Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Bible on its own terms

J. Mark Bertrand, author of the Bible Design Blog, writes the Case Against Reference Bibles.

What strikes me most when reading this article (and the comments on the author's blog) is assured satisfaction of having "read Scripture on its own terms."

For anyone relying on a vernacular Bible, this is a disputable assertion. Although it is one that has settled itself into our collective mindset rather nicely. The major supposition is that literacy will eventually yield to a ready understanding of the sacred text.

Vernacular Bibles sort of go without saying. There is no reason to presume the Bible shouldn't be in the vernacular and it seems most logical to provide the Bible in any vernacular language. Christianity is a missionary religion, afterall. Part of any missionary activity is to provide an account of the sacred narrative in a language accessible to the encountered culture. The 20th century advent of critical study Bibles that take into account the variances in the manuscript tradition and the latest work in reconstructing the original text, such as the New Jerusalem Bible or the NRSV, are to be lauded as efforts to synthesize the results of text critical scholarship into one source for popular engagement. In many instances, such vernacular editions provide a wholistic reading experience of the ancient text as the diverse data drawn from historical critical and text critical scholarship are correlated into a single text.

To say, then, that simply having the Biblical text in front of you without references or notes seems, at least, a bit premature.

In truth, many vernacular study editions leave much to be desired. Apart from the NJB and NRSV, much of the material out there is representative of the most mundane scholarship. Frankly, there are not many vernacular editions that engage sufficiently enough with textual criticism or historical criticism to add any depth to the text.  This said, editions that do just this exist and ought to be utilized.

More problematic, however, is how detached this view is from the complexities of Biblical Studies. If one wants the Biblical text "on its own terms" without editorial matter or references/study aids, fair enough - this actually is a brilliant idea and one that would serve the Christian tradition quite well. However, this is contingent upon having a full working knowledge of the ancient languages and readily engaging the various textual traditions - let there be no delusion of anything to the contrary. To take the Biblical text on its own terms means fully engaging the Masoretic text, the LXX, the DSS, the Greek NT, the Coptic NT, the Vetus Latina, the Syriac text, the Vulgate, etc. In these textual traditions (in their original languages) is where one finds the Biblical text on its own terms. Otherwise, one must have modern vernacular editions that attempt to synthesize the results as much as possible.

It is not that the Bible "on its own terms" is impossible. It is just that one needs to know what one is really talking about when one floats that idea.


  1. "The major supposition is that literacy will eventually yield to a ready understanding of the sacred text."

    I recently read an interesting commentary about the differences in how Russians and Americans read the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Russians emphasize the son's illusion of self-sufficiency; the Americans his wastefulness.


    1. In the West, we are obsessed with a particular model of comprehension that ultimately reflects our worldview. Outside of the Western context, models of comprehension and worldviews differ. The American context lionizes a pragmatic realism as an ideal - hence the son's vice steming from waste. The Russian context is, like many cultures, opposed to the rampant individualism enshrined in American life and their are still stronger familial and ethnic ties as oppposed to the US.

      This is what occurs to me at the moment...I coulld very well be horribly wrong.