Monday, July 26, 2010

Which Bible do you read?

Recently I ran across an advertisement in a magazine for “The Bible in its Original Order.” The ad states that this is a

new translation that renders the original Hebrew and the original Greek into enjoyable modern English. It retains the grace, grandeur and accuracy of the King James Version in a fresh, easy-to-read format. It's hallmark is that it presents the books of the Bible in their original, first-century ‘manuscript’ order.

The ad includes the claim that “King James would Loveth this New Bible.” Following the usual conspiracy theories of Dan Brown and others, it goes on to assert that the fourth century church fathers changed the order of the books of the Bible from the “original first century order,” an order supposedly recognized by most scholars.

There are so many directions we could go with these claims but let me outline a few things that may help put this Bible in perspective.

  1. I know of no scholar who thinks that there was a supposed first-century order. In fact, something approaching a “canon” of scripture did not exist. It took several hundred years until the church agreed, for the most part, on the current compilation of books, although the order was not necessarily the same.

  2. If this Bible is reflecting the supposed “first century ordering” where is the apocrypha? There is more than substantial evidence that first century Christians knew of and used the apocrypha. The earliest most complete Bible, Codex Sinaiticus, also includes it. Moreover, the 1611 KJV included the apocrypha. If this is an “original Bible,” why not include these other books?

  3. If this is meant to be a first century Bible for Christians, then why use the Hebrew? Almost all of the Old Testament quotes in the New Testament are from the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX) not the Hebrew. The Hebrew only began to be used by Jerome in the fourth century, the very person who supposedly changed the first century order.

  4. Lastly, does the order of the books have some type of effect on the inspiration or usefulness of scripture?

This product is the result of the ongoing Bible wars that usually manifest themselves in arguments over translation. Rather than only claim that it has the best translation, it declares to also have the best order. We could talk about translation and how it works, but that would be best left for another day. But we can talk about canon because this Bible reflects a particular canon. That is, it represents a narrow western, Protestant canon. So often protestant Christians, North Americans in particular, have no appreciation for the wider Christian traditions and the books that they hold sacred. For instance:

  1. Roman Catholics include the Apocrypha, which means their Bible actually has 73 books, while Protestants have only 66.

  2. The Ethiopian Church has as many as 87.

  3. The Greek Orthodox Church uses all of the books accepted by the Roman Catholic church, plus I Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees. The Slavonic canon adds 2 Esdras, but designates I and 2 Esdras as 2 and 3 Esdras. Other Eastern churches have 4 Maccabees as well. Also, they use the Greek Old Testament rather than the Hebrew.

  4. And just to keep things interesting, The Syrian Orthodox tradition continues to reject 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation.

The fact is, world-wide Christianity cannot even agree on what books constitute “scripture” let alone the order of the books. How can Protestants claim to have the right Bible when theirs is thinner than everyone else’s? And how do we even begin to decide which Bible is the “right one”?

I confess that I read the apocrypha and wish that it was still part of the Protestant Bible. That is why I agreed to provide a new translation of Judith for the Common English Bible that is being published later this year. I did not think we needed another Bible translation, but I was excited about a Protestant Bible that included the apocrypha. I hope it helps to reacquaint Protestant Christians with their heritage.

What I think is at stake here is not the order of the books or even whether or not we use the canon of other Christian traditions. But I do think we should not let the very book that records the history and meaning of our faith become the source of our divisions. By acknowledging the varying canons and customs that make up world-wide Christianity, we are able to be a part of the tapestry that reflects the long history and tradition of Christianity. I wonder how much more we could do in the world if we were working together rather than fighting over who has the Bible in the right order.

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