I. Lots of Bibles
On a bookshelf in my house is An American Bible, edited by Alice Hubbard. It contains an Introduction and the Gospels according to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Robert Ingersoll, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Elbert Hubbard. You have probably heard of most of these evangelists. You have probably not heard before of the “Bible” that uses them as sacred authors. It is even more probable that you do not believe in this “Bible”.
On the other side of the room is another “Bible”, the Bhagavad-Gita or Song of the Lord, next to Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health. Unless you are a Vishnavite Hindu or a Christian Scientist, you do not believe in these any more than in An American Bible. But you have heard of them. You may call them “false” bibles but it is not so absurd to call them “bibles” as it is to call Hubbard’s work “Bible”.
What is the difference between on the one hand, the Bhagavad-Gita, a Christian Bible (which is what this book is about) and Science and Health, and, on the other hand, Hubbard’s American Bible? Later on we shall distinguish “false” bibles, i.e. bibles we do not believe, from the true Christian Bible, but first let us try to narrow the field to books we can reasonably call bibles at all.
Well, you had never heard of Hubbard’s bible, had you? There is no-one teaching the doctrines of Hubbard and using An American Bible the way a Catholic priest uses his bible and the way a Fundamentalist preacher uses the King James Version and the way a Hindu uses the Bhagavad-Gita and the way a Christian Scientist uses Science and Health. There is no community of believers consulting An American Bible, teaching from it, and handing it down to the next generation of believers; in short, no church gives us An American Bible: it is just a literary and philosophical curiosity, interesting in its way but not necessary to take any kind of stand about. Every day you can take part in heated discussions about Christian scripture texts on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Or about the Gita, most days. And there are Christian Science Reading Rooms a block east and west. But An American Bible? Nothing.
So a real bible, whether true or false, is given to us by interested people, who preserve it by copying it (usually by printing, nowadays) and make it available to us by translating it. These people constitute a community of believers, or at least of adherents. We call such a community a church. And one of the functions of a church, or at least of some churches, is the transmission of some kind of bible.
What else can we say about a bible? We sometimes apply the name loosely, referring to an almanac or other reference work (in television production there is a “bible” for each character in a series, so that the various authors of different episodes will produce consistent characters). But this is obviously an extension of the church use. Still, not every book put out by a church is a bible. The Pope frequently issues documents called encyclicals (which is a Greek word meaning circulars) on various religious subjects, and some of these encyclicals tell us how to use the Bible; but most encyclicals are almost as much a curiosity as An American Bible, and no-one claims that encyclicals (except for I Peter and II Peter) are part of the Bible. The Catholic Church also has a Code of Canon Law, and documents from its various ecumenical councils; the Presbyterians have Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion; the Protestant Episcopalians have a Book of Common Prayer. Such books are handed down from generation to generation within the, church, but are not called bibles, at least not usually.
We can reasonably call a book a bible when it has a central position in the life and work of a church. The Code of Canon Law and the Institutes of the Christian Religion give us a lot of detail about how to run the church, but Catholics and Presbyterians alike will deny that these books are as important as the Bible; each may be called an attempt to show us how to live the Bible, but that is not quite what we want to tell us what a bible is: the important thing is that a bible should not change much. Whereas Calvin rewrote his Instititutes several times and the Catholic Church issued two Codes in the 20th century.
A bible should be telling us how to live. But the King James Version, which many people of my age were read out of to in their youth, told them no such thing, because they did not understand it. But it was still a Bible. In England during the Middle Ages (say, 1066 to 1330) most people had no Bible available to them in a language they understood: the Anglo-Saxon ones were no longer intelligible, and there was no big hurry to make more modern translations, such as appeared – book by book – from 1361 on. Still, the English of those days, who knew no Latin, but whose priests read the Bible in Latin, seem to have known the Bible better than some people nowadays who call themselves Christian and have easy access to printed editions in a language they do understand. Those medieval English, like many people today into whose language there has been no complete translation of the Bible, understand that there exists such a document with some central position in their faith, but do not need actually to read it to follow its teachings. It is very difficult to say what this central position is that the Bible holds. Let us look at it from another angle.
I have a little niece who likes to sing
Jesus loves me, this I know / Because the Bible tells me so.
But she has never read the Bible! When I first heard her sing that song she could not read at all! I doubt if she had ever heard the Bible being read and paid any understanding attention. She knows that Jesus loves her because her Mommy and Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa and the people at Sunday school have told her so. They tell her stories to illustrate Jesus’ love, but they probably do not read to her from the Bible. If the Bible tells her that Jesus loves her, it does so in a very indirect way.
Another angle: until 405 A.D. Christians were not certain what was in the Bible and what not: in that year Pope Innocent I sent a letter to the Bishop of Toulouse in France, who had asked the Pope exactly which books were in the Bible, giving the list we still use today. The Bishop, whose name was Exuperius, knew Jesus loved him; so did the people of Toulouse know the most important teachings of Christianity They even know there was a Bible. But they did not know what books were in the Bible.
The Bible they were looking for was something permanent. Bishop Exuperius knew that many books teaching true doctrine were not Bible, and would be forgotten as the years went by (one book some people thought important, the Didache, was completely unknown for over a thousand years, one copy surviving in a little-used section of a library in Istanbul). He also knew that some books contained the Word of God in a way meant to be permanent. And the same is true of my little niece: she does not need to read or hear the Bible to know it, because there are copies of its important parts in people’s minds and on their lips, with an implied reference back to the Bible itself. Later on we shall think about the relationship among the Bible, the people quoting it, the people preserving it, and so forth.
But if my niece has been told by the people at Sunday school that there is a Bible, and if Bishop Exuperius asked the Pope what books were in the Bible, might not different Sunday schools, and perhaps different Popes, have different ideas? Yes, of course. Children who attend Sunday school at the Hare Krishna Temple learn that the Gita is the word of God, as well as the Vedas; the Mormons have a Pope, the First Presidency, who tells them what books are holy, and his list is different from both my niece’s Sunday school’s and the Hare Krishna Temple’s lists.
Different believing communities have different bibles. This is because they have different beliefs. Sometimes communities forget their beliefs and have to go back to their bibles to reconstruct their beliefs: when this occurs, as it often has in the United States, it may happen that two churches have different beliefs because they use different bibles (the reverse of the original process); it can also happen that two churches starting with the same bible, because they have forgotten their original beliefs, come up with different beliefs they both claim to be taught in the same bible. This has happened very often in the United States as regards Christianity, in India as regards Hinduism, and so forth.
The reason for this kind of divergence, this splitting of one faith community into several, is that the community has forgotten what faith led it to its bible; it has forgotten what faith originally gave its bible meaning. We are all attached to some kind of bible because we all have some kind of connection with a church, and we should never forget that it is that church which gives us our bible. If we think we see a contradiction between our bible and the church which gave us our bible we need to trace our church and its bible back. If it seems that our church was founded, on the basis of the bible, just a few years ago, then we had better be suspicious: is this new-founded church really the original church rebuilt after going astray? This is what our church must logically claim if its bible is older than it is.
Let me say that again. If some people get together with a bible and say that their present church, which gave them that bible, is mistaken, and that they must found a new church, what they are saying is that their present church, or some ancestor church, used to be right and chose the right bible, but then over the years forgot the truth. These people making a new church are saying that they received a true bible from an untrue church, that their church has become corrupt, except that it has not changed the bible, or not in any way these people have not found out.
People do quite often decide that their church has made some mistake about the bible. I have met two Catholics who thought that the Song of Songs was just a dirty love song, which had got into the Catholic Bible by mistake. At one time quite a lot of Hindus had an Idea that the Bhagavad-Gita was not truly part of the Hindu bible, but merely a useful devotional work (like some chapters of Dostojevsky for Christians). What those Catholics were saying, in effect, was that the publishers authorized by the pope to issue bibles were mistaken. Those publishers got their lists from the ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church, particularly Trent in 1546 and Florence in 1441, which in turn got their lists from a tradition dating back centuries. If these Catholics are correct, somewhere along the line a mistake was made whereby a list was copied and made a little longer. It is quite important to find out just when the mistake was made, because if any such mistake was made the Catholic Church at the time of that mistake ceased to be trustworthy about the Bible, but must have been trustworthy before. If these two Catholics want to make a new church, they will be saying that their new church is the original Catholic Church carried on from the time just before the mistake. And logically anyone who makes such a statement about the bible his church gives him is saying something much the same about his church.
Most people do not make such statements about their bible. They accept the church of which they are members, along with that church’s bible and other traditions. We should be conscious that our church gives us our bible.
My church started for me with my parents, who introduced me to the rest of my church, made me a member of the church. They may not have made me a full member: but at least they made me attach myself to a particular group of believers. They made me a Christian, not a Hindu; a Catholic, not a Presbyterian. But now I am part of that church. The church gives me a bible and I, even if I never read the bible, help pass the bible on to future generations, simply by being somehow related to the church and showing some kind of respect for its bible. In fact, I have read the bible my church has given me, and have consciously assisted in passing it on to others, by contributing to the collections for missions and Christian education, by talking with people inside and outside the church, by myself teaching from and about the bible I believe. But I could believe the Bible without those actions.
A church rolls down the ages. At some time it chooses texts it thinks most expressive of its beliefs and attitudes, and the further rolling down the ages is also the rolling down the ages of that choice of texts. This is true whatever kind of church we are talking about, as long as it has something of a bible, even when the members of the church do not realize what is happening. Some people reading this may have had some idea that their church was started on the basis of their bible but, once one thinks about it, it is fairly obviously the other way round – and yet they have been living as members of the church using its bible. We are participating in a tradition when we use or respect a bible.
II. The Christian Bible
The Christian Bible’s history is part of the Jewish Bible’s history. This is not because Christians took the Jewish Bible and stapled the New Testament on: the modern Rabbinical Jewish Bible, the Bible of the continuing premessianic Jewish Church, the Rabbinical Jewish Church, was not put together until the Christian Church was already an independent organization.
What happened was, roughly, that the Jewish Church split in two: one part, the majority, said that the promised Messiah had already come; another part, the one we now commonly call Jewish, said that he had not yet come, or, at any rate, Jesus of Nazareth was not the Messiah. Before either the Jewish or the Christian Bible had been officially put together, there were several groups of Jews who thought the Messiah had come: some said he was Jesus of Nazareth, others King Herod the Great, others again had yet other ideas. The only one of these that has survived until today (the only one that survived even a few centuries) is the group saying Jesus of Nazareth is Messiah.
