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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.

Introduction

John Rogerson

That the Bible should have a history may cause some surprise. Surely the Bible is history. It begins with the creation of the universe and the story of the first humans, Adam and Eve. It is still popularly supposed that if something is mentioned in the Bible, that thing must go back to earliest recorded human history. Books or television programmes which seek to confirm the history contained in the Bible often arouse great interest. So what is meant by the history of the Bible?

It is a curious fact that, although the Bible can be purchased in a bookshop like any other book, it is in fact unlike any other book. This is not simply a matter of the different translations that can be found in a bookshop. Other books, for example Dante's Divine Comedy, may be found in two or more translations. The unusual thing about the Bible is that a bookshop that has more than one version for sale will probably have on its shelves Bibles with differing contents. Some may include a section entitled ‘The Apocrypha’ between the Old and New Testaments while others may have no such section. The number of books in the Old Testament section may vary, while of Bibles that do include a separate Apocrypha some will have a bigger Apocrypha than others. These facts are striking because we do not normally expect books that bear the same title to vary in their contents. But the difference between the Bible and other books needs to be pressed further. It has been noted that some Bibles contain more books than others, yet it is wrong, strictly speaking, to use the word ‘books’ of the items that are collected together in Bibles. The Old Testament is, in fact, a collection of scrolls, scrolls that originally existed separately, and which were not put into a form in which they could be bound together in one volume until several centuries into the Common Era, and that means, in some cases, many centuries after their composition. This point is well made by the observation that the apostle Paul never saw a Bible. But even the process of converting originally separate scrolls or, in the case of the New Testament epistles, odd sheets of papyrus, into a form in which they could be bound into one volume was affected by the fact that it took several centuries for the churches to agree about which writings should be included and which left out. In fact, the various branches of the church have never agreed about the exact contents of the Bible, which is one reason why it is possible to buy Bibles with varying contents in bookshops today.

On the face of it this is very alarming. A sceptic might argue that the lack of agreement over the contents of the Bible is an indication of its worthlessness, or that claims made about its importance and authority have been exaggerated. How can a book be authoritative if there is no agreement about its contents?

Yet the fact that disparate writings composed over a period of at least 800 years came to be included together in one volume, even if there was not complete agreement about its exact contents, is an indication of enormous trouble taken over writings precisely because they were regarded as being of the utmost significance. The surprising thing about the Bible is that it should exist at all, given the time-span of the composition of its separate items and the complicated processes of their transmission. By the time that the earliest extant Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament were written in the first century BCE (they were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at or near Qumran) these writings had come to be regarded as scripture; that is, writings inspired by God which communicated his will for his people Israel, and the whole of humankind. Even if we did not have these manuscripts, we would know from the New Testament of the existence of these Jewish scriptures, in terms of which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth had been understood by himself and his earliest followers. Somehow, writings as disparate as laws, popular stories, dynastic annals, proverbs, laments, love stories, and psalms, to mention only those in the Old Testament, came to be regarded as scripture. Two communities of faith, in which there could be a diversity of opinions, came to regard certain writings as foundation documents, as writings which described their identity, told their past story, and offered fresh and contemporary insights and challenges through the medium of interpretation.

A history of the Bible charts what we know of the processes that led from the writing, editing, and copying of the items collected together in the Bible to their appearance in the forms familiar to us, and available in bookshops today. In the course of reading this history there will inevitably be surprises. Those who are used to reading four gospels will be surprised to discover that, as early as the second century, attempts were made to combine them into one narrative, and that these harmonies were so popular for several centuries in certain parts of the church that they all but displaced the four gospels. Again, because we are used to reading printed texts which reproduce exactly what an author has written, it comes as a surprise to learn that this is not the case with the Bible. This problem is particularly acute with regard to the New Testament, because the rapid spread of the church throughout the Roman empire and beyond led to the development of divergent local texts, which remained untouched by later attempts to introduce some form of standardization. As one contributor to this volume observes, the text of the New Testament has not yet been decided, by which he means that new discoveries and the refinements of the methods of textual criticism may necessitate revisions to the standard editions of the Greek New Testament upon which translations into English and other languages are based.

A completely different situation exists with regard to the texts of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. Geoffrey Khan's essay describes the work of the Jewish scholars who, in the early centuries of the Common Era, were able to produce a standard text for the Hebrew Bible. This standard text is the basis for contemporary scholarly Hebrew Bibles and for translations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. However, biblical manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls differ in some respects from the standard Hebrew Bible, and it will be interesting to see whether anyone tries to produce a text of the Hebrew Bible that is chosen from all the manuscripts now available, and which attempts to reconstruct the ‘best’ readings. The situation for the Apocrypha is different again. There is no standard text, and some books of this section exist in differing versions, some of which can be found in English translations available today.

The history of the Bible does not end with an account of how the original writings ended up in volumes that can be purchased in bookshops. Once the writings of the Old and New Testaments were regarded as scripture they became the object of interpretation—a process already begun in the use of the Old Testament in the New. The way that the Old Testament was interpreted differed fundamentally in the Jewish and Christian communities, both of which regarded its texts as scripture. Judaism accorded the utmost authority to the laws in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy, believing them to have been revealed by God to Moses. Supplemented by an oral law, also believed to have been revealed to Moses, these laws indicated to observant Jews how God wished them to obey him in every detail and particular of daily life. At the same time, the interpretation of the non-legal parts of the Hebrew Bible became the opportunity for a deeper exploration of the meaning of scripture. Passages from many parts of the Hebrew Bible could be related to any other part, multiple interpretations could be proposed, and anecdotes, stories, and examples drawn from everyday life enriched a way of reading the Bible that has been described as pure poetry.

