The Bible's Place, Not Its Essence, Has Changed ; the Book of Books Still Plays a Central Role in an Information Age

Article excerpt

What is the Bible? The answer to this question is perhaps more complex than most of us realize, and it's vastly different from that of 1,000 years ago.

The text of the Scriptures hasn't varied; it is essentially the same as at the beginning of this millennium. But the place of the Bible in Western thought and culture has changed in many ways. Three particularly striking developments have forwarded these changes: the increasing accessibility of the Scriptures, the clash between the Bible and the sciences, and the rise of biblical archaeology.

Today's global citizen can locate a Bible with ease. There's one on the bookshelf or in the local library. We can trot over to a bookstore or flip on the computer. But 1,000 years ago, it was utterly different.

Bibles were expensive and rare. All books were written by hand. A talented scribe could hope to complete a 400-page book in about six months. With such a scarcity of written material, it's not surprising that literacy was uncommon, and a complete Bible unusual. The medieval person probably needed to be multilingual as well as wealthy and literate in order to read the Scriptures. By the year 1000, the original languages of the Old and New Testaments (ancient Hebrew and Greek) were dead languages.

As early as the Dark Ages, however, portions of Scripture had been translated or paraphrased into the vernacular. These were often inaccurate or slanted in a particular religious or political direction. But they spurred interest, especially by the 13th and 14th centuries, when literacy began to grow.

The printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1456 marked a revolution - an explosion - in the dissemination of information. By the end of the 15th century the Scriptures alone had been published in more than a hundred editions. The invention of movable type did not manufacture the Renaissance or the Protestant Reformation, but when Martin Luther began to preach his message of religious reform in the 16th century, he had the tools he needed to forward his cause.

The printing revolution gave the Scriptures to all mankind. To Luther and many other Christians, this was more than a gift of inspired religious teachings. The Bible was the supreme source of knowledge, the history of the development of mankind from Adam to the Apocalypse. The accuracy of its accounts could not be questioned.

But publishing was also nurturing a spirit of scholarly, scientific inquiry that led to tumultuous change in approaches to the Scriptures. The seeds of conflict between strict interpretations of the Old and New Testaments and scientific discoveries were planted in the Renaissance, and the friction reached its peak in the 19th century. …