Whose Bible Is It?
Jaroslav Pelikan

These pages:
Whose Bible Is It?

Introduction–Chapter Four
Chapters Four–Eight
Chapter Eight–Afterword (here)



index pages:

Whose Bible Is It?

Copyright © Jaroslav Pelikan, 2005




Back to the Sources

Lorenzo Valla and Desiderius Erasmus
Using the methods of critical philology, Valla demonstrated that the Donation simply could not be what it claimed to be. That same criterion of integrity and truth, and therefore the same methods of critical philology, applied even to the sacred text of the Bible, and in a sense, all the more so. Hallowed though it was by now through many centuries of ecclesiastical usage and liturgical association, the Latin Vulgate still remained only a translation, which like any other translation needed to be measured against the Greek original and, if necessary, corrected on the basis of it. [...] Valla identified many mistaken, or at least misleading, translations that had obscured the correct understanding of the Biblical text for anyone who was completely dependent on the Vulgate Latin version. They did not and could not prove what they claimed to prove, because the original Greek did not mean what the Latin made it seem to mean.
The most notorious of these controversies over the New Testament text concerned the text of the First Epistle of John. As it is translated into English in the King James Version, this verse reads (with the textually dubious words in italics): “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” The italicized words had no backing in the Greek manuscript tradition but had apparently crept into the Latin text of the New Testament during the Middle Ages. They may have begun as one of those medieval glosses but were then written into the text itself by a careless copyist. Erasmus omitted them from his first edition; but when a storm of protest arose because the omission seemed to threaten the doctrine of the Trinity (although that doctrine had in fact been formulated long before the textual variant), he put them back in the third and later editions, whence they also came into the textus receptus, “the received text.” The English Authorized (“King James”) Version, being based on that “received text,” includes these words form Erasmus’s later editions; but Luther’s translation was based on the I5I6 first edition and therefore omits them.
Ironies of the Biblical Revival

Yet all of this new Christian Hebraism actually served only to exacerbate the separation between Jews and Christians. If the Christian readers of the Bible wanted to know the meaning of an obscure word in the Torah, they did not have to consult a local rabbi anymore, as Jerome and Luther had done, because increasingly there were specifically Christian handbooks and guides. Christian Kabbalah, likewise, only made things worse between Jews and Christians, for now even the esoteric science of the Zohar, once the exclusive property of the rabbis, could be pressed into the service of Christian dogma.

Thomas Aquinas had criticized Augustine for the “spiritual” rather than literal interpretation of the “days” in the creation account of the first chapter of Genesis. Now exegetes could use their “scientific” or scholarly erudition in philology to prove that the Hebrew word yōm here must refer to a day of twenty-four hours. And they went on doing so just as other branches of “scientific” or scholarly erudition in paleontology and evolutionary biology were producing increasingly convincing evidence [...] Ironically, the old-fashioned allegorical method of “spiritual” interpretation would in some ways have had a much easier time coping with this new reality than did the avowedly more up-to-date and “scientific” method of literal, grammatical interpretation.


The Bible Only

Biblical Renaissance and Biblical Reformation
Jesus did not say, “Do penance, Poenitentiam agite” (as the Vulgate translated it), that is, go through the prescribed steps of contrition for sin, confession to a priest, and satisfaction or reparation by good works, but “Repent” (as the original Greek had it), that is, literally, turn your mind around and change your heart through the purifying power of the word of the gospel and through faith in it.
What the Bible Did for the Reformation
By a frequently cited rule of thumb, which must be handled with some care, Calvin maintained that whatever church practice was not commanded by Holy Scripture was forbidden, whereas for Luther it was permitted but could not be required.

The Bible now became, in a way that it had not been before, a doctrine in its own right. The sole authority of the Bible stood as the line of demarcation between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. But to bolster that authority it seemed necessary also to define the inpiration of the Bible, that mysterious process by which the divine initiative of the Holy Spirit interacted with the personalities of the biblical writers. On that basis the religious authority of the Bible was taken to imply also its inerrancy, not only in questions of faith and morals but in every historical, geographical, and scientific detail that is mentioned somewhere in its pages.

