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The Bible - whose book is it anyway?

Posted By : Wednesday 14th March 2018

A Lent Lecture by The Very Reverend Charles Taylor, Associate Canon

I ought to begin with a word of apology to those of you who have come here this evening in the hope and expectation of mentally imbibing a strong draught of profound biblical scholarship.  If you have, then please be assured I won’t be offended if you decide to take immediate leave; because, being honest, I should say that no-one, absolutely no-one, has ever accused me of being a Biblical Scholar, or indeed a scholar of any sort, except when I held a choral scholarship.  I might lay tentative claim to being a theologian, but only in the sense that all clergy, and indeed all Christian disciples, are called to “do theology” – that is to think and talk about God.  You may not ever have thought of yourself in this way, and you may not care to admit it, but you, the people of God, are or should be theologians.  Every time you pray, worship, or otherwise think and talk about God, you are “doing theology.”  Even if, like me, you consider yourself to be, as it were, an apprentice brick-layer rather than a Master Mason (though my speciality is not so much brick laying as brick dropping!), nevertheless, individually and corporately, we are or should be theologians.

Hence my title, “The Bible – whose book is it anyway?”  Who, for example, has the right not only to read, not only to interpret, but even to determine what is Holy Scripture?  What do we mean when we refer to the Bible as “the Word of God.”  Does it imply, and are we meant to accept, that God ceased speaking to humanity when the Bible was canonised?  Yet how can that be so when the very same Bible tells us that “the word of God is living and active?”  Anyway, let’s face it, the Bible as we have it in Old and New Testaments was not formally fixed until the second half of the 4th century.  Which makes me wonder quite what is meant by those advertisements in the ecclesiastical press wherein parishes or dioceses typically seek a man or woman who is “biblical”,  (I presume they don’t mean either Goliath or Jezebel), or whose preaching is “bible based.”    I think I know what it means, or at least enough to know that I myself needn’t bother to apply.  Though that being said, I would challenge anyone to identify a sermon in which I have not referred to, expounded or otherwise commented on a sentence or passage from the Bible.  True, I might have questioned or delved beneath a surface reading of the text.  But I think I can still honestly claim that my preaching is bible-based, even if at times it challenges a literal interpretation or introduces a more contemporary reflection.  I still chuckle when I remember the late Dr. Edward Carpenter, a lovely man, who was Dean of Westminster when I was on the Abbey staff in the early 1980s.  Edward once introduced the second lesson, with his characteristic lisp, as coming from “St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which the apostle attempts to argue the doctrine of justification by faith – to my mind not very successfully!”  Though perhaps he did rather over-step the mark when he announced in a sermon, “Jesus said, and on this occasion I think he was right….”

Now let me be clear.  When I was ordained I declared my belief that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation.  I stand by that declaration.  But it’s not the same thing as saying that all of Holy Scripture is equally or necessarily salvific – for example directions in Leviticus on how to sacrifice a goat or for that matter directions for the exclusion and persecution of homosexuals.  And, as a final thought in this pre-amble, let us repeat that the Bible as we have it in Old and New Testaments was not formally agreed or, as they say, “canonized” until the late fourth century, probably at the Council in Rome in the year 382.  This means that for nearly 400 years, Christians did not have the Bible in its present composition, let alone in the Authorized Version of 1611; that St. Peter, St. Paul, and all the apostles, St. Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicity and other early martyrs, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nanzianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Jerusalem, even St. Nicolas of Myra, Santa Claus himself, all of the apostles and the great saints of the early Church did not have and know the Bible as we know it.  So it’s not only me, but if Peter, Paul, Polycarp, Felicity and her companions, Gregory of Nanzianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Nice-one Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Nicolas, if even Our Lady herself had responded to one of those typical wet advertisements in the Church Times for “a leader who is biblically based with a warm pastoral heart”, well none of them would have made it to the short-list, let alone through the interview, because they were not, they could not have been fully biblical.  All of which prompts me to ask again, “Whose book is it anyway?”  And how did it come to be?

Well, some clues to this may be found within the Bible itself.  (Did I not say that my teaching is biblically based?)

Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as he regularly did.  And he stood up to read and was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  He opened the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

(Luke 4:16-20)

Jesus himself was rooted in the Jewish Scriptures; though at that time not even the Jewish canon was fully formalised.  It would be impossible in a brief talk such as this to do justice to the variety and complexity of the Old Testament.  We can only note that it is a collection of writings that grew, were shaped and brought together over a period of 1,000 years or more; and it exists today in two main forms:

First there is the Hebrew text tradition, which is still transmitted and commented on within Judaism.  This is called the Masoretic text, from the word masoreh meaning ‘that which is handed on.’  It took its decisive shape in the early Middle Ages, drawing on Hebrew manuscripts from the 9th and 10th centuries AD.  Strangely, it was not until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, roughly between 1947 and 1960, that scholars had any Hebrew manuscripts dating back to the time of Christ and a hundred or so years before that.