All of these people had a common belief already, of course: that God had promised a Messiah. They also believed many other things about God’s revelation of himself in history. What they believed they had written down, mainly in Hebrew. Some of what they had written down they later decided was an especially pure expression of God’s revelation. Those were the parts they were most careful to make lots of copies of – lots of careful copies, with prayer to start and finish each copying session. Carefully reflecting on their origins as a believing community and on the expression of God’s work in their books, they were able to select some writings as most important. They could see that some writings were not describing the central ideas of their community whereas others were. Reflecting, on the various things that had happened they were able to write more books (pamphlets, by our modern standards, tracts almost) about God in the world. These books were intended to explain the same old story in new ways, so that they would themselves tell of God and also help people to understand the old books better. And they rewrote some of the earlier books, adding introductions (chapters 2 through 11 of Genesis are a kind of introduction to the rest, and chapter 1 is a preface).
And then, when Jesus came, people wrote still more books to express how God was working in the world through Jesus. And some of these books so expressed the idea of God in the world through Jesus that people decided they were just as holy as the older books they knew about and heard in the synagogue. Sadly, there was occasional disagreement about which books were best – the Christian church was quarrelling even before all its Bible was written, as St John mentions in the Apocalypse (2:15 – the Nicolaitans were one of the first non-Catholic Christian groups); an important reason for writing the Apocalypse was to contradict the doctrines of breakaway groups, to keep the Christian church one, holy, universal and united with the now mostly dead Apostles.
The Apocalypse is commonly listed as the last book of the Bible. It told its first readers where certain people of the time were making mistakes about Christian doctrine. The people it was directed to already knew, more or less, what the true Christian doctrine was, but they needed to be reminded, to have the truth put in a fairly explicit way (nowadays lots of people like to think of the Apocalypse as being fall of mysterious secrets which only the Reverend Hocus-Pocus in Orange County has decoded, and the end of the world is the week after next, but the first readers understood it pretty well).
Other parts of the Bible have been written for the same reason, to avoid error. Most of St Paul’s epistles were written to clear up specific points some people were having difficulty with – people who were already Christian, but who had no complete Bible, and may not have realized there ever would be a definitive Christian Bible. In the Letter to the Hebrews (probably the large number of priests who submitted to the faith (Acts 6:7) and moved later (Acts 8:1) to some coastal town), we are shown that Christianity really is Judaism transformed by Christ’s life, death and resurrection, not something a true Jew might be wary of. Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (Prologue: 7-14) was written to restate the older doctrines of the Jewish Law and prophets (although Sirach is not itself the newest book in the Old Testament, nor its author the last prophet). And Genesis chapter 1 was written to clear up ideas some people were getting about God’s relation to the world (notice how Genesis 1 tells us that God is interested in every level of his creation, unlike some people’s idea of gods making a few basic things and the rest being consequence, unplanned by the creator; how it definitely has God start with emptiness, not with some eternally existing stuff, which all the heathen gods were supposed to start with – and even themselves be made of, very often; how it makes man the final item of creation, for which all the previous items were made, not a by-product of some other activity, which is what the Egyptians and many others seem to have thought the human race to be).
The books of the Bible and, within each book, often, several distinct parts have their own human reasons for being written (God had his reason for every letter and dot, but his human instruments had reasons of their own for each tale or essay or poem), and each one depends on what had already been written, or later parts depend on it, or both. Because each human author had his own reasons, God can give us through the Bible many different pictures of the same truth about himself. Without even going to a concordance, or making any exhaustive search, I find 12 descriptions of the relation of God to the universe he creates: Gn 1:1-2:4a; Gn 2:4b-25; Si 42:15-26; Jn 1:1-18; Est 4:17b-17c; Heb ll:3; Ps 104; Ps 139:13-16; Ps 33:6-11; Ac 17:24-31; Ws 18:14-16; Si 17:1-20. Three of these accounts have elaborations quite close to them. And each account is both true and useful.
Because of this interdependence, and because of the general dependence of the Bible on the physical and social world around it, we can start almost anywhere in our understanding of the Christian faith and work our way to the rest. People who talk of the Bible as good literature are usually talking affected nonsense, but there are parts of the Bible which awaken many people’s sense of beauty. A skillful teacher might, in principle, by discussing this beauty, lead someone to Christianity. A less skillful one can at least demonstrate that Christianity is more than a barren wasteland of ignorance and fear. The way you sing the psalms (or other hymns, for all hymns derive in some way from the Bible) in, church is the way you teach your faith to the visitor, the doubtful member and the passer-by. You are singing to God, and God is singing to others through you. The first part is more important, but never forget the second. And, of course, you are allowing God to sing through you to yourself: if you sing as though you don’t care, soon perhaps you won’t care.
Going back to the visitor and the doubtful member, including yourself, the better you sing and pray aloud the easier you will make it for a teacher to draw someone into the truth of Christ.
Just as some people may understand Christianity starting from a particularly beautiful prayer, so others may start from a description of a human problem, such as the Book of Job, or from the question of the relation of God and the universe, as in Genesis 1. Others may start by reading some of the history in the Bible, which will refer them to the doctrines of creation and revelation, of redemption and charity. You and I cannot see how the Bible constitutes a whole (at least, I cannot), but it does, and that means that everything in it is tied together, being all tied in a special way to God’s saving work among men.
Now, just as your spiritless singing of a psalm may put someone off Christianity, so may a bad exposition of some other part of the Bible. Some people have been taught (I once was myself) that the Bible teaches special creation, i.e. that someone (God, the way these people taught it) started each species, or kind, of plant and animal at a specific point in time, so that each species is discontinuous at its beginning. They then learn ordinary school biology, which tells them that most species have started by evolution from an earlier species. As the facts of modern investigation (over the last three or four centuries particularly) give a lot more evidence for evolution than for special creation, and as evolution gives a much more consistent view of life on earth as a whole, they decide evolution is true. Because someone has told them that the Bible is against evolution, they reject the Bible, just like the man who gave up and walked out of church on hearing the choir dispiritedly moan through one of the most beautiful psalms. I do not mean here to tell you that evolution is true and special creation is false: that is a scientific question. My point is that the Bible does not teach special creation, and those who say it does are not only missing some important doctrine (if you think the Bible teaches special creation is some parts, you are not getting the true meaning of those parts) themselves, but are leading other people away from Christ. The same goes for those idiots who keep on pointing to a certain ancient boat‑shaped church on Mount Ararat as being the literal Ark of Noah, “proving” the Bible – that is not proof, as almost anyone can see, and the Bible does not need such proof, as many people never get to see because they have been so misled.
The different kinds of writing in the Bible must be understood as different kinds of writing. It is no good reading “There is no God” in Ps 14(13):l and believing it just the way you believe that “Jesus wept” (Lk 19:41): that would lead to a most extraordinary kind of Christianity. Similarly, you should read Paul’s letter to Philemon, which appears to have been a bit of a joke (although very useful for our salvation), rather differently from his first to the Corinthians, which was written to clear up a lot of serious difficulties.
It is precisely thinking that all the Bible had to be read in the same way that makes some people think the earlier chapters of Genesis to be history, and then have to tie chapters 1 and 2 together in a logically impossible way, thus discrediting Christianity before many. And it is the same foolishness which accounts for some of the rather laughable attempts to fit the four gospels together into a single story; this can be done, of course, but we must realize that the four authors God used for the gospels were different people writing in different styles and thinking in different languages.
A lot of the time we should read each part of the Bible for itself. The readings in church on Sunday usually try to be complete in themselves, and most editions of the Bible have little headings put in by the translator or the publisher to divide the matter up into useful chunks. You should read and think about each story separately, and only later try to fit it into the parts just before and after it – sometimes even there we find different styles, because the sacred author may have been inspired by God to copy or adapt another piece of writing and follow it with his own composition, so that two different stories in the same book way be right next to each other but quite different. But until we have been reading the parts intelligently (it is easiest to do this with the Gospels and with the Acts of the Apostles, because they are stories, and mostly fairly plain stories rather than prose poems) we need not worry much about these subtleties. We will do ourselves no harm reading little parts by themselves unless we invent crazy meanings for those parts and forget that we are reading them in translations and that they have parts before and after.
Because the Bible covers so much and is at some part of interest to anyone, we can in principle lead someone to Christ through any part, via other parts. Of course, most Christians have never read the entire Bible, and this catching at one point and being led along is not the explicit way people do usually become Christian. Or is it? Perhaps everyone who becomes Christian does come to Christ step by step because of new ideas brought to him from the Bible, even when he does not know they are there. In Orthodoxy G. K. Chesterton describes discovering what was more or less Christianity and then finding out that the Church had known it all along: the steps of his discovery were perhaps illuminated by echoes of the Bible in his life.
Be that as it may, our understanding of the Bible depends always first on our experience: if nothing else, we understand the language of the version before us (if we do not, it just so much rubbish, unless we believe to start with that it is holy). We can preach Christ to anyone in the world, in principle, by showing him something in the Bible he understands and believes. In practice, he may not be willing to listen, and we can hardly blame him, most of the time (do you want to hear the contents of my American Bible? Why Should you expect to find truth in it?). But, once the Bible has a toehold in a man’s soul, it can creep further and further in, as he seeks qualification and explanation in other parts of the Bible, and outside it. Even those of us already dedicated to Christ can grow in understanding the same way. Somehow we can follow the endless threads of thought through the Bible, out into the world, and back again, growing, if we are not betrayed (for example, by people preaching nonsense and saying they got it from the Bible, like the Libertarians and Marxists I have met who claim that the Bible supports their social theories), ever deeper into the Word of God.
We must all be prepared to let the Bible work on us this way. It’s all there, but we must let it work on us, by being both honest and receptive.
III. Writing the Books, Reading the Books
How do we write a book? We put a piece of paper in a typewriter, pound for a while, put the paper in a pile, repeat. Eventually, we staple the sheets together and send them off to a publisher or literary agent. But that is not how Moses and friends wrote the Bible.
