their dogs but adopted another Italian mastiff that was bred from Sugar’s mom. Her name is Phoenix.

The Crawleys rebuilt a house on the same spot as the one that burned. Nothing’s exactly the same. The past two years have been hard, but the rug’s still under her.

‘I marveled sometimes that the ink was dry’

When Corrie ten Boom, who spent the early years of World War II hiding Jewish refugees in her home, was shipped to a concentration camp, she daringly hid pages of a Bible on a string around her neck. Those pages became the center of a prayer meeting she and her sister held in their barracks.

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To ten Boom, the Bible’s survival didn’t just strengthen her belief in God. It strengthened her belief in the miracle of the Bible itself:

Sometimes I would slip the Bible from its little sack with hands that shook, so mysterious had it become to me. It was new; it had just been written. I marveled sometimes that the ink was dry. I had believed the Bible always, but reading it now had nothing to do with belief. It was simply a description of the way things were—of hell and heaven, of how men act and how God acts. I had read a thousand times the story of Jesus’ arrest—how soldiers had slapped Him, laughed at Him, flogged Him. Now such happenings had faces and voices.

Not long after the Holocaust ended, a Bedouin shepherd found a cache of old animal-hide parchments in a cave on the northwest bank of the Dead Sea. The 900 or so fragments were in at least two dialects and unreadable to the young nomad. So he and his companions took them to Bethlehem and sold them for tragically little to an antiquities dealer.

The parchments changed hands a few more times before the significance of the discovery was announced and the collection got its modern name: the Dead Sea Scrolls. As far as survival stories go, the Dead Sea Scrolls could do some boasting.

“The way we know what they lived through is by looking at them physically,” said Lawrence Schiffman, an expert in these ancient manuscripts, which are among the oldest surviving biblical texts in the world.

Schiffman, a professor of Judaic studies at New York University, has handled the scrolls himself and was part of the diplomatic effort to have them officially published. Researchers have dated many of the fragments to more than 100 years before the birth of Christ.

Of course, in their day, they weren’t a precious global antiquity. They described Jewish life and rules during the second temple period and contained portions of the Old Testament that would have been handled regularly. Researchers can tell many of the parchments were repaired during their use, Schiffman said.

Then came the war. Or, more accurately, the conquest. Historians suggest the scrolls’ owners hid them, perhaps in a hurry, in clay jars in the cave as the Romans advanced on what’s known today as Qumran.

In the centuries that followed, the scrolls survived in the unique climate of a dim, cool cave in the middle of a scorching desert. Some were in jars on wooden shelves that collapsed at some point, Schiffman says. Some suffered the indignity of animal dung. Then, in 1946, they survived a long assembly line of changing hands, including those Schiffman classifies as “incompetent handlers,” through various museums and authorities across the Middle East.

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The scholar finds significance in the scrolls’ “survival.” It’s not just that they didn’t disintegrate or burn or fray beyond recognition or fall into some unfindable crevice in a different cave. Schiffman finds significance in the way the scrolls have changed the modern world since their discovery.

“We live in an era when people are skeptical about everything,” Schiffman said. “At least here we can see that the biblical tradition, and many other things described in ancient Judaism in later sources, turned out to be real.”

In his book Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their True Meaning for Judaism and Christianity, Schiffman suggests that these fragments also helped counter festering 20th-century anti-Semitism by reminding Christians of their brotherhood with Jews and their roots in biblical Judaism. (“We take for granted that a Christian magazine would interview a Jewish scholar,” Schiffman said with a laugh.)

Most Bibles haven’t weathered centuries of human use, desert caves, Roman conquest, or the quagmire of modern Middle Eastern relations. Still, just to be safe, the American Bible Society used to print waterproof Bibles.

“I think it was standard issue,” Scott Ross said. The Bibles were sent to the military and installed in life rafts. Some versions boasted not just durable covers but also water-resistant pages.

Today, ABS will send Bibles to pretty much anyone who asks. It sent a shipment to Nashville after the tornadoes there last spring, and to Texas after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. They’re not waterproof anymore. Even so, Ross still believes in the miracle of Bible survival.

“I think it speaks to the profound nature of God with us,” he said. “He’s demonstrating that by preserving the very window into who he is.”

Maria Baer is a contributing writer for CT and is based in Columbus, Ohio.

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