The news is brimming with religion. People of faith are taking strong stands on both sides of political issues. Jewish settlers are proclaiming a divine right to hold onto land. Evangelicals travel to tsunami-devastated corners of the world offering their faith as the answer for life's tribulations.
At the heart of these manifestations are people's encounters with Holy Scriptures - and their differing interpretations of what the sacred texts mean.
Over the millennia, both Jewish and Christian communities have been shaped and reshaped by translations and reinterpretations of biblical writings.
In "Whose Bible Is It?," distinguished religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University offers a masterly overview of this complex development of the Bible over the ages. From its beginnings in the spoken word and oral tradition, through the gathering of written books into canons, to the influence of changing interpretive methods, Pelikan weaves a tapestry of the power of the Word to mold religious communities, nations, and culture.
This engaging, concise, and highly readable work demonstrates that the most influential book in Western civilization has always held different meanings for different peoples. Yet it represents fundamentally a "testimony of faith in the action of God."
Research has brought into question the historical basis of some narratives, but the meaning of those stories, Pelikan says, continues to resonate with people of various cultures in deep and convincing ways. (While fewer Americans are now familiar with the Bible - surveys show an astonishing ignorance of basics - millions around the world are reading it in some 450 languages.)
In describing the evolution of various translations, Pelikan clarifies how the scriptures have both unified religious groups and divided them from one another - Jew from Christian, Catholic from Eastern Orthodox, Protestant from Catholic, Protestant from Protestant.
"The history of Jewish-Christian relations, and then the history of the division within Christendom, is at one level the history of biblical interpretation," he says. This remains true today as the deepest split in Christianity is not between denominations but across denominations over perceptions of the Bible.
In Judaism, the written scriptures are called the Tanakh, and include the Torah (the Pentateuch), the prophets, and other writings (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.).
The canon was fixed in the first century CE. Yet Jews living in Egypt had earlier translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, making them a part of world literature.
It was this Greek translation (the Septuagint) that became the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, with Christians appropriating the Jewish scriptures as their own. Viewing Christianity as the fulfillment of biblical promise, and emphasizing an allegorical interpretation, they found references to Jesus where Jews saw other meanings.
"Yet at some point, this 'stupendous claim' of prophecy and fulfillment could no longer function with the combination of written Tanakh and oral tradition ... but had to develop its own written authority ... what we now call 'the New Testament,' " Pelikan writes.
In shaping this testament, disputes arose over the written gospels. The first agreement came in the mid-4th century, and the canon was formally settled in 692, incorporating books seen as connected to the apostles.
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 writes about religion for the Monitor.