Whose Bible is it anyway?

If you’re following the latest Yahoo news feed [here], then you know that another modernized translation (more appropriately aberration) of the best-loved, best-selling classic “the Bible” has apparently squeezed itself onto bookshelves across America right next to the already densely populated and voluminous (and worthless it might be added) collection of modernized versions of the Bible, written specifically for: the modern man, the modern women, the teen, the pre-teen, the pre-pre-teen, the pregnant mom, the knife-flaying chef, the chicken-soup soul seeker, the manly man’s group huddle in their basement man-cave, grandpa and grandma, and even the dandy across the street. How blessed are we to have such an extensive proliferation of the Almighty’s word!, extracted and personally sculpted to fit the needs of every American on this plant. Or more so, what a lucrative business this has all become!

This latest version fancies itself “The Voice” and attempts to one-up its predecessors by presenting the Bible as modernized live action, vocal integrated, and stage-directed… well… fun for the whole family (hmm… I wonder if the senseless slaughtering of the Canaanite men, woman, babies, and livestock in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua is presented in bristling screen-directed cinematographic action with vocal exclamatives too?). Ah, maybe I ask too much. At any rate, this is sure to rake in billions in an already burgeoning business of books, e-books, cyber-books, books for iphones, hard-covered books, soft-covered books, leather bound books, audio taped books, and of course the very own Justin Bieber personalized book-edition for the pre-pre-teen category. And frankly speaking, isn’t this what it’s all about? Packaging! Give us more flavors! It’s all about the package. Kudos to all involved! Now, in the warmth, comfort, and coziness of every home across the American frontier, family-style around the hearth or intermittently at half-time breaks, we can once again read the Bible as it never was intended to be read! A real accomplishment of American ingenuity.

The Bible, or what later generations of readers came to label “the Bible” (“the Book”) in the early centuries of the Christian era is more accurately a collection of 66 different books, and many of these books themselves exhibit multiple authorship and complex layers of editing by different scribes written in and for different historical eras. Without exaggeration, there may be as many as 100 contending, once independently separate voices now muffled, muted, and jettisoned for the more advantageous and externally imposed homogeneous interpretive framework which goes by the name of “the Book.” I have already blogged extensively about this, here, here, and here. More surprisingly, the various and once independent texts and traditions that went into the making of the Bible were written over a period that spans roughly 1,000 years, and they were written be different authors, in diverse historical circumstances, and addressed the divergent, even contradictory, needs, concerns, and beliefs of their many different audiences. But, certainly this is of no concern any longer. Whoever these authors were, whatever concerns they were addressing, to whatever communities they were writing, whatever the historical circumstances that actually prompted them to write in the first place …. rubbish. It all doesn’t matter says “The Voice” and a long list of other modern translations appropriations. The Voice—and let’s get this straight, the voice of our lustrous translators—and the many previous entrepreneurs who have trodden this now well-worn path through the modernized Bible landscape, seem dead set on killing the many, varied, and competing voices of the once independent authors who originally penned the biblical texts 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Their voices will never be heard. For indeed who has ever heard their individual stories? Where is the biblical translation that aims to render the Bible for its dead authors? A Bible not for its modern readers, but its ancient authors? A Bible whose purpose and intent are not defined by the modern reader, but by the ancient writers of these texts? A version that faithfully sets forth their voices in all their differences, fallibilities, dashed hopes and prayers, and competing theologies, beliefs, and worldviews? Instead, a single homogeneous Voice has been imposed, a single story, which for the most part, I imagine, will be graciously welcomed by the modern public. A real triumph. A Bible in our own voice it will be hailed, the Voice of America! Booyah! “The Bible is my book, and God wrote it for me” are the raving claimants of the vast majority, unversed as they are in the Bible’s textual history, historical and literary contexts, and the many authors, editors, and compilers who produced these texts, and the circumstances of why they wrote and for whom they wrote.

As a biblical historian, I can only lament this pervasive mentality found on the lips of many Americans. Furthermore, I am amazed by the complete negligence and disdain that modernity actually foists onto these biblical texts. Their meaning and purpose are ruthlessly defined and defended by the modern readership community and for the modern readership community. As one scholar so elegantly put it: “The Bible belongs more to its living readers (whose concerns impose themselves regardless) than to its dead writers!” That is, what the Bible has come to be imagined as is first and foremost a text that addresses the needs and concerns of the modern reader, giving little or no attention to the needs and concerns of the many and divergent authors who actually produced these texts as unique products of their own historical eras.

I might make a valiant claim on behalf of these dead authors, whose texts and messages are no longer really of any avail—for it is the homogeneous “Voice” of the Book that now speaks for them—by suggesting that each and every one would have cringed and been absolutely horrified to learn that their specific text and the hows and whys of their composition, their purposes and intents, have all been uninterestingly erased in exchange for the banner of continuity and homogeneity displayed through the imposed label of later generations of readers, namely “the Bible.” Biblical historians know, for example, of the livid compromises and debates that arose between Levite scribes and Aaronid priests in the 4th century BC in response to having their individual and unique textual productions (which became Deuteronomy and Leviticus respectively), along with their competing theologies and contradictory laws and sacrificial emphases, compiled together into a single textual entity, “the Torah of Moses.” And this is just one instance from literally dozens and dozens now contained in this so-called “Book.” But, humbug! Who cares about the Levites and Aaronids’ disagreements, still visible in countless passages in the Torah to the astute reader? Who cares about the Levites’ message, why he wrote, when he wrote, and to whom he wrote. Who cares about the Aaronid priest, what his message was and what historical factors and worldviews shaped it. Who cares about what disagreements the Aaronid had with the Levite and why. Finally, who cares to know how these two competing religious views came to be housed together under a later interpretive framework called “the Bible.” All that matters is The Voice—an over-ridding external fictive framework of a later generation.

