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.

Not so New

I remember it clearly.  The ubiquity of technology robs me of the memory of how I knew about it, but there was plenty of pre-internet buzz.  A new Bible translation was being published and people were very excited.  Including me.  By the time the New International Version (NIV) was set to appear, I had read every translation of the Good Book I knew, cover-to-cover.  Being a good evangelical, I started with the King James.  I’d read it a time or two, then moved on to the Revised Standard Version.  As you might guess, with my interests I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I do recall people complaining that it wasn’t literal enough.  I’d read the Living Bible, and the Good News Bible.  My favorite was probably the New American Standard Bible, though, because it was as close to languages I then didn’t know as I could get.

We didn’t have much money in my family, and since my summer jobs covered the cost of my school clothes, disposable income was fairly rare.  But then a miracle.  Christmas morning I opened my “big gift”—a brand new NIV.  In a way that is somehow difficult to recapture these days, I was absurdly happy getting a new Bible.  I started reading it right away.  Little did I know it would become the best-selling modern English translation of all time.  And that’s saying something—Bibles are big business.  The reason for the NIV’s appeal was that it was Evangelical-friendly.  No awkward issues like inclusive language, and, to be honest, a nicely rendered English.

Being in the Bibles business I decided to read about who was behind the NIV and found an unexpected connection with Rutgers University, where I used to teach.  The owner of the NIV translation is Biblica.  Biblica is the name of the International Bible Society, initially founded in 1809 as the New York Bible Society.  In a way that’s hard to imagine in today’s New York City, that’s where the group formed.  One of its founders?  Henry Rutgers.  Eventually the New York Bible Society became international, and like many good evangelicals, moved to Colorado Springs.  The money from continuing sales of the NIV must contribute to their somewhat posh-looking campus.  Meanwhile, Rutgers University has moved in quite a different direction.

Connections like this have always fascinated me.  Although much detritus has flowed under the bridge with all that water, I can still feel that brief, sharp release of endorphins when I pick up my well-used NIV.  I think of days of naive faith and all that has come after.  Yes, Bibles are big business, and yet somehow so very small.

Happy Birthday King James

Four centuries ago a literary landmark was published. Today marks the birthday of the King James Version of the Bible, arguably the most influential book ever published in the English language. Those active in scholarly circles at bibliocentric institutions are popping the cork on their sparkling grape juice today, since for many the King James Bible represents the real liberation of God’s message. In some sense, the KJV also represents the origins of Protestant movement. Liberating the Bible from the clutches of scholarly Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the King James Bible made the book accessible to the English-speaking world. As direct access to the Bible grew, the pontifical power of Rome (with apologies to besainted John Paul II) came increasingly under question. Inquiring minds wanted to know what God himself said. Of course, the Bible soon enough would evolve into a lash in the able hands of power-hungry theocrats.

Today the New International Version outsells the venerated King James. Some very conservative groups still hold to the King James Version as an “inspired translation” that no others can touch. The New International Version was hailed by evangelicals as a more up-to-date, safe translation of the Bible when it first appeared. The fact remains, however, that translations can never fully replicate the original. This is a major problem of bibliolatry. Languages are systems of thought and direct translation never fully captures the “meaning” of the original. Few who adore the Bible have the time to truly learn Hebrew and Greek, so guardianship of the truth must be passed to a reliable translation. The King James, in turn, also became the basis for some shaky theological ideas that are challenged by more accurate translations.

As the Internet rings with stories of the death of Osama bin Laden, the dangers of absolute religious adherence to any book of faith should become clear. Bibles, Qurans, Talmuds – these may be guideposts along the way, but they are often mistaken for the end of the journey. Written texts are subject to interpretation and even the KJV is read different ways by different believers. Instead of worshipping books, we would be better advised to read them. And if from that reading we learn to think then the time of the original composers of sacred writ will not have been wasted. That would be cause for celebration indeed.

Lost in Translations

Furor is up like storm waves concerning a revision of the New International Version of the Bible according to the Associated Press. Evangelical groups, fearful lest the word of God be misrepresented (!), claim nothing is wrong with the Old New International Version. The story of biblical translation is long and colorful and peppered with more than a few deaths. People, originally especially Europeans and Americans, but spreading like swine flu around the world with the missionary movement, are very concerned about being certain they have they exact words from the Author himself.

Concern with having the correct answer is natural enough, but the goal of a perfect translation is unattainable. The basic reason is that translation, like Bible-writing, is a human endeavor. And people just don’t achieve perfection. Also, words often betray us. I used to ask students what the word “die” means. Some would say to cease living, while others would say it was the singular form of dice. Some even recognized it as the nominative, feminine singular definite article in German. The truth is, however, that words do not have meanings. Words are symbols that have usages, but the letters “d-i-e” in that order mean only what we intend for them to indicate in any given circumstance. Certainty is a mirage; it can never be reached.

A few years back Today’s New International Version was published and it has been called “an emblem of division in the evangelical Christian world,” by Moe Girkins, president of Zondervan (owned by Rupert Murdoch). Even among self-identified evangelicals unanimity is illusory. Each person’s religious beliefs start to differ from everyone else’s in the privacy of his or her own head. That is because everyone is unique. The Bible can be made to “mean” whatever an individual wants it to mean. Until we became merged into some Borg-esque entity new translations will be loved by some and hated by most.