To start with, they did not have typewriters. They did not even have ballpoint or fountain pens. Their publishers had no printing presses. And there was no paper: paper got invented in China about 200 B.C., long after half the Bible had been written, and did not get to Europe or the Near East, where the Bible got written, until after the Arab capture of Samarkand, in 704 AD. What the Bible was originally written on is something different for every book, even for sections of many of the books. In Ex 24:12 we read that God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone, presumably leaving impressions such as a sculptor makes with a chisel; it does not seem very likely that much of the rest of the Bible first appeared this way. No: most of it was written first on papyrus. You can read elsewhere how to make papyrus, and how to write on it, but it is a paper-like material anciently manufactured in Egypt and exported over a wide area. It is not the easiest stuff to write on. Just as some people nowadays find difficulty writing with anything but a ballpoint, people used to a nib pen find writing on papyrus with the old Egyptian-style pen difficult. The difference is that almost anyone will write better with a nib than with a ballpoint, as a reward for a little extra effort, whereas the extra effort to write on papyrus with a sharpened stalk does not bring any bonus; all the extra effort merely keeps you as readable as before. Still, it was a lot better than marking mud for later baking, chiseling into rock or wood, or any of the other methods current in the days before paper. Papyrus had one colossal advantage over these other methods: papyrus is about as thick and heavy as paper, and can be taken almost anywhere about as easily. It may be a good idea to have the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone somewhere in the church, but it would not be very practical for a missionary to load his donkey with the whole of Exodus in stone blocks for a journey to Nineve. The first collections of the entire Bible were almost certainly in rolls of papyrus. Not long after such collections were first made, books of more or less modern style, codices, were first made.
And how did they make copies of the books, without xerox? You might think that a copyist would put the book on his left, in whatever form, put a roll of papyrus in front of himself, and write on it what he saw on the sheet at his left. You would be right. Anyone who has done this, and most of us have, at least in the early grades of school, knows that several kinds of mistake are liable to occur: we may write one group of lines several times, especially when a line begins with the same word as a later line; we may miss a few lines, for the same reason. We may get tired and copy a few words wrong. We may slip and turn a c into an e – or the equivalent in other alphabets. And all this will get us just one new copy of the book.
The above is how modern Rabbinical Jewish scribes copy the Bible for use in synagogues. They take special precautions of various sorts, chiefly prayer at the beginning of a copying session. But a better method – well, usually a better method, – has been in use for quite a long time. One person sits in the middle of a group of penmen and reads out slowly while the penmen take dictation. This has the advantage that our eyes are not darting from the original to the copy, and thus we avoid some errors. It has the disadvantage that a penman may mis-hear, especially when phrases sound alike (Want a tuna fish sandwich? I don’t think it’s possible to tune a fish sandwich.) or foreign words are quoted in the text. Around the time of Christ Roman authors used to get published by this kind of copying in the bookshop, and those who purchased the books would sometimes visit the author to get their copies corrected, so uncertain were they of the copying technique. Another advantage, much appreciated by ambitious authors, is that one can make several copies at once.
Sometimes we need only one new copy, e.g. when we want to ensure that there will be a copy in the next town if the Vikings (or the Goths, or whoever) burn our town sometime soon; or if there is a circular letter passing round and we want a copy for our local church. In the Middle Ages many monasteries had a room, called a scriptorium, where one or more monks made copies of the monastery’s books, knowing that one day the current copies would rot, and that there would be new groups wanting copies. And most of the ancient books in our libraries are the results of such repeated copying for the future, sometimes by people who did not know the language they were copying, but did know the alphabet in use well enough to copy it. I do not know Nahuatl, the ancient language of Mexico, but if you give me a book in Nahuatl I will be able to copy it, because the missionaries who invented the Nahuatl alphabet merely applied the Roman alphabet to the newly learnt language. In the same way, we can imagine a mediaeval monk in England or Germany carefully copying a Latin text of the Bible without thinking much what the words meant. This method may mean that a few more errors crop up, but the Bible has been copied so often that we are much surer what it was like originally than we are of the poems of, for example, the Greek poet Archilocus.
And how should we read these words and sentences and paragraphs written originally on papyrus and copied many times? Our parents, our church, have told us that this is God writing to us, so we must be more careful reading these books than anything else. They matter very much.
Just as Moses used, we suppose, an Egyptian-style pen to write, God was using Moses to write. Just as Moses’ writing was influenced by his pen (a thick point or a thin point, soft or hard), so God’s writing was influenced by the use of Moses. For example, Moses did not know English, so God could use him only to write in Egyptian or some ancestor of Hebrew or Midianite. More than that: because Moses was not writing in English he could not, and God through him could not, make the fine distinctions we can in English. On the other hand, Moses could, and God through Moses could, make some distinctions we can not.
There is another way God limited himself in using a human instrument: Moses could only write in terms of things he had seen or known. He could not say how many meters long the Ark of the Covenant should be, because no‑one measured in meters in those days. He could not tell us how democratic Israel should be, because no-one yet had any idea of democracy. They knew that some governments were better than others, of course, and that some governments worked differently from others, but they did not have any idea of different political constitutions in the abstract (neither, I might add, do many people who have sworn Allegiance to one or other political constitution in our days). Moses had to be very concrete, and to make sense in, the circumstances of the day. If we are to make sense of the rules for our day, we must try to work back to the principles from which those rules came and then try to apply the rules to our own day. It is not easy to choose from Deuteronomy between God and credit.
There is in my library (I really do have a lot of junk literature there…) a Presidential Biblical Scoreboard, which tries to tell me which candidate to vote for. They quote the Bible as evidence that pseudosexual acts to attempt to realize sexual inversion, sometimes euphemistically called “homosexuality” are against the law of God and should not be legally protected. They seem to be arguing that God destroyed the city of Sodom for pseudosexual behavior, ignoring the very clear description by Ezechiel (16:49-50) of quite another sin as the cause of Sodom’s destruction. The Scoreboard seems (I have not read every word) completely to ignore the fact that its preferred candidate at the time was living in what Jesus clearly calls adultery (Mt 19:9). In other words, they had first decided on a candidate and then found the Bible texts that might be used for that candidate and against his opponent (and several of the uses are a bit twisted, even when we forget the context of the Bible as a whole). Or, more precisely, they have certain political and social convictions and have all their lives been kidding themselves that those opinions are based on the Bible; in reality, they are basing their understanding of the Bible on their opinions.
What can we do to prevent ourselves doing the same with the Bible? That is not easy to answer: the Bible is given to us by the church which consists of people who pass on to us many things besides our faith in God. On, the one hand we must not identify the Bible’s teachings with our own opinions, and on the other we must not allege that any teaching we happen to dislike cannot really be meant for us nowadays in different circumstances: we must show how the circumstances are different and why that might make a different application of the law of God necessary.
The only answer is strict honesty: honesty about our own ignorance, honesty about our own failure sometimes to understand a point, honesty about the facts of a situation, honesty about what the Bible actually says, honesty in the structure of our arguments. And honesty is difficult: it requires humility and courage. Of course, if we were honest we would, even without the Bible, be much better in our voting. But the Bible confirms and strengthens us – oh dear, that is just what happened to the authors of the Presidential Biblical Scoreboard: essentially they worked their opinions up without the Bible and then used the Bible to “confirm” their correctness.
How can we stop doing such things? One good clue that we are interpreting the Bible rightly is that we are coming to conclusions we do not like – not ones which can lead us into enjoyable misery but ones we genuinely do not like, ones which hurt us, make our life difficult. A good example is Ezechiel 16:49-50, because the political practices condemned there are very agreeable to many people in the United States today. Similarly, Matthew 19:9 is quite easy to understand, and yet people ignore it because it would lead them into inconvenience, like the embarrassment of being the only person in the office who does not contribute to the “wedding” present for that secretary who got divorced last year (it makes me feel mean, because I like this secretary, and really would like her to be happy, but I must not rejoice in adultery).
Another test of our honesty is whether we recognize that our understanding of the Bible may include contradictions. A lot of people complain that Anglo and Hispano Catholics call priests “father”, because Jesus in Mt 23:9 tells us to call no-one “father” but our Father who is in Heaven; do these same people refuse to call those of their pastors who are PhDs “doctor”, as the next verse seems to ordain? Do they claim that the Apostle Paul was sinning when he called the priests of the old law “fathers” in Acts 22:1? A lot of pacifist literature lands in my mailbox, and some of it quotes Isaiah 2:4 to the effect that we should beat our swords into plowshares. Do these people really not know that Joel 4:10 orders us to beat our plowshares into swords?
The Bible is not really contradictory, of course, but if we notice where it seems to be we are less likely to misunderstand a passage and make great mistakes. The truth is that the Bible gives us far more for our personal salvation than for the salvation of our communities. It does not tell us whether to spend tax money on research about AIDS. It does tell us to give the dying AIDS victim love and care, and if that is not being done through taxes we must do it by donation. It does not tell us how to reform the divorce laws, but it does tell us that if we divorce we must not remarry. It does not tell us how to prevent hunger in Africa, but it does tell us to feed those hungry.
In the United States the People often elect the judges. That does mean something for the honest Bible reader. Many judges in California, and throughout the Republic, are always on the side of corrupt government officers. That is why the murderers of Eula Love are still at large, instead of in prison: the District Attorney, a kind of pre-trial judge, refused to prosecute them, and regularly refuses to prosecute police officers who commit crime on duty. Furthermore, there is a rule in U.S. law that if the D.A. frames you you cannot sue him. While John K. van de Kamp was District Attorney of Los Angeles he and his deputies framed (or attempted to frame), at a low estimate, 2000 to 3000 people a year. If Deuteronomy 1:17 and 16:18-20 still mean what they originally meant, and there is no reason I know of to suppose that they had a special meaning for the early Israelites and a different non-obvious meaning nowadays, the Californians who voted John K. van de Kamp into the Attorney Generalship committed a serious sin (except, of course, that many did not know of the high incidence of frame-ups – but how many would have cared?).
But the first requirement for good politics is honesty, which is also the first requirement for good interpretation of the Bible.
After Gautama the Buddha died, a large number of his followers fairly promptly met at Rajagraha and decided what sayings would count as Buddhist scripture.
When a Catholic church is consecrated, the Bishop leading the ceremony reminds us that we follow the “faith of our father Abraham”. Did Isaac, Ishmael, Zimran and the rest get together outside the Cave of Macphela and make a list of the beliefs of their father? Well, maybe, but it seems rather unlikely, and we certainly do not possess that list today. Furthermore, it cannot have included much more than chapters 12 through 24 of Genesis. The man who founded our faith community did not have his big ideas all codified and preserved right after his death. Buddhism started all at once, it seems, all within the 45 years Gautama preached, but Abraham was the founder of a faith that was to grow for thousands of years before reaching perfection, and to wait a few hundred years more before being sure just what of its books was holy.
