Whose Bible Is It | Notes

Posted on April 29, 2006


Jaroslav Pelikan. Whose Bible Is It?: A Short History of The Scriptures. Penguin, 2005. (274 pages)

INTRODUCTION. The Bible, the Whole Bible, and Nothing but the Bible?

Two terms that are often used in connection with the Bible, one from law and one from medicine, will illustrate the importance of “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible” for anyone who takes the Bible as authoritative: testament and prescription. We are so accustomed to tossing around the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” that we may forget their root meaning, which comes out in the legal title “last will and testament.” Such a “will and testament” is a contract between the living and the dead, and both the testator and the heirs are entitled to have the confidence that this document authoritatively represents “the whole testament and nothing but the testament” of the one who has made it and dictated its terms. Similarly, when a physician writes a prescription, it is legitimate for both the doctor and the patient to demand that the pharmacist honor the “authorial intent” in the document and provide “the prescription and nothing but the prescription.” Both the testament and the prescription can be matters of life and death, and so can the Bible, which is why we speak of “salvation,” which means health, and of “what the Word of God prescribes.” | In a sense, Whose Bible Is It? may be said to use the “history of the Scriptures through the ages” to tell how all those various Bibles are the same, but also how and why each of them is different — not only initially in what it contains but also in how it has been read and understood, and to explain why that is still important. | The history of Jewish-Christian relations, and then the history of the divisions within Christendom, is at one level the history of biblical interpretation.  (4)

ONE. The God Who Speaks

One this, at least, Jews and Christians are in agreement, and so are their Bibles, that there was a Word of God before there was a written Bible of any kind, that the God of the Bible is the God who speaks. (9)

To comprehend the written Bible, moreover, it is essential to understand that most of the words which are now written down in it had been spoken first and, therefore, they had been heard long before they could ever have been read. (9)

And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. – Matthew 3:9 (& Luke 3:8)

בנים out of אבנים, a play on words…


Therefore, the Moses who (according to tradition) is the writer of the first five books of the Bible first learns the Name and the Word of God through a voice that calls to him out of “a bush all aflame” … through a voice, not through a book. (10)

Thus, the Being of God remains a transcendent mystery permanently, and it is the Voice and the Word of God that can be known. (10)

Speaking and doing are inseparable, for יהוה, the God of Abraham, is the God who speaks.


…the word prophet (a compound from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not mean in the first instance someone who predicts the future, but one who speaks out on behalf of God — not one who foretells, therefore, but one who tells-forth (which often also includes, of course, foretelling the future). The primary and defining characteristic of the biblical prophet, then, is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority of Another. (11)

In the inaugural vision of the prophet Isaiah, it is the lips of the prophet, not his writing hand, that the seraph touches with a live coal to cleanse it. (13)


Teachers of English literature often need to remind their students that Shakespeare did not write his plays to be studied as texts in seminars but to be performed at the Globe. Not the page but the stage was — and also is — their proper venue. … Unlike most readers in Antiquity who read their books aloud, we have developed the convention of reading silently. This lets us read more widely but often less well, especially when what we are reading — such as the plays of Shakespeare and Holy Scripture — is a body of oral material that has been, almost but not quite accidentally, captured in a book like a fly in amber. (16)


Mankind can hardly be too often reminded, that there was once a man named Socrates …, acknowledged master of all the eminent thinkers who have since lived. – John Stuart Mill

…Socrates himself did not write a book or even a jotting that has survived. All his ideas remained in oral form, all his words were only spoken. And yet it was for these spoken words and unwritten ideas that he was officially condemned and put to death. | The same is true of Jesus of Nazareth. (17)

No one ever spoke as this man speaks,” even his enemies are reported to have acknowledged, if rather grudgingly; for “unlike their scribes [people who dealt with the written word] he taught [that is, he spoke] with a note of authority.” (John 7:46)

As late as the mid-fourth century there was a reluctance to write everything down. Quoting the Christian creed that was used for baptism in the church of Jerusalem, Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem told his hearers

This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it, and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper, but engraving it by the memory upon your heart,..

…for fear that if they were written down, the secrets of the divine mystery would fall into the wrong hands. (18)

The Bible only is the religion of Protestants – William Chillingworth

…this truth and rule are contained in written books and in unwritten traditions which were received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or else have come down to us, handed on as it were from the apostles themselves at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. – Roman Catholic Church, 1546

According to this decree, all of these sources — the Bible, the written traditions, and the unwritten oral traditions — were to be received “with a like feeling of piety and reverence,” regardless of the modality in which they had been preserved. (19)


But the message of the prophets and the message of the Gospels did not begin with text, and it does not perpetuate itself only through text: “God said, ‘Let there be light'”; “In the beginning the [spoken] Word already was” (22)


This primacy of what “God said” over the written word, even the written word of God, has its grounds in the human psyche and in the very nature of human language. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates, without writing his criticism on paper, criticizes the excessive reliance of some of his Greek contemporaries on the written word at the expense of “the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image.” Similarly, the most influential letter writer in history, the apostle Paul, when he is compelled to rely on the written word in his letter to the Galatians, expresses his vexation with it: “How I wish I could be with you now, for then I could modify my tone!” (Galatians 4:20) Modulating the tone of voice; speaking loudly or whispering; pausing, speeding up, or slowing down; gestures, grimaces, and smiles — all of these are dimensions of oral communication and tools of persuasion that no system of punctuation, capitalization, italics, or boldface type can hope to reproduce. (22)

