The Rise and Fall of the Bible | Notes & Review

Posted on June 1, 2013


Timothy Beal. The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. (244 pages)


1. The End of the Word As We Know It: A Personal Introduction

My parents’ biblical faith was by no means sentimental or simplistic. It was as seriously intellectual as it was devout. (2)

Magic 8 Ball Bible

The biblical Magic 8 Ball game revealed more about me, about my hopes and wishes for the Bible, and especially my idea of the Bible, than it did about biblical literature itself. I conceived of the Bible as God’s book of answers, which if opened and read rightly would speak directly to me with concrete, divinely authored advice about my life and how to live it. (3)

What does “the Bible” mean?

It means authoritative. A book called “the Bible” speaks for itself in authority. it is the first and last word on the subject.

It means univocal. A book called “the Bible” speaks for itself in one unified voice, without contradiction.

It means practical. A book called “the Bible” promises to serve as a reference manual and a dependable guide for how to proceed along the path its reader has chosen.

It means accessible. A book called “the Bible” promises to speak to anyone and everyone clearly and simply, without ambiguity, in terms “even I can understand.”

It means comprehensive. A book called “the Bible” claims to cover everything human beings may ever possibly need to know about its subject, past, present, and future.

It means exclusive. A book called “the Bible” admits no rivals, no alternative perspectives. It is complete unto itself, closed, self-contained within a single book, A to Z, alpha to omega, Genesis to Revelation. Nothing may be added or taken away. (4)

The Rise of a Cultural Icon

A traditional icon is a particular material object that is believed to mediate a transcendent reality, and its power to do so is created and maintained by the various rituals people practice in relation to it. (5)

A cultural icon is not so concrete. It is not tied to a particular material object, visual image, or ritual practice. Its outlines are a little vague, hard to define sharply. It’s a condensation of what people who identify with it believe in a value. It says something about the culture in which it holds iconic power. The American flag is a cultural icon of patriotism. (5)

The Bible is a cultural icon of faith as black-and-white certainty and religion as right-and-wrong morality. It’s no accident that the most common visual image of the Bible is that of a closed black book. The cultural icon of the Bible represents religious faith as what closes the book on questions about the meaning and purpose of life. (5-6)

This idea of the Bible as a divine manual for finding happiness with God in this world and salvation in the next is so familiar to us that we might well assume it’s been around forever, that it’s as old as Christianity itself. It’s not. In fact, its genesis was in nineteenth-century Protestantism, where the Reformation ideal of sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” combined with a popular Protestant evangelistic movement, sometimes described as a new Puritanic biblicism because of its romantic idealization of that earlier, seemingly simpler form of Puritan Christianity, to promote the bible as the key to solving all of industrial America’s emerging problems. The Bible, it was believed, could integrate immigrant populations in the new big cities. It could heal factions among Protestant churches and denominations. It could keep husbands sober and hold nuclear families together, even under new stresses of urban poverty and isolation. Rooted in nostalgia for the mythical, romanticized image of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritan piety, this movement believed that the Bible was the solution for all modern social, familial, and individual ills. (6)

The fundamentalist movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century was the theological heir of the Puritanic Biblicism championed by the ABS and others. What distinguished it as a new movement was its reactionary character. It was first and foremost a defensive reaction to two intellectual revolutions toward the end of the nineteenth century … Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. …the rise of German and British “higher criticism” of the Bible, which championed a deductive, scientific approach. It examined biblical literature not as the authoritative source for history, but as data for reconstructing history. That is it examined biblical literature in light of history rather than the other way around. (8)

Key institution: the American Bible Society (ABS), founded in 1816

Key person: Julius Wellhausen, German linguist and historian of ancient Israel.

It was in reaction to this kind of dissecting and historicizing of the Bible that fundamentalism formed its doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which proclaims that the Bible is God’s literally inspired Word, entirely without error or contradiction, and therefore entirely authoritative. (9)

The Bible-study movement thus brought together fundamentalism’s rather dry intellectual commitment to biblical inerrancy and revivalism’s emphasis on personal piety and moral uprightness. (9)

Key person: Charles Gradison Finney, great preacher of the Second Great Awakening.

Key person: Charles A. Briggs, professor of biblical theology at Union Theological Seminary (early 1890s) who championed the new critical methods. Highly publicized trials led to Briggs’s suspension from ministry and Union’s decision to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church.

Key event: 1925 Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the famed “Monkey Trial.”

In the aftermath of the Scopes trial, fundamentalism lost much of its former public respect. (10)

…on the one hand, they were outsiders rejected by mainstream American society; on the other hand, they were the quintessential Americans, whose entitlement had been usurped by secular liberalism. – Joel A Carpenter, historian

By the late 1940, it reemerged in the form of “neo-evangelicalism,” a media-savvy parachurch movement that saw American popular culture as its mission field. Still firmly rooted in the biblical fundamentalism that had always been its hallmark, neo-evangelicalism denounced separatism and recommitted itself to engage the mainstream with its mission “to restore Christian America” by bringing it back to the Bible. (11)

Rather than rejecting mainstream popular culture altogether, they translated their message into its popular media forms. Same message, new medium. Thus was born the Christian entertainment industry. (11)

Key institution: Campus Crusade for Christ.

Key institution: Young Life. Key person: Jim Rayburn.

Neo-evangelicalism reinvented fundamentalism by repackaging its fundamentals. It aimed to make its gospel popular — pop fundamentalism, if you will. It revised fundamentalism, but not its Bible. At the heart of this revival was the same iconic idea of the Bible as the literal Word of God that had been born in the Puritanic Biblicism of the early nineteenth century. (12)

The Way of Salvation

…actually opening and reading the Bible was undermining my belief in it. (14)

Key person: Kenneth N. Taylor, Moody Bible Institute professor, producer of The Living Bible.