Much older is the version of the Old Testament which was transmitted in Greek rather than Hebrew.  This collection of translations began around 300 BC for Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt, and was completed perhaps in the 1st century before Christ.  This is the version known as the Septuagint (which you’ll sometimes see indicated by the Roman numerals for seventy – LXX – as distinct from my trousers which are XXL); so-called after the tradition that the first five books of the Old Testament – the Pentateuch or the Books of Moses – were produced by seventy-two translators, each working along and without consulting the others; and when they handed in their home-work, lo and behold, the translations were all identical.  Now either the seventy-two all had access to the same computer programme or, as this story was intended to show, the manuscripts were divinely inspired.  Whether one accepts literally this story of the miraculous origin of the Old Testament, it is related in the letter of a certain Aristeas to his brother, Philocrates in the 2nd century BC; quoted much later by Philo of Alexandria in 15AD and by Josephus some 80 years later; and it does highlight the fact that for centuries before its final completion, the Septuagint enjoyed high prestige in the Jewish world.

Now, given that the ability to read, let alone the means to possess such manuscripts was somewhat limited in the apostolic age, and it was impossible to get an internet signal on your i-phone by the Sea of Galilee, the context in which most Jews encountered and were taught the Scriptures would surely have been when they “synagogued” – when they met together for prayer, reading, discussion and fellowship.  Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day “as he regularly did.”  And at that time, Jews everywhere recognised the books of the Law and the Prophets as “Holy Scripture”; but the third element of what we would call the Old Testament was still undefined.  Some parts, for example the Psalms, were universally received.  Others, for example the Book of Esther, were still disputed but later accepted into the canon; while yet others, such as Ecclesiasticus, were later rejected but not at that time definitely excluded.  In other words, there was a process of reception and discernment going on.  And clearly one obvious context for such sifting to take place, with some works passing the test of time, others falling into disuse, was the synagogue, the meeting of the community.  Scripture was their property and, to a great extent, their product.

So then, Jesus himself was rooted in the Jewish Scriptures, especially the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms.  Likewise the first Christians, who were also Jewish.  Their Scriptures were the Jewish Scriptures, albeit in Greek rather than Hebrew.  As the Swedish-born scholar and Anglican priest, Anders Bergquist wrote, “In this sense there was never a Church without the Bible, and that Bible, which was the Jewish Scriptures understood in the light of Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, shaped the Church from the beginning.”

“But”, Bergquist goes on to say, “it is equally true that the Church has shaped the Bible in that the selection and ordering of the Christian Bible were the results of decisions and processes within the Church that can be investigated historically.”

Such an investigation will include, once again, evidence found in the Bible itself:

From St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, Chapter 4, v.13:

Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhorting, to teaching.

When Paul wrote that and his other letters, there is no suggestion that he supposed he was himself writing “Scripture” in the sense that Exodus or Isaiah were from “Scripture”.  To quote Bergquist again, “….it was a later action of the Church that gave his writings Scriptural authority, and indeed ranked them above Exodus or Isaiah as authoritative disclosures of Christian truth.  An important motive for this development was the need to find ways of transmitting the apostolic faith to new and unforeseen Christian generations.  Paul might no longer be alive, and the Lord might not yet have come in glory, but a Christian generation that did not know the apostle Paul directly could still allow its life to be shaped by his apostolic teaching.  The process of preparing a closed and authoritative list, usually referred to as the ‘canon’, is an important part of early Christian history.”

Exactly how this process was effected, and its relationship to the Jewish canon, is something that continues to be investigated.  But I don’t think it can be separated from the development of the liturgy and the context of the worshipping community.  To return to the Bible, in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Chapter 5 v.27, Paul writes:

I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brothers and sisters.

Or again, in Colossians Chapter 4 v.16:

When this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the Church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read the letter from Laodicea.

