Thanks to Caitlin and Kevin who provided much needed feedback before I posted this prematurely.

bibleness
noun, abstract
the somewhat unquestioned characteristic of being or relating to or transmitting the inerrant and infallible language of God directly to a recipient.
“When I walked into the Family Christian Bookstore, I could just smell the bibleness.”
“I’m pretty disappointed that MXPX albums seem to have lost their bibleness over the years.”

bible
verb, intr
1. to evoke in a reader or a reading community a categorical sense of bibleness.
“Why didn’t Martin Luther have confidence that the book of James bibled well enough to be included in the canon? I always thought it bibled better than Song of Solomon, if I’m being honest.”
2. to bible around with: To unquestioningly categorize a textual artifact as having indisputable bibleness and to engage with it accordingly.
“I confess that I bibled around with a book called Ecclesiasticus until I realized it was part of the Apocrypha. Since then I’ve kept my bibling within the bounds of biblegateway.com just to be safe.”

Picture a Bible; what do you see? The immediate answer in my mind involves a thick black leather-bound book with thin pages, sometimes with gold along the edges. A page of the Bible in my mind is much more busy than your typical best-selling novel, as it has smaller print, two main columns of text interspersed with numbers and abbreviations. Sometimes the text slips into italics to indicate some information about translation (maybe?), or [it might be bracketed] for another kind of reference. In between the two columns of text, I imagine a very narrow column with even smaller print with references like “22. a. Gen.10:44″. Sometimes, actually, there is a horizontal line–at times as far up as the middle of the page –separating two columns of the main text from explanatory footnotes. Sometimes early pages will have a preface or an explanation of the translation or much more. Later pages sometimes have an index or concordance and some even contain glossy colorful maps of the ancient world.

The Bible in my mind also has a specific number of sections (books, we call them)– 39 in what we call “The Old Testament” and 27 in what we call “The New Testament.” Sometimes I’ll have a Bible with just 28 or 29 books– the whole New Testament with the book of Psalms and sometimes Proverbs included. If you come from a Mormon, Catholic, or Orthodox background, your numbers might be different, but I’m sure you have black-leather books just the same.

While I know rationally that different versions of the text exist in English, the Bible in my mind always begins with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Going to check just a few of the bibles on my mantel, I find that some begin just like that: “In the (a)beginning (b)God created the heavens and the earth” (NKJV), or “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (ESV). Others are quite different, like:  “001 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth” (The Message), or even “When God began to create heaven and earth . . .” (Five Books of Moses). Regardless of the different translations I know exist, the Bible in my mind will always say “In the beginning” and it will always be an automatic impulse to assume that that is the correct way to do it.

Another complication about bibles is that every single one of my bibles includes what could technically be called “non-biblical text” within its pages. Yes, major portions of my bibles are not all Bible, but rather modern editors making and explaining interpretive choices. And it is here where we get an explosion of Bible-production activity, where Zondervan makes the big bucks. Timothy Beal (2011) hypothesizes that the Bible-production market, which sold 6,134 different kinds of Bibles in 2005 (bonus points for anyone who can find current numbers on that), is appealing to consumers’ “felt needs” to gain access to God’s word in their lives with minimal effort. Hence the Teen Study Bible or The Bride’s Bible or The Metal Bible (i.e., heavy metal: “with the hippest exterior ever”) (Beal, 2011: p. 49). No matter how you feel about these Bibles, they seem to be scratching someone’s itch– meeting someone’s needs. Beal offers this:

“At the heart of all [these] felt needs is the longing for the iconic Bible, the literal Word of God between two covers. Bible publishers are not selling Bibles. What they’re selling is that iconic idea of the Bible. Their value-added biblical content promises, and speaks in no uncertain terms about God’s plan for your life and how to live it. Adding value to the Bible almost always means adding “biblical” values that are either missing or really hard to find in the Bible itself but that provide that feeling of Bibleness so many seek” (50)

Before I’m accused of hating God and the Bible, I should say, that I, like most evangelical Christians, have my own opinions of which Bibles have the most Bibleness. I do believe it’s probably possible for some Bibles to bible more biblically than others. I just don’t think it’s a straightforward question. And I certainly KNOW that 100% agreement among the Christianities about which Bible bibles the bibliest is under such intense debate, that the different viewpoints probably have stopped talking to each other decades ago.

