A Baffled Buyer's Guide to the Good Book

By Gilmour, Peter | U.S. Catholic, May 1997 | Go to article overview

A Baffled Buyer's Guide to the Good Book


Gilmour, Peter, U.S. Catholic


He thought it would be easy to buy a Bible, a birthday gift for a godchild. The bookseller directed him to section 41. There he found more than 35 linear feet of shelving stocked with myriad editions of the Bible. Like cereals lining the aisle of a huge grocery store, the variety was overwhelming.

This would-be purchaser of a gift Bible returned home empty-handed. Worse yet, he felt empty-headed. He knew the Bible was central to his Christianity. When faced with making an intelligent selection of a specific edition of the Bible, however, he froze.

Catholic interest in the Bible, energized by Vatican II, has been on the increase since the mid-1960s. Since then scripture has been proclaimed in English in the liturgy. Bible-study groups now routinely gather in Catholic parishes. Most religious education programs have replaced catechism-based materials with more directly Bible-based materials. And the Bible functions as a focal point for many base communities.

Many Catholics today attest to a great love of scripture. They possess significant and worthwhile knowledge of some biblical passages and stories. Yet when Catholics are faced with buying a Bible as a gift for a friend or relative or for themselves to read and study, they often feel ill at ease.

The many translations and editions of the Bible, like the boxes in the grocery store's cereal aisle, vie for attention and purchase. Neil Heskin, owner of Earthen Vessels, a Christian bookstore in Arlington Heights, Illinois, reports one of his suppliers carries 22 different translations of the Bible. At his well-stocked store Bibles range in price from $6.95 to $80.

"Most people are looking for an easy to understand Bible, a good translation. A few want one like their grandmother had, a family Bible that sits on their coffee table." Bibles in his store sell year round, but particularly well during the Christmas shopping season and "also in spring with Easter, Confirmations, and First Communions," Heskin reports. "It equals the Christmas rush. And in June family Bibles are a popular wedding gift."

Step into God's library

There are other reasons, in addition to the vast number of choices, that make it difficult for people to make an intelligent selection of a Bible. These reasons center around the particular nature of this book itself. The Bible is quite unlike our contemporary experience of books.

The word Bible has its roots in the Greek word meaning a "collection of writings," a library in essence. This is a valuable clue by which to approach and appreciate the Bible. We should not think about the Bible as a single book, but as a collection of books.

Another contrast between contemporary books and the Bible centers on authorship. Today we expect that the named author has written that book. Not so with biblical authorship. Many books of the Bible, even though ascribed to one writer, had multiple authors. The final written version of many books of the Bible are compilations of texts, many of which had their origins in spoken words and were committed to writing only after these stories had established themselves in an oral tradition.

The arrangement of the biblical books is yet another contrast between the Bible and our experience of books today. Like other libraries, the library of the Bible was collected over a long period of time. One cannot approach the Bible assuming that the various books were written in the order they appear in the Bible.

For example, the most ancient portions of the Old Testament are considered to be parts of the Book of Exodus, not Genesis, and the oldest portions of the New Testament are considered to be some of Paul's epistles, not the Book of Revelation. Also the Gospel of Mark predates the Gospel of Matthew--probably by at least 20 years--but Matthew's gospel gets placed first in the New Testament.

The Bible was first spoken and then written by many disparate peoples. …

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