My life has been filled with books. My father, a U.C.C. pastor, always was reading 2 or 3 novels at a time and filled the shelves of our home with hundreds of volumes (including The Great Books series). My mother, a 10th grade English teacher, piled textbooks and classics on the kitchen table after dinner, consulting them over and over as she meticulously graded papers.
I am their daughter. Even as the world goes more digital, I read bound books. They fill my home study. Stacks loom beside the bed and couch. Strays find their way to the car, the kitchen, on the steps. Under a paperweight on my desk, a dozen slips of paper list books that I want to track down. In this time of economic crisis, I am grateful to be employed and to enjoy the luxury of having my own office at work, one with yards and yards of bookshelves, and easy access to a good library.
It’s not surprising that I entered college as an English major or that when I turned to the academic study of religion it was not to the phenomenon of religion itself but rather to a religious book. Better said, I gravitated to the collection of diverse and complex and fascinating books that make up the Bible. And it’s not surprising that I read these books in much the same way that I always read–paying attention to the writer’s craft, how she transports me into another world, teaches me while entertaining, pleases and/or infuriates me.
As a modern person, I encounter the Bible as a book. It is a fixed collection of words that I can read and reread and talk about with other people. In church, we can all follow along as the lector reads from Isaiah 6, or in class I can expect that when we all turn to Genesis 3 the students and I are all reading about Adam and Eve.
And yet, as a scholar, I am very aware at how recent the fixed nature of the Bible is. It surprises many Christians to learn that the Bible as particular words bound between two covers is a relatively late phenomenon in religious history. Most folks have a general sense that Old Testament books were originally written on scrolls and have been told that religious stories circulated orally before being written. But few have encountered the concept that ancient Israel had no Bible and for much of its history no scripture. Much of the material was written very late and what was available probably didn’t circulate widely. Although Protestant Reformers interpreted Isaiah 40’s affirmation that “the word of the LORD remains forever” as referring to the Bible, that was not what the ancient author had in mind.
It shocks many of my students to learn that no original of any Old Testament (or New Testament) book survives. That what we have instead are copies of copies of copies, no two of which are identical. While the early buzz about the Dead Sea Scrolls was that these first-century manuscripts of the Bible are miraculously similar to the Hebrew text we have today, that judgment turned out only to be true for the large Isaiah scroll. Later manuscripts found at Qumran, such as that of 1-2 Samuel, differ significantly from the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew tradition on which most English translations were based before 1950.
Many Bible dictionaries and internet sites claim that all this textual diversity and all the debates about which books belonged in the Hebrew Bible were settled in one fell swoop, that at the rabbinic council at Jamnia in 90 C.E. the Hebrew Bible was “fixed.” But more recent research makes the picture fuzzier. Jamnia didn’t function like the authoritative councils of Christianity, and for hundreds of years Jewish writings about the Bible continued to list books in different orders. Some have even suggested that the Jewish Bible wasn’t truly “fixed” until the invention of the printing press, when book technology forced things to be settled.
What all this means to me is that when I read the Bible as a book I am not reading it just like ancient people did. As much as I can try to understand their world and imagine how they might have heard these words, I have to remember that I read in my own cultural context. Unlike ancient people, I read the Bible as book that I can stack on a shelf alongside my other books, a book that my tradition says is authoritative, a book that people debate on the editorial pages of my local newspaper.
That awareness keeps me humble about claiming to know how ancient people thought or felt. Or at least I hope it does. It also leads me to think about how the packaging of the Bible, metaphorically and practically, affects its interpretation.