…Taylor’s Living Bible not only down-converted the traditional American Standard translation to a junior high reading level, but also took pains to disambiguate the biblical ambiguities and resolve biblical contradictions that are actually, literally present in the text. (17-18)

The publishers of The Way had discovered a market for updated, supplemented, and retranslated Bibles that soon became the cornerstone of the neo-evangelical Christian culture industry that is booming today. (18)

So Long, Judas

Within this brave new world of Christian consumerism, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between spreading the Word and selling it. (21)

But the flagship consumer product, the heart of the industry, remains this cultural icon of the Bible, shaped by nineteenth-century Puritanic Biblicism, refined by early-twentieth-century fundamentalism, and repackaged, again and again, by neo-evangelicalism. That’s what the Bible biz is selling in pop culture form. And that, I have come to believe, is a dead end. (21)

Just as the cultural icon of the flag often becomes a substitute for patriotism, and just as the cultural icon of the four-wheel-drive truck often becomes a substitute for manly independence and self-confidence, so the cultural icon of the Bible often becomes a substitute for a vital life of faith, which calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions. The Bible itself invites that kind of engagement. The iconic image of it as a book of answers discourages it. (21)

The Course of This Book

This book begins in the present, exploring the culture of biblical consumerism, in which marketing teams are the new evangelists and spreading the Word goes hand in hand with moving product. As publishers race to reinvent the Bible in an ever-widening variety of forms, all competing in the marketplace of faith to be the ultimate realization of the cultural icon of the Bible, I argue that they are stretching that idea to its breaking point. The icon of the Bible, The Book of books, is in the process of deconstruction. (21)

And that, I believe, is a good thing. It’s the end of the Word as we know it, and I feel fine. The Word as we know it is not very old, as we have already begun to see, and it’s a distraction from the Scriptures themselves. Its end is an occasion to find a fresh approach to the Bible that is truer not only to its content but also to its fascinating history. (22)

The end of the Word as we know it calls for another way of knowing. (22)

My Utmost, Revisited

At the heart of the evangelical tradition,…is struggle. …The iconic idea of the Bible as a book of black-and-white answers encourages us to remain in a state of spiritual immaturity. It discourages curiosity in the terra incognita of biblical literature, handing us a Magic 8 Ball Bible to play with instead. In turning readers away from the struggle, from wrestling with the rich complexity of biblical literature and its history, in which there are no easy answers, it perpetuates an adolescent faith. (27)

Should it surprise us that the God who took on human nature would leave us with a text with as much complexity as the human experience? (28)

2. The Greatest Story Ever Told

Sodom and Gomorrah Equals Love

Biblical Consumerism

why is biblical literacy so low? (33)

One explanation is that biblical literacy is simply a subset of book literacy in general, which is clearly in decline. (33)

…while biblical literacy is extremely low, popular reverence for the Bible is extremely high. (33)

Roughly half of all Americans agree with the statement “the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings” (only 35 percent did in 1991). About two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible “answers all or most of the basic questions of life” — and 28 percent of them admit that they rarely or never read it! There seems to be no correlation between reading the Bible and revering it. The Bible appears to be the most revered book never read. (33)

Could it be that biblical literacy is being replaced by biblical consumerism? (35)

Expectations of Biblical Proportions

…the most common source of frustration stems not from the Bible itself but from the expectations that come with it. The Bible does not deliver what readers have come to believe it’s suppose to deliver. The experience of reading biblical literature doesn’t sync with the common idea of the Bible as God’s textbook on what to believe and do. (36)

By Whose Authority?

Driving biblical consumerism is this disconnection between what potential Bible readers expect from the Bible and what they experience when they crack it open. (40)

3. Biblical Values

Key person: Hayley Morgan (now Hayle DiMarco), hired by Nelson from Nike in 1998 to be its young-adult brand manager. (42)

Felt Needs

Buying is an emotional decision. It seems no matter how much ‘logical’ work we do, when it comes to the final decision, we’re emotional – Wayne Hastings, vice president of Thomas Nelson

The aim of Nelson’s Felt Needs Bible Merchandising System is to respond to “consumer definitions” of the Bible, that is, what buyers themselves feel they’re looking for when they walk into a store or go online to buy a Bible. The research has identified three especially common felt needs, which often overlap: first, to find a gift Bible for someone else, usually a member of the buyer’s own family;…second, to gain a deeper and more thorough knowledge of the Bible;…and third, “readability,” that is, a felt need for special features that will increase the chances that a Bible will actually be read. Readability includes everything from an accessible translation and notes, to callouts and text boxes, to size, color and formatting. (44-45)

Values Added

How do you monetize Bibles when so many are freely available? The challenge is to keep reinventing the Bible in new got-to-have, value-added forms. Which is what Bible publishers are doing. In 2005 there were 6,134 different Bibles published, which was over 600 more than were published in 2004. (49)

At the heart of all felt needs is the longing for the iconic Bible, the literal Word of God between two covers. Bible publishers are not selling Bibles. What they’re selling is that iconic idea of the Bible. Their value-added biblical content promises to provide answers to questions, solutions to problems, and speaks in no uncertain terms about God’s plan for your life and how to live it. Adding value to the Bible almost always means adding “biblical” values that are either missing or really hard to find in the Bible itself but that provide that feeling of Bibleness so many seek. (50)

Finding Your Niche

Another winner for publishers is to combine Scripture with one of their celebrity Christian authors. (51)

With each of these Christian celebrity Bibles, we see a compounding of value: the bible adds value to the author even as the author adds value to the Bible. (51)

Necessary Supplements

…about one-third of the text in the Life Application Study Bible is extrabiblical, “supplementary” content, including notes on verses, synopses, charts and diagrams, topical sidebars, and reflective essays. (55)

Biblical literature itself, however, is not so clear. In fact, it has very little explicitly to offer by way of moral teaching or legislation on matters of sexuality, let alone homosexuality, and what it does have to say does not speak directly to the issue as it appears in contemporary society. (55)

Values-added content purports to be supplemental, intended simply to make clear or amplify what the Bible is already saying. It speaks for the Bible, indeed for God. But why does it need to do that? The biblical text itself is right there, on the same page, albeit in a plainer, smaller, less visually attractive font. Why not simply let it speak for itself? Perhaps because it doesn’t speak that way. It’s not that kind of literature. The bible is not an instruction manual. It doesn’t give “real answers, real fast.” (57)

Still, Bible publishers know that simple, black-and-white answers are what the majority of biblical consumers expect from their Bibles. Remember, most Americans believe that the Bible has the answers to all of life’s important questions and is infallible in its teachings. (58)

If That’s What it Means, Why Doesn’t It Say So?

