Chapter and Verse

Maybe like me you’ve read some arguments based on chapter and verse.  I should mention that I mean chapter and verse in the Bible.  The typical scenario will go like this: Genesis (say) uses this word three times in chapter 38.  The case then often slips to making a point on the number of instances a word or phrase occurs within a circumscribed set of verses.  (The actual word doesn’t matter—this is a thought experiment.)  When I ran into an example of this a few days ago a thought occurred to me: chapters and verses are later additions to the biblical text.  They were never part of the original and were only added because Bible readers got tired of saying “That part in Genesis where…”  In other words, chapter and verse are artificial means of interpreting the Bible.  They’re very useful for taking quotes out of context.

I used to tell my students that you have to think carefully about what is the Bible and what isn’t.  As a culture where the book has instant recognition, we tend to think of that discrete unit of pages and cover as coming from one person—the author.  In reality most books (I can’t speak for the self-published) are the work of several people.  Just like it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes one to assemble a book.  That includes the Good Book.  Not everything between the covers is sacred text.  I’m pretty sure about that since as I was glancing through the latest edition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible I found my own name in the Preface.  As much as I’d like to claim otherwise I’m not exactly biblical. 

Modern ways of looking at ancient texts require a degree of facility in understanding how God’s scribes of yesteryear went about their work.  While early experiments in binding books may go back close to the time when the latter parts of the Bible were being written, the scroll—without chapter and verse—contained only the words of the text.  Most ancient manuscripts in Greek, anyway, didn’t even bother to put spaces between the words.  That leaves some room for ambiguity in among all those letters.  The Bible is a complex book with a complex history.  We do it a disservice as modern readers treating it as a modern book.  If you read Scripture online, or via electronic media, an even further layer of interpretation has been added.  That’s why we still need Bible scholars tangled somewhere in this world-wide web.

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.