Spoken Against

“Antilegomena” is a word that appears more often in New Testament studies than it does in those of the Hebrew Bible.  Still, it’s an important part of the discussion of “the Bible,” especially since Heaven stands at the end.  Antilegomena is the Greek word for “disputed texts.”  You see, when the Bible was being compiled, there were many books from which to choose.  The twenty-seven books generally recognized as the New Testament included several that were disputed.  The Antilegomena included these books: the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache, all fine and good.  But the list continues: James, Jude, Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.  This final half-dozen made the cut, although Revelation is still disputed in some quarters.  All of these books were, however, in some early Christians’ Bibles.  The exact date that the New Testament canon was fixed isn’t certain, but it wasn’t widely recognized until the fourth century C.E., that is, over 300 years after Jesus.

The first time I learned about canonization in college I was shocked.  Like most people raised on the Bible, I believed that it had come, fully written, from the hand of God.  Maybe there was even an autographed copy somewhere.  Grove City College, at the time, disputed the Documentary Hypothesis of J, E, D, and P, but to the credit of the religion department they did tell us about it.  Moses, of course, we were taught, did the actual writing.  But then there was the problem of the New Testament.  There were other gospels, some as old as those that made it into the Bible.  The realization dawned that “the Bible” was much more complicated than I had been led to believe.  And what was up with the Apocrypha?

One of my professors said that the problem with inerrancy is that it proposed a Bible more perfect than God.  I’m not sure that I follow the logic there, but I take his point (they were all “he”s, whoever he was).  The Bible may not be a perfect book  There are parts missing and repeated bits.  It is nevertheless one of many sacred books from around the world, and it is the holy book of much of Christianity.  From the very beginning some of the contents were disputed.  Even as an undergraduate I had some inklings that a journey that involved taking the Bible seriously was going to lead to some strange places.  That single book that had always been presented to me with a definite article—“the” Bible—was actually a book that the earliest followers of Jesus didn’t know.  And they seem to have got along fine, as far as getting to Heaven goes.

You Call That Working?

A recent post of mine on the United Methodist Church got a lot of response (for me, anyway) on other social media.  As I pondered this—I’ve written about the topic many times before—it occurred to me that most people probably have no idea what biblical scholars do all day.  (That is, besides write books that only other biblical scholars read, and teach their classes, or, very occasionally, edit books.)  Biblical studies is arguably one of the oldest academic pursuits in the world and what it boils down to in a word is “contexts.”  We try to understand the multiple contexts of the biblical texts.  Think about this a second: when you pick up a book, newspaper, magazine, or their electronic equivalents, what is the first, if often unconscious, thought you have?  Isn’t it something like “what kind of book, newspaper, etc., is this?”  Is it fiction or non?  Is it reputable or not?  Who wrote it and when?  These are all contexts.

The Bible was written about two millennia ago.  Very little of that original context still remains.  In fact, none of the original manuscripts even still exist.  It was a book written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  The vast majority of people in the western world do not read these languages, and so the Bible comes to us in mediated form—translation.  Translation, as any writer knows, is a form of interpretation.  It is not, and can never be, the original.  To figure out what the Bible “means” it has to be interpreted—even just reading it is a form of interpretation.  Biblical scholars want to be able to interpret it in informed ways.  We learn about its various contexts and use them to help us understand.

What did people think like thousands of years ago?  Can you even remember what it was like to look up a distant location without the internet?  Writing letters or dialing a rotary phone to get information on it?  Going to triple A to get maps?  And all of that was only two decades ago.  Life in biblical times was very different than life today.  The people then didn’t understand science the way that we do.  The writers of the Good Book didn’t have any idea that what they were scribbling would one day be considered holy scripture.  They had completely different contexts.  Whether the contexts are historical, literary, or social scientific (we still haven’t figured out an elegant way of saying the latter) biblical scholars use a variety of methods to get to those contexts.  We can’t go in with the answers already in our heads—if we did we’d only find what we were looking for.  At the end we have an answer, not “the” answer.  And so biblical studies continues.

Quoth Hardy

There are days when the quote from an author is the best thing to happen to me.  You probably know those kinds of days—days when there’s nothing really to stay up for so you go to bed early.  Lengthy days when your Muse wins easily any game of hide-and-seek.  You see, I save most of my fiction reading for bedtime.  If I turn in soon enough I can read quite a bit before falling asleep.  Not to sell you a false bill of goods, but that’s not the source of the quote.  It actually came to me from an unrelated email about the Bible.  The quote, while lengthy, comes from Thomas Hardy:

By the will of God some men are born poetical. Of these some make themselves practical poets, other are made poets by lapse of time who were hardly recognized as such. Particularly has this been the case with the translators of the Bible. They translated into the language of their age; then the years began to corrupt that language as spoken, and to add grey lichen to the translation; until the moderns who use the corrupted tongue marvel at the poetry of the old words. When new they were not more than half so poetical. So that Coverdale, Tyndale, and the rest of them are as ghosts what they never were in the flesh.