The Hebrew word translated “abomination” (to’evah), (תועהבה) moreover, does not carry the Christian meaning of “sin” as moral wrongdoing. it is not about moral guilt so much as impurity. (59)

Psalm 1:1… This is poetry, not pool rules. (62)

As Tod Linafelt puts it, translation is a kind of survival. To survive means to live over, or beyond, something (sur = “over” + vive = “live”). A translation is an over-living, a living-beyond the original. A translation is something new, a new life for a text. So it is with all Bible translations. (64)

Manga Bibles

…one successful way to reinvent the Bible and create new consumer markets is to graft it onto other, less-bookish media that are selling well. (64)

A Different Cookie

The point here is not to condemn the particular values, moral and theological, that are being added in these Bibles. In fact, although they are fewer and far less financially successful, there are also values-added Bibles that lean hard in theologically and politically liberal or progressive directions. (68)

The point is that these values, whether conservative or liberal, are not simply “there” in the Bible itself. They are interpretational add-ins meant to make the Bible closer to what people expect from it. These value-added, values-added products are not simply Bibles but biblical interpretations. (69)

4. Twilight of the Idol

The Evangelical Dilemma

Evangelicalism faces a fundamental dilemma: popularization versus preservation; getting the Word out by whatever means necessary versus protecting and preserving the sanctity of the tradition. On the one hand, to what extent should the Bible be adapted and altered, in form or content, in order to make it more available and accessible? On the other hand, to what extent should its holiness or sanctity be preserved and maintained, at the expense of easy availability and popularity?

| Taking as its motto the apostle Paul’s declaration, “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some,” American evangelicalism since the 1950s has leaned harder and harder in the direction of popularization and away from preservation. These days we’re accustomed to thinking of evangelicalism as conservative in every way. But when it comes to this dilemma, it tends to be the most liberal of Christianities in its willingness to adapt its Scriptures and traditions to new contexts in order to make them more appealing to popular audiences. (70)

A hallmark of evangelicalism in America is its disposition to adapt traditional Christian practices and canons to popular interests and consumer demands in order to make them more readily available and attractive. As we saw in the introduction, evangelicalism’s openness to cultural adaptation is what has distinguished it most sharply from the more culturally conservative, often sectarian orientation of its sterner parent movement, fundamentalism, which continues to disapprove. (71)

In the hybrid mix of Bible and magazine that is The Way, and in the creative tension between the Bible publisher and magazine publisher that brought it to market, we may recognize the desire to hang on to both horns of the evangelical dilemma, popularization and preservation. (72)

Selling Out

In this cultural climate, the mission to popularize Christianity, especially the Bible, means promoting it within consumer culture, generating consumer desire for it. In today’s world, the mission of popularizing the Bible, of making it widely available, accessible, and attractive, is increasingly a marketing program. To popularize is to monetize. To spread the Word means to sell more of it. (73)

…Bible publishers are selling of what I would call the Bible’s sacred capital. (75)

Bible publishers are selling down the sacred capital of the Bible, inundating the market with a bewildering and unprecedented array of editions and versions in an ever-growing variety of translations, layouts, and material forms. To the point that you could be forgiven if, standing in the Bible section of your local bookstore, you were to cry out in despair, “Where is the Bible?” As publishers lean ever harder away from preservation and toward popularization, the Bible is losing its set-apartness. It is being washed away in a market flood of biblical proportions. (76)

One major difference between the Bible and a brand is that the Bible is not owned or controlled by a company or institution. It can’t be trademarked or copyrighted (although proprietary translations can be). No one can restrict its extensions in the consumer world. The only check on what new and modified products get attached to it is the market. Its “brand extension,” if you will, is a matter of consumer vote. And so the extension continues ad infinitum, to the point of absolute brand dilution. Biblical liquidation. (78)

Type’s Setting

The digital revolution began with the convergence of … personal computers, … digitization, … communication technologies … (78)

Books within print culture fostered what Walter J. Ong described as a sense of fixity, closure, and self-containment. (79)

Distress Crop

When a fruit tree is under severe stress, whether in the later stages of disease or facing a fatal climate change, it puts out a distress crop before dying. Sick unto death, it redirects its resources from growth and foliage production to seed production, even to the point of depleting its own root system of necessary nutrients. (80)

I suggest that something similar is going on with the Bible business. (81)

To a point, fundamentalist-leaning critics and I agree about what the Bible business is doing to the Bible. By reinventing it in an ever-widening variety of things and words, all marketed as the one and only Word of God, these publishers are devaluing the very thing they’re selling. I disagree, however, about what exactly is being sold. As I argued int he last chapter, what the Bible business is trading on is not the Bible itself, but rather the cultural icon of the Bible. In fact, as we’ve seen, Bible publishers are distracting readers from authentic engagement with the Bible itself. It’s not about selling the Bible or all it’s worth but about selling the icon for all it’s worth. (81)

Behold Your God

When I say we’ve made an idol of the Bible, I don’t mean that we’ve idolized the Bible itself, as a stand-in for God; I mean that our iconic idea of the Bible as God’s Word incarnate is an idol that stands in for the Bible itself, which is no such concrete, black-and-white thing. (84) [VIA: But isn’t this a bit akin to “bibliolatry?”]

5. What Would Jesus Read?

There is no single, unadulterated Bible, no pristine original, at the base of this crazy biblical family tree. In fact, the very idea of the Bible as a fixed canon of scriptures bound into a single book, not to mention believed by many to be the literal, divinely authored Word of God, would have been completely unfamiliar, indeed inconceivable, not only to Jesus and his disciples but also to the first few centuries of Christians.

Jesus Sings

The Greek word for “scroll” is biblion (βιβλιον). That’s what Jesus would have had handed to him. Later, during the transition from scrolls to books, biblion came to be used for both media. (88)

In fact, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus ever saw, let alone read, a book in his life. (88)

PAPYRUS. Paper makers cut thin strips of the plant’s pith, laid them out in two crosswise layers, and pressed them flat. The pith’s natural juices served as glue to fuse the layers together. Once the material dried, they sanded both sides with pumice, polished them with shell, and cut them into sheets. The recto side, on which the grain ran horizontally, was best for writing. 10″ x 7″ sheets, glued together, rolled with the recto on the inside. The typical roll included about twenty sheets, and was about eleven feet long. These rolls were cut to shorter lengths or glued together into longer ones in order to accommodate different text lengths. (90)

To make PARCHMENT scrolls, animal skins (usually calves, sheep, or goats) were soaked in lime solution, washed, and dried on stretchers. Then the outside was shaved and the inside was rubbed smooth with a stone or bone. Although the hair side (verso) was more absorbent of the ink, the flesh side (recto) was smoother and thus the preferred side for writing. After being whitened with chalk, the skins were cut into sheets, sewn together, and rolled into scrolls with the recto on the inside. Each sheet was made from one whole side of an animal’s hide, cut lengthwise along the spine and middle. So, for example, a scroll made from eight parchment sheets would have required four whole animals. (90)

testimonia…were short anthologies of snippets taken from other scriptures. (93)

…cantillated, musical reading was the primary mode of reading throughout the Greco-Roman world. Literacy rates were low (probably around 10 percent), and very few people owned their own collections of texts. But that did not mean that this was not a literary culture. What it meant was that literature needed to be shared publicly, through oral performances and discussions called recitatios.

