Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Book as (a text ...

The Bible is often referred to as The Book, suggesting that it captures -- between covers, on bound pages, within margins – all that there is or needs to be, and while I certainly acknowledge and rejoice in what I consider to be the Bible’s infinite richness, I think it is more useful as well as more interesting to view it as text than Book.

What’s the difference?

Here’s how Mark Taylor, in Erring, describes it:
“Books … possess meaning that is both determinate and determinable. As a result of the ‘presence’ of this meaning, the activity of interpretation is neither endless nor pointless … In contrast to the closure of the book, the text is radically open. It is neither self-contained nor definitively bound in a single volume. A text is more like a fabric with loose ends than a hemmed cloth.”

I know that many consider the Bible to “possess meaning that is both determinate and determinable.” But what Bible do they consider this to be? The two great faiths that use the Bible do not agree on its contents. In Judaism, the Bible is the Tanakh, which consists of three parts: The Torah (the Five Books of Moses), the Nevi’im (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (Writings). Christians re-order those contents into what they label the Old Testament, and add to them a second volume: The New Testament. In addition, while Protestant Christians, for the most part, limit the books of the Old Testament to the contents of the Tanakh, Catholics add seven books -- which are sometimes segregated and labeled Apocrypha in Protestant bibles such as the King James version – and Eastern Orthodox Christians add another three to those. The Ethiopian Orthodox church includes still more and is the most inclusive church Bible of which I am aware.

For most of Christian history – since roughly the third century – the New Testament has been considered a closed volume containing 27 parts: Four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles (sometimes viewed as a “sequel” to the Gospel of Luke), 14 letter by or attributed to Paul, seven additional letters or sermons, and Revelation. This same New Testament has been used by Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Protestants. But in recent times – especially after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945 – we have seen that many additional writings were viewed as holy scripture by some early Christians, and last year Willis Barnstone took the audacious step of incorporating three of those into the fresh and powerful new translation he calls The Restored New Testament.

This text has many authors, some of whom were aware of their predecessors and others who seem not to have been. In each of the churches that uses the Bible, the selection of texts to be included has been made by an authority figure who may or may not be acknowledged or respected within that church. I often wonder whether fundamentalist Protestants who talk of Biblical inerrancy would really be willing to accept that the selection of the four gospels included in the canonical New Testament was made by a highly political Catholic bishop in the second century.

The challenge of considering the Bible as a closed book doesn’t stop there.
Beyond what even the most inclusive would call The Bible, we have centuries of commentary, prayers, poetry, fiction, music and art based on scripture. And some of that is so well-known and studied that it is next to impossible to consider the Bible without them. Can we talk about sin, especially original sin, without St. Augustine somehow intruding on the conversation? Do thoughts about the Last Supper inevitably conjure up the image of Leonardo's painting? Is there a way to consider Moses' descent from the mountain without picturing Charlton Heston doing so in the Cecil B. DeMille film?

Given all this, what does biblical inerrancy mean? Which Bible, which individual books, which chapters, verses, lines and words are to be considered as absolute truth? I suggest that the concept begins to slip through one’s fingers the more closely one considers it.

While I do my best to respect the views of those who consider the Bible as a closed book, an absolute, I am always tempted to ask these questions to them. My view is that the Bible is best seen as a source meant to be mined for wisdom, for moral guidance, for life lessons. It reveals its richness and beauty more fully as one pokes and prods at it, questions it, compares statements in one section with statements in another.

As Taylor writes: “The joyous wandering of the graphē cannot be captured in the lines of a book; it must be inscribed in erring texts.”

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