Whose Bible Is It?: A History of the Scripture through the Ages

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No book has been more pored over, has been the subject of more commentary and controversy, or had more influence not only on our religious beliefs but also on our culture and language than the Bible. And certainly no book has been as widely read. But how did the Bible become the book we know it to be?

In this superbly written history, Jaroslav Pelikan takes the reader through the good book's evolution from its earliest incarnation as oral tales to its modern existence in various...

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No book has been more pored over, has been the subject of more commentary and controversy, or had more influence not only on our religious beliefs but also on our culture and language than the Bible. And certainly no book has been as widely read. But how did the Bible become the book we know it to be?

In this superbly written history, Jaroslav Pelikan takes the reader through the good book's evolution from its earliest incarnation as oral tales to its modern existence in various iterations, translations, and languages. From the earliest Hebrew texts and the Bible's appearance in Greek, then Latin, Pelikan explores the canonization of different Bibles and why certain books were adopted by certain religions and sects, as well as the development of the printing press, the translation into modern languages, and varying schools of critical scholarship.

Both an enduring work of scholarship and a fascinating read, Whose Bible Is It? will be eagerly welcomed by the many fans of Elaine Pagels's books and Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Distinguished religious scholar Jaroslav Pelikan introduces his superbly researched Scriptural history with a clever variation on the old rabbi/priest/minister joke. In this version, a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew walk into a store to buy the Bible, only to discover that each of them is looking for a very different book. From this illustrative little anecdote, Pelikan launches into an intriguing study that examines how -- and why -- various Bibles came to be and explores similarities and distinctions among them.

As the "word" of God evolved from a body of oral material to a written record, and as that record underwent multiple translations from Hebrew to Greek to Latin and eventually into myriad other languages, shades of meaning became confused or were lost altogether. Glosses, paraphrases, manuscript marginalia, and errors in transcription all played a part in perpetuating mistakes and variations -- not to mention the persistence of an exclusively Jewish oral Torah and the inclusion/exclusion of specific texts in various versions. Pelikan also describes the impact on biblical scholarship of such important phenomena as the Reformation, the printing press, anti-Semitism, and historical-critical study.

In a real sense, the history of biblical interpretation tells the story of Jewish-Christian relations and the divisions within Christendom. Yet, in answer to the question posed in the title of Pelikan's excellent book, none of us -- neither Christian, Jew, nor unbeliever -- can be said to own the Bible. At best we are "life-renters" of this rich and resonant religious tradition that continues to renew itself through the ages. Anne Markowski

James Kugel
Pelikan has an engaging style and a host of telling quotations, from Milton to Oscar Wilde to his own Aunt Vanda. There is nothing pompous here; the book wears its erudition well.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Pelikan, Sterling professor emeritus of history at Yale University and author of a number of respected books in the area of Christian belief and tradition (e.g., Jesus Through the Centuries), presents an outstanding introduction to the development, use and acceptance of the biblical canon over the centuries. As the title suggests, different groups have claimed ownership to the canonization process. Even today, Bibles vary in their content and in their philosophy of translation. Beginning with the long heritage of the oral tradition, then exploring the writing and editing of the biblical texts, Pelikan takes the reader through the process of scripture building with a fluency and ease that is both accessible and understandable to the nonscholar. His treatment of modern critical methods is particularly well done. Pelikan has a sure sense of history and context, surrounding the story with a wealth of detail, including some well-chosen anecdotes that add to the reader's enjoyment. He appreciates the ways in which tradition and commentary have influenced both the text itself and our understanding of the text, all the while expressing a love for the Bible and a perceptive grasp of the processes that brought it to its current state. This excellent work merits wide circulation and study. (Mar. 7) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An accessible history of the Bible, enlivened by a commitment to open Jewish-Christian relations. As Pelikan, a leading historian of Christianity, has done with sacred figures (Jesus Through the Centuries, 1985; Mary Through the Centuries, 1996), so he now treats sacred text. In this short, highly readable volume, he traces the history of the Bible, and of Bible-readers, from antiquity to the present. The chronology is familiar. We read about the translation of the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, and the creation of the New Testament. We travel through the Enlightenment, dipping into Albert Schweitzer's scholarly approach to Scripture, and Milton and Bach's poetic and musical renderings of biblical texts. What distinguishes Pelikan's approach is his raison d'etre-revealingly, he writes in the preface that his career has been motivated in part by trying to respond to the Holocaust. His latest effort, then, is as much an essay on Jewish-Christian relations as it is a simple history of an important cultural artifact. He takes great pains to show the similarities between Jewish and Christian ways of reading Scripture, to show that Jews and Christians are worshipping the same God through different canons of sacred text. He suggests, for example, that the Talmud and the New Testament can be considered "alternate" interpretations and responses to the Torah, "so near to each other and yet so far from each other." In the seventh chapter, "The Peoples of the Book," readers first encounter Islam. Pelikan argues that the Qur'an is both very similar to and very different from the Jewish and Christian Bibles. Though the Qur'an is not properly Pelikan's topic, readers may nonetheless wish formore than a tantalizing four pages thereon. The whole would also have benefited from a lengthier treatment of the Bible in America-perhaps a discussion of the myriad niche Bibles available at every bookstore, or of the biblical paraphrases popular for the last 25 years. Engaging and informative for both Jews and Christians, as well as armchair scholars.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641805547
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 3/3/2005
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jaroslav Pelikan is Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University and past president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His many books include the five- volume The Christian Tradition, Jesus Through the Centuries, and Mary Through the Centuries. He has received the Thomas Jefferson Medal of the National Endowment for the Humanities and an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America as well as forty-one other honorary degrees.
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Table of Contents