Writing has one grave fault in common with painting…You would imagine that [books] had intelligence, but if you require an explanation of something that has been said, they preserve one unvarying meaning. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere, all alike, among those who understand them and among strangers, and do not know to whom they should or should not reply: and if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; for the book cannot protect or defend itself. – Plato, Phaedrus

To give a picture that is perhaps more fair: What is lost when the spoken word (as we often say, perhaps more portentously than we realize) is reduced to writing must be balanced against what is preserved in that same process and by means of it. We learn every day that there is nothing more fleeting and evanescent than spoken language. It is, as Keats said of himself (mistakenly) in his epitaph, “write in water,” here one minute and gone the next, resonating for a moment and then disappearing forever. The very spontaneity of the spoken word, which can be its charm and its glory, can also be its fatal weakness. Who of us has not at one time or another said something spontaneously in the intensity or insensitivity of the moment that we wish we could retract or at least revise or, as we sometimes put it, “leave unsaid”? (23)

Occasionally, certain devout believers have even pushed this power of the written Word of God and inspired Scripture to the point of attributing their conversion directly to it. (23)

It would fly in the face of the historical evidence to suppose that the process has never worked that way. But if we probe the historical evidence, we will often find a human voice hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the written or printed page. (24)

No book of the Tanakh or the New Testament is addressed explicitly to unbelievers, though they are certainly present prominently in both. (24)

TWO. The Truth in Hebrew

Therefore the biblical narratives of Adam and Noah, and of the covenant with Noah symbolized by the rainbow, lead up to the covenant of God with the people of God, a covenant that begins with the calling of Abraham and with the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah… (29)

The time span covered by the history of the people of Israel in the main body of the Tanakh is approximately one thousand years. (30)

Many such attempts, indeed, are theologically tendentious and are intended to prove or disprove a point about the inerrancy and authority of the Bible (always a dangerous procedure, because the supposedly assured results of archaeology can be as unstable as the shifting sands where the archaeologists have dug). This leads to a fundamental conclusion about these materials: They are intended not primarily as a chronicle but as a testimony of faith in the One who identified himself to Moses from the burning bush as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” the God of the everlasting covenant. (31)


Although he is historically a shadowy figure, Abraham is seen in the biblical narrative as the founding father of the community of faith. (32)

Nevertheless, the foundation of the Tanakh is contained not in Genesis but in Exodus… (33)

Leviticus is thus an extension of the narrative in Exodus, and some sections of it, notably the “laws of holiness,” represent an amplification of the legislation in Exodus as well (with occasional inconsistencies that were to keep the scribes and scholars busy for many centuries). (34)

This last book of the Torah is a rehearsal of the events that have brought Israel within sight of the promised land, not so much a narrative as a reminder and a celebration. (35)


In 2 Samuel are found the biography and character portrait of David (to be supplemented and revised in 1 Chronicles), one of the most complete and most candid biographies anywhere in the Bible. (37)

Once again judgment and hope are inseparable. (39)

Thus, the Nevi’im, the books of the Prophets, both major and minor form a commentary on the history of Judah and of Israel. They interpret this history as a sign of God’s judgment and of God’s mercy, and they call the nation back to repentance and faithfulness. Their role in the total corpus of the literature of the Tanakh is therefore a very important one, building on the foundational narratives and legislation of the Torah. (41)



It is not known when and how the earliest collection of sacred writings in Hebrew arose. The report that “the high priest Hilkiah said to the scribe Shaphan, ‘I have fond a scroll of the Teaching in the House of the Lord ” [2 Kings 22:8; 2 Chronicles 34:15] clearly presupposes the existence of some such collection. But both the incident and the collection are impossible to date, and some critics have even hypothesized that the whole story is actually intended to explain the composition of portions of the Torah, including most or all of the Book of Deuteronomy. Evidently, however, the Pentateuch (or at least its first four books) was in the process of being assembled in Jerusalem before that time. (45)

The division into Torah, Nevi’im, and Kethuvim may reflect stages in the history of canonization. (46)

The safest generalization permitted is this: various collections of sacred writings were put together quite early in the history of Israel, as is evident from such terms as “the books,” but they did not become a “canon” until much later. The name canon may properly be applied to the books that seem to have been adopted by the assembly of rabbis at Jamnia about 90 or 100 CE under the leadership of Rabbi Akiba. Until then, apparently, the status of the Song of Songs and of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) remained doubtful, but at Jamnia they were definitely included in the canon. (46)

Additional light on the process by which the Jewish canon was formed has come from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The books included in them suggest that the Torah and the Nevi’im had been standardized by about the fourth century BCE, together with most of the Kethuvim, but some of the Kethuvim (including apparently Daniel) were still in dispute until the assembly at Jamnia. (46-47)

After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the rise of the Christian movement, the Jewish community felt obliged, in closing ranks, to fix the limits of its Bible more precisely. (47)

THREE. Moses Speaking Greek

Greek was the world language… Which meant that if a distinctive system of ideas or beliefs or customs was isolated from the rest of “the civilized world” in one of those exotic languages, it would have to be translated, preferably into Greek, or it would run the danger of remaining in obscurity permanently. (52)


The Jewish religion was enshrined, but therefore was also locked, in a sacred book, in a code of conduct, and in a liturgical ritual that were purposely being kept hidden from the outside world in one of the most esoteric of all those exotic languages and therefore virtually unavailable, except in bits and pieces to anyone who did not know Hebrew. But by the third and second centuries BCE, to the regret of many, this category of “anyone who did not know Hebrew” had come to include increasing numbers of people, especially in the younger generation, who by heritage and tradition professed the faith of Israel and who in some measure wanted to go on practicing it. (52-53)

When you lose the language, you leave the faith!

