Unwinding a living, active Word that is the Bible

By  Pearce Carefoote, Catholic Register Special
  • March 23, 2011
The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental BookThe Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy Beal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 265 pages, hardcover, $31.50).

Christians are often described as people of the book. This is because our lives are shaped in a very direct way by the words of the two testaments we call the Bible. We give no other book on our library shelves the same degree of honour that we give this book. No other book challenges us, in so many different ways, to the same degree.  

In part, that is because of the high standard of ethical behaviour it sets before us. But part of the challenge also proceeds from the fact that, for many, its ancient contents are difficult to grasp, with details that even appear to contradict one another at times.

One need only think of the first two chapters of Genesis. The creation story is told in two completely different, irreconcilable ways. How are we to make sense of this situation in a world where consistency and clarity are supreme values? Into this territory wanders Timothy Beal, professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, taking his readers on a fascinating journey through the history of the Bible and what he thinks might be the shape of its future — especially in this era of cultural uncertainty.

Beal was raised on the Bible within a conservative, evangelical Protestant ethos of which he is now critical. His first few chapters are devoted to the process by which the Bible assumed its status in American society from the mid-19th century onwards — by being marketed as a guidebook, containing between its covers all the answers to life’s difficult questions, revealed in perfect, unambiguous harmony.  

Such a book, should it exist, would not require any intelligence on the part of believers, merely unthinking assent. Beal’s thesis is that this approach is in fact dangerous. It is, to use his own word, bankrupt. Such a perception of the Bible “often becomes a substitute for a vital life of faith, which calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions.” His fear is that this misapprehension, still pushed by modern fundamentalism, will increasingly marginalize the Word in our complex society.

The second part of The Rise and Fall of the Bible is of interest for readers who may be intrigued about the ways the Bible has evolved, from oral tradition, to scroll, to book, to modern electronic media. We are so used to the idea of the Bible as a single book that we forget that it is actually composed of many books, 72 in all by Catholic reckoning, whose creation spans several thousand years.  

Beal notes that even St. Jerome, the great translator of the Latin Vulgate in the fourth century, preferred to call the Christian Scriptures a bibliotheca or “library” rather than a single book. In fact, with a few rare exceptions, the Bible does not appear as a single volume until the 13th century. Beal goes to great pains to show that part of the richness of our scriptural heritage is its diversity of opinions, expressed throughout the ages, by different people of faith attempting to make sense of the world around them and of the God who made them.  

Should we be offended to find slavery is condoned in one part of Scripture and condemned in another? Or that women are seen as chattel in some books but declared equal to men in others? Beal notes that even Jesus recognized the evolution of thought in Scripture when, in the Sermon on the Mount, He begins a series of teachings with “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill …,’ but I say to you …”

That Scripture may expand upon, even contradict itself, Beal asserts, should not cause anxiety for believers. Rather, it reveals the many, differing voices clamouring to be heard throughout salvation history.  Indeed, for Beal, the Word is living and active, not a dead letter on the printed page.

Beal does not tackle the thorny questions of inspiration, revelation or inerrancy in any systematic way, and that is unfortunate. These concepts, too, inform our Christian understanding of Scripture, and his insights would have been especially valuable for Catholics, for whom the private reading of Scripture is a relatively modern phenomenon. Nevertheless, his analysis may help prevent individual readers (as well as parish prayer and Bible study groups) from tripping into the pitfalls of fundamentalism that he feels damage the cause of faith.  

If we can hear the many voices crying out from the pages of Scripture, and not force them all to sing the same tune, there is hope for Christianity for generations to come.

(Carefoote is a librarian at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto.)

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