Bible Lesson

I was recently reading the revised preface and “To the Reader” (in draft form) for the NRSVue.  In case alphabet soup’s not your thing, that’s the New Revised Standard Version updated edition.  Of the Bible.  As I read through these seldom referenced pages it occurred to me, not for the first time, the care and concern with which scholars approach the original text of the Bible.  No matter what Fundamentalists may say, we do not have the original text.  In some places the translations you read are the best guesses of those who’ve spent their lives trying to understand what an obviously corrupted copy was intended to reflect.  Such care reflects the widespread (but shrinking) sense that this text somehow magically informs daily lives and should lead to political action.  I’m sure Jesus would’ve arched an eyebrow over that.

Biblical scholarship is hampered by the fact that the manuscripts that have survived are copies of copies of copies (etc. etc.).  Translators—yes, including those of the King James Version and the New International Version—are making some informed guesses on an Urtext we simply don’t have.  Lives, however, are often sacrificed on the basis of the belief that we have here some object to be worshipped instead of read and understood.  I like to tell my skeptical friends that the Bible is actually full of really good things.  There’s some nasty stuff in there too, but we can learn from the parts that convey deep spiritual wisdom.  Listening to your elders is a good idea, but it’s not the same as worshipping them.

Humans have a deep desire to make things sacred.  Maybe it’s because after watching us muddle around down here we want to believe there’s something better out there.  It’s problematic, however, when we make an earthly object, put together by humans, into a deity.  There are those who get around this by claiming the Bible is from God in the original.  The point is we don’t have the original.  There are some words (especially in Hebrew) of which the connotation and denotation are unsure (for words have no inherent meaning).  Reading, we know, is a complex enterprise.  That’s why it takes years to master it and constant practice to maintain it.  Those who leave off reading after school may, I fear, fall back into literalism when they encounter a text.  Bible scholars take great care at trying to reconstruct the original, and all of that can be undone by a failure to just keep reading.

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.

Only Which King James?

Nothing is as simple as it seems. Not that the Bible ever claims simplicity for itself. Among those who make up their minds before seeing all the evidence, there’s a strong preference for the “King James Version” of the Bible. Many with that preference will claim that they don’t interpret the Good Book, they just read it. Reading itself is an act of interpretation and stakes tend to be pretty high when the claim for divine authorship is on the table. So I figured I’d better interpret something about the King James Bible myself. Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The Story of the King James Version is an informative, authoritative, and often witty treatment of the topic. One of the immediate takeaways is that there is no single KJV.

Beginning in the beginning, Gordon tells the story of the Bible in English. There were translations before the King James, and its translation companies used these previous efforts and sometimes borrowed extensively from them. In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun. Once the King James was done in 1611 it had to be printed, and printing, being what it is, led to errors. Although these were of the secular, human kind, they nevertheless appear from the beginning and new typesettings led to corrections and other errors, some perhaps intentional. Then came the revisions. What readers buy—and some claim is an inspired translation—as the KJV is a revision of a revision. Of a revision. In other words, the inspiration seems to lie with the redactors rather than the translators themselves. There are many different “official” King James versions. Translations are never static.

King James Onlyists (a modern movement) may not realize that the New Revised Standard Version is the modern descendant of the King James. The Revised Version (RV), followed by the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and its more recent, feared progeny (the NRSV) are all based on the King James translation. That is the version “Revised” in each of these efforts. They consult improved versions of ancient texts that have been discovered since the Jacobean era, but where they earn the ire of conservatives is in the updating of the modern language. A Bible with no thees or thous hardly seems sacred at all. The line of continuity is there, however. Other Bible translations “start over” but still consult the KJV, such is its stature. The real problem comes in supposing that any one translation is the original. No original Hebrew or Greek biblical manuscripts survive, and no original King James Version exists. How uncomfortable these facts are, everyone will have to interpret for her or himself.

What I Mean

It might seem, in this world of constant misunderstanding, that we might get along better were it not for the Tower of Babel. I mean, we call it a language barrier, right? So why are some people upset about the extinction of languages? Rebecca Morelle writes of how economic success may be behind language extinction in an article on the BBC science and environment page. There are some—many entrepreneurs—who see no cause for mourning. I have to wonder, though. I cut my academic teeth studying dead languages. Koine Greek and “Classical” Hebrew are no longer regularly spoken, and really haven’t been for centuries. Then I moved on to rediscovered languages: Ugaritic, Akkadian, Epigraphic South Arabian, each sounding more exotic than the last. Would world commerce exist if we were all hampered with Sumerian? We got on fine without the wisdom of the past—why should we even care?

I see politicians, mostly male, arguing in the “most advanced” government in the world, that women shouldn’t be given the full benefits of health care because they misunderstand the Bible. It is easily done. As I told my many students of biblical Hebrew over the years, language is not just words. Languages are ways of thinking. No translation is truly perfect. If you want to understand the Bible, you must do it on its own terms: learn to conceptualize in Hebrew and Greek, then come back and tell me what you think. It is, however, much easier to let King James do the talking. A man’s man. Just don’t ask what he did after hours, right Robert Carr? Something seems to have gotten lost in translation.