I might be crazy, but I think it’s constructive to ask myself, when does a Bible on my shelf start and stop being biblical? How much “biblical” text is necessary for my Christianities to consider something “a bible”? How much and what kind of added text is too much or not enough for my different communities to begin to find it suspicious? What bibles would have been biblical enough for Paul, who is said to have written, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV)? What about for Jesus? St. Augustine? or the illiterate medieval saint Margery Kempe? What about David’s bibles? Or St. John’s, who wrote, “And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll” (Revelation 22:19 NIV)?

When do our bibles bible biblically enough for God?

So with these questions in mind, let’s move on to what I hope will be a recurring segment that we will call, “WILL IT BIBLE?”

Below are 3 different items available for purchase in your local bookstores that, from one perspective or another, could be considered “Bibles”. It’s my assumption that some of these “Bibles” will bible biblier in your communities than others. But which “Bible” bibles the bibliest is certainly a subject of debate.

The Scofield Study Bible KJV Classic Edition (with 1917 notes)

Frances FitzGerald highlights the publication of this particular Bible as a turning point in American evangelical history:

“Published by Oxford University Press in 1901, the Scofield Reference Bible had a41bhbhohy0l-_sx349_bo1204203200_n attractive format with copious notes on the pages that identified biblical characters and permitted readers to follow themes from one book to the next through a system of cross-references. […] From it many Americans learned for the first time […] that the creation occurred in 4004 BC after a catastrophe destroyed the ‘primitive order,’ killing all the animals and leaving their fossils. […B]ut mainly it canonized dispensationalism. […] Not only did it reach a mass audience, but it also proved far more persuasive than any dispensationalist tract. Interpolated within the text of the King James Bible, the notes seemed the authoritative interpretation–if not part of the Bible itself. According to students of the subject, readers often could not remember whether a particular idea they encountered came from the notes or text, and some memorized the notes along with biblical verses” (FitzGerald, 2017: 101-102; my bolding).

It’s no coincidence that this Bible’s popularity took off in 1917 during the first World War, a time when many American Christians began to anticipate Christ’s second coming at any moment. According to a dispensationalist Christianity (often attributed to John Nelson Darby [1800-1882] in America’s post-Civil War period), the Bible teaches that the history of the world could be broken up into several “dispensations”: some of which included Innocence in the Garden of Eden; the Law beginning with Moses and ending with Jesus (or thereabouts); the time of Grace which accounted for the history of the early church up until “The Great Tribulation” which would involve a rapture of God’s chosen people (see Wikipedia and tell me if I’m getting this right). Scofield’s particular readings of (what I find to be) difficult prophecies (from which he predicts the Jews’ return to Palestine, or asserts that Magog in Ezekiel 38 refers specifically to Russia in the 20th century) continue to be held today not only in many American church communities, but they also have great influence on US political discourse. Stances on issues from US foreign policy regarding Israel to beliefs about climate change can seem to Scofield Bible readers biblically justified, while readers of other Bibles with different commentaries may tend toward very different interpretations.

So, the question I pose is, Does the Scofield Bible bible biblically? What about its bibling is or is not biblical? How could it bible better?

Reformation Study Bible (2015) ESV (edited by R.C. Sproul) 

Take a couple minutes and get a sense of what makes this Bible special according to its editor (Click here for the promotional video)

I bibled around with an earlier edition of this Bible for some time during my teenage years as an eager member of both a reformed presbyterian church and a reformed Christian school. The 31tj72bfdv2l-_sx355_bo1204203200_description on Amazon reads:

“The Reformation Study Bible (2015) has been thoroughly revised and carefully crafted under the editorial leadership of R.C. Sproul and the contributions of 75 distinguished theologians and pastors
from around the world. Over 1.1 million words of new, expanded, or revised commentary represent 40% more content faithfully presented to emphasize the need for the grace of God to lead out of darkness and into the light of Scripture.”

