May 6, 2013 8:27:15 AM
PHILMONT, N.Y. -- In the beginning, Phillip Patterson decided to write out every word in the Bible.
On empty pages, he wrote of Adam, an ark, locusts, loaves, fishes and the resurrection in his neat, looping cursive. Four years of work begat more than 2,400 pages and left a multitude of pens in its wake. Now, as he copies the last words of the last book, Patterson sees all that he has created.
And it is good.
"I hadn't counted on the fact that it would end up being beautiful," Patterson said. "Or that it would be so exhilarating. And so long."
Patterson, 63, might seem like an unlikely scribe for the King James version of the Bible. Tall and bald with a hearty laugh, the retired interior designer is neither monkish nor zealous. He goes to church but has never been particularly religious. Health issues -- including AIDS and anemia -- have sent him to the hospital and slowed the work. He relies on two canes and will lean on walls and furniture to get around his apartment near the Massachusetts border.
But he has always been curious.
One day in 2007, his longtime partner, Mohammad, mentioned that Islam has a tradition of writing out the Quran. Patterson replied that the Bible was too long. Mohammad said, well then, Patterson should do it.
"The next day I started researching pens and pencils and paper and never looked back," he said.
Patterson began copying the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch, in 2007. Work on this "prototype" allowed him to figure out technique, layout and technical details like the type of paper (19-by-13-inch watercolor) and writing instruments (felt-tip pens). He tackled the complete King James Bible in 2009.
Patterson works at a wooden desk by his bed, near neatly shelved pages of his completed volumes. Fingers on his left hand track the words on a small hardcover Bible while he methodically writes with his right hand. Patterson pencils in ruled lines on the sheets to guide his writing and erases them when he is done, leaving black ink on creamy white pages.
The Bible's exact word count depends on who is doing the tallying, but multiple sources put the King James version at around 788,000 words or more. Patterson used to work up to 14 hours a day on the project, though he averages around six to eight hours a day now that his stamina has ebbed. He usually works until he can't stay awake.
"I go to bed and close my eyes and feel so incredibly serene," he said.
There has been darkness and light along the way.
He especially enjoyed the Book of Ruth, which he interprets as people acting loyally and doing the right thing. But he disliked the plagues, killings and other violence scattered throughout the Bible. Although he respects Jesus for promoting peace and love, he finds the character portrayed in the Gospels too glib and condescending to his disciples.
More importantly, the countless hours of transcription has led him to conclude that the Bible is more sublime than just a bunch of stories from thousands of years ago.
"The begetting and the begatting and all of that, that's really incidental," he said. "These people are trying to understand where they fit into this world."
In a way, Patterson is doing the same thing. There were times when he wondered whether he would ever live to finish the project. Now as it nears its end, he said, it has helped him become more patient, more confident, more loving and more open to differences.
"Every day as I write, I discover something new and it expands my mind more and more," Patterson said. "Not so I can become more of a religious person, but so that I can become more of a whole person."
That assessment is echoed by Laura Glazer, a photographer who has documented the project since its start. Glazer, who has become friends with Patterson over the course of some 4,000 pictures, said Patterson has become more introspective since she first started collaborating with him. But she notes that could also be related to the death of Patterson's partner several years ago and the passage of time.
Although rare now, hand-crafted Bibles were common before the invention of the printing press. In those times, monks who made ornate copies of the Bible saw it as part of their sacred calling, said Anthony Tambasco, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. Patterson does not see any kinship to those long-ago scribes, seeing himself merely as a regular guy who ended up learning something.
"He's not a martyr or a saint. That's what's so nice. It's just what he does," Glazer said. "He's not trying to prove anything to anybody. He's making something beautiful."
Patterson will finish up the final lines of the Book of Revelation during a ceremony at his church, St. Peter's Presbyterian, on May 11. His adult daughter and Glazer will be among the guests, and he will discuss the Bible with an eminent theologian. Once the books are bound, the Bible will be given to the church.
Patterson is already talking about turning a new page.
"I will take any opportunity I can find to do this again," he said.