Tuesday, January 04, 2005

What's in the Bible?

Building on an idea started here before Thanksgiving. Hopefully, this is the first in a series of articles on "the Bible for progressives."

It definitely is rough-draft material, so take it easy, eh?

I've divided this post into a few questions. Look at what you like, ignore the rest: it builds to a conclusion, but you ought to be able to jump around and still follow.

The questions:

So what is in the Bible?

About 30,000 verses, 750,000 words and over 300,000 textual variants, for starters. Most Bibles run between 2000 and 2500 pages, depending on how much annotation and secondary material they include.

The Bible is an anthology of anywhere from 24 to 75 pieces of scripture, depending on what's included, and how it's counted.

A very broad outline of the various groups of materials in a typical Protestant Bible follows:

Old Testament:

  • History & Origins (Genesis-Deuteronomy)

  • Laws & More History (Deuteronomy-Nehemiah)

  • Wisdom Literature (Esther-Song of Solomon)

  • Prophets (Isaiah-Malachi)

New Testament:

  • Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John + Acts)

  • Letters of Paul (Romans-Philemon)

  • Letters of Other Early Leaders (Hebrews-Jude)

  • Revelation (the Apocalypse of John)

What Christians call the "Old Testament" makes up about three-quarters of the Bible.

As in many anthologies, the Bible contains a wide range of genres: songs, stories, history, science, law, poetry, politics, humor, letters and theory. There's even some horror and spy stories!

In addition to these genres, there are some forms found in the Bible that don't fit well into other categories. The most important of these are gospels and apocalyptic literature.

What there's not very much of in the Bible is what we today would call philosophy or "systematic theology". The people who wrote the Bible wrote their portions for particular purposes, and often for particular occasions. They didn't worry much about reconciling what they wrote with other pieces of scripture; in fact, they seem to have often thought of their writings are pieces of a larger conversation, not revelations of a unchanging, monolithic truth. The charge of contradiction sometimes laid against the Bible is therefore unfair. By design, it is meant to represent many voices, which may or may not agree with one another.

How did the Bible get to be in its current form?

Since the Bible was written, compiled and transcribed by many different people over the course of about a thousand years, there is no "original" text we can refer to. What we do have are copies--lots of them. The earliest of these date generally date back to somewhere between 200-300CE, with the exception of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which go back as far as 250BCE.

Some manuscripts are papyrus scrolls and some are "codices," or "books," as we now call them. They are often incomplete, and many of them reflect variations in the text due to scribal error or editing. In addition, many scriptures exist in somewhat different versions, depending on time and location. For example, to determine the meaning of an Old Testament passage, scholars might consult the "standard" Hebrew text, or versions in Aramaic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Latin, Samaritan, or Syriac. Once they have that meaning more or less fixed, they can take a stab at translating it into the idioms of a modern language.

What we read as "the Bible," then, is really a patchwork of texts painstakingly combed for the best of many alternatives. Most of those alternatives are not very dramatic: is this word "a" or "the"? The important variations are noted and discussed in any good study Bible. (Look, for example, at Mark 14:8b-20.)

Despite all that, it is still possible to talk about the Bible as a unified entity. The text has been more or less stable since around 400CE, when St. Jerome translated the Bible into everyday Latin, an edition known as the Latin Vulgate. This was the standard text for centuries afterward; translations into European languages from the Greek and Hebrew original text were not available (or legal) until the 1500-1600s. The celebrated King James Bible, for example, was the first authorized translation into English.

From there, the Bible has gone through many editions in English. Some of the most important of these in use today are the Revised and New Revised Standard Versions (RSV/NRSV), the New Interpreter's Version (NIV), and the Good News for Modern Man.

Two important distinctions separate different editions: first, if they are drawn from original texts, or are rewrites of English texts; and second, if they are strict interpretations or paraphrases of the original text. Paraphrases can open up meanings "hidden" in odd phrases or unfamiliar references, but they can also distort the meaning of the text or even introduce new ideas not found in the original.

Notice in all of this what we haven't said: that the Bible was dictated to humans by God. That's because that idea of composition simply isn't in the tradition, either in Judaism or Christianity. (It is, however a part of Islam.) Even the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the standard for "literalist" readings, declares that the Bible is inspired, but not transcribed.

That answers part of the question, but how were the books of the Bible chosen?

Through two separate yet parallel processes.  Over the course of several centuries (from perhaps 200BCE to 100-200CE), the Jewish community fixed a canon of twenty-four books.  How that happened exactly is not known. What we do know is that there were several different versions of "the scriptures" circulating.