Christianity Before the Bible

The artwork in the underground Christian funerary complexes of the Roman catacombs suggests that, even as late as the third century, Jewish Scriptures remained the foundational Scriptures for Christians. 9100)

In early Christian house churches, as in synagogues, the public reading and interpretation of Scripture was a central religious activity for the community. Interpretation was not simply a matter of trying to ascertain passively the meaning of a text. It was active and creative. Clear evidence of this fact is found in the early Christian literature that we find in the New Testament itself. (100)

Consider, for example, Paul’s use of passages from Torah to argue that one is justified before God by faith rather than by works in his letter to the Galatians. … Deuteronomy 21 .. Paul takes this passage out of that context and reads it as a reference to Christ’s crucifixion… Far from a simple explication of Torah, early Christian interpretations such as this one constructed ingenious new meanings in new contexts. Indeed, this is how both the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament developed over the centuries, as layers of interpretation built on previous layers. The Bible is interpretation all the way down. (101)

No Original

For indeed there was a great diversity of Christianities during the first three centuries, and the differences among them were reflected in the differences in their libraries. (102)

…the texts that we now have from this period are but the tip of an iceberg of early Christian writings that were important to a tremendous variety of Christianities. (104)

Among the hundreds of biblical manuscripts discovered there [Qumran], many of which are more than a thousand years older than anything scholars had ever seen before, we find not uniformity but diversity, including many significant differences. The logical assumption now is that Jewish Scriptures became more uniform and free of variants over time, as scribes gradually established a more or less standard edition. (105)

There is reason to believe that the copies of Jewish Scriptures used by early Christians were no less varied than they were among Jewish communities. (105)

We’re used to picturing the genealogy of a text like a family tree: one original at the base ascending like a single trunk, with copies branching off it, and copies of copies branching off them. And so on throughout the generations. We imagine an original from which all the generations of diversity spring as scribes make revisions and introduce copying errors. But the reverse seems to be the case when it comes to the origins of the Bible: the further you go back in its literary history, the less uniformity there is. Scripture traditions are rooted, quite literally, in diversity. (106)

No Canon

Early Christian Network Society

367 CE, in an Easter letter from Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, …we find a list of the twenty-seven writings of the New Testament as they now appear in the Christian canon. … His letter is proof that, as of 367, the canon was still open. (108)

Eusebius of Caesarea took a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to the question of canon. In his Ecclesiastical History (325 CE), he made a catalogue of early Christian writings, grouping them according to three categories. First are the “undisputed writings” (homolegomenon, “same voice,” i.e., unanimous), which, he says, all Christians recognize as authoritative anda uthentic. Among these are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Acts of the Apostles (the second volume of Luke), the letters of Paul, the first letter of Peter, and the first letter of John. He also includes the Apocalypse of John (Revelation), “If it seems right” to do so, suggesting that this text’s status was less secure among some Christians. (109)

Eusebius’s second categroy is for writings that are “disputed” (antilegomenon, “contradicted”), accepted by some but not others. Interestingly, he includes the Apocalypse of John here as well as in the previous category. He also includes the second and third letters of John, the second letter of Peter, the letter of James, and the letter of Jude, all of which eventually became part of the New Testament canon (he doesn’t mention Hebrews). Others in this category, however, did not ultimately make the canonical cut: the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the letter of Barnabas, the Didache (Teachings of the Apostles), the Gospel of the Hebrews, which he acknowledges to be popular among Hebrew-speaking Christians, and the Acts of Paul, which included the very popular short story about Thecla, a woman who abandoned her family and fiancé to follow Paul. (109)

Eusebius’s third and final category is or writings that should be rejected as “fictions of heretics.” These writings claim to go back to the disciples and earliest Christian leaders, but he considers them to be fakes, insofar as their literary style and theological ideas diverge from those early texts that he considers normative. He offers only a few examples: the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Matthias, and the Acts of Andrew and John. (109-110)

History is usually written by the powerful. Canons too. Eusebius and Athanasius were certainly among the most influential Christian leaders of the fourth century, as Christianity came to be identified with Roman state power under Emperor Constantine and, in the process, developed parallel structures of government and control. They were no doubt instrumental in establishing a narrower theological orthodoxy in what was by then a Christian empire, and in ruling out those Christian texts that did not fit well within that orthodoxy. Yet even during their time, after Christianity had become the religion of the state, three hundred years since Jesus’s time, scriptural network cultures continued to thrive, thereby resisting centralized, top-down attempts to close the canon definitively. Roman Christianity had a loose canon at best. (110)

6. The Story of the Good Book

Remembering What’s Lost

…ancient remains shed no more light on earliest Christianity than do the iron-gated holes in the floor of Santa Pudenziana. More than anything else, they convey the attendance of an indeterminate past. They testify to what has been irrevocably lost. They bear witness to the presence of an absence that shapes us in ways we can never articulate. Being accountable to them means never forgetting what’s been forgotten. It also means resisting the temptation to project the present into the silent gaps of the past, pretending that the way we are is the way they were. (113)

Scrolling Down to the Book

…scrolls were the dominant medium for literature throughout the Greco-Roman world at that time. (114)

The media revolution of the book was a slow and mostly quiet one. It took a good three centuries. During most of that time scrolls and codices coexisted. The earliest reference to the use of a codex for literature comes from a Roman poet named Martial who, writing in the 80s CE, recommends that his poems be kept in a small codex with parchment pages. …archaeological evidence suggests that early Christian communities may have been among the earliest adopters of the new medium. Most, though not all, surviving Christian manuscripts dating as far back as the second century are papyrus codices. The oldest, which dates to the first half of the second century, is a tiny fragment of a codex of the Gospel of John. Intact, it measured about eight inches square and contained about 130 pages. (114)

The prevalence of the codex among early Christian manuscripts of the second and third centuries stands out sharply against the larger Greco-Roman cultural context of the same period. There, the vast majority of literature continued to be published in scroll form. So striking is the contrast between Christianity’s apparent preference for the codex and its larger literary-culture’s preference for the scroll during this time that some historians believe that the codex was essentially a Christian innovation. (114)

