CNN runs a “Belief Blog” that, according to the description, “covers the faith angles of the day’s biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers’ lives.” Apparently there’s a raging controversy that has tossed up the scribblings of one Timothy Beal, a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Beal has made a monumental discovery that he wants to share with CNN readers: apparently, there are multiple versions of this Bible thingy. Who knew?
Ronald Reagan once said that if he were shipwrecked on a desert island and could have only one book to read for the rest of his life, it would be the Bible.
I wish someone would’ve asked, which one? Which version? Protestant? Jewish? Catholic? Orthodox? Syriac? Each has a different table of contents.
The Jewish one obviously doesn’t include the New Testament, but it also has a different order, beginning with the Torah, considered the core of scriptures, then the Nevi’im, or “prophets,” then the Ketuvim, or “writings.”
And you know that when you put the books in a different order, that can be confusing and stuff. Someone might turn the page after finishing Kings and come to Isaiah rather than Chronicles, and start questioning their faith and wondering if maybe Scientology has the answers and, and, well, I just can’t imagine the problems that would stir up.
The Catholic Bible includes all of the Protestant Bible plus seven additional books, known as the Apocrypha, as well as significantly different versions of and additions to the books of Esther and Daniel.
Different Orthodox Bibles (Greek, Ethiopian, Slavonic, etc.) include those plus other apocryphal books as well as a collection of poems known as the Book of Odes. So does the traditional Syriac Bible, but it does not include Revelation and four other New Testament books found in other canons.
This has, obviously, been a point of debate among Christians, and I don’t want to downplay the important of the argument. But it is also the case that most of the difference between Christians don’t revolve around whether Tobit is in the canon or not.
And which translation would he bring? There are dozens available, and they vary widely in both style and theology. Many of the most popular ones today are highly interpretive “meaning-driven” versions in which translators don’t translate word-for-word but instead write what they believe conveys the equivalent meaning of larger blocks of text.
So “my cup runneth over” might become “you blow me away.” Or a passage buried in Leviticus that prohibits a man from lying with another man as though with a woman (other no-no’s in this list include adultery, sex with a woman on her period, and marrying a divorcee or a brother’s widow) becomes a universal ban on homosexuality. Put two translations side-by-side, and you may find yourself hard pressed to know if they’re even translating the same passage.
This is the stuff you expect from a village atheist, not a religion professor, who should know that the vast majority of translational difference don’t make any difference in what Scripture teaches. In fact, most varying translations are easily discerned to be saying just about the same thing. As for the multiplicity of versions, that may be good or bad, but again has little to do with actually understanding what the text says.
Oh, and that reference to homosexuality is probably the key to understanding where Dr. Beal is coming from. There isn’t actually any debate about how the verses that refer to homsexual behavior should be translated; the real debate is over how they should be applied.
And which edition would he bring? A good old-fashioned floppy black leather one? Or a niche-market edition like “The Golfer’s Bible,” loaded with full-color pictures and “inspirational messages teed up to reach the golfer’s heart.”
Then again, depending on the terrain and climate of his island, “The Waterproof Bible: Sportsman’s Edition” might be a more practical choice. How about one of the many Manga Bibles on the market? Or a Biblezine, a Bible in magazine form filled with jump-off-the-page callouts and graphic features on balancing work and play, shopping, healthy eating, and finding love? Or one of the thousands of study Bibles loaded with notes and commentaries telling you what it means according this or that (usually conservative) viewpoint?
And at this point he’s just making himself look foolish. Ask yourself this: suppose you listen, back-to-back, to two versions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One is by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, the other by the Wiener Philharmoniker under Leonard Bernstein. (I use these because I’ve heard them both.) Are they recordings of the same symphony? Of course. Are they identical to one another? No–there are small, minor variations that reflect the personality and interpretation of the conductor. If you take von Karajan to a desert island rather than Bernstein, do you have to spend the rest of your pitiful existence decrying the fact that your on a desert island without Beethoven’s Ninth?
Or take an example even closer to the subject at hand. In my library, I’ve got two editions of The Way of a Pilgrim, the classic work of Russian spirituality. One is the classic translation by Reginald French, the other is translated by Gleb Pokrovsky and contains annotations. There are minor differences in the language, but the message is clear in both. The annotations in the Pokrovsky version are helpful, but not essential. So, if I take French’s version to a desert island, so I have The Way of a Pilgrim with me or not?
Dr. Beal sums up what he’s getting at with all this when he writes:
There is no “the Bible,” no book that is the one and only Bible. There are lots and lots of Bibles. They come in many different physical and digital forms with a great variety of content – different canons, translations, notes, commentaries, pictures, and so on.
To which I say, what’s your point? Anyone who knows anything about the Bible, who has taken any time at all to acquaint himself with it and its background, knows all this. There is nothing mysterious about it, and there’s no real significance to most of it except the canon question. So what is he really getting at?
I suppose you can probably guess the agenda through the reference to homosexuality. It isn’t about the answers, but about the questions, allegedly:
Life is crazy uncertain, so it’s understandable that many of us want religion and especially the Bible to offer deliverance from it. But it doesn’t. It’s not a rock but a river, not a book of answers but a library of questions. When we take it seriously, and soberly, it calls us deeper into the wilderness – away from the sunny shoreline of the island and toward the uncharted interior.
Yep, the Bible: it’s not a book, it’s a map of Transylvania in Klingon; it’s not a religious text, it’s a broken GPS system. It’s not a book of answers, so we get to provide those ourselves, and voilà–we get to remake God and His commands in our own, liberal, academic, postmodern image. Ain’t life without any answers save the ones you’re comfortable with grand?