© Rex A E Hunt
The first of Three presentations to the Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia Gathering in Victoria
(RE)BIRTHING… THE BIBLE: MORE LIKE HUMPTY-DUMPTY THAN ALICE!
I wish to acknowledge the traditional caretakers
of the land on which we gather this day.
I acknowledge their deep spiritual connections to this land
and thank them for the care they have shown the earth
over thousands of years.
Peter Gomes was the former Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church within Harvard University in Cambridge, USA.
In one of his books The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart Gomes tells of the time an anonymous benefactor offered to present as many Bibles as were needed to fill the pews of this famous church. No particular translation was specified. So Gomes took some advice from colleagues. Their reactions were both apprehensive, and in fact quite suspicious of the motivation behind the gift.
"What does the benefactor want or expect", he was asked. He was also warned that placing Bibles in the pews
"would create an invitation to steal them. Further, I was warned that ‘people will think that this is a fundamentalist church. If they see Bibles in the pews you will have an image problem" (Gomes 1996:3).
Gomes reckoned his colleagues meant well
"…and wished only to protect the church from secular and religious zealots. These concerns notwithstanding, however, we accepted the gift, placed the Bibles in the pews, and, happily, over the years we have lost quite a few to theft" (Gomes 1996:3).
Peter Gomes will be a ‘fellow traveller’ with us during these three presentations.
It has been described as ‘the world’s most dangerous book’. It is the Bible. And it opens with a ‘younger’ ReBirthing story…
B’reshith ba’ra elohim, ‘eth hashameyim w’eth ha’arest…
“In a beginning, when god began to create the heavens and the earth…”
Not a birthing story, but a ReBirthing story.
Wehe’erest… tohu wa-bohu and al-ph’ne tehom
“And at that time the earth was desolate, not-yet inhabited…”
A ReBirthing story about a primal Creativity and the elements of wind and water and wilderness, in which ‘God’ is trying to fashion his/her image. An event which “opens up a long chain of subsequent and unforeseeable events, both destructive and re-creative ones”, (Caputo 2006:72) in a kind of good news/bad news sequence. A narrative told by a brilliant Hebrew storyteller about ‘the earthling’ and the life-giving transformations which Elohim wrought “not from nothing to something… but from the barrenness of being to the [excitement] of life” (Caputo 2006:62).
As biblical storytellers we need to hear and re-imagine the biblical poetic narratives. With mind and heart! But I am side-tracking myself… Back to the task at hand.
What is the Bible? The Bible is a human product made up of at least two collections: the Old Testament—the product of ancient Israel, and the New Testament—the product of several early Christian communities, all quite different from their modern counterparts. The Bible is also deployed today in every conceivable debate and dilemma, from gay marriage to Middle East politics, and everything in-between. But seldom are the insights of biblical scholars taken up in these discussions.
The earliest translation of the Bible, from Latin (Vulgate) into English, was by John Wycliffe (1328-84) in 1382. That was thought to be a dangerous thing to do in those days since lay people, armed with knowledge of the scriptures, might be led to challenge the ordained hierarchy of the church!
Wycliffe appears to have been responsible for the translation of the New Testament, while his associates translated the Old Testament. Almost 40 years after his death, he was condemned by the Council of Constance and declared a heretic by the then Pope. They went so far as to dig up his bones and burn them at the stake!
This year is the 400th anniversary of another English Bible—indeed the most revered of all English Bibles—the Authorised Version of the Holy Bible—mistakenly called the King James Bible. (A commemorative edition was published in late 2010 costing $120!)
‘Most revered’ is an interesting observation, seeing social commentators now claim the Bible is the most purchased, least read, book around! Queensland biblical scholar Greg Jenks in his book, The Once and Future Bible, agrees the Bible has had an immense influence on our history and culture:
"but it is also a problematic text for many people in today’s world. For many millions of people the Bible is a sacred text, but biblical literacy is at record low levels. Without effective skills for reading the Bible, and for discriminating between different interpretations of the Bible, many contemporary people cannot make responsible use of this treasury of spiritual wisdom" (Jenks 2011: xv).