Codices were somewhat cheaper to produce, since they allowed for text to be written on both sides of each sheet. …a single codex could hold more writing than a reasonably sized scroll. One of the oldest Christian codices, dating to around 200 CE, includes all of Paul’s letters in its 208 pages. (115)

It has been suggested that Paul and his disciples used small codices in order to publish and disseminate his letters in highly portable and handy form. (a single sheet folded over two or four times to make eight or sixteen pages). It has also been hypothesized that Jesus’s disciples, as well as the followers of other rabbis during his time, used simple codices like handy notebooks in order to write down the sayings of their teacher. (115)

Whatever led to the unique rise of the codex among early Christians, the new medium was profoundly influential on the scriptural culture that developed around and by means of it. Above all, it facilitated new practices of reading. A scroll prescribes a linear reading experience. You start in one place and continue to scroll along in one direction. You don’t easily jump back and forth in the text. Cross-referencing is not practical. Nor is reading short passages from different parts of the text (testimonia may have originally emerged as a remedy to this problem). Codices, by contrast, readily accommodate random access. A reader can easily jump backward and forward in the text, or between two different texts in the same codex, without losing her place. She can even bookmark related passages to be read together, one after another. In this way the codex encourages readers and hearers to discover intertextual connections. (115-116)

The closing of the canon and the binding of it into a single big book seems to have gone hand in hand. (116)

It is no coincidence that this establishment of the Bible as a single closed canon of Scripture for all Roman Christians, and the concomitant establishment of a narrower Christian orthodoxy, took place in the century after Constantine’s conversion, as Christianity ascended to state power. (116)

The main point I want to make here is that neither Jesus nor his followers nor Paul nor any of the authors of any of the texts now in the New Testament, let alone any Christians who lived during the first three hundred years of Christianity, could possibly have imagined the Bible, a single book containing a closed canon of Jewish and Christian Scriptures. It was both physically and socially impossible. Not only were there just too many different varieties of Christianity with too many different important writings with too many variants in too many different languages; there was simply no medium to bear anything close to that large of a library. I took the twin emergences of a top-down imperial Christianity and ab ig enough book to make the Bible possible. (117)

Scattered Throughout the Whole World

Codex Sinaiticus dates to the mid-300s. Reconstructed from loose pages found in a waste bin in the library of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in 1844, it would have been about twenty inches high and seventeen inches wide and would have contained about 700 pages of parchment. That’s a lot of animal hide. Analysis of the handwriting indicates that three or four different scribes wrote the text. (117)

There are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies! – Jerome

…as soon as Jerome finished his edition, Western Christianity had finally found its single, established, authoritative version of the Bible (even if it wasn’t original but based on comparing earlier versions). (119)

The oldest surviving whole Vulgate Bible, known as the Codex Amiatinus, dates to the beginning of the eighth century. The sheer size of this volume gives some clue as to why, practically speaking, such whole Bibles were rare: it is twenty inches high, a little over thirteen inches wide, seven inches thick, has over two thousand pages, and weighs about seventy-five pounds. (119)

There are about 370 biblical manuscripts or fragments in Latin that date to earlier than 800. Only about a third of those dating to the fifth century are from the Vulgate. By the sixth century, however, there are twice as many Vulgate manuscripts as Old Latin ones. By the eight century, there are twelve times as many. (119)

Jerome’s Vulgate itself was never fixed and changeless. At some point after his death, several additions were made to it. (120)

After Gutenberg

Gutenberg’s first Bible, published in 1456 with a print run of about 185,… (121)

the Protestant Reformation was as much a media revolution as it was a theological revolution. It was in many respects a biblical-literacy movement, aimed at making the Bible as readily available and accessible as possible in order to make real the ideal of a “priesthood of all believers.” At the same tie, print culture was quickly transforming Bibles and other books from collectable manuscripts into tradable commodities. (121)

So emerged the business, both theological and capitalist, of publishing Bibles for the masses. (121)

…it also helped foster a more acute awareness of the problems of biblical translation, since it soon became clear that there was no single original from which to translate. (122)

Key Person: Erasums, 1516 published Novum Instrumentum, the first print edition of the New Testament in Greek. …”new instrument,” indicating that the text was meant to be a research tool for scholars rather than a rival edition of the New Testament. (122)

Key Person: Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros of Spain, 1522, led a team of Spanish scholars, completed the six-volume, polyglot (multilingual) edition of the Bible known as the Complutensian Polyglot Bible (after its city of publication, Complutum, the Latin name of Alcalá de Henares, Spain) … Its Old Testament, published in four volumes, incorporates seven different columns of text written in four different languages using five different type fonts. On the inside top left is the Greek Septuagint with an interlinear, word-by-word Latin translation. Next to that is the Latin Vulgate version of the Old Testament. Next to that is the Hebrew. And next to that, on the far right, is a narrow column of verbal roots corresponding to the Hebrew text. On the bottom left is an Aramaic paraphrase of the Torah, known as Targum Onkelos. Next to that is its Latin translation. Andon the far right is a narrow column of Aramaic roots from the Targum. The New Testament, published as the fifth volume, is simpler but no less visually striking. It has parallel columns of Greek and Latin Vulgate, with the words in each version keyed to the other easier comparison and cross-referencing. At the end of the volume is a Greek dictionary. The sixth volume includes a Hebrew and Aramaic dictionary and grammar guide for the use with the Old Testament. (122-124)

The largest, known as the Parish Polyglot (completed in 1654), boasted ten volumes and included seven different versions of biblical literature (or parts of it) in six different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Old Syriac, and Arabic. (124)

The most highly regarded and influential, however, was the six-volume London Polyglot (1657), also known as Walton’s Polyglot after its lead scholar, Brian Walton. …its Old Testament includes nine different versions: the Hebrew, the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, the Aramaic Targum, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Old Syriac version known as the Peshitta, an Arabic version, and an Ethiopic version of the Psalms and Song of Songs, as well as two other versions of the Targum and a Persian translation. Its New Testament includes the Greek and Latin Vulgate versions along with many variants found in other ancient Greek, Syriac, Latin, Ethiopic, and Arabic manuscripts, along with a Persian version of the four Gospels. (124-125)

On the front page of Novum Instrumentum, Dr. Lupas pointed out a beautifully handwritten Latin inscription.

