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.

Found in Translation

embassytownTraduttore, traditore—“translators are traitors”—is an Italian saying invested with a great deal of truth. Anyone who’s worked with the proliferation of languages in the world knows the truth of the adage. What is said in one language can’t be stated precisely in another language with all the depth and texture of the original. China Miéville’s Embassytown is a sprawling novel that addresses the question of how cultures evolved on widely separated world can ever understand one another. I can’t possibly go into a detailed summary of the story—it took me about 30 pages to begin to understand what was going on—but the book drew me in nevertheless and left me happy to have expanded my conceptual world.

The reason that I’m bringing this novel up in a forum where religion lurks in the background is that Miéville explicitly brings religion into his story. It may be impossible to explain precisely how he does this without the detailed summary that I’ve already begged off giving, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that in any sufficiently complex world religion emerges. We tend to think that religion is something that evolved from the slime and now that we’ve bathed in the light of pure reason it will eventually be washed into the gutter of discarded concepts. History demonstrates repeatedly that such is not the case. Religion is resilient and, dare I say it, inevitable. Human beings—perhaps also other conscious beings—know that there is something outside ourselves. That’s the foot in the door for higher beings or forces or worlds. In a word, religions.

Fiction writers frequently appeal to religions for verisimilitude. Are imaginary worlds believable without religions? It’s a long stretch. Star Wars has characters calling belief in the force a religion. Star Trek, in any number of episodes, dealt with gods. Anathem was based on the monastic ideal. Science fiction has trouble when it leaves religion completely out of the picture. A non-deistic universe is nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Even great scientists and other rationalists occasionally lapse into thoughts about luck, fate, or fortune. Embassytown doesn’t focus on religion throughout, of course. It may be a minor subplot. But translating an alien world with a language that can’t be understood into a fiction of English is facilitated by putting a religion into the general mix. This is a smart and complex world, but when you read it you’ll find it believable because a religion naturally emerges. And that, I say, is realism.

Stealing God Blind

Photo credit: Raul 654, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: Raul 654, Wiki Commons

A friend who also works in the book trade recently revealed that the section in one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar book stores most liable to theft is Bibles. I’m not really surprised, I guess. Faith can do strange things to people, giving them justifications for thievery in the name of a higher authority. What it really doesn’t reflect, however, is just what a financial liability a Bible can be. My friend speculated that people believe that the Bible should be free, and, in a sense they have a point. If it is the word of God, as they likely believe, then it should be in the public domain. The problem is, the Bible’s not as simple as all that. The problem begins with the fact that “the Bible” does not exist in any definitive form. Every single one of the original manuscripts has long been lost and we have copies of copies of copies, etc., of those putative manuscripts. And they are in foreign languages—technically dead languages, at that. (Although Greek and Hebrew are still spoken, the biblical forms of those languages died out long ago.) So, are the Hebrew and Greek texts in the public domain?

Maybe, but. The texts from which translators make English (or other modern language) Bibles are based on compilations of various documents that have come to represent the accepted, textually correct ancient language versions of the Bible. These are protected by copyright since they are relatively modern editions. Some of the older ones are available in the public domain, but they are outdated. Even skipping all that, when we get to English Bibles, such as the King James Version (but not the New King James Version, where the “new” modifies “version,” presumably, and not “King James”), the text is in the public domain but the printed book still costs money to manufacture. One of the problems with Bible mythology is that some think this implies that Bibles just drop down from God. In actuality, they have to be edited, typeset, printed, shipped, and stocked, and the people who do this work have to be paid. In short, free text is not free.

I work for a major (but by no means the biggest) producer of Bibles. Even in my short time at the press, I have come to realize that Bible publishing is complex and expensive. Sure, you can print cheap editions and give them away like the Gideons do, but they have financial backing to buy and distribute cheap words of the Lord. There’s a sense of entitlement here: if God spoke, wasn’t it to all people? What about the Quran? The Book of Mormon? Science and Health? Some may castigate the Bible, but it is a genre-defining true original. And although one of the ten commandments declares stealing is wrong, some wonder how this can possibly apply to Bibles. It’s the middle-men and women. Stealing a Bible is cheating someone from a bit of their livelihood. Even if the Almighty turns a blind eye.

Presumption Be Thy Name

I once dashed an email off to a colleague in a hurry. The email concerned, in some way, the Judeo-Christian deity, known in the Hebrew Bible by the tetragrammaton YHWH. Quite unintentionally, my harried fingers tapped out YWHW—an honest, if impious, mistake. My colleague, who happens to be Jewish, immediately pointed out my unintentional blasphemy—one more casualty of the computer age. Naturally, I apologized and life went on. (I try not to spin out the larger implications.) The point is, based on the third (some would say “second”) commandment, Judaism has strongly preserved the taboo on using the divine name at all. God’s name is spelled without vowels to prevent anyone from trying to say it, and when written with the vowels of the word “lord” (adonai) gives us the false form Jehovah. Casual use of the divine name is considered offensive, and some would say it’s swearing.

HebraicRootsBibleWhile on Amazon.com the other day—it is the site to which I go for solace; so many books! So many books!—I came across the Hebraic Roots Bible. Subtitled “A Literal Translation,” it was clear that this was yet another well-intentioned, but ill-fated attempt to make the definitive English translation of the Hebrew Bible. True, literal translation is a chimera. Languages are thought-systems and can only be approximated in other languages. Those who wish to read the Bible literally must become proficient in Hebrew and Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic. In any case, none of that caught my attention. Without a hint of irony, the author of this book was listed as Yahweh. In case you’ve been wondering why some prayers are going unanswered, you may have your answer here—the Almighty has been busy writing a book!