This danger has been even grater and even more real for Jews than it has been for other nationalities, because in Judaism the nation and the religion were quite literally coterminous. One symptom of the pattern of cultural assimilation was intermarriage with Gentiles. (53)

That New Testament reference to Timothy indicates that he resembled other children of mixed marriages in other times and places also in this respect: that he had not been reared in strict conformity with the Jewish Law but in what was apparently and not uncharacteristically a series of compromises between the Law of Moses and the customs of the Gentiles. (53)


According to a legend that was originally published under the Pseudonym “Aristeas” and is certainly fictitious but that nevertheless achieved wide circulation as well as considerable embellishment over time, King Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt in the third century BCE received from Demetrius of Phalerum, director of the celebrated library at Alexandria, the proposal that the Jewish Law, the Torah, should be translated into Greek to fill a serious gap in the holdings of the library’s celebrated collection; librarians, then as now, cannot stand to see a blank space on their shelves. (56)

It is almost certain that the original initiative behind the production of the Septuagint was actually Jewish, not Gentile at all. It seems to have been motivated partly by the desire to satisfy the curiosity of Greek-speaking Gentiles concerning what these strange Jews believed and partly by the need to have Scripture available to the new generations of Jews in the Dispersion who could no longer read Hebrew. It is important to note, but not to exaggerate, some of the adaptations of the biblical text to a non-Jewish audience, as when the Hebrew phrase “the hand of God” is translated into Greek as “the power of God,” to avoid the impression that the Divine was like a human being, as this impression had been propagated through the anthropomorphism of the mythological Olympian deities. More fundamentally, the enterprise of producing the Septuagint — like any translation of any text, especially of a sacred text, in any period of history — was based on the rather audacious assumption that there really were Greek equivalents for all the original Hebrew words, not only for all those species of animals, birds, and reptiles that were listed in the catalogs of the Book of Leviticus as unclean, but above all for the One True God, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and for everything that the biblical writers had confessed about the words, actions, and attributes of the One True God. (57)

There seems to be every reason to believe that the knowledge both of the history and of the laws of the Bible, without which it is impossible to affirm the covenant and be an observant Jew, managed to be preserved and transmitted from one generation to the next on the basis of the Greek version of the Scripture. (58)


Judaism had now become a world religion … And nothing had contributed as much to this transformation of the Jewish faith into a world religion as had the Septuagint… (60)


Not only were Christians the principal beneficiaries of the Septuagint, but its long-range historical significance for Judaism must be recognized as having been in some ways a largely negative one. Some later Jews came to regret the translation of their Scriptures into Greek because of the Christian usage of the Septuagint version of the Book of Isaiah to prove various doctrines such as the virgin birth of Jesus. It is noteworthy that when the lingua franca of the western Mediterranean world shifted back from Greek to Latin, perhaps in the third century or so of the Common Era, the educational and apologetic motivations within Judaism that had been responsible for the creation of the Septuagint did not go on to produce a Latin translation of the Tanakh by Jews; that assignment was left to Christians, climaxing in the masterpiece of Jerome’s Vulgate. The roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the gradual entrenchment of the authority of Pharisaism and the Talmud as “normative Judaism,” the Christian declaration of independence from Judaism, and the enthronement of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity as the established religion of the Roman Empire under emperors Constantine and Theodosius — all of these forces contributed to a state of mind within the Jewish community that was far less congenial to the idea of translating Torah, Nevi’im, and Kethuvim into the languages of the nations than the Greek-speaking cosmopolitanism of Jewish Alexandrian had been. (65)

FOUR. Beyond Written Torah: Talmud and Continuing Revelation

The relation of the authority of that ongoing normative interpretation of Holy Scripture to the authority of the original text of Holy Scripture is an issue with which both the Jewish and the Christian traditions have had to struggle, each in its own special way. There was an oral tradition preceding and underlying the New Testament, and by no means all of that tradition is contained in the New Testament or exhausted by it; the ongoing presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the church, moreover, can carry with it the authority of continuing revelation. (69)



the church doth read for example of life and instructions of manners, but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.


For “not spake but speaketh” aptly describes the ongoing revelation of the word of God that has come over and over again and that still continues to come now, not in some kind of high-flying independence from [sic, form?] but, to the contrary, in a devout and persevering engagement with the pages of the Sacred Book. (73)

Part of what Moses heard from God he wrote down in the Torah as we have it, but part he kept unwritten, handing it on in oral form. …our English word tradition comes from the Latin verb tradere, “to hand down”… (73)

Even someone who has never tried it should be able to imagine that reading a Hebrew text (or an English or a French text) made up solely of unseparated consonants can be a daunting assignment indeed: THLRDSMSHPHRDLCKNTHNGHMKSMLDWNNGRNPSTRSHLDSMTWTRNPLCSFRPS — this is how the first two verses of Psalm 23 would look in the English of the Jewish Publication Society Version, which reads:

The LORD is my shepherd:
I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures:
He leads me to water in places of repose.

