It may seem like God self-published the Bible without having to worry about any pesky editors. The reality, as biblical historians have discovered, appears to be quite different.
Mere mortals put the Old and New Testaments together, drawing upon a rich supply of stories about the past. They also engaged in plenty of editing, says biblical scholar and translator Joel M. Hoffman, author of the lively and fascinating new book “The Bible's Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible.”
The result is a Bible that was not preordained, he says, but instead the abridged product of crucial decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out. Now, thanks in large part to the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can look at the original material and find the nips and tucks.
In an interview, Hoffman talks about the discovery of the scrolls, the meaning of an alternate take on Adam and Eve, and the value of his book for readers with and without faith. “If you want to know about the human condition,” he says, “the experts you ask are in ancient Jerusalem."
Q: How do people of faith react to the news that various material didn’t make it into the Bible?
Many are surprised. A small minority are offended because they believe God created the Bible as it is, and we received a perfect copy of it.
Q: None of this has been a secret, though, right?
In academia, most of us know this. One of my goals was to bring information that’s fascinating to scholars to a wider audience.
Q: Where were the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered?
They were in a variety of caves not far from Jerusalem, and Bedouins found them in the 1940s.
We don’t know for sure what they were doing in the caves originally. The general consensus is that the Dead Sea Scroll cult was at odds with the mainstream power structure in Jerusalem, and they went off to do their own thing.
Q: Is there a good metaphor to explain what the editors of the Old Testament did with these original stories?
They collected all these great writings, and they created an entry hall to showcase some of it. They might exclude parts of it because of the message it sends. Or because everybody knew it, and they didn’t have to bother putting it in the Bible because everybody would always know it.
Q: What did you discover in these raw materials that affected you the most personally?
The most important to my faith is 'The Life of Adam and Eve.' It’s an incredible story, beautifully told, about how to live life on earth is to be an exile.
Q: You’re talking about ancient writings that expand on the story of Adam and Eve. What makes this version of the story so special?
Adam and Eve were used to life in paradise and wish they were back in paradise.
All of us have something that used to be part of our life – a lover or a job or a place or a family member. The book tells us how to deal with that. The recognition that this is a universal human condition is incredibly telling.
Q: What can people of faith gain from reading your book?
They can gain a better understanding of scripture. Even if you reject my premise that the Bible is an abridged collection and think it’s God’s choice, there’s still a question about how we understand that text.
The second thing is a sense of the human condition. People often become people of faith because they’re interested in the human condition. Just because something isn’t in your version of the Bible doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting insight into the questions that occupy your life.
There’s a third thing: Part of appreciating your tradition is appreciating not just what’s in it, but comparing it to what your people rejected.
If you want to understand Judaism, part of it is understanding that it rejected Christianity. It’s part of what Judaism is.
Q: What will readers take from your book if they aren’t people of faith?
People without faith frequently struggle even more with the important issue of what is like to live as a human.
I have to assume these people also ask why life is like this. Is there something I’m supposed to do? They have to look out in the world and wonder why 4-year-olds die and why seemingly very good people end up suffering tremendously.
If you want to want to know about aviation, you ask an aviation expert. If you want know about the human condition, the experts you ask are in ancient Jerusalem.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.