The expository sermons and learned commentaries of the Reformers, though they all dealt with one and the same Bible, turned out to be multiple in their outcomes. [...] The scholarly disagreements over what the Bible meant, therefore, simultaneously reflected the ecclesiastical divisions and went on to produce ever new and widening schisms. The rule of the sole authority of Scripture meant in practice the unquestioned authority of this or that particular interpretation of Scripture as it was characteristic of this or that church body.

The English Bible
In I535, [...] Miles Coverdale published the first English translation of the whole Bible, which was carried out on the basis of the Vulgate Latin, Luther’s German, and Tyndale’s English, but was not based independently on the Hebrew and Greek originals. Beyond its intrinsic importance as the first English Bible, Coverdales’s translation of the Book of Psalms was the one that was incorporated into the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, where it has been retained even when the King James Version was substituted for earlier versions of the prescribed Epistle and Gospel lessons.
The Bible in the Catholic Reformation
As a matter of historical fact (and therefore of theological accuracy), the Christian Scriptura has never been sola. When the Christian movement began, it had the Tanakh (in most cases the Septuagint) as its Scriptura and, alongside it, the primitive proclamation of Jesus as its fulfillment. Then, by the time this proclamation had itself been written down and fleshed out into the New Testament Scriptura, the church also had the creeds and the liturgy, on the basis of which it decided what the New Testament, and behind it the Tanakh, meant for Christian faith and life. The very conflict over the biblical canon between the Protestant Reformers and the Council of Trent made it clear that even in a doctrine of sola Scriptura the authority of the Bible did not authenticate itself automatically (which would have required some kind of doctrine of repeated inspiration in each generation of the history of the church) but depended on its recognition by tradition and by the church for acceptance. Another aspect of the divine irony that we have seen repeatedly in the history of the use of the Bible within both Judaism and Christianity is that the Bible being used as a weapon against church and tradition had itself come from the arsenal of the church and had been preserved and protected by the tradition.


The Canon and the Critics

The authority of the Torah in postbiblical Judaism was in many ways functionally the authority of the Talmud, so that it is even possible to put the Talmud and the New Testament side by side as the two major alternative systems—mutually exclusive in one sense but also, in another sense, interdependent—for reading the Tanakh.
This massive collection of scriptural learning was based on the principle, as voiced by Cardinal Ximénez, that the Bible in translation, including even the precious Vulgate, “cannot be understood in any way other than from the fount of the original language.” [...] The twentieth-century affirmation of the primary authority of “the original text of the sacred books” by Pope Pius XII and then by the Second Vatican Council may be seen as an ultimate vindication, more than four centuries later, of the sacred philology of the Renaissance as this had been embodied in Cardinal Ximénez, grand inquisitor of Spain, and as it had been made possible by the invention of printing.

The five points of Deism propounded by Lord Herbert of Cherbury became a kind of theme with variations for Enlightenment thinkers of various backgrounds: the existence of a God, the duty to worship that God, the centrality of virtue in that worship, the obligation of repentance for any departure from that virtue, and the prospect of a life to come with rewards for virtue and punishments for sin. Everything else in their sacred scriptures and holy traditions—cultus, doctrine, authoritative institution, and even the founder, be he thought of as human or as divine—was secondary to these five tenets and therefore a superfluous addition or a historical accident or both.

What stood in the way of such reductionism, of course, was the institutionalism of organized religion, and above all the massive credentials for organized religion that were provided by the Bible whether Jewish or Christian. [...] That was why Thomas Jefferson, straight razor in hand, took it upon himself to excise from the text of the Christian Gospels such stories as the virgin birth and the resurrection and the other miracles, and also the many sayings of Jesus, above all in the Gospel of John, in which he claimed for himself some sort of unique relation to God.

