A History of the Bible - Lesson 1
Telling the Story of a Book
The Bible is a powerful book even when it is not read. It is regarded with fear and distrust by some, it is revered as the source of truth by many others throughout the world. Yet both responses often have little to do with the Bible's actual contents; they are directed to the Bible as a book that has exercised peculiar influence in world history. This initial class will address the odd status of the Bible as a book that has transcended the limitations of normal literature, so that it can truly be said to have a story of its own, distinct from the many fine or frightening stories it happens to contain. We will also cover the general outline of the reminder of the classes.
To many people the Bible is perhaps best known for the many stories it contains, stories that separately and together have had a major impact on Western culture. These are stories that many of us grew up on.
Most known and loved are the vivid accounts drawn from either the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) or New Testament that many have learned as children.
The Hebrew Bible is filled with individual vignettes that evoke a world of passion and drama. In the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as a speaker of parables that are impressive for their brevity and pointedness. The New Testament also contains highly colored accounts concerning Jesus and his followers. These individual stories constantly appear as moral lessons and as the subject of art.
Let's start by briefly reviewing just some of those narratives.
In addition to such smaller vignettes, the Bible contains stories of an epic character.
The account of Abraham and the other patriarchs is the saga of a people's ancestors. The story of Exodus and conquest is an epic foundation for a people's claim to a land and an identity. The account of Jesus' death and resurrection forms the mythic basis for a new religious identity.
It is even possible to speak of "the story of the Bible" as encompassing the entire sweep of narrative from Genesis to Revelation.
But, as you have probably already figured out, we are not going to study those stories, or the histories contained in them. What we are going to do is to approach the Bible as a book and try to learn the rich history of it's development and how it came to us today.
The Bible considered as a book (or, more properly, collection of books = ta biblia) also has a historical story quite apart from its contents.
First, the Bible is a publishing phenomenon, making it the "book among books." Since 1815, it has been printed an estimated 5 billion times, in some 2,1OO languages. It is more reliably present in hotel rooms (the Gideon Bible) than the Yellow Pages. It is undoubtedly read - and misread - by more people around the globe than any other book.
By the way - the story of the Gideon Bible is an interesting one. It is fascinating how this book happened. It came about in 1898 when 2 traveling businessmen happened to meet in a hotel in Wisconsin. They ended up reading scripture together that evening and were so moved by the experience they determined to try to make this experience to others so they formed the Gideon Society. Today the Gideon Society exists in 175 countries and distributes about 80 million Bibles annually.
The Bible as a book also has an almost personified power that goes beyond the sum of its contents. First, the Bible speaks as an authority ("the Bible says") and provides surety for oaths. Secondly, in houses of worship, the Bible occupies a special place, and in acts of worship, it is shown honor.
The Bible can also represent a mindset - a way of viewing reality. Positive for some people, negative for some. So, for all the reasons we have covered, it seems that telling the history of the Bible is a worthwhile thing.
But telling the story of the Bible as a book involves a number of complex considerations. Let's talk about what some of those might be.
First, where does the story begin? We kind of pretend we know, but in fact the information on that is scanty. It has to be pulled together from large amounts of dubious historical data, linguistic analysis, and archeological finds. And, it is not even entirely clear when we can first speak of "the Bible" as a book. Both the obscure origins of the respective biblical compositions, as well as the process by which they come together as a collection, require careful attention. And how many different Bibles are there? We will explore that also.
A second question that arises is: "In what forms does the Bible appear?" That question requires attention to the technology of book-making, both ancient and modern. And we will get into that. But we also need to clarify what we mean by "a book". The Bible at an early stage was copied onto scrolls, then made a transition to codices, which more closely resemble our modern idea of a book, and eventually the world of printing changes the nature of books again. And today, to a growing number of Bible readers the Bible is something that is read only on digital devices. So there are decisive differences in what is meant by a "book" through time.
How many Bibles are there, and how many stories are there to tell? Or to put it another way, how many chapters, or books are in the Bible. The answer to that is actually : "It depends."
There is an obvious difference between the collection of compositions that Jews and Christians call the Bible, and even among the three major groups of Christians (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant), there are differences in the actual books included in the Bible. And as we will see, there are actually many more groups of Christians, so both in ancient and modern times, the standard collection has been challenged from within about 75 traditions.
A fourth Question: In how many languages (and cultural forms) does the Bible appear? For the Hebrew Bible, both the Hebrew and the early translations into Greek and Aramaic are significant. For the Christian Bible, the Greek version of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint, or LXX) is important, as are the original Greek of the New Testament and the many, many early versions (translations). For the Christian Bible in particular, translation into popular languages has been a key aspect of missionary activity.
And a final question: How does the interpretation of the Bible become part of its story? The Bible is interpreted from distinct religious perspectives in Judaism and Christianity. Modern historical interpretation stands in tension with both religious traditions. And interpretation happens in a variety of cultural forms beyond the literary. Conclusion - it's complicated.
In this series of classes we will trace the story of the Bible(s) through four chronological stages, attempting at each stage to take into account all of the complexities already identified.
Stage one takes up the origins of the biblical compositions and the process by which they reached the form of a collection within Judaism and Christianity.
Stage two considers the multiple versions of the Christian Bible in antiquity and the patterns of interpretation within Judaism and Christianity through the Middle Ages.
Stage three takes up the multiple strands of the Bible's story as a consequence of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.
Stage four carries the story into modernity, with special attention to the development of historical criticism and contemporary responses to it.
As we do all of this study we will be following a number of storylines that will appear over and over. The first is that languages are really important. It seems obvious but many people probably are not aware of how important.
Secondly, we need to keep in mind that in most of the history of the Bible the only method of duplicating Bibles was hand copying. Copying is hard work and is a very human process. We will see examples of that fact.
Thirdly, the experience of reading the Bible has also changed over time. For the vast majority of people of faith the experience of the Bible was an oral/aural on, with the mouth and the ear. Not only could most people not read, there were always significant shortages of Bibles to go around. The later invention of the printing press began a revolutionary change in how the Bible was experienced.
And the Bible has always been a controversial book. If language is important, if hand copying is used, if the way the Bible is experienced changes, then reasonable people sometimes reach different interpretations of key passages.
And we will learn that there are believers Bibles, the ones that we read, and there are scholars Bibles, that are dramatically more complicated.
Another storyline will the very different "worldview" of the Bible. We will get to that.
My Hope out of these classes, is that we all will come to a better understanding of the history of the Bible. A book that many of us read and love.
So - buckle your seat belt, we will kick off the study of the history of the Bible by taking an in-depth look into the origins of TaNaK. And if you do not know what TaNaK is you can delve into that before next week. Or you can wait and learn that next week.