Formerly known as The New Geneva Study Bible (for the Swiss city of the 16th C. Reformer, John Calvin) this particular Bible and commentary purports to interpret biblical text through the lens of 16th c. Protestant Reformation teaching, or at least from a modern interpretation of 16th c. protestant Reformation interpretations. Not only does the Reformed Study Bible include R.C. Sproul’s interpretive commentary on nearly every verse, but it also contains both the Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession as well as the longer and the shorter catechisms (among others). Perhaps what sets it apart the most, however, is its supplementary articles on the following topics:

Apologetics
Canonicity
Covenant Theology
Creeds and Confessions
Hermeneutics
Inerrancy
New Testament Textual Criticism
Old Testament Textual Criticism
Preaching of the Reformation
The Reformation
The Bible in Church History
The Bible vs. Other Sacred Texts
Worship
Interpreting Scripture

R.C. Sproul proudly presents this Bible as a means to pass down the truth (in case you want to watch the promotional video again) to the next generation. Of course, the notion that biblical truth is best conjoined with 16th c. White European truth through the discerning authority of the 75 (mostly White European/American?) men who contributed to this text (yes, Sproul himself assures us that they are all men, which conservative reformed doctrine would consider a biblical move), is a question that different Christianities may contend.

So again, the question I pose is, Does Sproul’s Reformation Study Bible bible biblically? What about its bibling is or is not biblical? How could it bible better?

Robert Alter’s translations and commentaries of the Hebrew Bible

Far from invoking the authority of 16th c. Christian Reformers or espousing a dispensationalist politico-theology, Robert Alter’s approach to Bible translation and commentary seeks to present key biblical texts as literature, as opposed to historical accounts or a book of moral imperatives. Because of this, Alter’s main ideological commitment is to reconstruct the text as literally and as poetically true to the original Hebrew manuscripts as he possibly can.

This literal/poetic commitment affords Alter insight into Biblical passages that I never had access to in my more protestant Bibles. For example, Alter writes in his introduction:

The Hebrew noun zera’* has the general meaning of “seed,” which can be applied either to agricultural sense or to human beings, as the term for semen. By metaphorical extension, semen becomes the established designation for what it produces, progeny. [… The] term for offspring also meant semen and had a precise  equivalent in the vegetable world” (xx).

Thus Alter finds it justifiable to maintain the original Hebrew connotations when rendering Genesis 38:9 to say that Onan “knew that the seed would not be his” and that “he would waste his seed on the ground, so to give no seed to his brother.” (The KJV tends to translate the middle “seed” as “semen,” losing a bit of the poetic punch). Coupling this imagery with God’s promise to Abraham, that “I will bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and the sand on the shore of the sea” (Genesis 22:17), one can maybe see why many protestant Bibles tend to differentiate between seed and semen, avoiding the unseemly image of Abraham’s semen being as plentiful as the stars in the sky. Apparently the original Hebrew language doesn’t necessarily have the same sexual hang-ups.

Judith Shulevitz’s review of The Five Books is quick to assure readers that Alter does not overlook

“the Bible’s moral and spiritual dimensions; he could hardly do so, given that roughly half the Five Books is made up of laws, and the other half — the narrative half — is concerned with working out the covenants made by God with his chosen people. […] What Alter does with the Bible instead is read it, with erudition and rigor and respect for the intelligence of the editor or editors who stitched it together, and — most thrillingly — with the keenest receptivity to its darker undertones.”

And later

“Alter has thought these stories through to their shocking ends. Often enough his choice to be literal stems from the rare resolve not to look away from the text, even when it dismays us, or ought to.”

It’s very likely that this “Bible” falls short in many Christian communities in a number of ways. First of all, when the pastor says, “turn in your Bibles,” you might be the idiot who has to fumble with the buckle of their book-strap before they even find the appropriate book. Something about having all the books “between two covers” (as Beal put it above) is important for the social practice of Bible-study. Also, there are certainly books missing. Robert Alter does not seem to respect the opinion that the Bible is often a package deal– “buy one, get 65” as the saying goes. Perhaps the biggest hang-up people may find with Alter’s books even being included in this list of “Bibles” is that he failed to include the texts held by virtually every Christianity (maybe the singular works here, just this once!) — what we have come to call “The New Testament.” I wouldn’t hold my breath, however,  for Alter’s translation of Romans. It doesn’t seem to fit with his project, and that may be a deal-breaker for some.