Such responsible discrimination must always be to the foreground of all biblical storytellers! So how did the Authorised Version of the Bible come about? Some brief comments might be appropriate. But where to discover some of its story? Where else! Wikipedia! (Plus a little bit of help from the King James Bible Trust.)
The first thing that can be said is: It came about as a result of a political decision…
James inherited from his god mother Elizabeth, a realm divided by religion.
"Like her, he saw that anything that could bring about national cohesion was certain[ly] good. Conflicting opinions about the Word of God were a daily pest, so he commissioned a group of the ablest and most revered linguists with the task of making an English Bible" (Harvey 2011).
The second thing that can be said is: It was designed to limit the Puritan influence of previous translations…
Old ecclesiastical words such as ‘church’ were to be retained and not to be translated as ‘congregation’. While, James said, it was also to reflect the ‘Episcopal’ structure of the Church of England, and traditional beliefs about ordained clergy.
As Greg Jenks will be saying tomorrow, Saturday, during his presentation to the Westar Institute as it launches its Bible Seminar:
"The KJB was essentially a project to control dissent and limit religious diversity within the English-speaking kingdoms of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales" (Jenks 2011:2).
The third thing that can be said is: It was compiled by a committee…
In 1604 James convened the Hampton Court Conference where he commissioned around 44-50 scholars—all members of the Church of England—to do the job of delivering a defining text in the native language of the new United Kingdom.
The scholars worked in six committees, based in each of the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and in Westminster. They had all completed their sections by 1608, the Apocrypha committee finishing first. From January 1609, a General Committee of Review met in London to review the completed marked texts from each of the six committees (Wikipedia. “King James Bible”, 2011).
A fourth thing that can be said is: It was printed as a loose-leaf folio…
The original Version was published by Robert Barker, the King's Printer, in 1611, as a complete folio Bible. It was sold loose-leaf for ten shillings or bound for twelve. It contained The Old Testament, The New Testament and The Apocrypha.
Its printing was not all plain sailing… Robert Barker invested so much money in printing the new edition he ran into serious debt, so he was compelled to
"sub-lease the [printing] to two rival London printers… It appears that it was initially intended that each printer would print a portion of the text, share printed sheets with the others, and split the proceeds" (Wikipedia ‘King James Bible’).
Bitter financial disputes broke out between the printers, followed by decades of continual litigation, imprisonment for some, and rival editions of the whole Bible by each.
Generally speaking, when Bibles are published, they are made to look different. They are frequently printed on tissue thin paper inside a black leather cover. They are often "printed in two columns like an encyclopedia or a dictionary to indicate that this is not a book to be read but a resource to which to go for answers" (JSSpong, Newsletter, 20/7/2011).
It is one thing to have a copy of the printed Bible in your hands, something that has happened only in the last 550 years or so. Even to take it seriously without taking it literally which storytellers should indeed do. But how and when were the decisions made on which books ‘got into’ the Bible? Because there were more so-called ‘books’ around and being used in the various communities, than ended up in our current leather-bound editions.
While I don’t want to get bogged down in a theological quagmire between ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’—you’ll have to buy and read my new book when it comes out next year to learn all about that—I would like to offer some comments, as the history of the formal ‘canon’ is little known by many.
Within a century of Jesus’ death, the followers of Jesus had produced a small but quite diverse collection of writings. Many of them originated as ‘letters’—read aloud to the community at gatherings—addressed to specific people with specific issues, and as early as twenty years after Jesus’ death. In each of the communities where they were read, they became ‘canon’—authoritative. When we read from these faith declarations we are reading someone else’s mail!
The first significant move to establish a new ‘Christian’ canon was initiated by a bloke called Marcion, a ship owner, merchant, and son of a bishop in Asia Minor. He proposed the church:
(i) reject the Jewish scriptures,
(ii) embrace his Canon of one gospel, Luke, and one apostle, Paul.