For even if the post then was quicker and more reliable than it is nowadays, the making of many copies would have been a long and tedious business; and if many of the intended recipients couldn’t read, it would have been a monumental waste of time and energy.  No.  The obvious time and place to communicate a message as widely as possible was when and where those recipients were gathered together and it could be read aloud to the whole assembly.  And you don’t need the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot, nor even a PhD, to work out that, in all probability, this would be when they met on the first day of the week to attend to the reading of Scripture – the Law and the Prophets, to praise the Lord with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs – some of which were themselves transmitted within the letters – to pray, and to break and share the bread.  It wouldn’t have been a matter of a reader in the Church in Thessalonika staggering up into the lectern, microphone at the ready (or not as the case may be!), and announcing, “The New Testament Reading is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.”  Apart from anything else, they might not have known that a second letter was on the way – though if they knew Paul well and his prolific output, they would probably have guessed and maybe feared that possibility.  In the meantime, it would surely have been much more a matter of the presiding member or another elder giving out the notices and saying in effect, “Hey-up folks, look what’s come in the post – it’s a letter from Paul.  So cut the choruses for a moment, quieten down and get an earful of this….”  It’s a scenario that’s borne out by Justin Martyr in his description of the liturgy in about 155 AD.  Although there were few if any set texts for worship at that time, there was a definite shape to the liturgy, inherited in part from the synagogue and Jewish ceremonial meals, and still recognisable from the way we celebrate the Eucharist today.  He describes how “on that day which is called after the sun, all who are in the towns and in the country gather for a communal celebration.”  They then listen to readings from “the writings of the prophets” and “the memoirs of the Apostles”, followed by an address from the one presiding.  Then all stand up and recite prayers, after which the bread and wine-mixed-with water are brought in, over which the president leads prayers and thanksgivings, the people chiming in with their Amen.  The communion is shared, the deacons take a portion to the absent, a retiring collection is taken for widows and orphans, and the people are dismissed.

As I say, the shape is highly familiar, including a Liturgy of the Word in which the people hear the reading of Scripture – once again that’s the Law and the Prophets – and “memoirs of the Apostles”, maybe from a letter or what we would call the gospels.  The question is, which letters and which gospels?  For I would suggest it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there was considerably more correspondence than has survived to this day; and there were certainly more than four gospels written in the first three centuries.  There’s the Egerton Papyrus, dated c.150, containing passages of Greek writing in similar style to the canonical gospels; there’s the Coptic Gospel of Thomas; and the much more spurious Gospels of Peter, Philip and Nicodemus, to name but a few. 

So it seems to me that there was something of a twin-track process going on.  The first track is what we might call an “evolutionary process”, one of natural selection.  As the various letters and memoirs of the apostles were read out, so we can imagine folk saying to themselves, “Now that was interesting” or “that was helpful, best keep it for future reference; in fact they might like to have a copy at Laodicea.”  Or, on the other hand, “Oh dear, Paul was having a bad day when he wrote this. Best put it in the Upton Park File.”  (Those who know the London Underground will understand that Upton Park is a couple of stops beyond Barking.)  Thus certain writings passed the test of time, came to be preserved and handed on; while others met the rat of time running up the drain-pipe of destiny.  An evolutionary process of natural selection.

But parallel with this is a distinctly political track, where the selection, ordering, translation, transmission, authorisation and indeed manipulation of the texts has been quite deliberate, whether to combat perceived heresy and establish an orthodoxy or to effect a reformation. Note, for example, how contents of the Old Testament as used by Protestants and Anglicans vary from the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox versions; or, as in the case of the King James Version, to serve the cause of political unity through religious uniformity, even if in due time that same version was used by both sides in an argument to bolster their position, for example in the debates over the abolition of slavery.  And indeed the use of the Bible as a political tool still continues.  On the surface, the divisions between GAFCON and the rest of the Anglican Communion appear to be over the authority and interpretation of Scripture.  But actually the appeal to Scripture in all this squabbling is about power - political power; about which faction will dominate the Anglican Communion in the years to come.  And the poor Archbishop of Canterbury, who perhaps has the most thankless job in Christendom, is caught in the middle of a race between the various provinces to see which can more loudly claim to defend the Church against the future and protect the Anglican Communion from the “liberal” tendency, especially in the United States and Canada but also this side of the pond.

All of which demonstrates what a powerful and formative book (or collection of books) is the Bible, whether for better or worse; and it is difficult if not impossible to discern any strand of Christian thought or argument which does not refer to it in some way or another. Indeed, I would assert that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself.  It is in a unique way, which virtually defies definition, self-referring.  So it is perhaps not surprising that it is common to end a Bible reading in worship with a statement such as “This is the word of the Lord.”  Though I still remember, back in my first parish, an elderly lady reading the first lesson at evensong.  (She was something of a cross between Miss Marple and Lady Prune from ‘Around the Horn’, if you’re old enough to recall that programme.)  The reading was that passage about the man who went out to gather fire-wood on the Sabbath day, in defiance of the Law; and Diana – for that was her name – concluded the reading, “So they stoned him to death as the Lord commanded through Moses….. Is this the word of the Lord?”  To which the congregation replied on auto-pilot, “Thanks be to God”, and stood up to sing the Magnificat!  Nevertheless, the claim that the Bible is “the word of God” would command general assent among Christians, though how that claim is understood, or the ways in which the Bible is to be read and interpreted, have varied greatly in Christian history and are still hotly contested.