My first reaction was a coy smile. That is kind of a cute selling point. But then I realized there was likely no humor to it. This was probably understood to be read literally: Yahweh wrote this book. I wonder who he got to write the Foreword. My error to my Jewish colleague was, literally, unintentional. This was literally scary. Who would be bold enough to claim that their own interpretation was the word of I Am himself? Why did he wait until 2012 to publish it? Blasphemy comes in a variety of forms. While still at Routledge, one of my Jewish authors insisted that I strike the blasphemy clause (standard for many publishing contracts) from his agreement. “Who can write anything that isn’t considered blasphemy by somebody?” he reasonably asked. The thought comes back to me, looking at the Hebraic Roots Bible. The author’s name, after all, didn’t even make it onto the cover of the book.

Mercurial Monotheism

A friend recently asked about Isaiah 45.7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” I remember as a college student how professors tended to translate the problem away. Perhaps I was too young to understand the truth of the Italian phrase, “Traduttore, tradittore”—if I may betray myself—“translators are traitors.” I eventually did come to learn that those who’d already decided what the Bible meant could translate troublesome passages according to their biases. In this case the connotations aren’t even necessary to raise hackles, for the denotations do so fine just by themselves. Let’s put Isaiah 45 in context first. This remarkable chapter is an oracle from the beginnings of the Persian period that show Yahweh doing things in unexpected ways. It begins by calling Cyrus the Lord’s anointed—yes, that is the Hebrew word for “messiah”—the people of Judah had been in exile a long while and Cyrus, king of Persia, was their deliverer.

Back then, as even today, some would’ve been scandalized at this turn of phrase. The Judahites were beginning to develop the idea that the messiah would be a mystical deliverer, someone who would free them from the sad lot of being deportees. Some thought the messiah might be a divine figure. Here Yahweh is declaring a non-Jew, a foreign king, as a messiah. You can be sure there was some questioning of the prophet’s words. Second Isaiah, however, throws a well-timed curve in verse 7: God can do this because God creates both good and evil. This is a consequence of emerging monotheism. In a polytheistic world, you could have a plethora of deities. Monotheism, however, quickly runs afoul of the question of evil. If there is one god, where does it come from? Deutero-Isaiah shows Yahweh is capable of surprising things. The verse’s plain sense is blatant. Bald. Obvious. Yahweh creates both good and evil. Otherwise monotheism would be making false claims.

In college professors tried to insist that “evil” here wasn’t that really bad kind of evil, but rather something milder—a filtered cigarette rather than a Cuban cigar. They were prevaricating, however, as I learned when I too took up Greek and Hebrew. Evangelicals like to read monotheism into the Bible from the beginning, but the Bible itself fights against them here. Monotheism, like everything else, evolved. By the time Isaiah 45.7 was being penned, it was necessary to show that Marduk, and Enlil, and Ishtar had nothing to do with Jerusalem’s destruction and the fate of the deportees. No, this was Yahweh’s doing. And there was no apology for it. Monotheism had come, but at the cost of Yahweh’s innocence. According to this part of the Bible, the origin of evil is no mystery—it is the same as the genesis of all good things.

Who's your messiah now?

Who’s your messiah now?

The Afterthought

This week I finished Genesis 2 on my venture to tweet the Bible, and even before reaching the famous snake scene in Genesis 3, I blushed. Not in a good way. Reading each word of the text in King James English (ironically, technically Elizabethan English), it becomes clear just how androcentric the text is. As a reader with sensitivity to historical eras, it is important not to judge the past by present standards. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be offended at the assumed male primacy that had begun to be dismantled, only to be propped up again by sacred writ. As soon as people began to realize that sexual dimorphism did not equate to sexual dominance, the Bible came into the hands of the laity and there, beginning in Genesis 2, became the prooftext that women were made for men. Note: “for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

One of these things is not like the others...

This passage is, of course, very familiar. Too familiar. Accompanying the ready availability of the Bible was the concept of divine writing. To a society of chamber pots and horse manure in the streets, the idea that God could write a book was sensible enough. The problem is, as our sophistication grew, our biblical sense couldn’t keep pace. Centuries later with probes soaring beyond our solar system, rovers on the moon, and space stations circling the planet, we still believe God wrote a book. And since God is male, the man’s point of view is normative. Of course, no one knows the reason for the story of Adam’s rib, but there is no doubt that ancient society, at least in this instance, was hopelessly patriarchal. It is society that determined which words would be considered sacred. The tale they chose matched their worldview.

The problem is that worldview gave an excuse to a patriarchal tour de force that has lasted for dozens of generations leaving women in their biblically predetermined place. There may be no sin as insidious as literalism. Those who cling to the King James do so only with special pleading, for anyone who has studied Hebrew (or any foreign language) knows that translation is an inexact science. Even Genesis 1 with man and woman created the same day, both in the image of God, still lists man first. Ironically the literalists miss the humor of a God who thinks man will be satisfied with the animals. Presumably all the animals were guys at this point, although the Bible literally doesn’t say. No religion that claims victims has the right to declare itself universally true.

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.