Introduction : the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible? 1
1 The God who speaks 7
2 The truth in Hebrew 27
3 Moses speaking Greek 49
4 Beyond written Torah : Talmud and continuing revelation 67
5 The law and the prophets fulfilled 87
6 Formation of a second testament 99
7 The peoples of the book 119
8 Back to the sources 141
9 The Bible only 161
10 The canon and the critics 181
11 A message for the whole human race 203
12 The strange new world within the Bible 223
App. I Alternative canons of the Tanakh/Old Testament 253
App. II New Testament 255
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First Chapter

Whose Bible Is It?

By Jaroslav Pelikan


Copyright © 2005 Jaroslav Pelikan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-670-03385-5

Chapter One

All of us could speak before we ever began to read or write. That is true not only of individuals but of entire nations, which, when they have acquired or developed alphabets and scripts, have done so for a tongue that had already been spoken for a long time. And with all due reverence in the presence of an ultimate and unfathomable mystery, it may even be said to be true of the Deity. "In the beginning ... God said, 'Let there be light'"; "In the beginning the [spoken] Word already was." On this, at least, Jews and Christians are in agreement, and so are their Bibles, that there was a Word of God before there was a written Bible of any kind, that the God of the Bible is the God who speaks. "They have mouths, but cannot speak," the Psalm says about idols made with human hands, in utter contrast with the living God who does not have a mouth and yet does speak. Eleven times, the opening chapter of the Torah uses the verb "to say" in reference to God, in addition to the related verbs "to call" and "to bless." But the God who speaks does not write anything in the Torah for eighty chapters, until the giving of the tablets of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai in the second half of the Second Book. To comprehend the written Bible, moreover, it is essential to understand that most of the words which are now written down in it had been spoken first and, therefore, they had been heard long before they could ever have been read.

Now that we have these words primarily in written form, we need to sound them out, sometimes even aloud, before we can grasp their full meaning. An unexpected example of how a presumed oral original helps to explain the written text is the statement of John the Baptist in the Gospels: "Do not imagine you can say, 'We have Abraham for our father.' I tell you that God can make children for Abraham out of these stones." Interpreters of this passage were often puzzled about what connection, it any, there is between "children" and "stones" until, in fine process of translating (or retranslating) this saying from Greek back into Aramaic (or Hebrew), it became evident: ben, as in the title of one of the Apocrypha, "Ben Sirach," means "son" or "child," with the plural banim; and eben, as in "Eben-Ezer," means "stone," with the plural ebanim; so what John the Baptist was saying was that God was able to make banim out of ebanim a play on words that is lost not only ill the translation from Aramaic to Greek to English, but in the transcription from oral tradition to written text.


