Classic Review: Whose Bible Is It?
Lampman, Jane, The Christian Science Monitor
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
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 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