…it would be ridiculous to suppose that because it was only the consonants that had been written down in the received text of the Tanakh, only they were transmitted. (74)

When the scholars known to history as the Massoretes — the name seems to come from a Hebrew word for “tradition” — working between the sixth and tenth centuries of the Common Era (therefore, it must be remembered, as much as a millennium or more after the original composition of the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh), supplied the vowels, which are written as “vowel points” under the consonantal text, they were repeating, with a deep and reverential sense of fidelity to the past, what this tradition had passed on to them through generation after generation of rote memorization and constant recitation. But if, as Jewish doctrine and then, on the basis of Jewish doctrine, Christian doctrine also maintained, the Tanakh was “inspired scripture,” did that imply that not only the consonants of the original writing but also the vowels, first memorized and then written down much later, were the product of a special act of God as the Inspirer of Scripture? (74-75)


Aramaic gradually displaced Hebrew as the spoken tongue of Palestinian and other Jews. (76)

…Jewish liturgical practice had to resort to the use of Aramaic paraphrase and translation, known as Targum (meaning “translation”), which also became part of the normative tradition. After the reading of the text in the original Hebrew from the scroll of the Tanakh, another person would recite (not read) the Aramaic Targum of the prescribed reading. (77)

They read [in Hebrew] from the scroll of the Teaching [Torah] of God, translating it and giving the sense [in the Aramaic Targum]; so they understood the reading. – Nehemiah 8:8

What I said in Hebrew does not have the same force when translated into another tongue … Even the law itself, as well as the prophets and the other writings, are not a little different when spoken in the original. – preface to Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus)

A central feature of Midrash was the application of the biblical text to circumstances and needs that differed in some way from the original context of a passage. This often called for an explanatory gloss or addition to the original text. It is amusing to note that the early Christian exegetes, while often objecting to rabbinic methods of interpretation as artificial and arbitrary, actually created their own Targum and Midrash, as when they quoted the words “The LORD reigns” with their addition, “from the tree” — that is, from the tree of the cross, which is not in the Hebrew or even in the Septuagint. And then they accused the Jewish interpreters of having distorted the biblical text by deleting this addition from the Psalms because it was such an obvious prophecy about the crucifixion of Christ. (79)


…the Judaism of that later period was able to count on the living voice of the prophets as a guide to conduct in accordance with the Law. Now it had to rely on the tradition of Halakhah, which means “the right way to walk.” (80)


Halakhah, as containing interpretations of the biblical Law, is generally distinguished from Haggadah, “narrative” or “biblical interpretation.” (82)


The God of Israel was not a tribal deity but the God of all the nations… (83)

To identify the pre-Mosaic Law as it came to Noah, the Talmud singles out seven violations of the will of God: worship of idols, profaning the name of God, murder, unlawful sex, theft, eating the meat of a living animal, and failure to enforce laws. In this identification the Talmud was setting forth the content of what would come to be known in later philosophy and theology as “natural law,” that part of the content of the Law that did not depend either for its knowledge or for its force on the authority of a unique historical revelation from God, whether through Moses or through Jesus Christ, but that was knowable (and had historically been known) also to the Gentiles. (84)

If this natural law did not depend on revelation, it had to have come through a universal tradition and/or through the use of human reason. In its more extreme form, sch an appeal to the power of reason in relation to the Torah was an anticipation of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah. (84)

The very processes of reasoning that were at work in the questions and responses of the Talmudic sages, as well as the methods of analysis that were at work in the Jewish exegesis of the Tanakh (and in the Christian exegesis of Scripture), implied that the divine revelation of the Law, though written on tablets of stone for Moses, was intended to be received through the more sensitive, though less durable, instrumentality of human speech and human thought. (84-85)

All of this tradition presupposes that commentary on a sacred text can be a supreme form both of obedience to God and of intellectual activity. (85)

And the same is true of the great works of Christian philosophy. Commentary and liturgy were two ways, greatly different and yet ultimately complementary, of making the sacred text contemporary. (85)

FIVE. The Law and the Prophets Fulfilled

According to Judaism, the written Torah is made complete and fulfilled in the oral Torah, so that the Talmud is in many ways the Jewish counterpart to the New Testament… (89)


In the earliest recorded Jewish-Christian dialogue, which was written around the middle of the second century CE (whether the dialogue ever actually took place or not), the Christian interlocutor, quoting proof texts from the Psalms and the Prophets, asks the Jewish interlocutor: “Are you acquainted with them? They are contained in your Scriptures, or rather not yours, but ours. For we believe them; but you, though you read them, do not catch the spirit that is in them.”

Speaking for what must have been a sizeable number of Christians in the second century and therefore gaining many adherents and even founding churches, the heretical Marcion of Pontus was devoted to celebrating the novelty and uniqueness of the message of the gospel. According to him, the God whom Jesus proclaimed as Father was a God of love but not of law, the Redeemer but not the Creator, revealed in the Epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke but not in the Jewish scriptures. … The church’s rejection of Marcion’s teaching on these several doctrinal issues also served to confirm the growing concept of the one Bible that consisted of the two Testaments. (93)

The Jewish translation of Jewish Scripture into Greek, the Septuagint, became the Christian Bible. (94)

Beyond the universally applicable words and examples, therefore, some parts of the Law and Prophets were seen as “types” and “foreshadowings,” which had been real in and of themselves but were now finding their fuller meaning in Christ. … | Many of these “foreshadowings,” however, soon came to be seen as having lost their original validity now that the foreshadowed reality had arrived. … What had been “foreshadowed” in the Torah had now been “overshadowed” in him as the fulfillment. | Thus the fundamental category for the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament was prophecy and fulfillment, as applied above all to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (96)