This comes from a letter to Professor D. A. Robertson of the University of Chicago, dated to February 1918.  Hardy was a known critic of religion, but like most writers of his day he knew the Bible.  Now, I’d never generally put myself on the same page with Hardy, but something similar to this thought had occurred to me long before I saw this quote.  We treasure ancient writing simply because it has survived.  This should be a sobering thought to any of us who try to forge our thoughts into words.  We have no way of knowing if, at the time, an author was considered great.  Merely the passage of time can make writing unfashionable in its age appear brilliant.  Like rocks tumbling over each other at the base of a cataract, they find polish over time.

My particular context for receiving this emailed quote was the King James Version of the Bible.  Often considered sacred in that translation, it was not uniformly well received when first published.  There had been English Bibles before, and since the Good Book is the foundation of western literature, a new translation commanded attention.  It had its critics, but over the centuries the translation itself became holy, whether it deserved it or not.  Similarly, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible helped to codify the German language.  We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Scripture, not for its theology, but for its immense influence on western thought.  As Hardy noted, it may be the passage of time that makes writing great.  Even so we might be wise to pay attention.

Not Your Parents’ Bible

As someone always interested in origins, I reflect on how I’ve ended up the way I have.  I mean, who plans to end up a Bibles editor?  In the grand scheme of a universe with a sense of humor, it’s an odd job.  I grew up reading the Bible, but lots of people do.  Most of them end up with ordinary people jobs.  Obviously, working on a doctorate in the field is admittedly strange, but then, my interests have always been to get to the truth.  The other day I spotted a book on my shelf—the book that arguably started it all.  The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden.  These days I would recognize this for what it is, a cheap reprint of a book published quite some time ago (1926 and 1927).  No “value added content.”  Just a reprint.  But why did this book have such influence?

It was the first time I’d realized—and growing up in poverty with parents lacking college educations you have to teach yourself a lot—that there were other books about as old as the Bible.  The idea fascinated me.  Somehow my fundamentalist upbringing had convinced me the Bible was the first book ever written—after all, its author was God and how much more primordial can you get?  Now this particular book (Lost Books of the Bible etc.) contains some apocryphal Gospels.  Not having a strong grasp on the concept of canon, I wondered why these books had been excluded, or, to use the title conceit, “lost” and “forgotten.”  In college I would learn about the canonical process.  I’d hear more about it in seminary.  There I would learn that even older sources existed.  In the pre-internet days, in a rural town without so much as a public library, how would you find out about such things?

Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion captured my imagination in seminary.  Even there, however, nobody on the faculty seemed to know much about what had come before the Bible.  Harrell Beck told us of ancient Egypt in our classes, but clearly there were further depths to plumb.  I learned about James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, which I bought at the Harvard Divinity School bookstore.  Other texts went back beyond Holy Writ.  Just how far would have to wait until the University of Edinburgh.  I sometimes wonder if I might’ve taken a different turn here or there had anyone been able to answer my young, unformulated questions about the origins of the Bible and other ancient books.  Now we just have to ask the internet.

The Price Is Wrong

The costs for academic books can seem criminal.  Don’t get me wrong; I work in academic publishing and I know the reasons—or at least the reasons publishers seem to believe—for such pricing.  Still, when I see a book that my little public library will never be able to convince its network that it should be able to borrow, I look at the prices and blanche.  At least the pallor looks good with my skin type, or so at least I’m led to believe.  Why are books so very expensive when so few of them retain any resale value?  Publishing—the information business—is unlike any other.  In fact, it could be argued that the printing press was the earliest internet.  Ideas could be spread more quickly, among those who were able to read, than they could have previously.

These days books are the handmaidens to the internet.  The problem, of course, is that the web contains ideas that haven’t been vetted.  Publishers offer that service, but you have to pay for it.  Books don’t sell like they used to—physical books, I mean.  Inflation, however, ensures that the cost of paying employees is constantly going up.  This is the hidden factor of “overhead”—the cost of doing business.  You need to sell a lot of books to pay a staff.  Not only that, but unlike most “commodities”—I shuddered as I typed that word—books can be returned to a publisher if they don’t sell.  It’s like an entire business model run on consignment.  And the honest truth is—academic authors may want to cover their eyes for this part—very few books sell more that a couple hundred copies.  That means that the per unit cost has to go up.  Next thing you know you’re selling a kidney to continue your research.