His proposal, probably around 115-120 CE, shocked many in his day and he was declared a heretic.
So for the next 200 years or so, the church set about drawing up lists of books that were approved for reading in churches. A bloke by the name of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea prepared one such list—later to be described as the ‘orthodox’ or ‘right thinking’ list—which
"shows that a consensus had already been reached on at least twenty books to be included in the new collection of sacred writings, to be known as the New Testament" (Hoover 1992).
When Eusebius produced this ‘list’ his criteria was based on whether these writings
"…had been mentioned by earlier generations of church leaders, whether their style comports well with writings known to have been written early in the history of the church, and whether their content is consistent with established orthodoxy" (Hoover 1992).
If writings proclaiming to represent the faith did not meet these criteria, Eusebius labelled them "the forgeries of heretical men" (Hoover 1992).
How did the church finally decide on what to include and what to reject? We really do not know. Our sources are generally mute on that point. However a possible clue might be found in Roman Emperor Constantine’s desire not only to consolidate his new capital in Constantinople, but also hell-bent on achieving a unified statement to be used to uphold and promote imperial power.
Constantine needed ‘sameness’ rather than ‘difference’, so he wrote to Eusebius—yes, that meddlesome bishop again—asking him
to arrange for the production of fifty bibles. These books were to be skilfully executed copies of ‘the divine scriptures’ on fine parchment for use in the churches of… Constantinople (Hoover 1992).
Constantine not only promised to pay all the expenses incurred in this project,
"he also provided two carriages to assure the swift shipment of the completed copies for his personal inspection" (Hoover 1992). But it wasn’t until 367 CE that the first list of the twenty-seven books that we now know as the New Testament, was identified—and then in a letter by another Bishop, the proto-orthodox, Athanasius.
The Bible ‘happened’. Not through theological argument or scholarly research, but by political necessity. Depending on your point of view, while the fourth century ‘canon’ has been durable, it has never been regarded as universal!
In short: the Bible was a long time coming; it wasn’t without political intrigue or blood-letting; it’s still open-ended!
Whatever version of the Bible we choose to have—and as you know there are plenty of different versions all reflecting the different theologies of the translators or committees who put them together—how do we take the Bible seriously with mind and heart without taking it literally?
As we begin this section of our exploration let me return to Peter Gomes. Commenting on a particular throw-away line about the ‘authority’ of the Bible often used by fundamentalist groups, Gomes says:
"We should always be suspicious when a proposition that involves anything as complex as the scriptures is reduced to a mere bumper sticker" (Gomes 1996:41).
That said… as with most groups, both in antiquity and in modern times, what the members of the various Jesus movements believed, for instance, influenced how they interpreted and reported events. That is, their interpretations were not merely commentary on the so-called ‘objective facts’, behind events. Rather
"their faith was interwovern into their narratives; the shape and scope of their reports of events were filtered through the faith of the writer" (Hedrick 1999: 8).
The most famous example of this surrounds the stories around the Birth Narratives or ‘Christmas’ stories, and whether Jesus was born to a ‘virgin’ or a ‘young woman of childbearing age who had not yet had a child’. Another example of this process can be seen in the way Matthew 5:48 has been understood and translated.
In the NRSV, Matthew puts these words in the mouth of Jesus: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. This ‘English language’ command has been continually cited throughout Christian history as a moral call. But let’s look at the words used. Relying on the work of Melbourne scholar Lorraine Parkinson, in Aramaic – the language of Jesus – the word is tamam. Matthew has filtered this word through the Greek word teleioi, which in English, is translated perfect. Both tamam and teleioi have the meaning of something which is whole or complete, most closely related to human integrity in a personality. Hence, the English word perfect is misleading.
"This saying does not mean that Jesus’ followers must be without fault or the potential for fault as they begin to follow Jesus. His saying is actually a command which is really a promise – if you follow my guidelines for life on earth, you will reach your own completeness or fulfilment as a human being. In that sense Jesus’ saying is incentive to follow him, not the disincentive it has often been taken to be" (Parkinson 2011:20).