One of the most important of those versions was the Greek translation known as the Septuagint, so named because of a legend that seventy-two translators working separately took seventy-two days to produce exactly the same translation of the texts.  The Septuagint was the Bible for many Greek-speaking Jews and Jewish "fellow-travelers," who worshiped in synagogues, but had not yet met all the requirements for full conversion.  The Septuagint has many variations from the Hebrew texts, some important, some not.  It is the form of Jewish scripture most often referred to in the New Testament.

The New Testament developed in a roughly similar manner.  Most mainstream scholars believe that Paul's writings are actually among the earliest Christian texts.  The gospels emerged later, as various Christian communities began to feel a need to consolidate and put down in a permanent form their collective memories of Jesus.  

After Paul's letters--perhaps overlapping them--came the gospels.  Most scholars believe that the gospel of Mark came first, and that Luke and Matthew substantially rewrote portions of it.  Though Luke and Matthew worked separately, they seem to share a common source of Jesus' sayings.  This is referred to as "Q," an abbreviation of the German word "quelle," or "source".  Though Q is sometimes described as something like a "lost gospel," its original shape and content are uncertain at best.  In any case, these three gospels are often referred to as the Synoptic Gospels, because they seem to see Jesus' story in roughly the same way.

John's gospel is probably the last to be written, and depicts Jesus' life and message very differently from the other gospels.  Outside the gospels are several letters from the apostles Peter, James, Jude and John to different congregations, and the letter to the Hebrews, whose author and audience are not known.

By about 100CE, the New Testament was complete.

However, like the Jewish scriptures, it took many years for the contents of the New Testament to be formalized.  Marcion and the Montanists tried to pare down the New Testament to a much abbreviated form, while discarding the Hebrew scriptures entirely.  In its response to this challenge, the early church established two important principles:  diversity and continuity.  Against Marcion's synthesized version of Luke, the church kept all four gospels and the New Testament letters.  Against his break with the "God of the Jews," the church maintained its continuity with Jewish tradition by retaining what Christians now call the Old Testament.  The church thus affirmed that Christians and Jews worship the same God.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Gnostics tried to expand the canon to include books of doubtful connection to the Christian mainstream.

The Christian canon was formally codified in the late 300s, though it's generally believed that an informal consensus was arrived at as early as 200CE.  Though there were some politics involved in the selection of the canon, there were two basic criteria:  apostolicity and use in worship.  Apostolicity means that the book can be at least nominally connected with an apostle said to be its author, but more important, that the book matches with the historical faith as people understood it at that time.

For example, the Western church did not include the Letter to the Hebrews for many years because they did not consider it consistent with the tradition.  They thought it might have been written by Paul, but they weren't sure.  On the other hand, it was in widespread use in Eastern churches, and so eventually the West relented and brought the letter into their canon.  Much of John's work, as well as the letters of James and Jude, were also disputed.

As Henry Chadwick says about the work of the Councils, "Sometimes modern writers wonder at the disputes.  The truly astonishing thing is that so great a measure of agreement was established so quickly."

Wasn't there some stuff left out?

Yes indeed, there were some books left out of the emerging canon. The Pseudopigrapha are "false writings" which were rejected at the Councils because they did not match the teachings of the church at the time they were being considered.  Many Gnostic texts are included in this group, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Acts of John the Apostle, the Gospel of Truth, or the Odes of Solomon.  This category also includes books which were considered worthwhile reading but something short of scripture:  the Shepherd of Hermas, Clement's Letters to the Corinthians, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, or the Apocalypse of Peter, for example.

There are also "extra-canonical" works that were never seriously considered for scriptural status.  Perhaps the most important of these is the Didache, or "teachings," which gives many details of life and worship in the early church.

In the 1500s, Martin Luther placed several Old Testament texts in an appendix to the Bible because they appeared in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew scriptures.  These are known as the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books.  Luther also believed that the Epistle of James should be removed from the New Testament, but that change didn't stick.  Today, Catholic and Orthodox Bibles carry the Apocrypha in their traditional places among other scriptures, while Protestant Bibles include them in a separate section, if at all.

The Apocrypha also includes a few books that appear only in Greek and Slavonic Bibles.

Of all the books "left out" of the Bible, the Apocrypha are the most important, because they are still recognized as scripture and used in worship in many churches.

Wasn't there some stuff that got rewritten?

Yes and no.  It's often charged that the Bible has been written and re-written to suit the political needs of whatever editor was working on it at the time, but that's hardly an uncontested notion among biblical scholars.

What is indisputable is that the Bible has gone through many different translations, and translation is not easy work.  As noted above, there are hundreds of thousands of textual variations in the original manuscripts, so even assuming that translators are working with the same materials isn't necessarily safe.

Biblical texts can also be quite obscure:  words appear there and nowhere else, or cultural references in the texts are lost to history, just to name a couple of the difficulties.  The bottom line is that there are many different ways to read and thus interpret the Bible, even when working with the original manuscripts.  So it should come as no surprise that there's a lot of variation from edition to edition.