Perhaps this is how it should be.  Because what I have been trying to show through these vague musings – perhaps even less convincing than St. Paul’s attempts to demonstrate the doctrine of justification by faith! – is that in construction and compilation, in codification and canonisation, in translation and transmission, the Bible as we have it is the Church’s book.  It tells the story of God’s dealings with his people and the community of faith.  This story is very much one of God’s active involvement with his creation, not his detachment from it.  His activity is, as they say, “incarnational” – a truth most supremely revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on his people.  God acts and speaks through his human agents, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge him or not; and for this reason and to this extent I have no problem accepting Holy Scripture as divinely inspired.  Nor, despite some of my slightly mischievous and deliberately provocative asides, do I feel moved to retract one iota of my ordination vows and declaration of the belief that within Holy Scripture may be found all things necessary to our salvation.  But that’s not quite the same thing, indeed it’s not the same thing at all, as saying that every word recorded in Scripture is equally necessary for salvation or particularly helpful in that quest.  I recall that John Austin Baker, when he was Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, before he became Bishop of Salisbury, compiled a lectionary, a list of readings to use at evensong in the Abbey – given that most of those present were one-off visitors and unlikely to be edified by the more obscure passages of lectio continua; much the same as the so-called “pillar lectionary” of stand-alone passages we use here at week-day evensongs.  John’s lectionary acquired the sub-title, “All the Scripture that’s fit to read(!)”

Not that I would entirely agree with that sentiment; for at daily Matins in Peterborough, where we did use lectio continua, including some of the less palatable passages, I sometimes found myself struck by a detail which I had not noticed before.  For example, in those endless and bloody Levitical prescriptions on how to sacrifice a goat or a bull or a pigeon, and how to dash the blood over the altar and chuck the offal away behind it (no doubt much to the displeasure of the vergers and holy dusters) – somewhere in this recipe book is the line, “You shall season the sacrifice with salt,” which all of a sudden cast a new light for me on the saying of Jesus, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, it is good for nothing.”  “You are the salt of the earth.”  Maybe this implies the call to a discipleship that is highly sacrificial; but if the salt loses its saltiness, if disciples do not give of themselves and all they have sacrificially, what use are they?

So yes, again, a divinely inspired Bible, Holy Scripture.  But still the Church’s book.  And that, I suggest, offers us not only the right but also the expectation and indeed the obligation to think about it, wrestle with it, argue about it, even disagree with it.  And, I wonder, whether we might even consider what, if anything, we might add to it.  For if the word of God is living and active, if the Bible is the Church’s book and story, did God cease speaking or did that story really come to an end with the canonisation of Scripture nearly 1700 years ago?

As I said at the outset, you too are theologians, called to think and speak about the word and works of God.  So here’s a trio of questions for you to consider:

First, what’s your favourite passage or book in the Bible and why?

Secondly, which passage or book do you find most difficult to relate to your faith?

And thirdly, apart from the Bible or Shakespeare, what other writing or writings are for you “Holy Scripture?”

And just in case that sounds preposterously heretical, let us refer one last time to that ultimate biblical commentary, the Bible itself, wherein people discover God in unlikely or hitherto unforeseen places: Jacob wandering around the desert; Moses transfixed by a burning bush; Elijah hearing a still, small voice; disciples hiding in the Upper Room; all of which became for them holy ground.  So if you were summoned to a contemporary Council of Rome, Nicea or Chalcedon, what would you want to suggest for consideration as Holy Writ?  For example, it’s interesting how certain monastic communities, as they munch their lunch in silence, listen not to the Bible read aloud but to the Rule of Benedict.  That’s one of my favourites, not least because it allows each monk “a hemina of wine a day”, something over a quart.  I’m not so sure about his directions for flogging naughty novices, though I suppose it could enliven the occasional confirmation class or even Chapter meetings!  I might want also to include some of the addresses of the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey; and even the collected monologues of Jasper Carrott, because he makes me laugh out loud, and laughter is surely one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity.

However, I think we’ll also find that much if not all of what we suggest can in some way or other be justified by reference back to what we know and understand of God in and through the Bible.  It is surely not for nothing that, even 1700 years after its compilation, the Bible remains a world best-seller in goodness knows how many languages.  So, yes, it’s a remarkable book, with all the ingredients and more than you’re likely to find in a Booker Prize-winner:  there’s history and philosophy, poetry and prose, abundant sex and violence; and the greatest love story ever told.

If you haven’t dipped into it recently, get your copy down from, the shelf, blow off the dust and settle down for a darn good read if nothing else.  Yet as your read, remember with humble pride and thanksgiving that it is the Church’s book, your book, God’s story and our story.