Languages are more than just ways of expressing ideas. They are the basis of cultures. When languages die off, cultures soon follow. Do you suppose that everyone on Papua New Guinea goes to work wearing a tie? Just give it some time. We call it progress, and it is inevitable. It has happened even closer to home, for those bound to the States like me. It used to be that academics had a language that didn’t necessarily included economics. The rarified domiciles of words like trenchant and salient and boustrophedon soon became superannuated. What are you trying to sell here? Dictionaries? As business marches unstoppably ahead, consuming all in its path, our lesser languages quietly die. With those languages ideas also pass away. With each demise, the world becomes a poorer place. Maybe it’s time to start building a tower.


Shake Your Booty?

The Roman Catholic Church has been making headlines again. Yesterday’s newspaper afforded two headlines to the great mother church – or maybe I should say “pleasant parent church.” The first story regards the Pope’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth-Part II, due for release next week. In it the Teutonic Vater exonerates the Jewish people for the death of Jesus. The embarrassing mastodon in the room, however, is why the church ever blamed the Jews in the first place. From the beginning Christian theology declared Jesus’ death part of God’s master plan. It also provided a convenient excuse for centuries of hate crimes that continue to this day. Believers, however, are quick to justify God’s actions, even when the Bible tentatively raises its own objections. In my prophet’s course, many students had trouble accepting the fact that the story of Micaiah ben-Imlah in 1 Kings 22 indicates that God sanctions lies in the mouths of prophets for a larger divine purpose. Perhaps we should also look for Micaiah ben-Imlah-Part I on the bookstore shelves soon.

The second article, already making its rounds on the Internet, concerns a new translation of the Bible. Shaking the traditional word “booty” from its vaunted position, the Ash Wednesday Bible calls it “spoils of war.” I was pleased to see my personal friend Bishop Sklba interviewed as part of the release publicity. As he rightly notes, “English is a living language,” to which some have subtly added, “and a dying art.” The article rehearses the sophomoric tittering at funny-sounding verses that has plagued the church ever since the laity have been educated. Gelding the Bible is a small price to pay for sanctity.

Regardless of efforts on the part of the religious, the Bible remains an often bawdy text set in the context of a sexist and supersessionist world. It is the world in which the Roman Catholic Church came of age. As we start to see the first, faint blooms of a distant equality beginning to push through a vast leaf-litter of decomposing, brown tradition, the theology and foundational document of the church require some window-dressing. In this world of aggressive, bully governors and oh-so-self-righteous politicians, it is encouraging to see a massive religious organization bashfully blushing and suggesting that shoving others may not be the best method of getting your own way. Could it be that the church still has some valuable lessons to teach the world?

Oh, uh, sorry about that...

Im in ur blogz

Translation. The Bible as we know it would not exist without translation. Ours is a culture of convenience — Americans want divine revelation dished out in easy-to-swallow portions in their own tongue. Going through the rigors of learning new alphabets and grammatical systems, not to mention the eerie specter of textual apparatus, are enough to frighten off all but the most stalwart of truth-seekers. This is a good thing. We would never advance as a culture if we all had to spend our time learning actually to read our religious texts as they were written, only to find out that we have no original texts at all. So we trust our translators.

A few weeks back I posted an entry on Andrew Schlafly’s misguided (imho) Conservative Bible, devoid of liberal bias. Since then Stephen Colbert’s interview with Schlafly has been making its rounds on the internet and thousands of people are now aware of the project and its biases. I stand by my original objection that biased translations are unfair representations of the actual ancient texts. But it looks now like I’ll have to be eating crow. A new translation is scheduled to arrive in stores next month, and it looks like it may have a bias. Still, it is a translation that no internet-savvy reader can afford to ignore. Yes, the Lolcat Bible is nearly ready to pounce from the press.

The culmination of the Lolcat Bible Translation Project, over two years in the making, a Bible in Lolspeak will soon be available. Comparing what I’ve seen of the two projects, I think there is more truth in the Lolcat Bible than in the Conservative Bible. I’ve studied more ancient languages than any sane person rightfully should, but I do rely on my able research assistant (aka daughter) to help read Lolspeak. She suggested the title for this post, but the full text reads, “Im in ur blogz, postin mah wurdz of wizdum.” That’s straight from the mouth of Ceiling Cat!

We Don’t Need Another Bible

This podcast addresses the issue of agenda-driven Bible translation. Although all translators, being human, have agendas, typically they are for the advancement of knowledge. The news about Conservapedia’s Conservative Bible Project suggests that progress should be turned back to the first century and fast-forwarded to the Neo-Con agenda. The trend is disturbing because not many Americans have the essential background to assess critically whether Bibles are translated with serious scholarly intent or not. The ten principles of conservative Bible translation from Andrew Schlafly’s Conservapedia are examined.