Abraham’s church rolled down the ages, shakily at first, but gathering momentum until it reached the certainty of the Messiah, Jesus. Refounded, it continues rolling, reassured by the Messiah, with the memory of everything important from Abraham to Jesus. What Abraham passed on to his sons was just the beginning, whereas what Gautama preached to his followers was just about everything, From Abraham onwards our church grows, whereas Buddhism is quite prepared to decline. Perhaps the Buddhist Bible was expanded a little after the Council of Rajagraha, but our faith, which was to be crystallized in the Christian Bible, was naturally bound to grow. Even now, after the Christ has come to us, our faith can grow by reconsideration and reanalysis of what we already know (In what way did Jesus know he was God? the theologians are discussing today, something they never even thought of till the 19th century), but in principle we have in the Bible everything already. Abraham did not have it all, he just started the faith which got the collection going.
But we sons of Abraham are human, sinful, foolish: we disagree, we lose each other, we misunderstand what the others are doing and saying. Consequently, some of the crystallization may, in some people’s over-eagerness, be wrong. It may be that people decide too soon that everything is in principle known, or that they inconsiderately insist on putting too much into the basis which is the Bible, or something of both. Let us look at some of the sidetracks in the history of the Bible of the Sons of Abraham.
A well-known sidetrack, often not thought of as such, is the Koran. After the main line of the sons of Abraham, the Christian Church with its major centers in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, had found the fulfillment of all things in Christ and formed the Bible we know today, various ideas spun off the tradition of Abraham were put together by Mohammed in Mecca and Yathrib Madinat ul Rasul (commonly called Medina). Tracing the various bits and pieces from their origins in the main line of Abraham’s tradition is a task the literary experts have not yet accomplished, but what Mohammed produced is really a rehash of a variety of Jewish ideas somehow cut off, to some extent, from their roots. Of course, they had not been completely cut off, but when they came together in the Koran (and in the Hadith, which tries to complete the Koran) they formed more or less a new bible with no easy simple relationship to the main one.
Another sidetrack, which is really a cutting-short, is the Yemenite Bible. While the Israelites were in Babylon, and perhaps before, they were sending missionaries far and wide. Many of these went into the Arabian peninsula and some of the local churches they founded lost a lot of their contact with the main group of Jews – no wonder, with the Temple destroyed – and the Bible had not yet been officially put together. They had copies of some of the most important books, and they preserved these. Those in Yemen, where the Jewish (or, really, pre-Jewish) tradition may have started as early as King Solomon’s time, because Yemen may have been the Sheba the Queen of Sheba came from, and she may have taken the faith back with her, preserved the five books of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. When they later, sometime in the Christian era, got back into touch with real Jews, they decided that only the Torah was really Bible. The same group of scattered traditions in Arabia, less well bundled together, is what Mohammed used, together with odd bits of Christianity, to build the Koran.
A number of sidetracks in the history of the Bible result from a translation of part of the Bible, so that the local church for whom the translation was made comes to think that the parts translated are all of the Bible. But this does not seem to have been very important. More important is the translation of books not in the Bible which the local church then thinks are in the Bible. This seems to be how the Armenian church got a Bible bigger than the other local churches: it includes a third book of Esdras (Nehemias is sometimes called the second book of Esdras), a third book of the Maccabees and a “Testament” of each of the twelve Hebrew patriarchs. Each of these books has something to be said for it, but most local churches have not taken it as part of the Bible, and not every missionary tried to get it translated.
When Judaism began to spread in the last few centuries before Christ and when Christianity started spreading in the first few Christian centuries, translations were made of books considered Bible and books not considered Bible but thought useful. Two famous translations are the Septuagint, into Greek, and the Vulgate, into Latin; we shall look at these in the next chapter. What got translated and copied in a particular area determined what people thought important. And the church of Christ was spreading rather amorphously around and beyond the Mediterranean Sea when suddenly the Jewish Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., so that the old Israel as much as the new was in danger of not knowing what books were in its Bible.
The Jewish chief priests and scribes moved to a town named Jabneh or Jamnia in English, Yavne in Hebrew, Iamnía in Greek, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, not very far from Gaza. About the year 90, the famous Synod of Jamnia issued a list of books in the Bible. They were careful to include those which had been used in Temple and synagogue services, and to exclude those which Christians were finding most edifying, such as Wisdom, and the Books of the Maccabees. Obviously they did not include anything about Jesus. Eventually the premessianic Jewish church did work up a kind of answer to Jesus, in the Talmud, but that was quite a while later and way off our track. Besides the Torah the Synod of Jamnia accepted Joshua, Judges, Ruth, both books of Samuel, both books of Kings, both books of Chronicles, Ezra (Esdras), Nehemiah (Nehemias), most of Esther, Job, 150 Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle of Canticles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezechiel, most of Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zecharaiah and Malachi.
Why only “most” of Esther and Daniel? This has to do with translations. Each of these books had several versions in Hebrew. At one time, I suppose, there were several versions of each of the longer books, but for most of them there was only one fixed version by the time people began translating the Bible into Greek. From about 250 BC until nearly 100 BC the holy books of the Jewish faith were translated into Greek in Alexandria, a Greek city in Egypt. When the Synod of Jamnia met, it did not want to use books popular among Christians if it could help it, and found to its joy that the Christians were using the long versions of Esther and Daniel: those were the versions which had been translated into Greek, and those were the versions which Greek-speaking Christians and therefore also many other Christians were using. So the Synod could assert its independence of the Christians without losing all of the two books, both of which, in whatever version, were quite popular among Jews.
Did the Christian leaders at once get together after the Synod of Jamnia and put out a list of books to be in the Christian Bible? No: if they had done so, the Armenians would not have had all those extra books. However, the custom did arise of distinguishing Old Testament books not recognized by the Synod of Jamnia from those Jamnia did recognize. The latter were called “protocanonical” and the former “deuterocanonical’, meaning “first-list” and second‑list” respectively. But these are not very good names: in the Septuagint editions of the Bible the “deuterocanonical” books are intermixed with the “protocanonical” ones, not put at the end like an appendix. But if the early Christians did not make a list of their own, how can we tell which books they were using as Bible? If we look at early Christian books such as the Didache, a kind of catechism, or Hermas’ Pastor, we find references to Biblical books pretty much as though they thought the same books sacred as are in a modern, bound printed Bible.
Better still, some of the early books, written to disagree with the Synod of Jamnia and its followers, actually discuss whether particular books should be in the canon. But then, from about the year 200 onwards, some of them started doubting some books. Eventually the bulk of the Christian bishops did get together, in 325, at Nicaea in Asia Minor (now Turkey). The Council of Nicaea produced the bulk of the Nicene or Nicaean Creed, said at mass on Sundays and feast days, but its actual decisions are not to be found. You can buy the Documents of Vatican II or Vatican I or Trent, but not of Nicaea. Some people think that the Council gave a list of the books in the Bible, and St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, mentioned in 405 that the Council had included Esther in the list. Still, some people are not sure there ever was a list… maybe Jerome was speaking loosely.
While some people in the central parts of the Christian community were unsure, the Church was growing in other countries. The Ethiopian Bible manages to include the fourth (but not the third) Book of Ezra, the third book of the Maccabees, and Henoch. The Egyptian church, not really far from the mainstream, has a 151st Psalm and the third book of Maccabees. I have already mentioned that the Armenians, the first Christian nation after the Palestinians, have 3 Ezra, 3 Mac and the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs.
There was not so much ambiguity in the territory of the old Roman Empire, now dying, because communications were comparatively good. Ships sailed to and fro across the Mediterranean Sea, and traders wandered along the famous Roman roads in continental Europe. So even without being given some kind of common official list they all used more or less the same Bible. The bishops of a region would meet now and again, and they knew what books the others were using. But about the year 200 there began to become popular a lot of books, called apocryphal, which claimed to be by famous people of the church but were not. There also became popular some books which really were by early Christian leaders, such as certain encyclical letters by Clement, the fourth Pope. So some decisions had to be made. Was an ancient catechism like the Didache part of the Bible? And what about the much shorter list of books our pre-Christian fellow-Jews were using? Shall we throw everything out except what they have? Some of them don’t even recognize Esther as being in the Bible.
There were discussions and pamphlet-like books about the other side by Christians and the other Jews against each other. The Jamnia tradition on the one side became settled in a series of writings brought together as the Talmud or Learning. An essay in the Talmud called Baba Bathra, the “Last Gate”, contains in sections 14b through 15a a list of the books in the Bible with details about who wrote which. The Last Gate gives the same list as Jamnia, and so a book called Talmud tells us which books are in the Bible. What could the Christians offer in reply to the tradition growing into the Last Gate? Can there be a Christian equivalent of the Talmud? If there is, then do we need another book to tell us what is in the Talmud, which tells us what is in the Bible? And another again?
The Bishops of “Africa”, i.e. modern Tunisia, discussed the problem, determined what books were strong in the tradition of their cities and of the neighboring churches and issued official lists. At Hippo in 393 they ordered that, “besides the canonical scriptures, nothing is to be read in church under the name of divine scriptures” and then sensibly gave a list of the “canonical scriptures”. In 397, the same bishops (or their successors) got together again at Carthage (the third Council at Carthage) and issued the same list. Probably other local councils of bishops did the same, but not all their lists have come down to us. But you can see, I think, that what the Christians were forming was not so much a rival Talmud as a series of decisions echoing each other. The nearest the Christians got to a Talmud was the decisions of ecumenical councils and the decrees of Popes. When do we have one of these about the Bible?
At the beginning of the fifth century a certain Exuperius, now recognized as a saint (so that a famous modern author is actually named after him), was bishop of Toulouse in southern France. He wanted to be sure what books to use as scripture and what not. So he wrote to the Pope, Innocent I (also now recognized as a saint). Pope Innocent answered him in 405, and gave the first list we know of authorized by a Pope. The Pope was giving the list recognized traditionally by the Christians at Rome, and, as we have seen, elsewhere in the Roman Empire, and indeed throughout Christendom. The list is the one we use today. Pope Innocent’s decision was based on the idea that the tradition coming from the Apostles three centuries before, confirmed in the different parts of the Christian world, and especially confirmed in Rome, where several of the Apostles had died at the hands of the government, must be the tradition approved by the Holy Spirit. And other local councils of bishops agreed with him.