I keep a running list of books I’d like.  Some are for research and some are for other pleasures.  The list grows quite lengthy when more and more interesting books get published.  I look at academic books and I wonder if maybe there’s another way.  If they were priced down in the range of mere mortals, would they sell enough copies to meet their costs?  I’m well aware that Holy Horror is priced at $45.  Believe it or not, that’s on the lower end of academic extortion pricing.  Many books on my “must read” list cost three times as much.  Are we paying the price for keeping knowledge solvent?  Or is all of this just criminal?

Qaulity Education

Perhaps it’s from having a stubbornly blue collar, but snobbery has never appealed to me.  While in seminary at Boston University, I applied for a transfer to Harvard Divinity School.  In spite of being accepted, I stayed at my alma mater and paid the consequences.  There’s a strange loyalty among the working class, you see.  And now I’m finally seeing my former mistress, academia, taking a turn toward the lowly but worthy.  The title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: “As Scholars Are Driven to Less Prestigious Journals, New Measures of Quality Emerge.  Hmm, why might that be?  The industry mantra, “publish or perish” has grown more aggressive over the years and the number of publishers has decreased.  Your academic net worth, it seems, can no longer be based on how elite you are.

People are funny that way.  We’re very impressed by those paraded before us as successes—as if some kind of magic clings to those who are where we wish we were.  In academia where you went to school matters more than what you’ve proven yourself capable of.  If you attended the “best” schools your work will be accepted by the “best” journals and publishers.  What rarified company you’ll keep!  For the rest of us, well, we have the numbers.  And blue collars aren’t afraid of hard work.  Let the academic aristocracy enjoy its laurels.  Laurels are poisonous, however, for those with an eye open for parables.

Primates, according to those who know them best, can see through pretense.  I often wonder if our political chaos isn’t based on this simple fact of biology.  As a priest I knew once told me, “We put our pants on one leg at a time too.”  This didn’t prevent many postulants I knew from anticipating the day when they would be ontologically transformed.  Priesting, I was informed, would make them better than the laity.  Closer to God.  Here it was, even among the clergy—the desire for prestige.  Chimpanzees will take down an alpha who abuses his power.  Nature has a set of balances.  Tampering with them leads to, well, scholars being driven to less prestigious journals and the like.  The net result, as the Chronicle suggests (if read one way), is that the last shall be first and the first last.  Probably it’s the result of reading too much Bible in my formative years, but I’ve always appreciated parables.

Type Right

Image credit: Rama, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’d like to get a typewriter.  An old one, without electric capacity.  Clacking keys flying before the dawn.  At first this might seem impractical—why buy a typewriter when almost all publishing is now electronic, at least in one stage of its life cycle?  You type something out and you’re going to have to “re-key” it for the hegemony of technology.  But wait—there is a method to this madness.  I’ve heard it said that good writing is just clear thinking.  That sounds right to me, but with a proviso: good writing is edited writing.  The editor may be someone else, or it may be the author, but the point is that something written, with rare exceptions, improves upon rewriting.  Like ordinary stones in a rock tumbler that come out glistening.  Type it, then retype it.

Back in college I wrote all my papers out by hand before typing them.  (Sometimes three lines of handwriting on each college-ruled line.)  “Keyboard composition,” as it was called then, was shorthand for quick, sloppy writing.  The uniformity of type hides a host of syntactical sins.  I used to see the same thing with student papers prepared on a computer in my teaching days—colorful images and fancy type utilized to mask a lack of engagement.  The paper written and rewritten shows itself to be of a higher standard.  I (or others) notice more errors on this blog when I run out of time for editing, often because work looms.  If I have the time, I edit.  And I actually miss writing my thoughts out longhand.  What I need is a typewriter.

Reading has always been a large part of my job.  Student papers and book proposals aren’t so very different.  Many of both come in what appears to be first draft form.  It’s understandable—good writing takes time not only to hammer out a draft but to think, mull, change angles, and hammer again—and we’re all so terribly busy.  The end result is often worth it.  At this point in Nightmares with the Bible I’m printing out my draft so that I can see what I’ve written.  The handwritten comments come after the keyboard composition, but they still come.  The important thing is that drafts require re-reading.  Better, re-writing.  The niceties of pleasing writing can be added or enhanced by an editor.  When editors write books, other editors edit them.  And as I sit here typing this silently on my computer, I’m imagining the satisfying sounds of a manic typewriter early in the morning.