Many books of the Bible also show signs of editing and/or multiple authorship.  The creation story in Genesis is widely thought to be two separate views stitched together, for example.  The Psalms are probably an anthology, and Isaiah more than likely contains the writings of three separate authors!  The gospels might be the most complicated of all:  they are compilations of stories and sayings that may have passed through multiple layers of telling and retelling by various communities, until they were finally transcribed and edited by leaders within those communities.

Looking back from our perspective on these processes, it's tempting to say that some dominant authority suppressed the "real story" of scripture, leaving us with a sanitized version.

That might be true, but it's the wrong way to approach the Bible as we find it.  For one thing, there's no evidence that anyone felt suppressed.  The contradictions and multiple viewpoints we find in scripture in fact suggest just the opposite: people felt free to disagree with other perspectives, and debate was an accepted part of both Jewish and Christian practice.  Look at Jesus' harangues toward the Pharisees and Sadducees if you need more proof.

For another thing, it's a bit backwards to think that because the Bible speaks against certain viewpoints, it's necessarily a censoring document.  Were it not for scripture and the Holy Mess it describes, we wouldn't have many of those perspectives.  Simply as a historical resource, the Bible is invaluable.  It preserves voices that would otherwise be lost, even if in edited form.

What didn't get rewritten might be more interesting than what did.  Stories such as God's apparent assassination attempt against Moses or the rape of Dinah, or uncomfortable teachings such as Paul's stance on the position of women in the church, provoke us to deeper thought and further exploration that we might if biblical content were easily understood or uncontroversial.

It sounds like what's in the Bible is pretty arbitrary.  Why should it be any more important than any other book about religion?  Why shouldn't we add to it or take away as we see fit?

You'll have to make your own decisions about the spiritual or religious importance of the Bible.  Nobody can make you accept it as your scripture.

That being said, there are a couple of good reasons to leave the Bible the way it is, and to accord it some special significance.

First, as New Testament scholar Luke Johnson points out, having a "closed canon" gives Christians something to organize around.  Love it or hate it, the canon give us a starting point for discussing--and arguing about--what it means to be a Christian.  Along those same lines, since so many Christians do accept the canon as is, it makes it much easier to talk with them about the Bible and hence their religious beliefs if you can agree with them on what that includes.

(If, like Toby Ziegler, you must take issue with wingnut Christians on which is the First Commandment, make sure you have Pres. Sheen Bartlett to back you up.)

Because the Bible has been a starting point for so much of American moral discourse, it hovers over that conversation in a way that other religious works simply cannot.  We might wish there were more diversity in our moral sources, or that they were other than Christian scripture, but that's not the situation as we find it.  On the other hand, religious practice and cultural awareness are shifting.  The Bible no longer dominates the way it used to, and that trend shows no sign of reversing itself anytime soon.  Still, as a practical matter, I think it's best to simply take the Bible and its position as givens and try to work with them as best we can.

That's my argument, and I'm sticking to it.

You may disagree with me if you like.


After all that, what's the point?

Simply this:  that the Bible is a supremely complex and supremely diverse document.  Anyone who tells you that there is a single right way to read the Bible is a fool.

Worse than that, they're a faithless fool.  To reduce the Bible to a WASPy blandness is a form of idolatry.

That's not to say that the Bible is without coherence.  Within its diversity, it does possess a unified theme:  it is a testament to a people's journey with God over hundreds of years.  It records their conversations, not their settled statements of doctrine.  Those conversations are often partial, often frustrating, occasionally maddening, baffling, or downright offensive.  But at the same time, they are rich.  They give us many points of view to consider, force us to struggle with difficult ideas, and push us to grow in many ways.

The Bible, at the last, is not a last and final authority.  It is a starting point for the difficult and often tenuous life of faith, and a companion for the way.  It has much to teach, but in the end, it only has as much authority as we are willing to grant it.  And the kind of authority it has depends on how we read it.

We'll take that up next time, in "How to Read the Bible".

At 4:38 AM, Blogger - said...

Thanks for that—I'll be looking forward to the rest of this series.

I think we can all admit we don't know the Bible as intimately as we should—I know I've had a very hard time with the Old Testament until I started spending some quality time with the prophetic books recently. Johnson (one of my favorite more-or-less-orthodox NT scholars, by the way) is right about the benefits of a closed canon, but Scripture is such a BIG closed canon that it's easy to get lost and wander through the same few familiar rooms rather than venture out into the scarier parts, whatever that means for each person.

Also, I was always under the impression NIV stood for New International Version, not New Interpreter's Version, and I think the piece would benefit from a quick discussion of the Textus Receptus and why its questionable authority brings the KJV, the favorite Bible of the evangelical crowd, into question as well. Just my two cents.

At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing like a little revisionism.


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