But the church does not have just local councils. It has general councils, too, called “ecumenical councils”. It has had on average one a century, but the gaps have sometimes been a lot more than a century. The earliest ecumenical council, sometimes not put in the lists, was at Jerusalem in about the year 50 A.D. You can read about it in Acts 15:6‑29. The next, which I have mentioned earlier, was in 325 at Nicaea in Asia Minor, now called Turkey, where the majority of the bishops, as successors of the apostles, got together to discuss, mainly, whether the Word or Son of God is also God, one in being with the Father. The documents of Vatican II can be bought at any Catholic bookstore, but the documents of Nicaea I are not known in a complete set. It may be that the council made a list of the books in the Bible, but perhaps not. The next ecumenical council was at Constantinople (also called Byzantium, New Rome or Istanbul) in 381, to try to fit our understanding of the Holy Spirit into what Nicaea had decided about the Father and the Son. Again, no decision about the Bible.
After Pope Innocent I had made his decision in 405 there was another ecumenical council, in Ephesus (there where the silversmiths had rioted, cf. Acts 19:23-40), but again they were not worried about what books were in the Bible: they decided finally that Jesus of Nazareth was truly God, and therefore that his mother was Mother of God. They just were not worried about what books were in the Bible, mainly because everyone more or less knew and no‑one at the time, at least among Christians, was coming up with a new list.
Fourteen ecumenical councils later, at Florence in Italy in 1441, the bishops did at last make a list of the books in the Bible. This was not to settle any controversy but as part of an attempt to state the common beliefs of the Catholic Church and a group of Christians called Jacobites, who had been separated and were being reunited with the Catholic Church precisely at this council.
If the leaders of the Church agree that in certain books the Church has best expressed its ideas, or, rather, that the Holy Spirit has specially used those books to define the central parts of the doctrine the Church, at command of the Redeemer, is to teach all nations, and if we agree that the Redeemer will be with that same Church until the end of time, it becomes a little difficult to defend the use of a different list. Still, if you are not sure of just what the church is, you might get other ideas.
And that is just what happened. During the early years of the sixteenth century, more than a thousand years after Pope Innocent’s letter to Bishop Exuperius, and about 70 after the Council of Florence, two theologians named Martin Luther and Andreas Rudolf Bodenstein von Karlstadt were reorganizing the plan of studies in theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. They were emphasizing the reading of the works of St Augustine of Hippo, one of the men behind the decisions of Hippo and Carthage. St Augustine pushes faith pretty strongly, so Luther and Karlstadt did too. But their ideas of salvation by faith alone did not fit in very well with the doctrine of Purgatory. And 2 Maccabees 12:43-45 definitely says it is a good thing to pray for the dead. Furthermore, the idea of some kind of intercession of dead saints was rather disliked by Luther and Karlstadt, so 15:12-16 in the same books, describing the appearance of the dead Prophet Jeremiah and the dead high priest Onias appearing to Judas Maccabeus, did not sit very well with them, especially as Onias was praying for the Jewish people and Jeremiah gave Judas a sign of encouragement for his work here on earth. So they decided that this St Augustine they were so keen on must have made a mistake about the books to put in the Bible. And if he could make a mistake about 2 Maccabees, obviously he could make other mistakes. If Wisdom 3:1-5 refers to Purgatory, and Luther and Karlstadt thought it did, they had better reject Wisdom as well. Eventually, in 1520, Karlstadt came out with a new list of books in the Bible. In the New Testament he accepted the traditional list, but in the Old he threw out Tobit, Wisdom, Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, both Books of the Maccabees, and parts of Esther and Daniel. Luther went further and threw Hebrews, James, Jude and the Apocalypse out. Most Lutherans, despite the name, use Karlstadt’s list. But the principle is really the same: if I accept part of the Bible in a certain way, which seems to contradict other parts of the Bible, then those other parts can’t really be part of the Bible, can they? Zwingli a little later decided he agreed with Karlstadt except for the Apocalypse.
John Calvin agreed with Karlstadt, so the Presbyterian tradition uses Karlstadt’s list. The Anglican tradition tried to stand in the middle, accepting Karlstadt’s list as first-class Bible, so to speak, and what he had thrown out as second‑class, or apocrypha. Thus, the Sixth Article of the Anglican Religion, made in 1571, lists, Karlstadt’s books as Holy Scripture and canonical, but then adds the ones Karlstadt threw out, as well as the Third and Fourth Books of Ezra and the Prayer of Manasses, which ”the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners, but yet it doth not apply them to establish any doctrine”. From 1611 on, the King James Version of the Bible, sometimes called the “Queer Bible” because of its authorizer’s erotic misbehavior, was the official translation used in the Church of England, from which the modern Anglican Communion, including the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, derives. This translation soon became the authorized version in the Church of Scotland, too, from which most English-speaking Presbyterian churches derive. Because of these two churches, from which many other churches have broken off, many English-speaking Christians think of the King James Bible as the original, and never stop to ask themselves precisely what authority there is for putting just that list of books in it. Nowadays it is not usual to put the second-class books, the so-called “apocrypha”, in printed editions of the KJV, so many people have no reminder that things might be different.
So there we are: a main line of tradition from Abraham, culminating in the list of Pope Innocent I, accepted by the vast majority of Christians, and by-ways in the form of alternative lists: Torah by itself; Jamnia; Jamnia’s version without Esther; the Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian extensions of the main list; the Lutheran, Karlstadtian and Zwinglian curtailments of the main list. And there are others I have not mentioned, and probably many I have never learnt of. Whatever we believe, we should have some idea of how our Bible came to us, what its tradition, its handing‑over down to us is.
V. The Old Translations
God did his first writing using people who wrote in Hebrew – at least that is the way His oldest writing has come down to us. I know some Hebrew. A few thousand people know it very well. A few million people, the Israelis, speak it all the time, although I suspect their thought patterns are rather different from those of the Israelites from whom they copied the language, just as Black U.S. English sometimes seems to rise on an undercurrent of un-English thoughts, and perhaps does. I know, for instance, that the Israelis rarely distinguish the two different words for “not”, or, connectedly, use the tenses the same way as the Israelites did. So someone among those few thousand must do a translation for us.
That may not be easy. There is a Spanish saying “Ni son todos los que están ni están todos los que son” which I cannot explain in English in under 30 words. Perhaps translating from Hebrew might have the same kind of problems? Or might Hebrew sometimes be capable of several interpretations into English? If so, we will need footnotes as well as translations. We will also need explanations of some words, such as “shekel” and “penny”, perhaps.
The first translation of the Bible I know of was into Greek. After the Jewish religion had spread beyond Palestine there were Jews who did not speak Hebrew at home. If they went to the synagogue just for the coffee and donuts, as many do nowadays, that did not matter, but many people did want to understand what had been read out. The Jews of Alexandria spoke Greek in the third century B.C. (i.e. from 300 B.C. to 200 B.C.) and for many years afterwards. Also, people who wanted to study the Jewish religion without necessarily becoming Jews would like to be able to read the sacred books in Greek, and obviously the Jews were quite keen on this because many such people would after reading the books decide to become Jews.
The story goes that the Librarian of the Alexandria Library, Demetrios Falerios, asked King Ptolemy II Philadelphos (who reigned over Egypt from 285 to 247 B.C) to get him a copy of the Jewish laws. The King asked Eleazer, High Priest in Jerusalem, to help, and Eleazer sent a copy of the Torah and 72 teachers. All 72 went to the island of Pharos, just off Alexandria, and each in his own little room on that island made a translation of the Torah into Greek, taking 72 days to do it. Each eventually produced exactly the same translation of the Bible into Greek. Perhaps it didn’t happen just like that, but there does seem to have been a translation committee of 70 or so, because the translation they produced hights “Septuagint”, from the Latin for 70; sometimes we see “LXX”, which is the Roman numeral for 70, used to mean the Septuagint.
Someone trying to understand something in the Hebrew Bible often looks at the Septuagint to see how those legendary 72 translators understood it. Greek is quite a different language from Hebrew, you see, and its alphabet is also quite different. In Hebrew it is not usual to write the vowels, so sometimes we have to guess what a word is. But in Greek each word is written in full, so we can work out from the Septuagint text what the 72 thought the Hebrew vowels were. Also, if someone suspects that his Hebrew text has been mis-copied along the way he can see whether the Septuagint agrees with what his Hebrew text seems to say. Of course, he then has to think out whether it is more likely that the Greek or the Hebrew text has been altered in the repeated copying.
Greek became the trading language of the Eastern Mediterranean. You might wonder why, seeing that Greece is only one country along the shore. Why not Turkish, or Aramaic, or Egyptian, or Latin, the language of the great empire coming in from the west? Well, Turkish was not in those days spoken in Turkey, because the Turks had not yet arrived in the area. There were other languages in Asia Minor, the peninsula we now call Turkey, such as Anatolian. More important, Greece was a little bigger than the country we now call Greece. It included a lot of islands and much of the west coast of Asia Minor. Furthermore, Greek states (each including about one city, usually) used to found new cities far away to help in trade. Byzantium, which we now call Constantinople or Istanbul, was founded from Athens by a man called Byzas so that Athenian ships importing corn from lands to the north of the Black Sea would have a port to call at on their way home. Sagunto in Spain, Naples In Italy, Syracuse in Sicily, all were Greek cities far from the homeland, and there were many more.
Then Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia to the north of Greece, conquered a vast area, including the Holy Land, Asia Minor, Egypt and even areas in the Hindu Kush mountain range (modern Afghanistan). The empire split up shortly after Alexander died, in 324 B.C., but the successor kingdoms were run by Greeks. Many more Greek cities were founded in the midst of non-Greek areas, including Alexandria, where the Septuagint team worked. King Ptolemy I of Egypt, in fact, was one of the Greek rulers who achieved power when Alexander died. As Greek political power waned, some Greek cities banded together for safety, like the ten cities or Decapolis east of the Jordan mentioned in the Gospels. Several cities called Tripoli were originally each an alliance of three neighboring Greek cities. And the Greeks did a lot of sailing and trading (that was why they had set up faraway Greek cities in the early days), and their language became important for others to know, just as English has become important because of British trade followed by U.S. trade.
The wide use of Greek made the Septuagint the main text for teaching the doctrines of Judaism. It was the version rich Jews had to read at home, and rich non-Jews who were interested in Judaism. By the time of Christ about a tenth of the Roman Empire (Morocco to Mesopotamia, Britain to Egypt) was Jewish by faith, or at least by “church preference”. God used the Septuagint to spread Judaism so that the gospel of His Son would come to people who already had some idea of the background of what Jesus taught.