Yet at some point this “stupendous claim” of prophecy and fulfillment could no longer function with the combination of written Tanakh and oral tradition as its composite authority, but had to develop its own written authority, which would embody the oral tradition but not exhaust it. That written authority was what we now call “the New Testament.” (98)

SIX. Formation of a Second Testament

The New is in the Old concealed,
The Old is in the New revealed,

The emergence o this novel concept of the one Bible that contains two Testaments has been correctly called the most momentous event in the history of early Christianity, even more far-reaching in its consequences than the conversion of the emperor Constantine. (101)

Thus it was both the canonization of a second, exclusively Christian Testament and the adoption of a version of the First Testament in a language other than the original that added to the separation of Jews and Christians even when they claimed to be obeying the same Law and reading the same Prophets and chanting the same Psalms, and quoting all of these in different languages at — or, rather, against — each other. (102)


The New Testament is by far the shorter portion of the Christian Bible, occupying less total space than the Psalms plus the major Prophets. Through its association with the spread of Christianity, however, the New Testament has wielded an influence far out of proportion to its modest size. (102)

The setting of the New Testament within the Christian community is one factor that makes a “biography of Jesus” or a history of the first-century church so difficult or even impossible. (103)


What the Torah is to the Tanakh, the Gospels are to the New Testament: the testimony of faith to the basic redemptive events and actions of God by which the believing community has been constituted. (104)



By far the largest number of writings in the New Testament are the Epistles, twenty-one in all. Most of them were composed in response to a specific need in one of the first-century Christian congregations, but one or more of them seem to have been circular letters intended for several congregations, perhaps even with the name of the addressee inserted and then changed. (110)


…or Apocalypse [VIA: meaning “revealed”] (113)


Several factors seem to have been responsible for the formation of a second “testament” in the church alongside the Old Testament. One factor certainly was the sheer passage of time, as the church needed to discover whatever resources it could to bind it to its past and to guarantee its continuance in the tradition of the faith. (114)

Also responsible for the establishment of the canon was the circulation of writings that bore the names of apostles but did not contain apostolic teaching (as that apostolic teaching was being defined by the church in its creed and enforced by its bishops);… The task of sifting through the writings purporting to come from the apostolic generation occupied Christians well into the fourth century. In the early fourth century the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea suggested the following division of these writings: some that were acknowledged almost universally as part of the New Testament; others that were disputed but finally accepted; still others that were considered in one or another part of the church with greater or lesser seriousness but were eventually rejected. (114-115)


The earliest pieces of Christian literature to be collected seem to have been the letters of Paul (115)

Also from Rome, and also apparently from the second century, comes the oldest extant list of New Testament writings, the Muratorian fragment, so named because it was first published by Ludovico Muratori in 1740 from an early medieval Latin manuscript that was based on earlier documents. It contains the names of the books that were being read in the church at Rome in about 200 CE. By about that time, as the writings of early Christian authors from Lyons, Carthage, and Alexandria also suggest, the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, and some other Epistles were being used as Scripture. From these sources we may gather a list of books on which they all seem to have been agreed. That list would include the following, given in the order now employed in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonian, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and 1 John. (115)

In general, the books that came to be acknowledged as “canonical” were associated in one way or another with the name of an apostle; this helps to explain the inclusion of the Epistle of Jude. On the other hand, the Epistle to the Hebrews does not carry the name of any apostle;…but its sheer power seems to have provided persuasive evidence that if there was to be a normative collection of Christian writings from the generation of the apostles, this book had to be part of it regardless of who composed it. (116)


The writings of Eusebius and of his contemporary, Athanasius of Alexandria, make it evident that agreement on the disputed books was approaching by the middle of the fourth century and that the canon of the New Testament which now appears in Christian Bibles was gaining general, if not universal, acceptance. That canon appears for the first time in a letter of Athanasius issued in 367 CE.

In 382 a synod was held at Rome under Pope Damasus, at which the influence of Jerome secured the adoption of a list of books answering to that of Athansius. This is ratified by Pope Gelasius at the end of the fifth century. The same list was confirmed independently for the province of Africa at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 and 419 under the leadership of Augustine of Hippo. The second canon of the Second Trullan Council of 692, known to canon lawyers as the Quinisext, may be taken to have formally closed the process of the formation of the New Testament canon for East and West. This stands in sharp contrast to the status of the Old Testament canon within the church, which was not acted upon by an “ecumenical” church council until the Council of Trent in 1546 and then in a way that has gone on being disputed because of the status of the Apocrypha. (117)

SEVEN. The Peoples of the Book

…the paradox that sharing a common language really can be a surprisingly divisive force. (121)


It takes a lifetime of trying to make sense of these three ancient languages — not to say, of trying to make English of them — to appreciate fully the vastly different thought worlds (which sometimes seem to be entire universes) that they represent. (123)


“Vulgate” (which, of course, does not mean “vulgar” at all but something closer to our term “vernacular,”…) (124)

The Vulgat was the Bible of Europe for over a thousand years, and it was the mother lode of the Latin Mass. (125)


Even more divisive than the difference of languages (though not unrelated to it) was the difference of the interpretations assigned to the text, particularly the difference between Jews and Christians now that the Tanakh had come to be regarded by Christians not as “your Scripture” but rather as “ours.” (127)