The Rise of the Historical–Critical Method

Authorship of the Bible was, to be sure, not an isolated issue. What was ultimately at stake was the credibility of the Bible, to which the successive scientific discoveries and scientific theories of the modern period have repeatedly represented a challenge.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became the great time of confidence in the historical method as the key to the understanding of many areas of human life. [...] It is to this “historicism” that we owe the assumption that tracing such a phenomenon century by century was the best way to understand it. But instead of corroborating the accounts in the Bible, this historiography now became a major force in promoting doubts about the truthfulness of the biblical record.

In many ways the Tanakh was simultaneously more immune and yet more vulnerable than the New Testament. Of all the books of the Bible, Koheleth (the Book of Ecclesiastes) came closest to the rationalism and skepticism of the Enlightenment philosophers, who saw in it a kindred spirit. Yet the lingering anti-Jewishness in Christian thought also made the historical criticism of the Old Testament seem somehow less dangerous, and it is significant that the historical-critical method did begin with the Pentateuch rather than with the Gospels.


A Message for the Whole Human Race

“Awash in a Sea of Bibles”

These statistics are only one measure of the central position that is occupied by Holy Writ in the culture and piety of Protestant America, matching or surpassing what the depiction and veneration of the Virgin Mary were in Latin Catholicism on both sides of the Atlantic, and the devotion to the holy icons in the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium and its daughter churches. Like the image of the Virgin and the ubiquitous icons, it has sometimes seemed that the Bible has become more of a totem than a sacramental.

To the extent that the term remains useful, fundamentalism originated as a movement within several Protestant denominations to make the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible the doctrine by which all Christian faith stands or falls. It therefore involves a resistance to any scholarly interpretation of the Bible that seems to jeopardize its absolute uniqueness and authority or to require an accommodation of its teachings to a scientific worldview.

The linguistic accident and overwhelming historical reality that the New Testament was written in a later (though seemingly corrupted) version of the same language which had been spoken and written by Sophocles and Plato, and that, two centuries or so earlier, the Tanakh had been translated into Greek meant that through most of its history the exposition of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian, had concerned itself primarily with its relation to Hellenism. The Christian missionaries arriving in Asia and Africa with their Bibles during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries carried in their luggage prayers and liturgies—and standard translations of the Bible into Latin or English or German—that had been shaped in a multitude of subtle and invisible ways by the problematics and the assumptions of the dialogue that has been called in the title of more than one twentieth-century book Christianity and Classical Culture[...]

The novelty of the situation created enormous difficlties in the evangelistic and pastoral administration of Christian missions, with such issues as polygamy becoming a major source of confusion and controversy.

In I875 the celbrated Sanskrit scholar and pioneer of the study of comparative religion Friedrich Max Müller launched the publication in English translation of The Sacred Books of the East [...] As he had foreseen, the availability of this set, standing on library shelves alongside editions of the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Bible—which were in their origins sacred books of the East, too, as was the Q’uran—stimulated a method of comparative study that stressed the obvious similarities and the supposed borrowings among the various holy scriptures.


Max Müller

The Golden Age of Biblical Scholarship

It does seem safe to hazard the guess, in the absence of hard statistical data, that not only within the Roman Catholic church but all over the world the Bible has been studied by more people during the past century than during the preceding nineteen. But it is sobering to remember that the same century has also been the century of two world wars, of widespread persecution and genocide, and of the Holocaust. Sometimes it seems that the dominant biblical metaphor of the age has been not the liberating exodus of the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt but the four horsemen of the Apocalypse—war, famine, pestilence, and death.