Between the years 130 and 150 Aquila, whom the Roman Emperor had sent to organize the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and who had joined the Rabbinical Jewish church, the one which had made up the canon of Jamnia, made his own translation of the Bible into Greek. Our Premessianic fellow-Jews liked it, and used it in their Greek-speaking communities for many years, because Christians were using the LXX. Not much of this translation has come down to us. But it is possible that the LXX versions we have today include Aquila’s version of Ecclesiastes, instead of the original LXX Ecclesiastes.
About the year 180 another Jew, Theodotion of Ephesus, made a revision of the LXX. He was trying to get rid of the differences between the traditional LXX and the Hebrew text in common use in his times in the synagogues. The Catholic Church generally uses Theodotion’s version of Daniel instead of the original LXX.
But, of course, Greek is not the official language of the church: Latin is. So I will not say anything about the other five translations of the Bible into Greek. These later Greek versions were not important in Rome, which is the Church’s capital, even in the days when Greek was the Christian church language there. While the Romans themselves, mainly to show how cultured they were, wrote and read a lot of Greek, the people of North Africa, especially the province of Africa (modern Tunisia), used Latin as their common tongue. And they seem to have been the first to have the Bible in Latin, unless the Gauls, living in what is now France, beat them to it. Different people translated different books. I suppose that some of the O.T. was sometimes translated from the LXX instead of from the Hebrew. When St Jerome wrote the introduction to his translation of Joshua he said “Among the Latins there are as many versions as there are copies”, which must have been an exaggeration. Textual critics notice two families of manuscripts, which they call African and European, or Italian. The European may be basically a correction of the African one, and St Augustine, an African bishop, preferred the European version. Anyway, all these early versions go by the names “Old Latin” and “Pre-Jerome” or “preJeronomian”.
And who was this Jerome the old Latin was “pre-“‘? He was a Dalmatian, which does not mean he was a spotty dog but that he was born in the area of modern Yugoslavia. He studied in several places in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Rome. From 382 on he started his own translation of the Gospels. He did this because he was living in Rome and the Pope, Damasus I, asked him to. The Pope was worried that a lot of the copies of the Bible being used in Rome were inconsistent and some of them might be bad translations, so he thought it a good idea to have a new fresh translation made from the Greek into good plain modern Latin, the kind of Latin the man in the crowd would understand. The Latin word for crowd is “vulgus” and the adjective meaning “in the crowd” is “vulgaris”. Our modern word “vulgar” means “to do with, or like, the crowd”. Jerome’s translation of the Gospels became known as the “crowd version” or Vulgate.
After doing the Gospels, Jerome translated the Psalms, and parts of the New Testament besides the Gospels. His translation of the Psalms did not fit the music they were using in the churches so it hasn’t been sung much. In 385 he moved to Bethlehem, and spent the next 20 years translating the Hebrew text of the Bible into Latin to match what he’d already done for the New Testament. This included a second version of the Psalms, a version which is used in a lot of churches, although the standard choir versions in Milan and Rome stayed with prejeronomian texts. For most of the books he also wrote a translator’s introduction., which gives us some idea of the difficulty he had with each book and what he thought about its message. He died in 419, in Bethlehem.
Jerome did not make a completely new translation: some parts he revised older translations of; some parts he translated as a whole; some parts he accepted according to some older translation. This collection however was accepted by the local churches where Latin was spoken, and became the standard version. They even used it to make translations into other languages, because it was too difficult to find someone who knew a particular local language and the original language of the Bible, whereas most public servants, in church or state, as well as all well-educated people in the Christian, and even some non-Christian, parts of Western Europe knew Latin, so that someone good enough to do a translation was not impossible to find. There was more of a problem with finding papyrus or some analogue to write the translation on.
The Old Testament in the Vulgate got popular more slowly than the New Testament. That was because the older Latin versions were translated not from the Hebrew, like Jerome’s, but from the LXX. It took a few centuries for the Vulgate O.T. to get into general use, but the Venerable Bede, the famous translator of some of the Bible into English, who died in 735, wrote “We drink from the pure fountain of Hebrew truth through the industry of the blessed interpreter Jerome”.
But just because it got copied so much, the Vulgate soon existed in several versions. It was the Church’s standard version, but there were little miscopies all over the place. Sometimes someone making a copy would mix in a bit from the pre-Jerome versions. At various places a group of people got together to try to put together a text just like Jerome’s original version. Marcus Aurelius Casiodorus, who died in 575, was in charge of the monastery of Vivari in southern Italy; he tried to produce a complete Vulgate in one volume, which was something very unusual in those days (remember how big it had to be, as handwriting is so much bigger than print). He hoped, by careful comparison of different texts, that this one-volume edition would form a pure basis, a recension, for other people to make copies from. And it did. But there were still mistakes made in copying, because it all had to be done by hand.
You might wonder why it was so important to have a Bible in Latin. The reason was that Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, used In Italy itself and throughout the western provinces as the official language and therefore often the trade language. Similarly, centuries later, the British Empire covered much of the world. Neither the British Empire nor the Roman Empire made its central language the only language of its subjects, or even the only official language (French is still spoken in Quebec, despite British rule, and Basque is still spoken in part of Spain, despite Roman rule), but the language stayed important after the Empire broke up. Latin became the language of the church because the important schools were using Latin (for the same reason, English is the language of major newspapers and of modern science in India today) and because the Pope was in Rome, formerly seat of the Empire. Latin got to be spoken differently in different areas, turning into Spanish, French and so forth, but for a long time these ways of speaking were considered just bad Latin, and the old language stayed the best way for people in different places to understand each other. Latin became the standard language for church affairs and for diplomacy. For church purposes, prayers and readings in other 1anguages were generally translations from the Latin.
In 1452 John Gutenberg in Germany started printing books. The first was the Vulgate Bible. In the next 50 years 100 more editions were made, not counting some in other languages. When Gutenberg made his Bibles, every one had the same text (unless a press letter came loose). Up till then almost every copy was different, because done by hand. From now on, people trying to correct old versions could have a printed edition to start with and would not have to copy every word by hand for the next correction they thought necessary. It also meant that notes about different versions could be made more clearly, which also was a great help to future correctors.
Also as a result of printing, there was more for people to read in general, so more people learned to read, and among them would be more able to learn the original languages. This meant that a new, firmer age of Bible study was arriving.
The Catholic Church took advantage of these new possibilities in 1546 at the Council of Trent, declaring the Vulgate to be the church’s official version and ordering the Pope to arrange for a new edition, perfectly corrected. After a certain amount of shilly-shallying Clement VIII, the Blind Pope, got the ordered edition out in 1598, with notes to help people correct some of the earlier printings.
Later, in 1907, with the background of centuries of use of printed bibles for basic study, Pope Pius X ordered a new translation from the original languages into Latin, using the same style as Jerome. It came out in 1979, with notes about variants and textual opinions. It may, as a whole, be the academically best Bible available.
VI. Printing the Bible
Printing books has come fairly recently in the history of writing, but writing is actually newer than printing. Thousands of years ago it became common for people to use seals which corresponded to rubber stamps today to mark items as their own. Numbers were invented before letters, and ancient Babylonian merchants used to mark their accounts with seals. On my desk this evening are 8 rubber stamps. One is adjustable to show the date. Three are small texts (address, endorsement). The other four are fancy symbols, some including letters, but the letters not being a continuous text. The nearest is a circle with stars and hollow letters forming “thank you”. One shows the word “super” above a pencil of rays, and it is obviously not frightfully important that they are letters rather than a symbol. One says “#1”, with a great, fat “1”. One shows a tiger whose shirt happens to bear the legend “SMILE”, but again the words are not the most important part of the pictures And one shows a Boy Scout badge with no letters at all.
Once writing started, you might think that the technique would be used to reproduce quite a lot of writing, but that did not happen, at first perhaps because most written documents came only once. Even nowadays receipts are written on preprinted forms but the actual transaction is unique each time. Why the ancients did not think of preprinting forms for their transactions I am not sure, although it may have been to do with the kinds of surfaces they wrote on.
Printing became common for pictures long before it was common for writing, but even the mass production of pictures did not happen until well after the time of Jesus. In mediaeval Europe popular bibles for the masses were produced all in pictures with perhaps a word here and there carved into the picture. The same went on in other countries, in different degrees. We do not have many mediaeval European picture books, because there was no academic interest in preserving them: those who could read had real books, written in words. But the tradition of picture books was obviously useful in providing a supply of talent and technique when the idea of printing written books came into someone’s mind.
In China people sometimes used to make impressions of Buddhist holy writings by rubbing something over a piece of paper held against an inscription on a temple wall. Some bright person thought of combining this idea with picture prints, and carved texts mirror-image in wood so that a page could be mass-produced. The earliest known printed book came out in 868, after people had been printing single pages for some time. This book, I am sorry to relate, was not any Christian document but the Diamond Sutra, part of the Buddhist Bible. The idea spread, and printing techniques improved, more in Korea than in China (because Korean uses an alphabet while Chinese has thousands of symbols). Just how the idea got to Europe I do not know, but eventually it did.
Firstly, people began to put more and more words into printed pictures. In the first half of the fifteenth century real little books of religion and grammar were printed, made much as the Chinese had made their first printed books. European publishers gradually evolved some of the techniques that had already evolved separately in China, also using some techniques of the die-makers.
John Gutenberg at Mainz, with some colleagues, developed the printing press as distinct from rubbing techniques such as the Chinese had been using, and after that European printing, which to a large extent had developed independently, was better than Chinese printing. And, as the early small books with the old techniques had mainly been on religious subjects, Gutenberg with his new technique early on produced a complete Bible. In Latin, of course, the language that “everyone”, i.e. everyone who could read, almost, would understand. He printed it in two volumes between the years 1452 and 1456, using a manuscript of the Bible copied from the so-called Paris Bible. This was the text commonly printed for some decades, but in 1504 appeared a so-called “critical edition” of the same text, i.e. one with notes about variants in other manuscripts.
Meanwhile in Rome Sweynheym and Pannartz had printed the Bible in 1471. Church leaders quickly got the idea that this multiple production of identical copies of a document was just what they needed to administer the Church and spread doctrines and other ideas. So the Vatican started its own press. The Vatican Polyglot Press is the oldest printing house functioning today. One advantage the Vatican drew from the printing press was that a correction would not have to be copied by hand and so itself need correction after a few copies. In future, the correction of a document could be made by reference to one copy printed and applied to another copy from the same printing. It is difficult to comprehend how much difference printing made to use of the Bible, quite apart from the fact that with printing available it was possible to teach a lot more people to read at all.