Ubi non est deus, ibi no lux: ubi non est lux, ibi non est veritas: ubi non est veritas, ibi sum variae opiniones, ubi sum variae opiniones, ibi est error

Where there is no God, there is no light: where there is no light, there is no truth: where there is no truth, there are various opinions: where there are various opinions, there is error.

Truth is enlightenment, and enlightenment is of God. Shedding light on what passes as truth is not only permitted; it is necessary, the highest calling. (126)

It was in this spirit of enlightenment that what began with Erasmus had, in a little more than a century, given rise to massive, multiversion, multilanguage critical editions of biblical literature like the London Polyglot. These works were revolutionizing biblical criticism and translation, empowering scholars everywhere to study and compare all the available biblical manuscripts and variants for themselves, to assess the value of various ancient and modern translations, and to produce new ones. (126)

In the process, they were drawing greater and greater attention to the fact that there was no single original. In the centuries since, that problem has been exacerbated by the discovery of many, many more early manuscripts, which have turned the quest for originals into an endless, if not impossible, task. (127-128)

Archbishop Abbot prohibited stationers from publishing a Bible without [the Apocrypha] under penalty of a year in prison (1615). (128)

Pope Sixtus V commissioned a group of biblical scholars to produce a new standard edition of the Vulgate based on careful comparison of many early manuscripts, the Codex Amiatinus prominent among them. First published in 1590 and then revised and republished in 1592, the “Sixtine Vulgate” became the Bible of Roman Catholicism for the next three and half centuries. (128)

The print revolution lent a sense of fixity, closure, and immutability to the idea of the book. As Walter J. Ong famously observed, the printed book

encloses thought in thousands of copies of a work of exactly the same visual and physical consistency.

And what was true of books in general was especially true of The Book of books, that is, the Bible. Yet the reality of the Bible in the age of Gutenberg has been quite the opposite: it has led to the proliferation of more Bibles in more forms and translations than ever. (129)

Multiplying the Leaves

Geneva Bible (1560), produced by English Puritan reforms who had fled to Switzerland to escape the persecutions of Queen Mary, often spun its translations and notes in a strongly antimonarchical direction. (129)

1598 edition includes notes to Revelation that call Pope Gregory VII “a most monstrous Necromancer” and “a slave of the devil.” (130)

Creating the Bible in one’s own image appears to be as old as the Bible-publishing business itself. (130)

1611 “Authorized Version”, work of fifty-four translators commissioned by King James. …no notes or illustrations were permitted. (131)

Some purchased Bibles printed by licensed printers, took them apart, inserted illustrations and other value-adding content, and then rebound and resold them at higher costs. Early examples from the 1630s include the Gospel harmonies handmade by the well-known Anglican minister Nicholas Ferrar. … other printers sold as “commentaries” or “annotations” books that happened to include all or nearly all of the text of the King James Bible. (131)

1682 imported Bible, a passage from Deuteronomy about divorce addresses a situation in which a husband “ate,” rather than “hate,” his wife.

…so-called Wicked Bible, published in 1631 by the King’s Printer, Robert Barker. It omitted a rather significant “not” in the Seventh Commandment: “Thou shalt commit adultery”! (132)

Then as now, the Bible business was both evangelistic and capitalistic, an uneasy mix of spreading the Word and selling it. (132)

By 1800, a least one thousand different editions of the Bible in English had been published, displaying a stunning array of form and content. (133)

The Souldiers Pocket Bible (1643). It was revised and repinted as The Christian Soldier’s Penny Bible in 1693 and then again for American soldiers during the Civil War (as many as fifty thousand copies).

Seventeeth-century dos-á-dos, or “back-to-back” Bibles, in which a New Testament and a book of Psalms were bound back to back but with their spines reversed so they would open in opposite directions, allowing a reader to flip one book over to read the other. (133)

Solomons Proverbs (1666)

The New Testament in Greek and English (1729) by William Mace

Mr. Whiston’s Primitive New Testament (1745)

The Family Testament, and Scholar’s Assistant (1767; first edition 1766)

Self-Interpreting Bible (1778, John Brown)

So much for sola scriptura. (136)

…other publishers continued to profit by doing exactly what the ABS resisted, thereby “multiplying the leaves” in a very different sense. In many nineteenth-century Bibles, the biblical text is almost entirely overwhelmed by the various value-adding “extras” — annotations, commentaries, and “practical notes” — provided by this or that well-known scholar or churchman. In most of these Bibles, the extras make up well over half of the text on any given page. (136-137)

Lost in Translations

At the same time as the family Bible was in ascendance, the very idea of a single, universal translation of the Bible for the English-speaking world was beginning to disintegrate. (140)

Is any translation trustworthy? Is the task of the translator objective or subjective? Do different translations reflect different values and vested interests? Is the Bible, in English or in its original languages, subject to correction and revision? What meanings might be lost in translation? Is there one Bible or are there many? (141)

Needless to say, the Revised Standard Version brought Christians to closer to the dream of a common Bible than had the Revised Bible. In fact, it inaugurated a proliferation of new and competing translations. (142-143)

And so the dream of a common Bible has been replaced by the reality of a Bible that is legion. (143)

Not a Rock but a River

Thus we discover a puzzling paradox in our brief history of the Bible in print culture: the Bible’s iconicity — the image and idea of it as The Book of books and singular, literal Word of God — has grown in tandem with its multiplication of forms. The image of oneness and the reality of manyness have developed hand in hand, each simultaneously encouraging and challenging the other. (144)

…a lot of people feel…it’s not a book to read and then say you’ve read. It’s about a continual process of reading and rereading — not cover to cover, but all around, over and over, here and there. It’s an ongoing relationship. (144)

It expresses a deep desire, shared by many, for permanence and stability, for the Bible as something that is the same everywhere and doesn’t change over time. (145)

But if there’s one thing that this “story of the Book” makes clear, it is that the only constant in the history of the Bible is change. The history of the bible is one of perpetual revolution. In that light, we might begin to think about the Bible not so much as a fixed thing but as a dynamic, vital tradition. In light of its history, the Bible looks less like a rock than a river, continually flowing and changing, widening and narrowing, as it moves downstream. (145)

Sometimes faith is not about leaping. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of letting go and going with the flow, trusting that although there’s no going back, there is a way forward. (145)