Thus the more fanciful and often extravagant elaboration of allegories and other poetic interpretations that came from the rabbinical tradition was held in check by the primary insistence on what the text actually said. (127)

…a lamppost is intended primarily for illumination, but a drunkard uses it for support. (128)

Logically carried to its conclusion, that insistence on the primacy of the literal sense would have led — that is to say, should have led — to a demand that the original text in the original language be primary, too;… (128)


As glosses upon glosses grew into glosses upon glosses upon glosses, the size of the biblical text tended to become smaller and smaller on the page to accommodate all the marginal explanations surrounding it on every side. (129)

Quite often, if truth be told, “expounding” the text really meant no more than reciting what someone else had said about it before, such as Augustine or Chrysostom or Jerome (which in many cases was probably just as well, considering the educational level of many of the preachers). Another format, called lectio continua, was as this title indicates, a preached exposition not of the pericope for the day but of an entire book of the Bible, one verse after another at successive services, until finally these homilies constituted an entire biblical commentary. In clarifying the meaning of the text for their hearers, preachers would often refer to the topical issues and conflicts of the day. As a result, such sermonic commentaries have become a valuable collection of source material not only about orthodox beliefs and pious practices but, in conjunction with other sources such as manuals of penance, about social customs, economic practices, and folk life — including the survival of a lot of superstition and paganism in officially “Christian” and “Catholic” Europe. (129) [VIA: This is one of my favorite insights.]

The method of biblical interpretation characteristic of the Christian Middle Ages proceeded typically on several levels, sometimes as many as seven, but stabilized at four: literal, allegorical, moral, and eschatological (usually called “anagogical”).

The letter shows us what God and our fathers did;
The allegory shows us where our faith is hid;
The moral meaning gives us rules of daily life;
The anagogy shows us where we end our strive.



Do not argue with the people of the Book
unless in a fair way, apart from those
who act wrongly, and say to them:
“We believe what has been sent down to us,
and we believe what has been sent down to you.
Our God and your God is one,
and to Him we submit.”

Even without importing all of our problems into the medieval scene, one cannot resist observing that it ill behooves an era of human history like this one to look back at the Middle Ages and think only of jihad or of the Crusades and pogroms without remembering these and similar encounters when, at least for an occasional moment, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the father whom they shared, managed to transcend their separations without losing their identities. (139)

EIGHT. Back to the Sources


Ever since Gutenberg the history of the Bible is largely the history of printed Bibles… (146)

This little book was made in the city of Mainz by the artful invention of printing or character-making, without the labor of a pen, and it was completed for the glory of God, through the industry of Johann Fust, citizen, and Peter Schoffer of Gernsheim, clerk of the same diocese, in the Year of Our Lord 1462, on the Eve of the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary

thus on 14 August. (148)


What was new in the era of the Renaissance, or at any rate newer, was a significant increase in the knowledge of Greek in the West. (148)


Of all the manuscripts of the biblical text in any language, the most faithfully — indeed scrupulously — preserved had been the Hebrew original of the Tanakh. (152)


The two most important and influential of the biblical humanists of the Renaissance were, in Italy, Lorenzo Valla and, in the North, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam and Basel. (153)

Among the printed editions that followed those of Erasmus, the most important appeared in Paris in 1550. It was prepared by Robert Estienne/Stephanus and was the first to contain a rudimentary critical apparatus of variant readings from as many as fifteen manuscripts … Estienne’s printed Bibles also made history in another way: They were the first to employ verses within the traditional chapters into which the Bible had long been divided, a system of division that was carried over into printed vernacular versions, including the New Testament of the “Geneva Bible” in 1557. It made it possible ever since, in citing Scripture, to refer to “chapter and verse”…with new precision. Estienne’s edition of the Greek New Testament of 1550 came to be known as the textus receptus, “the received text,” serving as the basis for various translations into vernacular tongues. (155)


It was a major and abiding achievement of the biblical humanism of the Renaissance to make it mandatory for Christian interpreters of the Bible, for the first time since the apostolic age, to learn to read it in the original languages. (158)


Yet all of this new Christian Hebraism actually served only to exacerbate the separation between Jews and Christians. If the Christian readers o the bible wanted to know the meaning of an obscure word in the Torah, they did not have to consult a local rabbi anymore, as Jerome and Luther had done, because increasingly there were specifically Christian handbooks and guides. Christian Kabbalah, likewise, only made things worse between Jews and Christians, for now even the esoteric science of the Zohar, once the exclusive property of the rabbis, could be pressed into the service of Christian dogma. | Probably the most enduring legacy of the revival of Christian antiquity by the biblical scholars of the Renaissance has been the enthronement of “sacred philology” and of grammar as the only proper foundation for the right way to read the Bible. Thomas Aquinas had criticized Augustine for the “spiritual” rather than literal interpretation of the “days” in the creation account of the first chapter of Genesis. Now exegetes could use their “scientific” or scholarly erudition in philology to prove that the Hebrew word yom (יום) here must refer to a day of twenty-four hours. And they went on doing so just as other branches of “scientific” or scholarly erudition in paleontology and evolutionary biology were producing increasingly convincing evidence that the world of “seed-bearing plants of every kind,” of “cattle, creeping things, and wild beasts of every kind,” and even of man created “in the image and likeness of God,” as all of these were recounted in the Genesis creation account, had in fact come into being over a period of not six “days” of twenty-four hours each but of many millions of years. Ironically, the old-fashioned allegorical method of “spiritual” interpretation would in some ways have had a much easier time coping with this new reality than did the avowedly more up-to-date and “scientific” method of literal, grammatical interpretation. (159-160)

NINE. The Bible Only

…the Bible only is the religion of Protestants. – William Chillingsworth in Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation, 1638.


