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.

Becoming Biblical

The average reader has difficulty sorting out what’s biblical or not. For example, when Cyrus Scofield began putting 4004 BC [sic] as the date of creation in his annotated Bibles, people thought the date was biblical. It was, literally, “in the Bible.” I used to tell my students that there’s a cultural belief that everything bound between the covers of a Bible is biblical. If so, I’ve just become biblical myself. I must say, it comes with mixed feelings. For the many people with whom I’ve worked on the New Oxford Annotated Bible, having their names inside is an expectation. Employees, however, sometimes make it in, too, in a prefatory way. I was touched to see my moniker there, on Bible paper, amid Holy Writ. Almost life-changing. A little scary.

Imagine a post-apocalyptic world. (I know, it’s easier now than it was just a few short months ago.) What if all books were wiped out except a copy of the book fondly abbreviated NOAB? Some Leibowitzian monk might come across it, and, recognizing that it’s sacred dare to open it, not comprehending the language but eager to begin again. Am I ready to be in such a book? Nobody reads prefaces, I know, but this is the widest circulation my humble family name has ever achieved. In there with Joseph, Job, and Jesus. It’s heady stuff. I’ll be on the shelves of used bookstores from now on. For a guy who’s books have been printed only in the 300 run range, this is dizzying. And not too bad for being only an administrator. None of my deans ever made it into the Good Book.

Surely there’s some grim responsibility that accompanies becoming biblical? Some consummation devoutly to be wished? Looking around at my fellow biblical characters, I’m not so sure. Many cases of men behaving badly surround me. None of them, I expect, had intended to be biblical either. Time and circumstance led to their elevated status. Modern biblical people tend to be famous only among their own guild. Some gain wider recognition, to be sure, but none share the name recognition of those recalled by the unknown recorders of sacred scripture. I’ve written books of my own, and been acknowledged as a scholar and editor in other peoples’ books, but never before have I found myself in such exalted, if accidental company. Where does one go from here? A Herostratus of Holy Writ? I can’t help but wondering if Jeremiah started off working in a cubicle.