7. Library of Questions

Grant that the cultural icon of the Bible as the literal Word of God and closed book of answers is a dead end. Grant that it’s a bad idea anyway. So where do we go from here? It’s the end of the Word as we know it. Which begs the question, what’s another way of knowing, one that is true not only to the Bible’s history  but also to its contents? (146)

In the Latin of the Middle Ages, however, biblia came to be treated not as a neuter plural, “books,” but as a feminine singular, “book.” Thus “the books” became known as “the book.” (146)

What would it mean to think of the Bible not as a book but a library? (148)

The biblical library is a space that hosts accidental revelation. (148)

The late philosopher Jacques Derrida had a wonderful phrase: “impoverishment by univocality.” Meaning that when we try to make a text univocal, “one-voiced,” of one voice with itself, we deprive it of its richness. To interpret with the goal of “getting to the point” about what a text really means is an act of impoverishment. (148-149)

For many potential bible readers, this expectation that the Bible is univocal is paralyzing. You notice what seem to be contradictions or tensions between different voices in the text. You can’t find an obvious way to reconcile them. You figure that it must be your problem. You don’t know how to read it correctly, or you’re missing something. You’re not holy enough to read the Holy Bible. It might even be sacrilege for you to try. If the Bible is God’s perfect infallible Word, then any misunderstanding or ambiguity must be the result of our own depravity. That is, our sinful nature as fallen creatures is what separates us from God, and therefore from God’s Word. So you either give up or let someone holier than thou tell you “what it really says.” I think that’s tragic. You’re letting someone else impoverish it for you, when in fact you have just brushed up against the rich polyvocality of biblical literature. | The Bible is anything but univocal about anything. It is a cacophony of voices and perspectives, often in conflict with one another. (149)

Two other creation stories in the Bible, Job 38, Psalm 74. In addition, Proverbs 8.

Mark Twain’s Drugstore

In an essay fragment called “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice,” Mark Twain suggested that the Bible is like a drug-store. In it you can find both poison and cure. … the problem wasn’t simply that slavers were bad biblical readers, distorting the text. The problem was that the poisonous texts are there. Institutions of slavery are presumed and supported in some biblical texts. (155)

Richard Kelly Hoskins wrote Vigilantes of Christendom: The Story of the Phineas Priesthood which presents a postbiblical lineage of “Phineas Priests” who have been willing to carry out similar acts of violent racial and moral purification, and which calls forth a new generation of white Christian zealots to similar action. (157)

Over against the oppressive passages cited above are many passages that proclaim God above all to be a God of the oppressed, of liberation, who takes sides with those most vulnerable to exploitation and violence. (157)

For many, the Bible is a source of power and liberation. For many others, it is a source of wounds and oppression. When we read it honestly, as I think Twain did, it’s hard to deny that it is a source of both, and that the two are often inextricably intermixed. The poisonous texts stand against the curative. The voices are in tension. They contradict. Sometimes, the poison is deceptively easy to take. And keep taking. | I daresay this, too, is a rich biblical polyvocality. We impoverish the Bible when we deny the poison’s presence. (159)

The deep biblical contradictions between liberation and oppression, love and hate, cure and poison, are also deep within us. Biblical interpretation is not a passive matter. It requires our own active negotiation. When we pretend that, deep down, all the voices are really saying the same thing and ought to be able to get along, we forfeit our responsibility as inheritors of this richly, sometimes disturbingly, contradictive literature. (160)

Letting Suffering Speak

Here we are in the territory traditionally called theodicy, which concerns the justice of God. Imagine the problem as a triangle: one one corner you have the belief that God is just; on the next you have the belief that God is all-powerful; on the third, you have the observation that people suffer unjustly. (160)

triangle of theodicyIn any case, you can’t solve the problem of theodicy without cutting a corner. | What’s fascinating to me is that, taken collectively, biblical literature does not solve the problem. Rather, it argues about it. (161)

To let suffering speak is the condition of all truth. – Theodor Adorno

The library of the Bible has spaces to let suffering speak and be heard. (163)

Trials of God

Job against Moses. Job 2:4-5 vs. Deuteronomy 28:15, 35. Both passages use the same Hebrew verb for “inflict” (nakah) (נכה), and the description of the terrible boils is virtually identical. (164)

Whereas Deuteronomy lops off the “people suffer undeservedly” corner of the triangle, the book of Job lops off the “God is just” corner. (165)

Think of the Hebrew word for question, she’elah (שאלה). There is ‘el (God) in she’elah. God is in the question. But to give the answer? Keep asking the question. – Elie Wiesel

The book of Job is like a fault line running through the Bible. In it, the moral universe affirmed in texts like Deuteronomy, according to which righteousness equals blessed well-being and disobedience equals cursed suffering, is shaken to its core. It’s a book of theological horror.

| Yet Job is no more the final word than is Deuteronomy. Neither does the psalmist of disorientation have the final word over the psalmist of orientation. The contradictory voices remain, as do many others that approach this problem from other perspectives and experiences. Contending with this, the most profound of theological questions, the Bible remains entirely unsettled, and unsettling. The argument goes unresolved. The question is canonized, sanctified. God is in the question — and in the argument, even when it is against God. (167-168)

Weak Rope Theory

Some see this rich polyvocality and contradiction as a problem to be solved. (170)

Many other such explainings-away are at least as desperately creative. Desperate, in that they speak to the desire of many Bible readers to establish univocality within a deeply, richly, irrepressibly polyvocal collection of Scriptures. Creative as they are, they nonetheless stifle the rich complexity of biblical literature. They impoverish the text, and the faith that lives and moves and has its being in relation to it. (171)

Is the Bible a Failure?