Not only is this type of thinking pervasive throughout American culture, but it is really indicative of the lack of biblical education that haunts our modernized world—the lack of understanding the hows, whys, and whens of the Bible’s texts, each on their own terms before they were co-opted together as a whole by a later and external interpretive framework that imposed ideas of homogeneity, story, and a single pervading Voice. This is the interpretive grid that the term “Bible” invokes unbeknownst to its uneducated readers. I have written at length on most of these issues on my blog, and am currently working on a couple of book length projects that will display these complex issues in the space required and in a friendlier tone. But let me say this, and this may have a sense of irony to those of you who know me, as a biblical historian I see my purpose as defending these biblical texts and their authors. Let me also make it clear that this is radically and contradictorily different from defending “the Bible” which is an imposed homogeneous interpretive framework of a later reading community. To defend the Bible is to defend the interpretive framework already implied and imposed onto this collection of diverse and competing texts, all of which were written over a period of roughly one-thousand years, by varying authors, and under diverse historical circumstances and religious and political convictions. I’m interested in hearing and learning about their voices, often raised in competition with other voices now preserved in “the Bible”—not The Voice that overrides, subverts, and extinguishes from history the unique messages of these once independent voices.

In other words, a step towards understanding these texts on their own terms and as their authors individually and independently intended is a step towards the dismantling of the prejudiced label “the Bible”—at least theoretically. Again, I have written on this topic in greater detail here, and here, here, and here. Have we all forgotten what we’re actually reading—ancient texts written to address issues, beliefs, and worldviews utterly different from our own—and have we instead complacently ignored this and over zealously accepted the views of a later interpretive tradition that claims that these texts are rather a Text that now address our needs, concerns, and worldview. Rubbish! I cannot think of a greater dishonesty and disdain for the actual texts and their authors—ousted as it were by an external interpretive Voice! Note, and note well, that the interpretive framework invoked in the title “the Book” and the authoritative tradition standing behind it are so strong and mighty that its claim—namely, that the Bible and the interpretive framework it imposes vis-à-vis an overarching meaning is the proper understanding of these texts—goes unquestioned and unchallenged. It is The Voice of a later generation of readers whose authority has usurped the many and varied voices of the actual biblical authors. Interpretive tradition trumps the texts it purports to interpret, and in the end becomes more authoritative than the individual texts themselves.

It seems, then, that what the Bible has come to mean for us culturally is not the same as what the Bible’s once independent texts meant to the individual authors who wrote them and the audiences who received them. We’ve been duped. In lieu of listening to the authors of these texts and understanding them in their historical and literary contexts, we have listened rather to a subsequent generation’s interpretive framework of these texts, which has become more and more distorted as we come closer and closer to modernity. The Voice is just the last in a long line of misappropriations of these texts to suit our own self-centered religious needs. Modernized translations are nothing more than self-purposed renderings with little to no regard and knowledge of the historical circumstances that brought the Bible’s various texts into existence and the intents and purposes of its authors. The center of gravity has moved from the dead authors to the living readers. The text has become more about its living readers than its dead authors and their variant beliefs, religious programs, and historical situations. Modernizing translations put the personal reader and his or her theological concerns before the authors of the texts. The modern reader’s beliefs, the modern reader’s theology, the modern reader’s religious constructs are what is of most importance, and the biblical text is warped to confirm and legitimate them. That is actually how “the Bible” or “The Voice” functions as an over-guiding interpretive framework. It asserts its reading as the rightful, authoritative reading independently of what the various and competing voices of the 100+ textual traditions in the Bible actually say or don’t say. The title “the Bible” is a self-serving prescriptive label that insures that these 2,000 to 3,000 year old documents reflect and support the reader’s theological beliefs, worldviews, and values. So much for the biblical texts each independently as they were intended; welcome a homogenous Voice that conforms to the reader’s personal beliefs, and keeps him/her warm and fuzzy all day and all night. Would that our biblical writers could speak from their graves… Ah, but alas they do, through the texts they’ve left behind. Then would that modern man could put aside his hypocrisy and self-serving constructs and give these ancient authors their due. And if their beliefs, religious constructs, and worldviews don’t match ours—which should be an obvious conclusion; these are 2,000 to 3,000 year old texts—then so be it. It is here that the real conversation and real challenges begin for modern man.

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2 Responses to Whose Bible is it anyway?

  1. Patrick Beccia says:

    I just read “Whose Bible is it Anyway and fully agree, and what you have to say is so needed to the modernized views of interpreting the Bible. I have always asked “Can Scripture mean something different today than it did when it was first penned? I believe we have also lost who for example, is Paul speaking to? Is he addressing one person, or more than one person? I think most of the letters were written corporately, communally and his “commands” for the entire body to carry out rather than individualistically. I think that is why Christians have such a tough time battling sin. I would like to read anything you have written on these areas. Christian individualism has overtaken correct interpretations of Scripture, at least as I see it. Thanks for your love of Scripture.
    Patrick Beccia

  2. Patrick,

    Thanks for the encouraging words. I’m not really posting at this site anymore. Maybe I should. But I do have a very active website with daily posts about the Bible’s textual history and composite nature at http://contradictionsinthebible.com. By all means join us over there !!

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