As I return from a summer hiatus to write for The Good Word it occurs to me that one of the questions that we should consider this year is “what is the Bible?” Most of us think we know what we are talking about, but it can be amazing as to how different our presuppositions actually are regarding the nature of the Bible. Even when we clear away basic misunderstandings, the question can still have any number of answers.
What is the Bible? It depends. It depends if my reader is Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. Each faith considers the Bible to be something different from each other group, only if slightly. Some of the differences have to do with different names and divisions of books, but the “Old Testament” differences go beyond that, from Jews, who have the “Tanach” not the Old Testament, to Protestants and Catholics who recognize a different “Old Testament” based upon…well, based upon what? This is where discussions come into play regarding the Reformation and the choice to exclude books that were not considered to be a part of Jesus’ Bible, considered to be the Hebrew text of the Tanach. The discussion then might move into the existence of the Septuagint, a Greek version, or more properly versions, that emerged many years prior to Jesus’ birth and so, properly, Jewish translation(s) of the Hebrew into Greek. (Though there are also Septuagintal texts which have no Hebrew or Aramaic original, at least none of which we know now.) By what means was this Greek text authoritative, for instance, for Jews in Alexandria, the city from which many of these translations emerged? Even more significant, perhaps, is whether there was any particular Jewish “canon” in Jesus’ day. What did Jesus read? And even after we consider all of these questions, could not the early Church decide on a canon different than that accepted by Jews who did not consider Jesus the Messiah, even including texts that Jesus did not read?
After we decide answers to these many questions, do we even have the original autographs of any biblical book? The Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts have taken us closer to the origin of many Hebrew (and some of the Greek Septuagintal texts, including previously unknown Hebrew and Aramaic fragments), but we have no autograph for any biblical book in the New or Old Testament. When we talk about the Bible, then, we have to consider that translations occur from critical editions of ancient Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic based upon the witness of many manuscript traditions. None of us, to the best of our knowledge, hold in our hands the “original” Bible.
But is there an English translation that is “best” or “most authoritative”? The NAB is used in the Lectionary in the USA, but in Canada they use the NRSV. Should not English speaking Catholics be able to decide on the best English translation? Why are there so many English translations? And what about other translations in other modern languages? How do we compare modern translations? Are they all working from the same critical texts? Probably, but are the translators all making the same choices and decisions as to what are the best ancient readings?
Finally, “what is the Bible?” also demands answers at another level. This is the question of how we treat the teachings in the Bible. Do we consider the Bible inerrant? What does that even mean? Does it mean the Bible is without error in all respects, only theologically or only theologically when the teaching bears on the authoritative teaching of the Church? Must we believe the Bible is inerrant to accept it as Sacred Scripture? What is meant when we say that the Bible is “inspired”? Does inspiration rest in the original text, the author of the text, every translation of the text, or all of the above?
These are some questions I hope to discuss in the coming months and I would invite you as I begin this series to send questions or issues to me that we could consider in this context.
John W. Martens