Therefore, the Moses who (according to tradition) is the writer of the first five books of the Bible first learns the Name and the Word of God through a voice that calls to him out off "a bush all aflame": "Moses! Moses! I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob"-through a voice, not through a book. When Moses asks His name, the voice replies enigmatically, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Am That I Am." This God-who-is is known by the mysterious name YHWH, the four consonants or "Tetragrammaton." Modern scholars usually explain the Tetragrammaton as having been pronounced "Yahweh," but pious Jews did not-and do not-pronounce it, substituting "the LORD" for it (a practice that Christian translations of the Hebrew follow). Thus, the Being of God remains a transcendent mystery permanently, and it is the Voice and the Word of God that can be known. Therefore, the identification to Moses is: "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." To each of these patriarchs God speaks in the Genesis account and then acts accordingly. "The LORD said to Abram, 'Go forth from your father's house to the land that I will show you,'" and so the history of the patriarchs and of Israel begins. Later, "the LORD appeared to Isaac and said, 'I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven.'" Again, and in a dream, "the LORD was standing beside Jacob [whose other name is Israel], and He said, 'I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.'" Speaking and doing are inseparable, for YHWH, the God of Abraham, is the God who speaks.


That centrality of speaking is the significance behind the familiar title "prophet," which, despite the presence of seers and sages such as Confucius and Gautama Buddha in many of the world religions, is in this special sense the common heritage and peculiar tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three monotheistic "peoples of the Book." Therefore, the second of the three major sections of the Jewish Tanakh carries the heading Nevi'im, "The Prophets." Likewise, one of the designations for Jesus Christ attributed to popular acclaim in the Gospels is "the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee." And in the tradition of the Qur'an, where "Allah, most benevolent, ever-merciful" declares, "Never did We send a message before you but through a man, whom We inspired," this is the preeminent way of speaking about Muhammad. Even now Muslims often refer to him simply as "the Prophet." The Shahadah, the central creed of Islam, affirms: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet."

Despite our speaking about a "weather prophet" who appears on radio or television, or about the more or less reliable "prophecies'" of the stock market that come from a broker, the word prophet (a compound from the Greek word for "speaker") does not mean in the first instance someone who predicts the future, but one who speaks out on behalf of God-not one who foretells, therefore, but one who tells-forth (which often also includes, of course, foretelling the future). The primary and defining characteristic of the biblical prophet, then, is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority of Another.

Already in the historical books of the Tanakh, the stock formula employed for a special revelation from God to a prophet is: "The word of the LORD then came to Samuel"; "But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan"; "When David rose in the morning, the word of the LORD had come to the prophet Gad, David's seer"; "Then the word of the LORD came to Solomon"; "Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him"; "That same night the word of God came to Nathan": "The word of the LORD came to Shemaiah, the man of God." Within the texts of the writings of the Prophets, this same formula provides the credentials and the commissioning for the speaking of God to the prophet and therefore through the prophet: "Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah," who writes the sixty-six chapters of his book. In the prophecies of Ezekiel, it introduces one paragraph after another: "Then the word of the LORD came to me." Jeremiah opens his book: "The words of Jeremiah.... The word of the LORD came to him." A majority of the Twelve Minor Prophets invoke it in the very first verse of their prophetic books.

To emphasize the continuity of John the Baptist with the prophets, but then also the change that Christ has brought about, the New Testament also invokes the prophetic formula-but for John and for no one else, not even for the apostles of Christ, because, strictly speaking, the word of God did not come to Jesus, who was himself the Word of God in person and in the flesh: "The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." As the emissaries for the Word of God in person and witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection, the disciples and apostles of Jesus present themselves to their hearers as those to whom this definitive Word of God has come: "It was there from the beginning; we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hands: our theme is the Word which gives life."

Only secondarily, if at all, does the prophet write: "The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: Write down in a scroll all the words that I have spoken to you .... And these are the words that the LORD spoke concerning Israel and Judah." In the inaugural vision of the prophet Isaiah, it is the lips of the prophet, not his writing hand, that the seraph touches with a live coal to cleanse it:

Now that this has touched your lips, Your guilt shall depart And your sin be purged away.

The twenty-one written books of the major and minor Prophets of Israel that are contained in the Tanakh under the designation "Nevi'im, the Prophets" make no pretense whatever of containing everything that every prophet ever spoke during the long history of prophetism in Israel. Indeed, as one of the Gospels of the New Testament was to say in its concluding chapters, in words that refer specifically to books about Jesus but that are equally applicable to the other, earlier prophets of Israel as well, "There were indeed many other signs that Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.... If it were all to be recorded in detail, I suppose the world could not hold the books that would be written."