Erasmus laid the egg and Luther hatched it

…”the power of the Word” meant the power of the message of Holy Scripture, emancipated from the oppressive authority of church and tradition and set free to work directly on human hearts and lives. (164)


If anything, the churches that followed the Reformer of Geneva, John Calvin, in defining themselves as “Reformed in accordance with the word of God” pressed the authority of the Bible even further than did the Lutheran. …Calvin maintained that whatever church practice was not commanded by Holy Scripture was forbidden, whereas for Luther it was permitted but could not be required. (165)

The Reformation began, so the saying went, when there was a pope on the seven hills of Rome, but now there were seven popes on every dunghill in Germany. There had always been vigorous disagreements between interpreters of the Bible, be they Jewish rabbis or Christian theologians, but these had usually gone on within a single faith community. Now there were many faith communities within Western Christendom. Each of these, moreover, was drawing the lines in the sand between itself and all the other faith communities on the basis of how they interpreted the Bible rather than primarily of how they organized the church or how they worshiped or how they wanted Christians to live (though all of these, of course, were also involved in the correct interpretation of the Bible). (166)

By the time the Reformation was carried out it had managed to split Western Christendom along fault lines, some of which are now rapidly approaching the five-century mark. No one who knows even a little about the history of the Reformation would even attempt to deny that there were many political factors and historical “causes” involved on all sides, including ambition and greed and misunderstanding and lust for power, as well as more than a little of human pride and prejudice. (167)


The Bible was chained, yes, but for the same reason that the telephone directory is still chained in a public phone booth: to keep it available. (168)


Within the larger history of Western culture, however, it has an infinitely greater importance because it was the printing press that made the Bible as book a cultural force in the common life of European and then other societies in a way and to a degree that had not been true or even possible before. And that was, at least initially, the achievement of Martin Luther, biblical scholar and church reformer — and church reformer because he was a biblical scholar first. (169)


But how shall men meditate in that which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept closed in an unknown tongue? As it is written, “Except I know the power of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian to me.” – from the Preface of the Authorized Version (King James Bible), 1611 under the preface: “The Translators to the Reader”


When in Protestant eyes the authentic interpretation of the Bible as the will of God was restored …an entire new set of problems or opportunities came on the agenda. (175)

…the Reformation question of the bearing of the Bible on the political order and the applicability of the Sermon on the Mount, or at any rate of some of the Ten Commandments, to a society where there is no established religion has continued to be an issue of serious attention and profound disagreement. (176)



As a matter of historical fact (and therefore of theological accuracy), the Christian Scriptura has never been sola. …The very conflict over the biblical canon between the Protestant Reformers and the Council of Trent made it clear that even in a doctrine of sola Scriptura the authority of the Bible did not authenticate itself automatically…but depended on its recognition by tradition and by the church for acceptance. (180)

TEN. The Canon and the Critics



The five points of Deism propounded by Lord Herbert of Cherbury became a kind of theme with variations for Enlightenment thinkers of various backgrounds: the existence of a God, the duty to worship that God, the centrality of virtue in that worship, the obligation of repentance for any departure from that virtue, and the prospect of a life to come with rewards for virtue and punishments for sin. (189)

…the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, and private spirits are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other than the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

But because “Enlightenment,” as defined by Immanuel Kant in a celebrated essay entitled “What is Aufklaurung?” was seen as “man’s exodus from his self-incurred tutelage, [which had meant] the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another person,” liberation from that tutelage meant the willingness to subject every authority and all tradition, however cherished they might be, to a critical examination. (190-191)


Was it permissible even to ask whether Jesus could have been mistaken in following uncritically the views of Old Testament authorship shared by his Jewish contemporaries or whether perhaps he was accommodating himself to their ignorance? And what did that imply for orthodox Christian belief and doctrine not only about the Bible but eventually about the person of Jesus Christ? Was this question of the authorship of the books of the Bible, therefore, the first domino which, once toppled, would bring about in turn the collapse of the entire traditional authority of faith and morality? (195)

The fundamental truth claims of the biblical record were historical claims about things that were believed to have happened, not “once upon a time” in a fairy tale somewhere outside of time and space, but at specific times and places that belonged to the total history of the human race and that could be located on a map. (196)

It is to this “historicism” that we owe the assumption that tracing such a phenomenon century by century was the best way to understand it. But instead of corroborating the accounts in the Bible,  this historiography now became a major force in promoting doubts about the truthfulness of the biblical record. (198)

The Old Testament, even at its most rationalist, overwhelmed law by charisma, orderly cosmology by creation myths, moral injunctions by word and number magic, the conception of the ethical individual by the myth of the Chosen People and the Promised Land, history by eschatology. – Peter Gay

Beyond the grandeur and the moral elevation of Christianity, as it sparkles and shines in the Gospels, the human mind will not advance. – Goethe

The entire edifice of New Testament religion, beginning with the Epistles of Paul, and after it the whole development of traditional Christianity, with the evolution of the creeds and the rise of the episcopate, was an elaborate attempt to make up for or to rationalize that fundamental disappointment. Far from being the incarnate Son of God and the risen Savior of the world, as Christians regardless of denomination had long been confessing him to be, Jesus was the defeated leader of the aspirations of his followers, himself misled and misleading others. (199)

