Whose Bible Is It?
Jaroslav Pelikan

These pages:
Whose Bible Is It?

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


the Bible

index pages:

Whose Bible Is It?

Copyright © Jaroslav Pelikan, 2005


The Bible, the Whole Bible, and Nothing but the Bible?

The history of Jewish-Christian relations, and then the history of the divisions within Christendom, is at one level the history of biblical interpretation. The parties have faced each other across a sacred page that they held in commmon but that only served to emphasize their separation.

In these pages “New Testament” is retained, because that is what Christians call it. But instead of “Old Testament,” or the various recent attempts at politically correct euphemism such as “First Testament” or “Hebrew Scripture,” it is usually called what it is called within Judaism, Tanakh, which is an acronym of the first letters of the Hebrew titles of its three parts: Torah, the Five Books of Moses; Nevi’im, the Prophets; Kethuvim, the Writings. Only as a reference to its place within the Christian Bible is it called here “Old Testament.”


The God Who Speaks

Eleven times, the opening chapter of the Torah uses the verb “to say” in reference to God, in addition to the related verbs “to call” and “to bless.” But the God who speaks does not write anything in the Torah for eighty chapters, until the giving of the tablets of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai in the second half of the Second Book. To comprehend the written Bible, moreover, it is essential to understand that most of the words which are now written down in it had been spoken first and, therefore, they had been heard long before they could ever have been read.
An unexpected example of how a presumed oral original helps to explain the written text is the statement of John the Baptist in the Gospels: “Do not imagine you can say, ‘We have Abraham for our father.’ I tell you that God can make children for Abraham out of these stones.” [...] ben, as in the title of one of the Apocrypha, “Ben Sirach,” means “son” or “child,” with the plural banim; and eben, as in “Eben-Ezer,” means “stone,” with the plural ebanim; so what John the Baptist was saying was that God was able to make banim out of ebanim, a play on words that is lost not only in the translation from Aramaic to Greek to English, but in the transcription from oral tradition to written text.



The Prophet
[...] the word prophet (a compound from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not mean in the first instance someone who predicts the future, but one who speaks out on behalf of God—not one who foretells, therefore, but one who tells-forth (which also includes, of course, foretelling the future). The primary and defining characteristic of the biblical prophet, then, is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority of Another.



Socrates and Jesus
One of the basic differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the two parties within Judaism that figure the most prominently in the New Testament accounts, was said to be that the Pharisees accepted the authority of traditions alongside the authority of the biblical text, while the Sadducees denied such authority, in principle at any rate. The concept of an “oral Torah” alongside the written Torah underlies the traditions that were then to be collected in the Talmud. Within Christian history the issue became central to the debates of the sixteenth-century Reformation, in which Luther and Calvin rejected the claim that the church’s traditional interpretations of the Bible and even its nonbiblical traditions were an authoritative source of divine revelation alongside or in addition to the written Bible. [...] In its response to that elevation of biblical authority, the Roman Catholic church decreed in 1546 that “this truth and rule are contained in written books and in unwritten traditions which were received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or else have come down to us, handed on as it were from the apostles themselves at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” According to this decree, all of these sources—the Bible, the written traditions, and the unwritten oral traditions—were to be received “with a like feeling of piety and reverence,” regardless of the modality in which they had been preserved.



The Spoken Word and the Written Word
What is lost when the spoken word (as we often say, perhaps more portentously than we realize) is reduced to writing must be balanced against what is preserved in that same process and by means of it. We learn every day that there is nothing more fleeting and evanescent than spoken language. [...] The very spontaneity of the spoken word, which can be its charm and its glory, can also be its fatal weakness.



The cumulative effect of all this reliance on the spoken word and all this celebration of it was the eventual attribution to “the Word of God” of a status that went beyond grammar or communication to metaphysics and mystery: “In the beginning the [spoken] Word already was. The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was, the Word was. He was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be; without him no created thing came into being. So the Word became flesh; he made his home among us.” These opening words of the first chapter of the Gospel of John declare the common faith that Christianity shares with Judaism, and simultaneously they define the great gap between them.


Chapter Three


The Truth in Hebrew

For the Bible is not intended to be a universal history of the whole human race, much less a cosmogony that accounts for the structure and laws of the entire physical and biological universe. [...] Rather, the Bible consistently directs our attention away from cosmogony, be it mythological or scientific, to the special relation between God and the human race [...]

