A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

The Bible as a Book

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.




4 Responses to The Bible as a Book

  • You wrote: “But few have encountered the concept that ancient Israel had no Bible and for much of its history no scripture.”

    Does scripture have to be limited to “script”-ture? We interpret this from a Western perspective with scripture being limited to what is “written down formally” instead of scripture being orally transmitted and then collected in bits (how many portions of the Bible endure) . In the ancient world, as you know, people did “adjust” their understanding of “God’s Revelation” according to context. But, ancient people also were very good at using oral tradition to pass down through generations stories that were socially impressed to be “holy” and thus the words were not to be played with. This is found formally in the book of Revelation where a curse is given to anyone who adds words to the book of Revelation. (Rev. 22:18). I think that we tend to see scripture as a “late phenomenon” thanks to the printing press. But, people have been using “scripture” much longer. In fact, many scholars believed that portions of Biblical pages/manuscripts/stories circulated in order to be told correctly. Even Luke and Acts tell the importance of that. Recent Liberal Theology has cast doubts on the relevancy of scripture because of many reasons you cite in this very well written blog. But, scripture as the telling of the story in even an informal written form or oral “versions” therof are ancient. NO SCRIPTURE? I can’t agree. Even the end of Deuteronomy notes how Moses wrote down scrolls of God’s revelation. Josiah found a version of scripture that changed his hearers when read publicly. Scripture is ancient. Western versions to which you attest are not the same thing. I hope you forgive my difference or ignorance

  • I agree that scripture doesn’t have to be written and am open to the possibility of oral tradition. My main point is folks “know” that the Bible had a long oral tradition even though we don’t have much evidence one way or another. As you note, we do have documents that talk about the authoritative nature of writing. That seems different to me than proving an oral tradition, and it attests more to an author’s perspective than it establishes the reality of the world in general. Whether this challenges the relevancy of scripture, that depends. It only is damaging if you assume that the Bible can only be valid if it accurately tells us exactly what happened in the past in only one way. For me, the power of the writings remains whether they were oral traditions passed long for generations or written for the first time in the Persian period.

  • Very well stated!

  • I relish and celebrate the plurality of bibles both now and in the past. By Bibles I don’t mean NRSV, NAB, NIV but the many canons and canonical versions of Christianity and Judaism. The Targumim, Greek Jeremiah and Greek psalms (and Syriac too), and 1 Enoch are of equal or even greater weight as the very Johnny come lately standard English canon. And you are right, the standard English Bible is a very recent invention in the history of biblical canons. And having a Roman Catholic background that standard English canon is not the canon of my own faith tradition anyway. And the standard Roman Catholic canon is not the canon of the medieval Latin Church either.

    I remain rather sceptical about notions of oral tradition, expecially if these are supposed to have been handed down over generations before being captured on a biblical scroll. Or put another way, the ‘oral’ traditions behind the biblical texts are the liturgical and symbolic traditions of royal and temple cult of Iron Age, Babylonian and Persian Palestine.

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