It is no exaggeration to say that a chasm developed between pew and study, which was sometimes even a chasm between pew and pulpit. (199)

ELEVEN. A Message for the Whole Human Race


Bay Psalm Book, (1640)
Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, (1661-63)
American Standard Version, (1901)
Revised Version, (1881-85)
Revised Standard Version, (1946-57)
New Revised Standard Versioni, (1989)
The Bible: An American Translation, (1923-35)

Like the image of the Virgin and the ubiquitous icons, it has sometimes seemed that the Bible has become more of a totem than a sacramental. (210)



TWELVE. The Strange New World Within the Bible

There was — and there is — no going back behind the historical, textual, literary, and philological investigation of the Tanakh and the New Testament. but we can and we must go beyond it, for the Tanakh is more than a museum piece or the surviving artifact of a Near Eastern tribal cult or the only available piece of literature written in the Hebrew language to be used as a lexicon for the modern revival of the language. it is not less than any of these, but it must be more. And in the same way it is not adequate to describe the New Testament as the literary deposit of just another Hellenistic mystery religion or as a remnant of a mythological cosmology or as the struggle of an apocalyptic community to redefine its identity after its hope of the Second Coming, as this was promised (and expected) by Jesus, had been so cruelly disappointed. (226)


Even in the secular age — especially in a secular age — the Bible proves to be the unique antidote to cynicism and the source of inspiration for poets and philosophers, artists and musicians, and the countless millions all over the globe who turn to it every day and in their times of need. (226)

It is, to paraphrase a maxim of the early church, a river in which a gnat can swim and an elephant can drown. (227)

An appalling ignorance of the Bible seems to have become epidemic in our time… (228)

The very familiarity of the Bible after all these centuries can dull its sharp edges and obscure its central function, which is not only to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable, including the comfortable who are sitting in the pews of their synagogue or church as they listen to its words. (228)

…the beauty of the language of the Bible can be like a set of dentist’s instruments neatly laid out on a table and hanging on a wall, intriguing in their technological complexity and with their stainless steel highly polished — until they set to work on the job for which they were originally designed. Then all of a sudden my reaction changes from “How shiny and beautiful they all are!” to “Get that damned thing out of my mouth!” Once I begin to read it anew, perhaps in the freshness of a new translation, it stops speaking in cliches and begins to address me directly. Many people who want nothing to do with organized religion claim to be able to read the Bible at home for themselves. But it is difficult to resist the suspicion that in fact many of them do not read it very much. For if they did, the “sticker shock” of what it actually says would lead them to find most of what it says even more strange than the world of synagogue and church. (229)


Translations of the Bible, be they ancient or new, beautiful or pedestrian, can also run the danger of artificially domesticating the language of the Tanakh or the New Testament. (229)

…this message is not something that you can tell me about while I am shaving! The language of the Bible is a language to be read and reread, to be pondered and scrutinized. To the eyes and heart of faith, after all, it is a love letter, one long love letter. (231)


The very relevance of biblical cosmology has made it relevant over and over. (233)


Repeatedly in Jewish and Christian history, however, the discovery that the proper framework for understanding the Bible is nothing less than a total community has proved to be not an obstacle to reading it but a liberating force. (235)


As “the land” was the theme for the closing books of the Tanakh, so the final book of the New Testament, in its next-to-last chapter, announces the vision of a promised land beyond all geography: “I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bide adorned for her husband.” (238)


“Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light for my path”: for a book that has been used for thousands of years as a guide to life, the Bible, on closer examination, sets forth both in precept and in example a contrary lifestyle, or several contrary and mutually contradictory lifestyles, that cannot easily be squared with how its adherents actually live. (239)


Above all (quite literally or, more than literally, above all), the Bible is a strange new world because it confronts us with a God who speaks but who in the very act of self-revelation is an remains the Wholly Other One… (243)


For if it is profoundly true that there are truths in the Bible that only the eyes of faith can see, ti is also true that the eyes of unfaith have sometimes spotted what conventional believers have been too preoccupied or too bemused to acknowledge. (248)

[Synagoga and Ecclesia] Within both of those traditions, moreover, “those who are charged with the responsibility of teaching,” as Thomas Aquinas calls them, must also take special responsibility and special care not only to teach the Bible but to learn it before they teach it. The vagaries of theological fashion or the disciple-making of theological professors or the desires to be relevant to contemporary society can sometimes overshadow the permanent hold that commentary on the sacred text has and must have in the preparation of those who will be the professional interpreters of the faith tradition. Every new breakthrough of insight and every new breakout of relevance in Jewish and Christian history has been accompanied by “new light breaking forth from the holy Word.” Not the only prerequisite for this to happen, but an authoritative prerequisite nonetheless, is the requirement that those who speak to and for the community in interpreting the Bible be competent to do so on the basis of the original texts. (249)

…we need therefore to look to a doctrine of multiple testaments, according to which the one God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is also the Father of Jesus Christ — has throughout the history of salvation formed a series of covenants but has not broken covenants or repudiated them. (250)

If the history of the Jewish and Christians Scriptures teaches us anything, it is that neither of these communities would be anything without it. The Scriptures depend on the communities not only to preserve and transmit their texts, which has never been a trivial assignment, but to interpret them and reinterpret them over and over again — and ever more studiously to do so together. the Tanakh and the New Testament are agreed: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder!” (251)

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