Monday, February 1, 2016

A note on Reader's Bibles

I recently threw my two cents into a somewhat inactive thread on Mark Bertrand's Bible Design Blog.

Bertrand's blog is to be recommended if a) you like book binding eye candy (there's loads of it) and b) you want to keep a pulse on the popular (and largely Evangelical) perception of the Bible. No, it is not a place for much academic sparring and scholarly speculation. It is, however, a place to reconnect with people who haven't become jaded on the Bible as a literary unity.

The subject of "reader's Bibles" (Bibles largely lacking in chapter and verse and other editorial divisions) often comes up - in large part because Mark Bertrand is himself an advocate for such formatting.

Single column "reader's Bibles," or Bibles lacking in much editorial content have a certain merit - in all truth, they're quite nice.

This said, the notion of "the Bible on its own terms" - that is, without any "editorial" content, such as critical apparatus - seems more of a reactionary impulse, derived from a frustration with Biblical scholarship that is seen as diminishing well ingrained religious readings and expression.

The historical critical method has, by and large, proved its mettle. It is not going away and provides enough returns to maintain its keep.

The results of critical scholarship necessarily change how we ought to encounter the Biblical text. It is no longer possible to simply open the text and read. Original languages are crucial. In order to appreciate the breadth of the manuscript tradition, one has to have a working knowledge of the dominant languages in the manuscript tradition to account for both variances in the textual tradition as well as flesh out texts whose meaning has become obscured over centuries. One also needs to have some knowledge of comparative linguistics between the original languages and neighboring languages, particularly in the case of Hebrew where text appears influenced by these languages. This says nothing about the issue of connotative meaning running through the text.

A strong critical apparatus is necessary in any contemporary vernacular edition of the Bible. Vernacular editions have the unique advantage of being able to synthesize the various manuscript traditions in the hope of establishing a translation approximate to the original text and capturing the breadth of meaning the text likely had in its original context. Towards this end, a strong critical apparatus that elucidates meaning and duly notes variant readings is essential for a modern vernacular edition to properly function. The NJB and NRSV (in various study editions) both provide examples of such an apparatus.

Ultimately, "the Bible on its own terms" is the aim of critical scholarship. For well or ill, this means more than having the text in front of you. It means collating a broad swath of textual variants and literary knowledge. For the most part, this requires more than just an unadorned text. It requires a text that is heavily annotated and refers one to yet additional material and, where necessary, a lexicon.

Reader's Bibles, all told, are a good idea. They pull you into the text. This said, Reader's Bibles need to be carefully positioned. Enjoy them for what they are (and they are quite enjoyable) and avoid claims that do the format a great disservice.

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