By contrast, Christian use of the Old Testament was more prosaic, even where it preferred allegorical and spiritual senses to the literal sense. It was not denied that God had revealed his law to Moses, but simply asserted that much of this law was not binding upon Christians. Where the Old Testament was interpreted literally, its stories were used as object-lessons, indicating examples to be avoided or followed. Where it was interpreted allegorically or spiritually, it referred primarily to Christ. A striking instance of this, not discussed in the present volume, is the use of the psalms. The early church took over from the synagogue the extensive use of psalms in worship, but in the process the psalms ceased to be Jewish texts and became Christian ones.

Two striking examples of this are Psalm 22 and 68 , the former having been quoted by Christ on the cross (Matt. 27: 46, Mark 15: 34 ), the latter being quoted in Ephesians 4: 8 . Psalm 22 was seen to contain so much that echoed Christ's passion—for example, phrases such as ‘they pierced my hands and my feet’ (Psalm 22: 17 Septuagint—the Hebrew has ‘my hands and my feet were like a lion’) and ‘they divided my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots’ (Psalm 22: 19, cf. John 19: 24 ), not to mention its sudden switch to praise at verse 23 as though prefiguring the resurrection—that the psalm was used as a prophecy, if not an account of Christ's passion. The opening words of Psalm 68 , ‘Let God arise …’ were taken to refer to the resurrection, while verse 12, ‘God gave the word’, was clearly a reference to Christ's incarnation in this type of interpretation.

A history of the Bible that outlines the different ways in which it has been used during the past two thousand years gives the lie to the idea that the Bible has always been understood in one particular way, and that in order to be true to ‘biblical principles’ it is necessary to adhere to what is mistakenly believed to be this one way in which it has always been understood. More often than not, what are held to be timeless ‘biblical principles’ turn out to be comparatively recent interpretations that have been embraced by powerfully self-confident churches that claim a monopoly of the truth. The fact that an interpretation may be recent does not, of course, prove it to be mistaken or misleading. However, when it is set in the context of the whole history of interpretation it can be seen for what it is—the way in which the Bible has answered the needs of a particular church at a particular time, without necessarily establishing an interpretation that will never be superseded or which excludes all other possible approaches to the Bible.

In an ideal world, a work such as the present volume would have a much wider scope than the practicalities and economics of present-day publishing allow, if one affordable volume is to be produced. The Cambridge History of the Bible ran to three volumes and about 1,800 pages, and Henning Graf Reventlow, author of the chapter on the early church, is producing a series of massive volumes on the different epochs of biblical interpretation. However, the present, more modest book not only covers the basic ground; its final section, on contemporary interpretation, brings the subject up to date in a way not attempted by other works.

Ideally, it would have been good to be able to treat at least two topics that do not appear in this book, the use of the Bible in art, and its use in music. The illustrations in this volume taken from the work of artists, whether they were scribes, illuminators of manuscripts, sculptors, carpenters, or painters, provide a small glimpse into the vast world of the way in which biblical themes have inspired artistic endeavours. In fact, the use of the Bible in art is a new, and burgeoning, feature of contemporary biblical studies as it interacts with other branches of the humanities, especially cultural studies. The use of the Bible in music is yet to emerge in the way that its use in art has recently taken off, yet there is abundant material here for study. Anyone who has heard Handel's oratorio Jephtha and who has been surprised at the way in which the tragic ending of the biblical story (Jephthah's sacrifice of his only daughter) has been transformed into a much happier ending will have chanced upon a deep vein of interpretation. For medieval Jewish interpretation there was sufficient ambiguity in the text of Judges 11: 39 for it to be suggested that Jephthah's daughter became a virgin for life instead of being sacrificed by her father. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dramas exploited the same idea, linking Jephthah's daughter's story with Euripides' Greek play Iphigenia, and provided names for characters such as Jephthah's daughter who are otherwise anonymous in the biblical account. Handel's librettist thus stood in an established tradition when he gave the oratorio a happier ending. Another area of research would be the use of the Bible in the 200 extant church cantatas composed by J. S. Bach in the first half of the eighteenth century. Bach's librettists took considerable liberties with the interpretation of the biblical texts upon which the cantatas were based and which, together with the sermon, provided extensive meditation on the New Testament readings prescribed for each Sunday. The aim of the librettists was to enable individual worshippers to enter into an intimate and mystical relationship with Christ, often in defiance of what would be regarded today as responsible interpretation of the biblical material. A modern instance of the interaction between the Bible and music would be Arnold Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron.

In the nineteenth century there was much discussion in Britain about whether the Bible should be studied ‘like any other book’. There were those who argued against doing this, fearful of what the outcome would be. They lost the argument and the Bible showed that it could more than stand up to the most searching and detailed scrutiny that any text, let alone a religious text, has ever been subjected to. Something of that scrutiny, extending for nearly two thousand years, is described in the present volume while the final section shows that, far from being exhausted, the Bible has found a new lease of life in the past thirty years as it has inspired groups working for a better world and a better humanity.

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