Saturday, 6 February 2010

Introducing The Bible

I remember over 10 years ago deciding that I was going to read the Bible, from cover to cover. I did begin but barely made it past the first few pages of Genesis. Clearly it wasn’t time.

A few weeks ago, I purchased the Oxford World’s Classics The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. In the weeks since, I’ve been making my way through the introduction. Anxious to get into the books but, restraining myself in a quest to understand “the making of” so-to-speak. It’s been worth the patience for I now have a much better understanding of this Book of books…

Initially, the books existed as different scrolls. The collection of history, prophecy, law, devotional verse, proverbs, love poetry, fiction and letters that we now see under one umbrella, The Bible, was composed over almost 500 years. Initially separate writings (at least physically if not otherwise), with the codex and later with printing (and binding), they had to be organised in a particular sequence. This organization itself suggesting relationships between writings and consequentially, affecting meaning.

Identity: language, culture, meaning and origins
The Islamic community does not view English versions of the Qu’ran as translations as they do not carry the same powerful meaning of the original Arabic wording. Reading this made me think about the connection between language and culture. Indeed, my observation is that devoted followers of Islam do not merely have in common religion but a lifestyle as well. The religion seems very much rooted in a certain culture, not merely moral expectations and choices. And if this culture is most fully expressed in a certain language, Arabic, I can understand this idea that the Qu’ran, in Arabic, is a more profound piece of communication.

Considering that the writings in The Bible have been translated and paraphrased, from sacred texts from different cultures (Canaanite, Mesopotaniam, Egyptian etc.), and that this Authorized Version is, as the introduction states “a deliberate piece of social and linguistic engineering,” what consequence does this have on the identity of Christianity? Can it even be truly reduced as having a culture.

“Three-quarters of the Christian Bible… is acknowledged, even by its most fundamental adherents, to be originally the scripture of another religion and written in a language never spoken by any Christian community.” (pxx)

Christianity is widely appreciated to be an appropriation of Judaism but the dispute lies in to what degree. According to the introduction, one view is that there are two Judaisms: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Another is that Christianity as a form of Judaism. Another sees Christianity as an early sect writing Judaism rather than a new religion.

Despite the classification “New”, the introduction suggests that some of the writings that are now part of the New Testament were actually written before the Hebrew Bible was put together, adding further blurriness to this distinction between Judaism and Christianity.

However, with the Christian appropriation of Jewish scriptures, the reading of them became multi-level. It is widely accepted that there are four types of interpretation. There is a latin rhyme that illustrates this well:

“Littera gesta docet, quid credes allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia”
(I do not understand Latin so:
“The letter teaches what happened, the allegorical what to believe, the moral what to do, the anagogical toward what to aspire.”) (pxxx)

This multi-level interpretation is apparently what took it beyond a book of laws and history for a particular people (the people of Israel) and created a wider audience for Christianity. I think that in theory, this is what helps it escape what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of the single story. If open to different levels of interpretation, readers are free to imagine, to be creative, to think and judge for themselves.

But, speaking of freedom, and considering the passing on of stories from one translator to the next, one wonders how much editing has taken place over the centuries. Who decided that the stories should go together, and how? Whose views have shaped the meaning of the stories over time? Why have no further writings been included through these great many years of human endeavour and growth?

This particular version I’m reading exists because it was authorized by King James. It has been so influential (dominating?) that it has influenced the language which other Bibles must speak.

Theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher is quoted in the introduction:

“No text could have a fixed meaning unmodified by the motives and viewpoint of its author, its history, cultural context, the language in which it was written, the process of translation, and the cultural interpretative context in which the reader approaches it.” (pxlii)

I think of how Christianity was instrumentalised by colonialism. How, first came the Word and then physical enslavement (did mental enslavement begin with the former or come with the latter?). Again, used as an apparatus of power to dominate. An earlier post, inspired by a dialogue involving Alice Walker, describes how she sees this dominating and domineering aspect of religion as contributing to the destruction of the planet.

The Bible, as well as inspiring cruel acts in the name of religion, has also inspired art (great painters, writers etc.). For artist William Blake, “the power of the Bible lay not in its unchanging truth, but its dynamism and fluidity” (pxxxvi). And perhaps that is what you get when you put together disparate writings and then translate and retranslate them over centuries. One would assume a constant reworking of meaning yet it appears that therein lies its power.

I think this statement sums it up best:

“In celebrating the enduring vitality, dynamism and influence of one 400-year-old translation of a loose and, to some extent, accidental collection of ancient writings translated from Near Eastern texts, we are also celebrating the continuing vitality of the interlinked but marvelously diverse cultures of the English-speaking world and beyond. If in the beginning was the word, then continually has that word been in the world transforming it and being transformed by that world through other words and continually shall it be in transformed worlds and words to come. This edition is but one version of that ongoing word.” (pvi)

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