So again, I pose the question. Will Robert Alter’s translations and commentaries bible biblically enough for your community? What about its bibling is or is not biblical? How could it bible better?

Conclusion

Much harder than picturing a Bible is picturing The Bible. I can point to five Bibles on my kitchen table right now. Which of those is The Bible? What would even go into answering that question?

. . . The Bible? . . .  

Maybe the question is absurd; maybe you would say there is no The Bible. Or maybe, all bibles are The Bible. Or maybe a couple bibles are close enough to The Bible. Brian Malley (2004), who conducted an anthropological study on evangelical Biblicism, looked carefully at what the Bible meant for different Christians.

For some the Bible does not need to be anything more complicated than the black leather-bound book that is without question the Word of God. No need to get scholarly, no need to dig deeper.   

For others the Bible is the physical artifact that once existed, of which we now have physical copies, some more accurate than others. In this case, the Bible is a text, which means “The Bible must be made out of words. These words may be inscribed in any medium or any encoding scheme whatsoever, but it must be words that are so encoded” (p. 61). And these words are precious and need to be preserved through the generations (cue the R.C. Sproul video).

For others, the Bible is more than a text: it is meaning. The text and the words may vary from copy to copy, but the meaning obtains. Genesis 1:1 may say, “In the beginning God created,” or “When God created in the beginning”– but the meaning is what matters, and the meaning at times is mysterious. And oftentimes for some Christians this meaning can only be accessed when looking at the scriptures; for others this meaning is also available on a long walk through the woods with a psalm in mind. Some argue that no scripture is necessary in those moments, and that in fact, language only gets in the way of Christ’s ultimate meaning.

I think all of these perspectives (maybe more?) on The Bible probably exist in any one Christian community. I would even imagine our perspectives change over time and certain perspectives make more sense in some seasons than others. Engaging other Christians in dialogue, then, may involve holding our Biblical ideologies (Bibleologies?) with “a grain of salt”, allowing our spiritual siblings to be honest about how they see the Bible in a given moment without our jumping to conclusions about their spiritual well-being, their intelligence, or their impending damnation. One of the two bottom lines in this blog is that it couldn’t hurt to talk honestly about it; but that requires patience and thinking the best in each other. We’ll have plenty of time after we hear each other out to believe the worst. 

I have to thank you readers for allowing me to talk honestly about what a bibling bible means in different Christian contexts. I’m looking forward to hearing about your bibling bibles. I’m certain the answers are nothing less than rich, complex, and dialogic. Share comments below to get the discussion going!

 

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2 thoughts on “Will it Bible? Whose Bible bibles the bibliest?

  1. (A friend sent me the following message about this post. (S)he said it was okay if I posted it to the blog. I think it’s a great example of how some people understand bibleness. I imagine, though, not everyone sees it this way.)

    I lol’ed at the commentary on Sproul’s Bible. While I’m thoroughly Reformed and my spiritual heritage weaves its way through different forms of Calvinism, I also believe that White northern Europeanism has a direct effect on certain theological emphases that don’t allow for continual Reformation, or even discussion.

    But I do believe the Bible to be the text transmitted. The commentary and study notes and bells and whistles can be helpful sometimes or terrible other times. I think the ESV did a really good job from the original languages with a proper balance of dynamic and formal equivalence. But I can understand the complaints about how it’s formal equivalence makes it harder to read in certain places.

    This is my geekiness.

    For it to Bible enough for me, it has to be a solid translation. Things like The Message Bible take way too much liberty and is way too distant from the actual formal equivalence of the original languages. What makes a solid translation? Well, reliable scholars committed to the perfection of scripture translating and reviewing at multiple levels. If I know they’re committed to honest translation of the text due to their presuppositions of God’s Word being inerrant, then I’m confident. And there are plenty of those translations out there. Some better than others. I also know that God will always preserve his Word.

    Like

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