The Bible's place, not its essence, has changed

The Book of Books still plays a central role in an information age

What is the Bible? The answer to this question is perhaps more complex than most of us realize, and it's vastly different from that of 1,000 years ago.

The text of the Scriptures hasn't varied; it is essentially the same as at the beginning of this millennium. But the place of the Bible in Western thought and culture has changed in many ways. Three particularly striking developments have forwarded these changes: the increasing accessibility of the Scriptures, the clash between the Bible and the sciences, and the rise of biblical archaeology.

Today's global citizen can locate a Bible with ease. There's one on the bookshelf or in the local library. We can trot over to a bookstore or flip on the computer. But 1,000 years ago, it was utterly different.

Bibles were expensive and rare. All books were written by hand. A talented scribe could hope to complete a 400-page book in about six months. With such a scarcity of written material, it's not surprising that literacy was uncommon, and a complete Bible unusual. The medieval person probably needed to be multilingual as well as wealthy and literate in order to read the Scriptures. By the year 1000, the original languages of the Old and New Testaments (ancient Hebrew and Greek) were dead languages.

As early as the Dark Ages, however, portions of Scripture had been translated or paraphrased into the vernacular. These were often inaccurate or slanted in a particular religious or political direction. But they spurred interest, especially by the 13th and 14th centuries, when literacy began to grow.

The printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1456 marked a revolution - an explosion - in the dissemination of information. By the end of the 15th century the Scriptures alone had been published in more than a hundred editions. The invention of movable type did not manufacture the Renaissance or the Protestant Reformation, but when Martin Luther began to preach his message of religious reform in the 16th century, he had the tools he needed to forward his cause.

The printing revolution gave the Scriptures to all mankind. To Luther and many other Christians, this was more than a gift of inspired religious teachings. The Bible was the supreme source of knowledge, the history of the development of mankind from Adam to the Apocalypse. The accuracy of its accounts could not be questioned.

But publishing was also nurturing a spirit of scholarly, scientific inquiry that led to tumultuous change in approaches to the Scriptures. The seeds of conflict between strict interpretations of the Old and New Testaments and scientific discoveries were planted in the Renaissance, and the friction reached its peak in the 19th century.

New interpretations of fossil discoveries and the articulation of the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin proved that the earth was billions of years older than Genesis implied. The six days of creation were supplanted by a process that discounted dust, ribs, and talking serpents.

Was Darwin "right" and the Bible "wrong"? Would paleontology and anthropology obliterate the message of the Scriptures? Or was there really a conflict? Perhaps Mary Baker Eddy, founder of this newspaper, stated the views of those who embraced a radically different approach to understanding the Bible: "The Scriptures are very sacred. Our aim must be to have them understood spiritually.... The true theory of the universe, including man, is not in material history but in spiritual development."("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures").

A 20th-century development that weds science and the Bible is the use of archaeology. Using the Scriptures as a guide, archaeologists in Israel and elsewhere seek the civilization that produced the Bible. A growing body of knowledge is producing both historical and literary contexts for the Old and New Testaments. New discoveries are adding to our understanding of the worlds of Abraham, Isaiah, and Jesus.

Perhaps the century's most spectacular discovery was not made by archaeologists, but by a Bedouin boy searching for a lost goat. The Dead Sea scrolls are a library of Jewish literature dating from about the 3rd century BC to the early 1st century AD. All the books of the Old Testament are represented with the exception of Esther. While the discovery of a similarly ancient cache of New Testament manuscripts seems rather unlikely, advanced technologies continue to uncover new data on manuscripts and other artifacts thousands of years old.

The new millennium will surely witness wholly different insights into the Scriptures. But if the last millennium is any guide, the text of the Bible will remain unchanged. The Ten Commandments, the Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes will inspire in the coming centuries with the same message we read and hear today. The Bible is, and will be: "an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land" (Isa. 32:2).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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