Unfortunately, the printing press got to England only shortly before the dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, which resulted in there being far fewer schools and so actually fewer people being able to read for a couple of centuries, but the move back to general education was helped by the availability of printing. In other countries, such as France, where the common people had not been so literate as in England, printing helped bring literacy about.
VII. The Bible in English
Caedmon was the first translator of the Bible into English, as far as we know. But he did not actually translate, and what he translated into was not exactly English, either. During the years 658-680, a certain Hilda was in charge of the Abbey of Streaneshalch in Whitby in Yorkshire. She encouraged a herdsman, one who could not read, to compose poems about narratives from the Bible. He became a monk in her monastery, for the greater convenience of doing this work. Old English or Anglo-Saxon poetry is unlike either modern English poetry, which is based on regular strong accents and rhyme, or the poetry of Latin, which is based on weak accents and the lengths of vowels: Anglo-Saxon poetry had very irregular lines with strong accents on syllables with similar (or, depending, dissimilar) starting sounds. Michael Alexander has translated the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood into modern English with the same poetic structure; part of his translation runs:
I was reared up a rood, I raised the great King,
liege lord of the heavens, dared not lean from the true
which may give you some idea.
People could sing Caedmon’s work, which was a good way to remember it.
Half a century later, Bede of Jarrow, also in Yorkshire, translated some parts of the New Testament into the same language, but in prose. It is important to remember that at this time England was one of the most learned countries in Europe – in the West, perhaps only Italy had more copying of books going on. This means that there were comparatively many copies of parts of the Bible available, usually St Jerome’s translation into Latin, which could be used as a basis for teaching in English. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels are in Latin, but there was enough space between the lines to insert a translation, and there is in fact a translation into English in the document. But a lot of things changed, including much of the chance to keep copying going, when William of Normandy conquered England and French became the language of the ruling classes. This happened in 1066.
English changed a lot while it was not being written, and if there were to be translations they would have to be new ones. And people did indeed start making translations. We know of a Psalter, or Psalm Book, translated into English at Oxford about 1361. Later the same century a lot of translations were made as part of an anti-Catholic religious movement called Wycliffism, after its founder, John Wycliffe, a learned and sincere priest, who thought the state had a kind of precedence over the church and should keep the church clean by ensuring that priests were poor. He himself was not the poorest of clergy, and was able to organize a following which did two translations of the Bible into English, one fairly literal, the other in loose and popular language (like the Living Bible today). To each book he wrote an introduction which very much annoyed the church leaders, who in 1382 banned his works. However, people continued to copy the translations, just not the introductions. He died in 1384, still a pastor, from a stroke. It must be that quite a lot of people could read already, for otherwise there would not have been so much copying of the Bible.
We should remember that other books were written in English in the Middle Ages assuming that the reader already knew the Bible. Famous ones are The Cloud of Unknowing, on how to pray, The Ladder of Perfection by Walter Hilton and Revelations of Divine Love by Julian (a woman) of Norwich. This means that the Bible was pretty well known among the people, for otherwise there would have been no point in writing these books in the people’s language.
The next important translation was that of Tyndale. The English bishops were quite happy, or at least not unhappy, with the Wycliffite Bible (lacking the Wycliffite introductions), and Tyndale published his new translation on the continent in 1530. For reasons unknown to me, he was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake. But his translation survived and became the basis for most succeeding ones. The year after it was published the first translation of the Bible into Nahuatl, the Aztec language, came out in Mexico City – you must not think that Europeans were the only people printing the Bible.
Due to religious disputes and claims that there were mistakes in translation, Tyndale’s translation was followed by a number of other translations, or corrections. First came that of Miles Coverdale, also printed on the Continent, in 1435, the first complete English Bible published as a unit (the Wycliffite translations had been circulated as individual books). The same year, a friend of Tyndale, John Rogers, publishing under the name of Thomas Matthews (why he did not use his own name I do not know), revised Tyndale’s version, by merging it with the Coverda1e version. Henry VIII, after breaking the Church of England away from the Pope and making it a kind of government department in 1538, ordered that a copy of the complete Bible be placed in every church in the realm. The translation chosen was the Matthews one, in a format called the “Great Bible” because it was so big – and perhaps a Bible on public display should be big. I suppose that the older Bibles on display in many churches for centuries were taken away, but I do not know. The Great Bible went through several slight revisions in a few years.
In Geneva, a group of Protestants from Britain, mainly more or less Presbyterian, made their own translation of the Bible in 1560. Many people thought it a better translation, and so it became quite popular in England, although the Great Bible was the authorized (by the civil government) version. The government church, not being Presbyterian, did not like the notes in the Geneva Bible. Over about eight years, therefore, a new committee, mainly of bishops, prepared a revision of the Great Bible to make it as good as the Geneva Bible. This was the Bishops’ Bible, which came out in 1571 and was the second authorized version. But a lot of people kept on reading the Geneva Bible, and the government wanted one faith and one church for the country, so it was planned to make a revision of the Bishops’ Bible which would completely replace the Geneva Bible in people’s loyalties.
This plan started in the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, but the translation committees were formally appointed by Queer King James, in 1604. He had been King James VI of Scotland for many years, and had in 1603, when his cousin Queen Elizabeth Tudor died, become also King James I of England. The committees were organized so as not to be partial to one or other religious opinion (except that they had to be anti-Catholic), and did their work in several different towns, so there was some inconsistency in their work. Nevertheless, they knew Hebrew a lot better than many of the previous translators, and their work, which came out in 1611, did in fact replace the Geneva Bible in the minds of practically all English-speaking people, so much so that many people nowadays think of it as the “original” Bible, although it was the third even among government-authorized translations into English.
Meanwhile, English Catholics had not been completely idle. While all this pother about the Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthews etc. Bibles was going on, they were forbidden by law to teach their faith in England, so their clergy got trained in France. One English monastery actually stayed in France until 1903 before coming back to England, but the various English Catholic institutions abroad stayed English, sending preachers into England, often secretly, and recruiting new members in England, and giving good schooling to the sons of rich English Catholics, for centuries.
Obviously the Catholics were not very enthusiastic about the Geneva Bible with its Presbyterian notes, but neither were they about Tyndale and Coverdale and Matthews, let alone the versions authorized by a Protestant government. And most people could not read the pre-Reformation translations any more, because English had changed. So a new English translation was started by an English bishop at Reims, and for the most part completed by the Professor of Hebrew at Douai, which was almost an English university town, as so many English Catholic houses of study and formation were there. Meantime, you remember from Chapter V, Pope Clement the Blind had authorized the new Latin Vulgate translation, the Clementine edition. It was on this, not the sometimes confused collection of Vulgate variants from the Middle Ages, that Professor Gregory Martin based the Douai Bible, which was printed in 1610. The New Testament by itself had come out in 1582, but for 1610 they revised it to come into line with the Clementine Vulgate of 1592. And English-speaking Catholics for some centuries used it much as their Protestant colinguals were using the King James Version. It got revised a few times, but not very seriously, because it was not thought to need much revision. It used an English more modern than that of the KJV, and Catholics generally thought it a better translation, making and circulating long lists of the mistakes in the KJV.
Now, just as the Geneva Bible was a better translation than the Great Bible, so the Douai Bible was indeed in many respects a better translation than the KJV, and was based on more accurate texts. In 1870 the Church of England decided it needed to revise the KJV. They invited scholars from other Christian denominations to join them in the work (the Catholics, perhaps too stuck-up about having their own better translation already, or perhaps afraid of giving a largely Protestant translation their official approval, refused to participate), and also asked for advice from scripture experts in the United States. They made 30,000 changes, more than 5000 because of poor Greek texts used by the KJV teams, and in 1881 brought out the New Testament. In 1885 came the Protestant Old Testament, and in 1895 the Deuterocanonical parts of the Old Testament. This work taken together is called the English Revised Version.
The U.S. experts were a little disappointed that not all their recommendations had been accepted, and in 1900 and 1901 brought out the not very different American Standard Version.
Neither the English Revised Version nor the American Standard Version replaced the KJV in the affections of English-speaking Protestants, and the Catholics still thought the Douai version was better. Also, the ERV and ASV seemed a little old-fashioned. The Greek of the New Testament was ordinary everyday Greek, mostly, and so the English should be ordinary everyday English, but the KJV and its successors were not ordinary everyday English. To take account of Catholic complaints, to make the English more ordinary, and to try once more for a common English Bible, the International Council of Religious Education, a joint body of many Christian churches in North America, worked on yet another revision. The Council gave its authorization in 1937, and the NT came out in 1946, the Protestant OT in 1952 and the deuterocanonical OT in 1957. This is the Revised Standard Version or RSV.
The Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain liked the RSV, with a few reservations. They thought it better than the Douai version and, in co-operation with their Protestant fellow-Christians in the International Council (which had since become the Division of Christian Education of the Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America) the Association had two scholars go over the RSV and make changes for a Catholic Edition. The Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition or RSVCE differs from the RSV not at all in the OT (except for not giving the deuterocanonical books a special place), and mostly in notes in the NT. The biggest differences are that the Catholics insisted on keeping Mk 16:9-20 and Jn 7:53-8:11, which the RSV did not have.
We can see a kind of pattern in English translations from Tyndale onwards. The Geneva Bible motivated the revisions which led to the Bishops’ Bible and then the King James Version. Later on the Douai motivated the revisions leading to the ERV, ASV and RSV – and the church to which the Douai belonged then changed the RSV a teeny bit more to give us the RSVCE, which is sort-of authorized by both the Church of England and the Catholic Church.
But this kind of dialogue between two lines of translation was not all that was happening. In its shadow, so to speaks, grew the Knox and New English Bibles. Ronald Knox was Catholic chaplain at the University of Oxford. He wrote a number of detective stories, a lot of essays, and what-have-you. His sermons were collected and printed (One set is entitled Heaven and Charing Cross). He also, with full permission of church authorities, made a translation of the Bible from the Vulgate (referring to Hebrew and Greek texts where necessary) into English. It appeared in 1945 (NT) and 1949 (OT). To a significant extent it replaced the Douai Bible among British Catholics for two decades, then it ceased to be used much. I used it at school in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I suppose the RSV and the Jerusalem Bible, which we will consider in a moment, eclipsed it.
The New English Bible was a joint effort by a number of British Protestant churches. Like the Knox Bible, it had tremendous popularity for a while, especially the New Testament, which appeared in 1961. The OT came out in 1970, and my memories of it are that it was less of a best-seller than the NT, but it was nevertheless very popular. I am not sure how much it is used today.