Generally speaking, the debate between the meanings given words or translated words and what we reckon or believe they mean, is as old as language itself. We get a clue to all this from Humpty-Dumpty in conversation with Alice…
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ Alice said.
Humpty-Dumpty smiled contemptuously.
“Of course you don’t—‘til I tell you.”
“I meant ‘There’s a nice knock-down argument,’ Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty-Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty-Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all” (Quoted in Gomes 1994:46).
There are many forms of the Bible. Indeed, there are as many Bibles as there are readers! Not only that, there are huge cultural, language, beliefs, and time barriers to reading the Bible. As we already know there is around 2,000 years separating the contemporary reader from the time when the New Testament texts were composed, not to say anything of the additional 1,000 plus years that must be allowed for the Old Testament texts.
Likewise, many modern assumptions about the Bible are incorrect.
• the Bible did not encourage slavish conformity;
• it has been suspicious of orthodoxy since the time of the prophets;
• the modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimise policies and rulings is out of key with interpretive tradition;
• there is a great deal of violence in the Bible—far more than in the Qu’ran (Armstrong 2007:229).
In the end it does come down to a matter of interpretation. Always has been. Always will be, I guess. However, we are not clueless as to what methods have been developed to enable us to interpret the Bible.
Again, Greg Jenks offers what might be some helpful history. He says there are at least three biblical ‘worlds’ we need to consider:
(i) behind the text: focuses on the people, events, and issues that created the text, such as Textual Criticism, Source Criticism, Form Criticism
(ii) of the text: focuses on the literary form of the text, such as Literary Criticism, Narrative Criticism, Rhetorical Criticism
(iii) before the text: focuses on the experiences, perspectives, and concerns we bring to the text, such as Reader-Response Criticism, Feminist Hermeneutics, Liberationist Readings, Eco-Theological Readings.
To these three I would add another:
(iv) depth of the text: employs historical critical tools and any other approaches that can render valid insights, and give impulse to a fresh picture of what might more truly be.
So, what would it mean if we were to ‘ReBirth’ a different, more inclusive, ‘depth’ interpretation, which could provide a fresh picture in our times? Let me mention two suggestions and advance one just a little more fully.
(i) By interpreting the word G-o-d as the name of an ‘event’, a disturbance or ‘sacred anarchy’ instead of in personalistic or anthropological terms. A disturbance of life-giving transformation… from the barrenness of being to the excitement of life. In the spirit of some words of Joseph Campbell:
"People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on a purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive" (Campbell 1988:5).
(ii) By interpreting the whole of the Bible as a ‘commentary’ on the Golden Rule! However such a suggestion comes with a word of caution. To claim as many do, that the Golden Rule is of Christian origin simply shows our isolation and ignorance—it existed in many religions long before Jesus. So let me tease this out this suggestion a bit.
Ancient Sumatran wisdom says, “Let all your undertakings be pleasing to you, as well as others. If that is not possible, at least do not harm anyone.” Zoroastrianism praises the person that "refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.” From the Hindu Vedic writings, “Do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” Confucius said, “What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else” and Plato reiterated, “May I do to others as I would that they should do to me.” From the Jewish Talmud, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow human being: this is the whole Torah: while the rest is the commentary thereof” and from Buddhism, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” The words ascribed to Jesus, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7: 12) seem strangely less unique and Matthew’s Jesus acknowledged this, adding “for this sums up all the Law and the Prophets” (This section from VWebb in Hunt & Smith, forthcoming).
The Jesus Movements started during the 30s and 40s of the first century CE. Loosely knit groups—scholars have been able to identify at least seven different groups or streams within the Jesus Movement—gathered around a novel combination of three ideas (Mack 1995):
• the idea which imagined a better way to live despite the Romans – they called it the Realm/Empire of God (Political);
• the idea where any individual, no matter of what extraction or status, was fit for this Realm/Empire (Religious);
• the idea of a Realm or Empire that was made up of a mixture of people, was exactly what the Realm of God should look like (Political & Religious)
Not a perfect world. But the best possible world in their own time and place. In other words: they attempted to shape a hermeneutics of inclusion and compassion.
