Classic review: Whose Bible Is It?
The scriptures have power to both divide and conquer.
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Q. Whose Bible is it? A. Whose isn't it?
Today, as in the long-ago past,the scriptures may divide but, in a wider sense, they conquer
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While the Greek Bible remained the text of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Latin translation from the Greek - the Latin Vulgate - became the Roman Catholic scripture, dominant in Western Europe for 1,000 years.
Rich traditions of scriptural commentary developed in a parallel manner within Judaism and Christianity. With the Jewish diaspora, Hebrew was replaced in various locales by Arabic, Yiddish, and Ladino.
Jewish medieval scholarship produced the Kabbalah, the mystical systems of reflection on the Divine Name revealed to Moses - the "I Am that I Am" - which is seen as the key to the mystery of all being and to the meaning of the Bible.
During the Middle Ages, Bible study became the highest form of learning, giving rise to four kinds of interpretation: literal, allegorical (often called spiritual sense), moral, and eschatological.
With the coming of the Renaissance, for the first time European interpeters gained access to original texts in Hebrew and Greek, and the printing press made the Bible widely available.
"No practice or teaching of the institutional church could pretend to possess divine authorization unless it had the clear word of Holy Scripture to back it up," Pelikan says.
With the Protestant Reformation, the theme became "the Bible alone," but whose interpretation was to be authoritative? Protestant sects multiplied, and so did conflicts over truth, spurring a hundred years of religious wars.
Meanwhile, philologists had begun insisting that the literal interpretation was the only proper way to read the biblical texts. Then the 18th and 19th centuries gave rise to the critical-historical study of scripture. More recently, archaeological findings unsettled the picture further, casting doubt on the historicity of narratives. Resisting scholarly interpretations, Christian fundamentalism emphasized the inerrancy of the Bible.
"Whose Bible Is It?" is illuminating but, in a sense, too concise. It skims the surface, leaving one hungry for a closer look at a few landmark events and more Pelikan insights into their implications. In urging Christians and Jews to study the Bible together, the author might have identified benefits that have come from such efforts.
A closing chapter highlights challenges that contemporary culture poses for the Bible's future. Among them are the difficulty its agricultural idiom presents for urban societies, and the tension with science so evident in the evolution-creationism de-bate. Perhaps most serious is what he terms the "appalling ignorance of the Bible that seems to have become epidemic in our time." Not only do many Christians fail to read the Good Book, other authors have shown that some seminaries fall short in biblical preparation of those entering the ministry.
One truth that stands out throughout the telling of this remarkable tale is that the closer people come to the Word itself, the greater the impact on lives.
"Even in a secular age ... the Bible proves to be the unique antidote to cynicism and the source of inspiration for poets and philosophers, artists and musicians, and the countless millions all over the globe who turn to it every day and in their times of need," Pelikan says. It "provides the subtext ... for how we define our deepest hopes."
• Jane Lampman is a former Monitor religion correspondent.