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
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
"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
"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
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.
While the Greek Bible remained the text of Eastern Orthodoxy, the
Latin translation from the Greek - the Latin Vulgate - became the
Roman Catholic scripture, dominant in Western Europe for 1,000