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How interpretations of the Bible

Whose Bible Is It?: A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages
By Jaroslav Pelikan
Viking, 274 pp., illustrated, $24.95

A new twist on the old joke: A rabbi, a priest, and a minister all walk into -- no, not a bar -- a bookstore. They each want to buy a Bible, and they do. But they come out with three different books. How does that happen?

Well, the answer is easy. What Jews, Catholics, and Protestants call ''The Bible" is three different books. The Jewish one includes the five books of Moses, the prophets, and the ''writings." First written in Hebrew, it is called the Tanakh. The Protestant one includes all of these plus what Christians refer to as the ''New Testament," originally written in Greek. The Catholic Bible includes all of the above plus the ''Apocrypha," which the Protestants excised at the Reformation.

Jaroslav Pelikan's ''Whose Bible Is It?" is a history of the bumpy careers of these three ''Bibles" that manages to be both erudite and charming. Perhaps the most original and valuable note in this fascinating book is that Pelikan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale, skillfully traces the continuous interaction of the interpretation of these scriptural traditions throughout the ages. He shows how they are not isolated streams, but rivers that have mingled and mixed as often as they have separated.

Pelikan charts two significant turning points in the long history of biblical interpretation. One came in the late 15th century, when the invention of printing made the wide distribution and study of these texts much more possible, and then -- with the spread of literacy -- eventually democratized it. The other was the application of the historical-critical method, which subjected the ''sacred" writings to the same scrupulous investigation of dating and authorship applied to any other historical document. It might be argued that the first of these put a Bible in every person's hands, while the second -- at least temporarily -- took it back and handed it over once again to the experts. Now, however, these specialists were no longer the priests and the rabbis, but the academic researchers armed with lexicons, grammatical skills, and, later, carbon dating and archeological digs. Pelikan knows this, but he might have devoted a bit more attention to the crisis that often emerges when students find out that Jericho really had no walls, and that the four Gospels now enshrined in the New Testament were selected from a sea of early ''gospels" that were rejected but which include the now famous ''Gospel of Thomas."

Having taught graduate and undergraduate students for many years, I advise them to leap into the Bible the way they would a compelling novel, or even a good film. Don't look for history in our modern sense, or for geology. Let its sheer narrative power evoke whatever response it can without relying on an externally decreed authority to sanctify its status. I am confident that deep can still speak to deep, and if it does not, no ecclesiastical sanction will make any difference.

The fact is we cannot escape the Bible. It is part of who we are. A person without some familiarity with it has no chance of understanding the foundational works of our civilization's literature, art, and music. From Milton to Melville to Thomas Mann, from Leonardo to Chagall, our most treasured cultural prizes remain incomprehensible to the biblically illiterate. One strength of Pelikan's volume is that he obviously recognizes this interweaving very well, not surprising for a man who has also written a beautiful book on J. S. Bach.

Still, even those people who do not go blank when they look at a painting of ''The Binding of Isaac" or ''The Prodigal Son," or listen to Handel's ''Messiah," eventually have to come to terms with the deeper demands the Bible makes on our values and our worldviews. Even if much of it consists of poems, legends, and stories, even if we do not take the seven days of creation literally, why should the Bible make any claim on our spiritual and moral allegiance today? Worse, what do we do about those who claim its authority to damn gays, to plant settlements in the West Bank, or to assassinate a Yitzhak Rabin or a physician who does abortions? How do we read those bloody texts from both the testaments that seem to justify violence?

Further, what do we do in a world in which we are now aware that in addition to the Bible there is not only the Qur'an, to which Pelikan devotes a paragraph, but also the Vedas, the Lotus Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita? How does the Bible as a moral guide compare to these other ancient, indeed scriptural, sources of ethical insight and spiritual wisdom?

Pelikan might have said more about these vexing questions. I believe one answer is to try to understand the Bible in its context. In order to do this, we have to know something about this old book. We often treat it more as an icon, something to put your hand on when you take an oath, rather than a fascinating record of where we have come from and how previous generations have wrestled with the same perennial issues we face, like the meaning of life and love, and of betrayal, suffering, and death. If war is too important to be left to the generals, the Bible is far too important to be left to the Bible thumpers. We need to bring to it the same degree of sophistication, suspicion, respect, and expectation we bring to any other primal source. We need to know where it came from and how our forebears struggled to interpret it. There is no better place to start than with the book Pelikan has given us.

Harvey Cox is the author of ''When Jesus Came to Harvard."

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