The Strange New World Within the Bible

There was—and there is—no going back behind the historical, textual, literary, and philological investigation of the Tanakh and the New Testament. But we can and we must go beyond it, for the Tanakh is more than a museum piece or the surviving artifact of a Near Eastern tribal cult or the only available piece of literature written in the Hebrew language to be used as a lexicon for the modern revival of the language. It is not less than any of these, but it must be more. And in the same way it is not adequate to decribe the New Testament as the literary deposit of just another Hellenistic mystery religion or as a remnant of a mythological cosmology or as the struggle of an apocalytic community to redefine its identity after its hope of the Second Coming, as this was promised (and expected) by Jesus, had been so cruelly disappointed.

A “Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New”
The very familiarity of the Bible after all these centuries can dull its sharp edges and obscure its central function, which is not only to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable, including the comfortable who are sitting in the pews of their synagogue or church as they listen to its words. If it is true that every age manages to invent its own particular heresies, our own age seems especially vulnerable to an aestheticism [...] that finds the ultimate mystery of transcendence, “the mystery that awes and fascinates,” in the beauty of art and music, which have the magical capacity to transport us into an otherworldly realm without at the same time calling us to account for our sins in the presence of the holy God and righteous Judge of all mankind.
Once I begin to read it anew, perhaps in the freshness of a new translation, it stops speaking in clichés and begins to address me directly. Many people who want nothing to do with organized religion claim to be able to read the Bible at home for themselves. But it is difficult to resist the suspicion that in fact many of them do not read it very much. For if they did, the “sticker shock” of what it actually says would lead them to find most of what it says even more strange than the world of synagogue and church.
A Foreign Language
The language of the Bible is a language to be read and reread, to be pondered and scrutinized. To the eyes and heart of faith, after all, it is a love letter, one long love letter. When I receive a letter from a friend whom I love, I cannot simply read it once and then discard it. Rather, I will think about what it means, what this or that phrase is intended to say. And when that letter is written to me in another language, I am compelled by its very language to read it more slowly. The great commentators on the sacred text have been set apart from the run-of-the-mill exegetes by their having learned to exploit its very strangeness to probe beneath the surface.
A “Peculiar People”

Repeatedly in Jewish and Christian history, however, the discovery that the proper framework for understanding the Bible is nothing less than a total community has proved not to be an obstacle to reading it but a liberating force. [...] The Decalogue addresses itself not to individual Jewish believers “in their solitude” but to Israel as the people of God, whom “the LORD your God brought out of the land of Egypt,” in every succeeding generation. For Christianity the initially problematic collectivism of such a metaphor as “the body of Christ” has become part of the inspiration for the renewal of the ecumenical imperative to realize the prayer of Jesus just before his crucifixion, “May they all be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, so also may they be in us,” and to read the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, in that light. The oneness between the Father and the Son, as this is expressed in that prayer, is so close, according to the insistence of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, that it does not at all threaten biblical monotheism, as critics of that doctrine past and present have frequently charged, but actually confirms it.


In an ultimate sense it is presumptuous for anyone to speak about “possessing” the Bible. As both the Jewish and the Christian communities of faith have always affirmed, the Bible is the Book of God and the Word of God, and therefore it does not really belong to any of us.

For if it is profoundly true that there are truths in the Bible that only the eyes of faith can see, it is also true that the eyes of unfaith have sometimes spotted what conventional believers have been too preoccupied or too bemused to acknowledge. It is difficult to imagine that the modern consensus among Jews and Christians about the Bible not being a textbook of science or of history, for example, would have taken the form it has without the rude questions that came from the outsiders. The appreciation of the Bible as literature and the sensitivity to its “literary genres” are the by-products of the new and catholic (lowercase “c”) audience that it has acquired in going forth to those who want only to learn about it.
The new situation created by our fundamentally altered perceptions [...] calls for the modern recovery of a very old methodology of interpretation: the multiple senses of Scripture. To put it directly, a passage of the Bible does not mean only one thing, and the vain dispute over whether these are “your Scriptures” or “our Scriptures” is often an argument between two (or more) of these multiple senses.

text checked (see note) Aug 2008

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