So let me offer just a few suggestions towards a 21st century hermeneutics of compassion.
• It would demand an appreciation of other people’s scriptures…
Any interpretation that spread hatred or denigrated other sages or holy books should be regarded as illegitimate;
• It would adopt a less strident certainty on the text…
Instead of quoting Bible and verse to denigrate homosexuals, progressives, women priests, abortion, it would always seek the most charitable interpretation of a text;
• It would look for something new…
Instead of using a biblical text to re-enforce a past so-called ‘orthodoxy’, it could keep in mind the original meaning of midrash: ‘to go in search of’.
The great Hebrew scholar of more than 70 years ago, Martin Buber, used to say that each reader should stand before the Bible as Moses stood before the burning bush, listening intently and preparing for a revelation that will force him or her to lay aside former preconceptions (Armstrong 2007:229).
Let me conclude this first ReBirthing presentation. To my disappointment, my considered opinion is no new books will be added to the formal ‘canon’ of the Bible. That is a shame for I reckon the Gospel of Thomas should now be included. On the other hand, none are likely to be deleted either. However, what should be done—and indeed there is over 100 years of critical biblical work behind this suggestion—is, the New Testament should now be published in its historical and chronological order (From Veitch in Hunt & Smith, Forthcoming). And that is not what we have at the moment!
We can become advocates of a ReBirthing of understanding, of re-imagination, and of appreciation for, the Bible, with mind and heart. If not us as storytellers, who? We may pride ourselves in the use of 'performance criticism'. But without 'biblical higher criticism' helping to shape that 'performance criticism', we have nothing.
I listen to this Book. But I do not comply quietly. I censure it for endorsing patriarchy, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. “It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, and cowardice" (Wink 2008:105).
It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history.
It’s time to ReBirth the Bible!
Armstrong, K. 2007. On the Bible. NSW: Crows Nest. Allen & Unwin.
Campbell, J. 1988. The Power of Myth. With Bill Moyers. NY: New York. Doubleday.
Chancey, M. A. “Bible courses, public education, and the law” in The Fourth R 24, 4, 9-14, 2010.
Caputo, J. D. 2006. The Weakness of God. A Theology of the Event. IN: Bloomington. Indiana University Press.
Gomes, P. 1996. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. NY: New York. Wm Morrow & Co.
Harvey, P. 2011. “King James Bible a masterpiece but not an idol” in Eureka Street eZine, 1 February 2011. <www.eurekastreet.com.au>
Hedrick, C. W. 1999. When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus. MA: Peabody. Hendrickson Publishers.
Hoover, R. W. 1992. “How the Canon was Formed” in The Fourth R 5, 1, January-February.
Jenks, G. C. 2011. “Taking the Bible seriously but not literally”. Westar Institute launch of its Bible Seminar, 19 November 2011, held in Berkley, CA.
----, The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives. OR: Eugene. Wipt & Stock.
Mack, B. L. 1995. Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Miller, R. J. 2003. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and other Sons of God. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Parkinson, L. 2011. The World According to Jesus. His Blueprint for the Best Possible World. VIC: Richmond. Spectrum Books.
Veitch, J. “The New Testament in Chronological Order” in R. A. E. Hunt and J. W. H. Smith. We Weren’t Told! A Handbook on Progressive Christianity. Forthcoming from Polebridge Press, 2012.
Webb, V. “Stepping out with the Sacred. Progressives engaging with the Divine” in R. A. E. Hunt and J. W. H. Smith. We Weren’t Told! A Handbook on Progressive Christianity. Forthcoming from Polebridge Press.
Wikipedia ‘The King James Bible’ Accessed 29/3/2011).
Wink, W. 2008. “The Myth of the Human Jesus” in C. W. Hedrick, ed., When Faith Meets Reason: Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journeys. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.