Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Bible

The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book
© 2011 Timothy Beal
225 pages, not including index.


Disclaimer: I read from an advanced review copy of the book, available through NetGalleys. No compensation for a review, good or negative, was offered or requested, aside from my own potential enjoyment of the book.

For better or worse, the Bible holds a singular place in western history. Within its thousands of pages are history,  poetry, proverbs, legends, and more laws than anyone knows what to do with. For fifteen hundred years, people have looked at it for justification and inspiration --  saints and scoundrels alike.  Timothy Beal writes The Rise and Fall of the Bible in part to address how it arrived at this status. His work is not a comprehensive history of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but focuses on their collection, promotion, and role in western society.  Essentially, it's a history of the Bible as a cultural icon -- as The Bible, the ultimate and authoritative voice that offers simple, direct, and instant answers to any who seek its counsel -- and a critical appraisal of the same.

Beal grew up seeing the Bible in this way, but while he still holds to the Christian faith, he now sees a gulf between this iconic status and the Bible in its most potent context. Rather than seeing it as a "magic eight ball" that delivers answers at convenience, Beal has grown to view the Bible as a work of work which forces individuals to engage with it, to grapple with its diverse meanings.  He believes that the ruthless conversion of the Bible from sacred literature into consumer product is fast eroding its status as an icon, and that the rise of digital literature will encourage individuals to work with the bible for themselves.

Beal's opening chapters comment on the current status of the Bible (emphasizing its constant repackaging into forms like 'biblezines 'and manga stories), after which point he gives a brief history of the Christian canon. I'd expected this section to be the meat of the book, but Beal uses the history to illustrate his point that the relationship between people and the Bible has changed throughout history. In early Christian history, no Authority handed down approved texts to individuals and communities. Instead ,they collected -- and created -- such texts themselves.  According to Beal, both Jewish and Christian scriptures existed in an infinite variety, as collections and translations were assembled for a given community's desires, purposes, and preferences. They lifted quotes out of context to apply to their own needs, freely -- and this is true not only of the rank-and-file believer, but of church fathers like Paul.* Copyists and translators played fast-and-loose with their work, and the organization of the Christian canon in the early medieval  period seems like a desperate struggle to impose order on chaos. It's no accident that the canon only came to be once the resources of the state were at would-be censors' disposal. It's also rather obvious that the censors' opinions are arbitrary: from the early church through the Renaissance and Reformation, theologians bickered on what was Authoritative and which was not.

This history of the Christian bible, while not as thorough as I'd expected, was thoroughly fascinating all the same. Such diversity explains all the little inconsistencies, and makes defending claims to the Bible speaking in only one voice impossible to defend. Beal devotes a chapter following his history discuss his problems with seeing the Bible as a one-voice monograph. It is, he says, a library of books that is "constantly interpreting, interrogating, and disagreeing with itself."  Beal adds to his discussion of the Bible's role by commenting on how the physical expression of scriptures -- in scrolls, codices, books, and now digital texts -- changes the way people view it.  The unwieldiness and expense of the scroll promoted oral traditions and short anthologies, while the Bound Book conveys to the reader a sense of finality:  a text that is bound is finished and cannot be altered. Its sheer physicality is an imposition, and the relative openness of digital literature is one reason why Beal is optimistic about the future role of the bible. As it becomes more personal affair, the lessons gleaned from it will have real value: rather than meekly accepting The Final Word, individuals will earn truth and meaning by working for it.

I'm glad I read The Rise and Fall of the Bible, though it's not the book I thought I would be reading. Its history added to my appreciation of early Christian history, and its theme -- the Bible's changing relationship with the people who read it -- has given me food for thought.  I never realized how 'loose' the Christian canon truly is.

The Rise and Fall of the Bible will be available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 16, 2011.

Related:

  • God's Problem, Bart Ehrman, which expounds on the lack of a ultimate answer to the question of evil --  something Beal cited as evidence of the Bible's  multivoiced nature. 
  • Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Isaac Asimov-- a treatment of the Bible as human literature. 


*In studying the creation of Christianity from Judaism back in late '06 and 2007, I realized that the Gospel authors were rather enthusiastic in repurposing  Jewish scriptures for their own use. One rabbi referred to this as "painting Christianity into the [Torah]".

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