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Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages
by Jaroslav Pelikan
(274 pages, $24.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Patrick Gray
Because Jews and Christians have always affirmed that the Bible is, in some sense, “the word of God,” Jaroslav Pelikan admits that it may seem “not only presumptuous but blasphemous” to pose the question that provides the title of his latest work. Pelikan, retired professor of history at Yale whose works on Jesus, Mary, Luther, Bach, Faust, the creeds of Christendom, and the US Constitution have won many admirers (how many writers can boast of dust-jacket blurbs from Rowan Williams, Harold Bloom, John T. Noonan, and Joseph Ratzinger?), here provides a lively and accessible survey of the Bible’s history from its beginnings in Israelite oral traditions to its present status as “the book of books.”
To oversimplify only slightly, this volume is in large part a commentary on the Bible’s table of contents: What, exactly, is in the Bible? How and when did it get there? Why are there differences between the tables of contents found in Bibles used by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants? How has the process of translating and printing the Bible affected how it is organized and received?
Pelikan addresses each of these questions and pays special attention to the ways in which the answers are contingent upon social, cultural, and even political factors with little explicit connection to the text of Scripture.
Perhaps not surprisingly for an adult convert to Orthodox Christianity (from Lutheranism), Pelikan has a keen appreciation for the historical and theological significance of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced in the Hellenistic period when most Jews were living outside the land of Israel. And for good reason. It is no small matter that when the New Testament writers quote Scripture, more often than not they are quoting from the Greek version.
Pelikan also calls attention to significant non-events: When the lingua franca of the western Mediterranean shifted from Greek to Latin, the apologetic motivations within Judaism responsible for the creation of the Septuagint did not produce a Latin translation. To fill this vacuum, Jerome began work on the Vulgate, which became the official version of the Bible in the west for the next thousand years.
While the bulk of the volume covers the period up through the Renaissance and Reformation, the author also summarizes the cultural impact made by the Bible as well as developments in critical scholarship from the Enlightenment to the present. Some of these effects are mundane, such as the gradual increase in the popularity of biblical names for babies at the expense of saints’ names, once the printing press made the Bible more widely available.
And sometimes it seems not to have had any effect. More people read and studied the Bible during the twentieth century than during the preceding nineteen combined, but, Pelikan suggests, it is sobering to remember that the same century has probably seen more persecution and bloodshed than any other in history. “Sometimes it seems that the dominant biblical metaphor of the age has not been the liberating exodus of the people of Israel . . . but the four horsemen of the Apocalypse—war, famine, pestilence, and death.”
Pelikan’s erudition and love for his topic is evident on every page. If the volume has a weakness, it is perhaps that in some respects it is not long enough. Readers who want to revisit some of the fascinating topics touched on by the author will find the lack of an index a bit frustrating, and the incomplete endnotes will prevent the curious from following up on some of the intriguing historical anecdotes he includes.
Did you know, for example, that for much of the twentieth century, incoming US senators would receive a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s cut-and-paste edition of the Gospels? Or that Ulphilas, the fourth-century “apostle to the Goths” omitted the Book of Kings from his translation of the Bible on the grounds that the Goths hardly needed more encouragement in their war-like ways?
By the end of this history, two things about the Bible become clear. One is that, at least in terms of the cultural forces that shaped it and were subsequently unleashed by it, “the Christian Scriptura has never been sola.”
The other is that the title was not chosen haphazardly. Whose Bible is it? Pelikan argues that while “it is profoundly true that there are truths in the Bible that only the eyes of faith can see, it is also true that the eyes of unfaith have sometimes spotted what conventional believers have been too preoccupied or too bemused to acknowledge.” But even as the Bible has become a book for the whole human race, it seems unlikely that the primary impulse for reading it will ever come from outside the church or synagogue.
Patrick Gray teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and their two children.