Compare to:

Sam Harris

The time span covered by the history of the people of Israel in the main body of the Tanakh is approximately one thousand years. It begins with their exodus from Egypt, which, according to most archaeologists and historians today, must have taken place sometime after I300 BCE (more precise dating seems impossible). It concludes with the return of Ezra, “a scribe expert in the Teaching of Moses which the LORD God of Israel had given,” who “came up from Babylon” to Jerusalem shortly before 400 BCE. Very few chronological data are available for the accounts preceding the exodus, and those we do have are exceedingly difficult to synchronize in any satisfactory manner with other information from ancient history. At the other end of the story of the Tanakh, the Books of the Maccabees provide some additional data for the period between Ezra and the New Testament. [...] This leads to a fundamental conclusion about these materials: They are intended not primarily as a chronicle but as a testimony of faith in the One who identified himself to Moses from the burning bush as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” the God of the everlasting covenant.

Torah, the Pentateuch

Although most modern scholars are agreed that Deuteronomy was not written by the hand of Moses but was composed rather late in Israel’s history, they have come to lay increasing stress on it as a summation of the Torah and therefore a link between the Torah and other sections of the Tanakh. The belief underlying the Talmud, that there was an “oral Torah” in addition to and alongside the written Torah, takes some of the edge off the disputed question of “the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch,” the question whose investigation was to be the starting point for so much of the modern critical approach to the Bible.

Nevi’im, The Prophets

Note (Hal’s):
These form eight books in Hebrew, four historical and four prophetic, containing the books we call:

  1. Joshua;
  2. Judges;
  3. I and II Samuel;
  4. I and II Kings;
  5. Isaiah;
  6. Jeremiah;
  7. Ezekiel; and
  8. Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

— end note

Kethuvim, The Writings

Note (Hal’s):
This group can be subdivided in categories:

  • Poetry:
    • Psalms
    • Proverbs
    • Job
  • the Megilloth (rolls):
    • Song of Songs
    • Ruth
    • Lamentations
    • Ecclesiastes
    • Esther
  • other items:
    • Daniel
    • Ezra and Nehemiah
    • I and II Chronicles

— end note

The Canon of the Hebrew Tanakh

A late Jewish tradition maintains that a “Great Synagogue” at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah met to establish the canon of the Bible. Although this tradition has enjoyed wide circulation and credence among both Jews and Christians, most historians now are inclined to doubt its reliability, for it is obvious from other and more reliable sources that the extent of the Tanakh continued to be a problem for Jews (and then for Christians) long after the work of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The safest generalization permitted is this: various collections of sacred writings were put together quite early in the history of Israel, as is evident from such terms as “the books,” but they did not become a “canon” until much later. The name canon may properly be applied to the books that seem to have been adopted by the assembly of rabbis at Jamnia about 90 or I00 CE under the leadership of Rabbi Akiba. Until then, apparently, the status of the Song of Songs and of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) remained doubtful, but at Jamnia they were definitely included in the canon. [...]

Additional light on the process by which the Jewish canon was formed has come from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The books included in them suggest that the Torah and the Nevi’im had been standardized by about the fourth century BCE, together with most of the Kethuvim, but some of the Kethuvim (including apparently Daniel) were still in dispute until the assembly at Jamnia.


Moses Speaking Greek

The Origin of the Septuagint
Those two factors in the situation of Jewish Alexandria—the internal need to guarantee continuity of Jewish worship, teaching, and observance despite the continuing cultural and linguistic change, and the external need to formulate an apologetic for Judaish that would be addresses “to its cultured despisers,” as a much later apologetic would define the target audience—were responsible not only for a substantial body of Jewish philosophical theology in Greek, but also for the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which is usually called “the Septuagint.”
According to one version of the Letter of Aristeas, the Greek translations of the entire Jewish Scriptures from the Hebrew, produced individually by each of these seventy-two scholars, turned out to be identical, which was irrefutable evidence that they were divinely inspired. From the legendary number of the translators, this version acquired the name Septuagint (the Latin word for seventy), which is customarily abbreviated as LXX.
Peculiarities of the Septuagint
Because the Greek word for a “messenger” of any kind was angelos and the word for “wind” could also mean “spirit,” the sentence in the Psalms “He makes the winds His messengers” comes out in the Greek translation as “He makes His angels spirits.” It is quoted that way in the New Testament as part of a discussion of the angels, as well as in Christian liturgies to this day, even though that is not what the Hebrew original is saying. Where the Hebrew has “Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel,” without specifying the status of the young woman any more precisely, the Septuagint uses the word parthenos, “virgin,” which the Gospel quotes (in Greek) [...] for the virginal conception of Jesus from his mother, Mary. Later in the Book of Isaiah, the Septuagint’s “And I saw two mounted horsemen, and a rider on an ass, and a rider on a camel” became an embarrassment to Christian apologists but a welcome support to Muslim disputants, because it seemed to be prophesying not only that Jesus would enter into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a donkey, as the Christian Gospel described him doing in the New Testament, but that he would be followed (almost exactly six centuries later) by the prophet Muhammad, who was a camel driver.
The Biography of Moses
“It is quite foolish,” Philo explained, “to think that the world was created in six days or in a space of time at all.” That is not what the creation story in Genesis really meant. Rather, God created the patterns and Ideas from which, in turn, the visible world was produced. Philo had learned to read Genesis this way by reading the other great creation myth in his library, Plato’s Timaeus. [...] If the universe was “beautiful and good [kalon],” as Timaeus and the first chapter of the Septuagint of Genesis were agreed in saying that it was, then the conclusion logically followed that it must have been based on a pattern that was itself kalon and therefore eternal; and kalon was how the Septuagint had translated the Hebrew word tōv, “good,” in the repeated declaration of verse after verse of the first chapter of Genesis, “And God saw that this was good.” All the profound speculation of Timaeus about the nature of the world was thus placed in the service of the interpretation of the Bible, and a speculative-mythological cosmogony was born.
Christian Significance of the Septuagint