This primacy of the oral word is not confined to the traditions of the Bible, the Tanakh, and the New Testament. One of the most exciting revolutions in the study of Greek literature during the twentieth century was the discovery that the works of Homer (whoever he-or they-may have been, blind or not) were probably composed and for centuries transmitted in oral form before they were ever written down. Proposed as a hypothesis by the brilliant young classicist Milman Parry, this interpretation of the Iliad and the Odyssey argued that Greek epic verse in its beginnings was the work of illiterate bards, professional musician-poets who sang it to their audiences and taught it to their pupils by singing it over and over again. The reliance of these singers on the stock formulas and epithets that we still recognize in the Homeric epics and the very complexity of the poetic devices, meter, and language, Parry urged, could be seen as a mnemonic device to protect the poems against the subtle changes and corruptions that might creep in as they were being recited over and over again in the fluid and shifting form that word of mouth necessarily takes on. It is still a favorite party, game to pass on a whispered message of some complexity from one person to another, and then to discover how it has been garbled in the transmission after ten or fifteen "repetitions" that prove not to have been verbatim repetitions or even to have preserved the original substance of the message. There were skeptical reactions to Parry's audacious hypothesis from the members of the scholarly establishment, who, then as now, devoted their lives to writing and publishing books and who therefore could not imagine that, in the absence of writing, any work as complex as two entire epic poems consisting of over twenty-seven thousand lines could have been memorized over many generations and preserved relatively unchanged by uneducated and illiterate Greek peasants without ever being put down in permanent form. But Parry found illiterate shepherds in Yugoslavia who had been doing precisely that for centuries. And with some modifications, his theory, or at any rate this aspect of it, now usually labeled "orality" (to be distinguished from "literacy"), has found wide acceptance among students not only of early Greek literature but of other national literatures as well.

Meanwhile, all the way across Europe, the early literatures of Scandinavia and Britain had also been traced to oral sources already in the nineteenth century. The poetic medieval Eddas of Iceland and the Old Norse prose sagas were evidently being recited or sung long before they were written, the latter probably not before the thirteenth century. An eccentric nineteenth-century Danish antiquarian, hymn writer, and bishop, Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, laid the foundations for the modern study of the Old English epic Beowulf with his speculative reconstruction of the earlier oral Scandinavian sources that might underlie that poem in its present written form, which is usually said to date from the eighth century. Grundtvig also anticipated much of the modern study of the New Testament by similarly positing the existence within the first generation of Christian believers, and tracing back to the teachings of Jesus himself, of a primitive oral confession and proclamation, out of which the Gospels and even in some sense the Epistles of Paul could be said to have emerged. On-site studies by anthropologists of traditional storytelling formulas among various "primitive" and preliterate peoples of quite disparate backgrounds in many parts of the globe have found a surprising level of sophistication, confirming the theory that a culture does not have to possess a developed alphabet and a stabilized written language to be capable of profound "literary" creativity.

The burgeoning study of saga, epic, and oral tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries extended to cultures dating from the region and the period to which we also owe the beginnings of the material that eventually came into our Bible. Such study became possible as a consequence of the development of archaeology into a science in its own right, which led to a refinement of linguistics and the "cracking" of various ancient alphabets; the most celebrated of these was the discovery and deciphering of the Rosetta stone by Jean-Francois Champollion, which led to the "cracking" of the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Prominent among these cultures were those of the ancient Near East, Babylonia, Sumeria, and Mesopotamia, which had given birth to poetic narratives about the creation and the flood that in some respects bore a striking resemblance to the oral narratives that were eventually incorporated into the Hebrew Torah. Written (and presumably recited) in Akkadian, the Gilgamesh Epic contains, among other material, accounts of a primitive man and of a world-destroying deluge that to many Judeo-Christian readers were remarkably (but therefore also sometimes disturbingly) similar to the biblical stories of Adam and Noah. The Babylonian poem known as Enuma Elish, which seems to have been recited once a year or even oftener, contained enough parallels to the first two chapters of the Torah to have become known rather loosely as "the Babylonian Genesis." Both of these ancient epics, together with other tablets and written sources discovered by archaeological excavation, provided a wealth of information about how such narratives, including the biblical narratives, must have arisen and been transmitted in the ancient world.


Excerpted from Whose Bible Is It? by Jaroslav Pelikan Copyright © 2005 by Jaroslav Pelikan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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