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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Bible as ‘The Word of God’

The encounter between Africa and the Bible has always been more than an encounter with a book. Wimbush's description of the earliest encounters between the Bible and African Americans as characterized by a combination of rejection, suspicion, and awe of ‘Book Religion’ has strong echoes in the encounters on the African continent. While the Bible did play a role in the missionizing of Africa, initially its role was not primary and so its impact was indirect. ‘It was often imbedded within catechetical materials or within elaborate doctrinal statements and formal preaching styles.’ When Africans did encounter the Bible it was from the perspective of cultures steeped in oral tradition. From this perspective the concept of religion and religious power circumscribed by a book was ‘at first frightful and absurd, thereafter … awesome and fascinating’. As illiterate peoples with rich, well-established, and elaborate oral traditions, the majority of the first African slaves were suspicious of and usually rejected ‘Book Religion’. However, as Wimbush notes, ‘it did not take them long to associate the Book of “Book religion” with power’.

The power that the Bible is, for most Africans, is ‘the Word of God’, but quite what is meant by this phrase is not clear. The analyses of Mosala, Mofokeng, and, more recently, Maluleke in this respect offer useful insights, but more careful analysis is required of exactly what particular black and African theologians mean by their various uses of the phrase ‘the Word of God’, particularly when we take into account that ordinary African interpreters of the Bible are not as transfixed and fixated by the text as their textually trained pastors and theologians; as Wimbush has indicated, their hermeneutics is characterized by ‘a looseness’ towards the biblical text. If they do speak of the Bible as the ‘Word of God’, they do so in senses that are more metaphorical than literal; ‘the Book’ is as much a symbol as a text. Maluleke is right when he says that, while many African Christians ‘may mouth the Bible-is-equal-to-the-Word-of-God formula, they are actually creatively pragmatic and selective in their use of the Bible so that the Bible may enhance rather than frustrate their life struggles’.

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