Classic Review: Whose Bible Is It?

Article excerpt

The scriptures have power to both divide and conquer.

[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on May 31,

2005.] The news is brimming with religion. People of faith are taking

strong stands on both sides of political issues. Jewish settlers are

proclaiming a divine right to hold onto land. Evangelicals travel to

tsunami-devastated corners of the world offering their faith as the

answer for life's tribulations.

At the heart of these manifestations are people's encounters with

Holy Scriptures - and their differing interpretations of what the

sacred texts mean.

Over the millennia, both Jewish and Christian communities have been

shaped and reshaped by translations and reinterpretations of biblical

writings.

In Whose Bible Is It?, distinguished religious historian Jaroslav

Pelikan of Yale University offers a masterly overview of this complex

development of the Bible over the ages. From its beginnings in the

spoken word and oral tradition, through the gathering of written

books into canons, to the influence of changing interpretive methods,

Pelikan weaves a tapestry of the power of the Word to mold religious

communities, nations, and culture.

This engaging, concise, and highly readable work demonstrates that

the most influential book in Western civilization has always held

different meanings for different peoples. Yet it represents

fundamentally a "testimony of faith in the action of God."

Research has brought into question the historical basis of some

narratives, but the meaning of those stories, Pelikan says, continues

to resonate with people of various cultures in deep and convincing

ways. (While fewer Americans are now familiar with the Bible -

surveys show an astonishing ignorance of basics - millions around the

world are reading it in some 450 languages.)

In describing the evolution of various translations, Pelikan

clarifies how the scriptures have both unified religious groups and

divided them from one another - Jew from Christian, Catholic from

Eastern Orthodox, Protestant from Catholic, Protestant from

Protestant.

"The history of Jewish-Christian relations, and then the history of

the division within Christendom, is at one level the history of

biblical interpretation," he says. This remains true today as the

deepest split in Christianity is not between denominations but across

denominations over perceptions of the Bible.

In Judaism, the written scriptures are called the Tanakh, and

include the Torah (the Pentateuch), the prophets, and other writings

(Psalms, Proverbs, etc.).

The canon was fixed in the first century CE. Yet Jews living in

Egypt had earlier translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, making

them a part of world literature.

It was this Greek translation (the Septuagint) that became the Old

Testament of the Christian Bible, with Christians appropriating the

Jewish scriptures as their own. Viewing Christianity as the

fulfillment of biblical promise, and emphasizing an allegorical

interpretation, they found references to Jesus where Jews saw other

meanings.

"Yet at some point, this 'stupendous claim' of prophecy and

fulfillment could no longer function with the combination of written

Tanakh and oral tradition ... but had to develop its own written

authority ... what we now call 'the New Testament,' " Pelikan writes.

In shaping this testament, disputes arose over the written gospels.

The first agreement came in the mid-4th century, and the canon was

formally settled in 692, incorporating books seen as connected to the

apostles. …