Which Bible?

No doubt the Bible holds a privileged place in western civilization. Arguably, it is the most influential book that exists in terms of its cultural influence in this hemisphere. Not that the Bible has had an easy ride of late. Many are vocal about its shortcomings, notably its violence and steadfast consistency with its own social mores of patriarchalism and election. Unfortunately these critiques sometimes (often) discourage people from reading it. (It is a very big book.) Having spent a good deal of my career dealing with the Bible, however, it is like a friend. Most friends have a habit or two that drive you to the brink of madness, but still, you know and trust them and tend to see the good rather than the flaws. The Bible is a holy book with warts. I cringe when I read parts of it. I’m not quite ready to let it go yet, however.

One reflection of this ambivalence I see often is that scholars (among others) have now taken to spelling the Bible without a capital letter: the bible. Perhaps it is the latent editor in me, or perhaps it is the Chicago Manual of Style that hangs like Damocles’ dictionary above my head, but like it or not, the Bible is a proper noun. In English we capitalize proper nouns. On Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube (all of which my computer auto-corrects to capitalized proper nouns), I understand. Most hands don’t get sufficient pinkie exercise to make that stretch to the shift key. But in academic writing? I’m pretty certain that e. e. cummings had nothing to do with the title, and other than loss of prestige, I’m unsure how to explain it. I have read book proposals from biblical scholars (biblical, by the way, is an adjective and does not require capitalization unless it is part of a title) who leave Bible all in lowercase letters. Have we come to this?

Leaving the “Holy” out of the title is academically sound. After all, Holy is a confessional modifier, and scholars strive for neutrality. With the proliferation of bibles—everything from Beer Bibles to Gun Bibles are out there, all capitalized, I note—we should take care to treat the Bible with grammatical care. It shows nothing of one’s faith commitment to capitalize it properly. God, on the other hand, may be used as either a proper noun or a common noun. Usage dictates capitalization. In the Bible Elohim is more often a title than a name. I knew civilization was in trouble the day I saw the phrase “butt crack” in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The least we can do to combat the decline is to stretch that pinkie once in a while as an offering to the god of good grammar.


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