The traditional writers of the books of the New Testament, with the exception of Luke, were all Jews; the so-called apostolic fathers and other Christian writers of the second and third centuries were all Gentiles. [...] At least some of the writers of the New Testament were in a position to correct the translations of the Septuagint on the basis of their knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. But apart from them, knowledge of the Hebrew original virtually disappeared from the church for a thousand years or more.

The great exceptions to this ignorance of Hebrew (though not quite the only exceptions) were Origen of Alexandria in the East during the third century and, living in both the West and the East at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century, Jerome, the scholar and translator who produced the Latin version known as the Vulgate.

The Septuagint should not be the only place to look for the meaning of a word in the Gospels or in Saint Paul, but it definitely must be the first place to look. A fine illustration is the New Testament passage with which the preceding chapter closed. [...] In addition to Word or Reason or Mind, ho Logos in John can mean Wisdom (Sophia), and this is what Sophia says about herself in the Septuagint version of the eighth chapter of the Book of Proverbs: “The Lord made me the beginning of his ways for his works. He established me before time was in the beginning before he made the earth. When he prepared the heaven, I was present with him. I was by him, suiting myself to him, I was that in which he took delight; and daily I rejoiced in his presence continually.” This language of the Septuagint gave to the concept of the Logos in the Gospel of John a concreteness and a personal quality, a sense of almost playful “delight,” that was hard though perhaps not impossible to supply from the Greek philosophers.


passage from John


Beyond Written Torah: Talmud and Continuing Revelation

As the authority of the Bible actually functions in the ongoing life and practice of the community of faith, it is in Judaism no less than in Christianity the authority of a Bible that has constantly been in the process of being normatively interpreted and then reinterpreted, ever since its various component parts, as the community of faith affirms, were first written down by the writers and prophets under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. The relation of the authority of that ongoing normative interpretation of Holy Scripture to the authority of the original text of Holy Scripture is an issue with which both the Jewish and the Christian traditions have had to struggle, each in its own special way. There was an oral tradition preceding and underlying the New Testament, and by no means all of that tradition is contained in the New Testament or exhausted by it; the ongoing presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the church, moreover, can carry with it the authority of continuing revelation.


As part of the Septuagint “canon,” the Apocrypha became and still are part of the Christian Bible in both the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Roman Catholic churches. They continued to hold this position, though without definitive and formal church legislation according it to them, until the Reformation churches assigned them (at best) second-class status [...] For most of Christendom during most of Christian history, however, they were and still are simply part of the Bible.

“Not Spake But Speaketh”: The Persistence of the Oral Torah

According to Jewish tradition such textual engagement and commentary has been coexisting side by side with the Sacred Scriptures of the Tanakh from the very beginning in the form of what came to be called “the oral Torah.” Moses himself—or, to be utterly precise and faithful to the tradition, God speaking to and through his servant Moses to the people of Israel—was the source of this oral tradition as well as of the written Torah. [...] Reflecting at least in part the bitter experience of the Jewish community with the Christian appropriation of the originally Jewish Septuagint, some of the later Jewish sages suggested that the reason for not writing down this oral tradition was to keep it from being translated into Greek and thereby, like the Septuagint, falling into the wrong hands. The foundation of the Talmud is the Mishnah, which even in its eventual written form goes on being identified by the rabbis as “oral tradition”; it is earlier than the written commentary on the Mishnah, the Gemara, and is deemed to be superior in authority to it.

If we “retrovert” this way and seek to reconstruct the Hebrew original that seems to be underlying the Greek, it becomes clear that in a number of passages the Jewish translators of the Septuagint were reading the consonants with vowels other than the ones that were eventually supplied by the Massoretes for the text and that we read now in printed editions of the Hebrew Bible (and use for the interpretation and translation of the Hebrew text).

text checked (see note) Aug 2008

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