In many ways, those dedicated to removing all potential biblical contradictions, to making the Bible entirely consistent with itself, are no different from irreligious debunkers of the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general. (171)

But you can’t fail at something you’re not trying to do. To ask whether the Bible fails to give consistent answers or be of one voice with itself presumes that it was built to do so. That’s a false presumption, rooted no doubt in thinking of it as the book that God wrote. As we have seen, biblical literature is constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself. Virtually nothing is asserted someplace that is not called into question or undermined elsewhere. Ultimately it resists conclusion and explodes any desire we might have for univocality.

| We don’t know, and will never know, many details about the history of the development of biblical literature. No doubt there have been countless hands, scribal and editorial, involved in writing, editing, copying, and circulating the various versions of various texts that eventually were brought together into a canonical collection. (171-172)

What we do know for certain is that the literature now in our Bibles was thousands of years in the making. | Given how many hands have been involved in so many contexts over such a long time in the history of this literature, can we honestly imagine that no one noticed such glaring discrepancies? (172)

…if agreement and univocality were the goal, [would not] such discrepancies…have been fixed and such rough seams mended long ago? (172)

The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument — even and especially, as we have seen, when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all their answers. The Bible interprets itself, argues with itself, and perpetually frustrates any desire to reduce it to univocality. (173)

Faith in Ambiguity

There is a widely held, simplistic definition of faith as firm belief. To many, especially nonreligious people, faith is seen as absolute certainty despite or without regard to observed facts or evidence. yet, as anyone trying to live faithfully in this world knows full well, there is no faith without doubt. Doubt is faith’s other side. … People of faith know the reasons to doubt their faith more deeply and more personally than any outside critic ever can. Faith is inherently vulnerable. To live by faith is to live with that vulnerability, that soft belly, exposed. (175)

The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. (175)

…faith deepens not in finding certainty but in learning to live with ambiguity, as we ride our questions as far into the wilderness as they will take us. biblical literature hosts that journey. (176)

Nothing but a Burning Light

The Bible by the Side of the Road

Attachment to the cultural icon of the Bible is similarly debilitating. It’s a false image, an idol. If you see it, kill it. The Bible is dead; long live the Bible. Not as the book of answers but as a library of questions, not as a wellspring of truth but as a pool of imagination, a place that hosts our explorations, rich in ambiguity, contradiction, and argument. A place that, in its failure to give clear answers and its refusal to be contained by any synopsis or conclusion, points beyond itself to mystery, which is at the heart of the life of faith. (179)

8. And I Feel Fine

For me, studying religion is about making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. (183)

…art is about the making more than the made, and questioning is about the asking more than the answering. (183-184)

Cracking the Binding

Most say the Latin origin of religion is in religare, from the verb ligare, “to bind” or “attach.” Religare therefore means “to re-bind” or “re-attach.” … But the ancient philosopher Cicero suggested that the meaning of religion goes back to a different Latin origin, relegere, from the verb legere, “to read” (from whence we get words like “lecture” and “lectionary”). Relegere is therefore “to re-read” or “read again.” Take this as the origin and we have a sense of religion that is less about the binding and more about the ongoing process of rereading. (184)

Instead of choosing one origin or the other, I suggest that we think of religion in terms of both religare and relegere, both rebinding and rereading. Thus: religion is about being bound together as a community and being bound to a library of scriptures that we are bound to reread and reinterpret in relation to new and unique horizons of meaning. In this light, religion is not simply a binding system of beliefs or set of doctrines but a process of rereading, reexamining, reinterpreting a scriptural tradition that we have inherited and that gives us a sense of identity and context. (185)

The New Testament literature likewise is shaped by rereading. All its writings are fundamentally concerned with rereading Jewish Scriptures in order to understand the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. (185-186)

Loose Canon

Rabbi ben Bag Bag, a second-century sage, is remembered for saying of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” … The Torah is not so much in the world as the world is in the Torah. …the Torah is a loose canon, insofar as it remains open to innumerable rereadings. (187-188)

The Bible creates community by providing space for community to happen. It offers storied worlds and theological vocabularies… (188)

When the Holy One, blessed be he, gave the Torah to Israel, he gave it only in the form of wheat, for us to make flour from it, and flax, to make a garment from it. – Jewish legend

The idea is that God depends on the community to fulfill biblical meaning. The torah is incomplete without its interpreters who make something new of it. (188)

Back to the Future

…this culture is hypertextual, meaning that any text within it, including Scripture, is linked to a vast, practically infinite network of other texts, images, and other digital media. (189)

…digital network culture is processual. Complex relations within it are always in the process of formation, deformation, and reformation. (189)

…digital network culture is collaborative. Not only are texts connected to one another in ongoing, ever-changing networks. So are the people reading, writing, and creative meaning within those networks. (190)

Living Conversations

It speaks to the power of biblical texts to spark lively, meaningful, mind-changing encounters. (192)

[for living conversation gatherings], …the biblical selection needs to be small, never more than a page, and preferably less. Second, no comment or question is off-limits so long as it emerges from specific details of the passage at hand. (192)

When ti comes to biblical literature, the closer you look, the more you see. (193)

Seeds to Go Around

Word Without End

In kindred spirit, what if we were to think of the Word of God not as bound between two covers of a book but as that endless noise of interpretation, an inconclusive process that we are invited to join? What if that cacophonous hymn, rising up across time and space from digital networks, living rooms, lunchrooms, churches, and bus stops is the living Word of God? An endless, inarticulate din of talking, arguing, reading, and rereading in the library of questions. The Word as we don’t know it. The Word as we live it. Word without end. (196)

— VIA —

This is one of those works that is easy to recommend as it is thorough, and easily accessible, and gives the reader a really good survey of the landscape of Biblical history. A few critical engagements.

One, part of the tension of this book is the telling of the story of the history of the Bible and engaging with the reality of the emergence of these bibles without necessarily passing judgment or condemnation of the development of the Bible in its many iterations. While Beal makes the comment that the Life Application Bible includes supplemental information equaling 1/3rd of the publication, is this really a bad thing? After all, isn’t the reality of pastors and teachers that help us “apply” the Bible simply “oral and personal supplemental information?” So, if we’re going to critique value-added bibles, I would suggest this is really a critique of the overall Christian culture in what we have become in our publications as well as our pulpits.

Second, while some “value-added” bibles are really simply “commentary,” given the work that is necessary to discover the background, context, culture, history, etc., of the Bible, why would we not welcome bibles that include excellent notes, history, information, language studies, etc.

Third, I would be more interested in understanding if value-added Bible actually prompted someone to begin reading the Bible. How influential could we say value-added bibles and biblezines have been in this regard?

My disappointment was with his brief reference to McLuhan. McLuhan’s work is far more important than the space that Beal gives to is, and the role of technology in developing our perceptions of the Bible need to be seriously considered. Beal does a good job identifying what has happened, but leaves the reader with less than a thorough answer as to how and why it happened. This is understandable, however, given the scope of the book. I mention it here simply because, a) McLuhan’s teaching is often misunderstood through the axiom “the medium is the message,” and is quite an astute commentary on the human condition that needs to be understood and engaged with, and b) this is not the focus of Beal’s work. So grace can be extended.

Overall, fantastic read, and I highly recommend it to anyone, and I do mean anyone who has any interest in the Bible whatsoever.