The Knox and NEB were both new translations from scratch, not revisions like the RSV.
In the United States, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in 1936 started revision of the Douai Bible, which somehow became a new translation altogether when the Vatican Pontifical Biblical Commission said it would prefer translations from the original to those from the Vulgate. It was published in parts from 1950 to 1961 as the Confraternity Bible and republished in 1970 under the name New American Bible. It has some very beautiful language, but is on the whole a poor translation. U.S. Catholics, no doubt from patriotism, use it extensively. It was revised in the NT in 1987 and in the OT in 2001.
In parallel, other languages were having their own biblical translation experiences. The Dominican Biblical School in Jerusalem in 1956 completed the so-called Jerusalem Bible in French. This was such a success among the learned that it was decided to do a parallel translation, using the same texts and translation principles, into English. There have now appeared Jerusalem Bibles in German and Spanish also. I have heard the idea that St Jerome’s Monastery in Rome might make a set of parallel translations around its New Vulgate, but I have not heard anything definite about this idea.
Apart from these more or less main-line translations, there has been a host of minor translations in recent years. The American Bible Society has issued Today’s English Version, with a gross mistranslation of Mt 19:9, and parallel translations have been produced in other languages for other Bible Societies. Someone has modernized the KJV, making the English more modern but not accepting the corrections used by the RSV People. The Witnesses have also produced a set of parallel translations, the New World Bible. And you can find a lot of others in bookstores.
What does the future hold for English Bibles? I do not think the New King James has a serious future in front of it: no-one is going to use it to understand the Bible, only to reinforce particular doctrines. The Vatican has insisted that the New American Bible be repeatedly revised, but I think the RSVCE and the Jerusalem Bible will eventually replace it even in the U.S.
Among Protestants the RSV has been less popular than one might have expected. I think we can say it has a certain logical centrality, but the alternative translations are not really challenging it as Douai did the KJV. Some of the most popular aids to Bible study, such as Strong’s and Wigram’s concordances, use the KJV text, and it might seem that the RSV would be the best modern translation for study because it is so close in many ways to the KJV.
On the other hand, flowing versions like the Jerusalem Bible and the New American Bible have an important place in worship and devotion. My own guess is that the RSVCE may be succeeded by the English member of a family of parallel translations perhaps centered at St Jerome’s Monastery, while the Jerusalem Bible School maintains a family of flowing versions. How the English-speaking Protestants might react to that I do not know, but their reaction is an important consideration.
VIII. Modernist Mistakes
About the beginning of the 20th century there was a movement called Modernism, because it was modern then, although it’s rather old-fashioned now. It still affects some people’s way of understanding the Bible, and adversely.
A Modernist believes that we are not taught religion mainly from outside, or even at all from outside, but that we learn it from a kind of inner sense, which may have different expressions in different cultures. Some people have this inner sense better than others, e.g. Jesus of Nazareth, and these are the founders of religions, other people finding their inner sense somehow particularly well stated by these founders of faiths. When examining such a founder historically, we exclude everything religious about him, and when we think of him in religion we exclude everything historical. This is one of the reasons people use expressions like “the historical Jesus”. The religious Jesus, then, is the result of an evolution of a church’s ideas around a historical figure. The Jesus of the Gospel of John, the Modernists said, is merely the result of someone meditating on the relation of God and man using perhaps some historical facts about Jesus to hang ideas on. But this means that it does not matter much what religion you are: even the same religion is going to change over the years, because the thinkers in it will restate the doctrines and not just restate them but re‑invent them.
Obviously, we do need to distinguish the Jesus in each of the four Gospels, but that is because each evangelist is emphasizing a different set of truths about Jesus, not because each evangelist is inventing his own Jesus based on a common model. If that were so, someone else in the church might refine the Jesus ideal later and then the four Gospels would be just so much dross.
Worse still, if religion comes from an inner sense we have no intelligent way of distinguishing the truth of one religion from that of another. Why Jesus rather than Krsna? Paul rather than Gautama? Each is just one more expression of the inner sense.
The frightening thing about Modernism is that it is so very close to truth: God is not going to blame me if I know Krsna and have never heard of Jesus. God will judge me indeed on what I know. The Modernist can claim only that his own particular religion is nearer to his own inner sense than the other religions, not that he has found something of general value. But logically one would expect the true religion to be the best expression of everyone’s inner sense, and it is, except that we cannot always tell that because it is our true inner sense, cleared of error and sin (l Jn 1:3-5), with which true religion should fit. Our Buddhist friends tell us that the Jewel is in the Lotus, i.e. only the person who has rid himself of sin and delusion, as the lotus flower has grown above the scum of the pond, can fully experience religious truth. No doubt this explains why there are both honest Christians and honest Buddhists in the world: we are all sinners. But precisely this truth we share, this truth we both understand about our difficulty in attaining truth, tells us also that there is only one true religion. A Modernist might claim that the common truths of different religions merely display common aspects of the inner sense – and he is right, but he is wrong to think we need not search for the whole truth.
Now obviously the Modernist with a Christian heritage is going to understand the Bible merely as a search for God (which it is) and not also as the discovery of God. He will understand the search for God in old Israel as happening in an individual soul, not as God’s long conversation with humanity, a conversation that has really happened in history. Curiously enough, some medieval scripture scholars had a similar problem: they used to go from the literal story to the allegorical meaning far too fast, although for rather a different reason.
Our reaction must be to recognize that much of the Bible is history, and that in the Bible God talks to us from outside ourselves, whereas the Modernist uses the Bible merely to refine his own inner sense, and might almost as well use one of those oddball bibles I mentioned in the first chapter.
IX. Fundamentalist Mistakes
About the time Modernism was getting started, something called Fundamentalism was also getting started, or at least something was getting named Fundamentalism, something which may have been rather older than its name. Worried by the movement called Liberal Protestantism, something rather like Modernism, but affecting Protestants whereas Modernists had mainly affected Catholics, some intellectual Christians founded the American Bible League and issued a dozen pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals. They were alarmed not only by Modernist-style reading of the Bible but also by what we may perhaps best call an attempt at scientific understanding of the Bible, which describes the Bible in terms of the different documents from which it was formed. The Fundamentalists forget the historical development of the Bible, or think it unimportant, emphasizing the Bible as a whole, almost as though it had been written in one session of very busy scribes listening to God’s dictation. Many Fundamentalists insist that the Queer or King James Bible is the “original” version, and that anything else is somehow a variation on the King James Version. The original pamphlet writers were not so ignorant, but their suspicion of the interpretations of the Bible made by some of the new Biblical scholars of the 19th Century did lead to this nonsense. In the United States, Spanish-speaking Fundamentalists seem to have the same idea about Casiodoro de Reina’s translation, and some English-speaking ones seem to think it a translation from the King James, although it is actually a little older.
Fundamentalists try to take the Bible literally. They stop at “‘There is no God” (Ps 14(13):l), but they try to take both the rather contradictory creation stories at the beginning of Genesis as historically accurate, and so merge them in one or other way. Most of them are “liberal” enough to insist that in Mt 19:9 Jesus meant adultery when he said “fornication”, although the later verb “commit adultery” in the same sentence makes that unlikely. Jesus meant, if we take him literally, “If your first marriage was really a marriage and not just some disguised fornication, then your second marriage is adultery, i.e. not really a marriage, because you are still really married to the first spouse”. They interpret him, as saying “If your first spouse committed adultery you can happily remarry and the new marriage will be real”, which really does not make much sense. Also, Fundamentalists ignore 1 Timothy 3:12, by allowing a remarried widow to become a deacon, and a widowed deacon to remarry. So we can’t really say that they take the Bible more literally than other Christians, just that they take some parts literally which other Christians think are allegories or parables or at any rate some kind of figure of speech.
Their interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 means they deny biological evolution – this is not so much taking the chapters literally as it is believing a child’s version of the stories and then insisting on finding that version in the real Bible they read later. Really, they are mixing up two distinct meanings of the word “creation”, which means one thing when we are talking theology and quite another when we are talking biology. The Fundamentalists fail to ask the questions clearly and so get the answers thoroughly mixed up. They also fail to understand that Hebrew tenses cannot be translated precisely into English without a great deal of circumlocution.
Our reaction must be to seek honestly what the Bible is saying to us. And I have found that Fundamentalists do not like to have Mt 19 explained literally, although there really is no other way of understanding it without grotesque transformations. But this is for polemics and other kinds of dialogue: the real way to be safe from Fundamentalism or Modernism is to make the Bible live in ourselves by regular reading and meditation on the Bible, by Biblicizing our view of life, seeing how the Bible is reflected in our daily life. We still have corrupt lawyers, unloved revenuers, divorce and remarriage – Christ has changed the world, but it still holds many relics of the time before he came. The Bible gives us some ideas of how it should be, and very often they can still be applied in rather an obvious manner.
X. Proper Use of the Bible
As the Bible is God’s word to us we must always read or hear it with a listening mind. We should not be asking so much “What can I get out of this?” as “What is God saying to me here?”. We need to listen to God, and pay attention when hearing or reading a passage even for the umpteenth time.
And what do we listen for? Firstly for the story, if any. There is little point in listening to a story for its allegorical or parabolic or poetic message if we ignore the plain story. Once we have understood the story, then we should try to understand its meaning in the particular context. Jesus very often explains his parables just after telling them, but we have to listen to the parable first, for we will not understand Jesus’ explanation if we have not understood his story in its literal form. On the other hand, we should not insist on taking only the literal meaning.
When we are trying to understand something difficult we should turn to other parts of the Bible to help us. If we wonder about possible exceptions to Jesus’ rule against remarriage after divorce in Mk 10, we can remember Mt 19, where there does seem to be an exception. But then we have the puzzle of no exception in Mark but clearly one in Matthew. The apparent contradiction is resolved when we realize that the exception in Matthew is not really an exception, because a divorce is “upon fornication” when the people were not really married. But there seems to be another exception in 1 Co 7, and that is not so easily resolved.
I have just been talking about applying the Bible to our lives by finding rules in it. Another way is to pray parts of the Bible, especially the psalms, which were composed as prayers. The Church uses the psalms and other parts of the Bible in the liturgy.
We must be guided in our understanding by the whole church community, as indicated in 2 P 3:16 and 2T2:2 – and a host of other places. We must ask trustworthy people, catechists and clergy, say, and hope they take our questions seriously. In other words, we should read the Bible in such a way as to make ourselves part of the tradition which gave us the Bible to start with.