Buyer's guide to the Good Book

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Article Scripture and Theology

He thought it would be easy to buy a Bible, a birthday gift for a godchild. The bookseller directed him to section 41. There he found more than 35 linear feet of shelving stocked with myriad editions of the Bible. Like cereals lining the aisle of a huge grocery store, the variety was overwhelming.

This would-be purchaser of a gift Bible returned home empty-handed. Worse yet, he felt empty-headed. He knew the Bible was central to his Christianity. When faced with making an intelligent selection of a specific edition of the Bible, however, he froze.

Catholic interest in the Bible, energized by Vatican II, has been on the increase since the mid-1960s. Since then scripture has been proclaimed in English in the liturgy. Bible-study groups now routinely gather in Catholic parishes. Most religious education programs have replaced catechism-based materials with more directly Bible-based materials. And the Bible functions as a focal point for many base communities.

Many Catholics today attest to a great love of scripture. They possess significant and worthwhile knowledge of some biblical passages and stories. Yet when Catholics are faced with buying a Bible as a gift for a friend or relative or for themselves to read and study, they often feel ill at ease.

The many translations and editions of the Bible, like the boxes in the grocery store's cereal aisle, vie for attention and purchase. Neil Heskin, owner of Earthen Vessels, a Christian bookstore in Arlington Heights, Illinois, reports one of his suppliers carries 22 different translations of the Bible. At his well-stocked store Bibles range in price from $6.95 to $80.

"Most people are looking for an easy to understand Bible, a good translation. A few want one like their grandmother had, a family Bible that sits on their coffee table." Bibles in his store sell year round, but particularly well during the Christmas shopping season and "also in spring with Easter, Confirmations, and First Communions," Heskin reports. "It equals the Christmas rush. And in June family Bibles are a popular wedding gift."

Step into God's library
There are other reasons, in addition to the vast number of choices, that make it difficult for people to make an intelligent selection of a Bible. These reasons center around the particular nature of this book itself. The Bible is quite unlike our contemporary experience of books.

The word Bible has its roots in the Greek word meaning a "collection of writings," a library in essence. This is a valuable clue by which to approach and appreciate the Bible. We should not think about the Bible as a single book, but as a collection of books.

Another contrast between contemporary books and the Bible centers on authorship. Today we expect that the named author has written that book. Not so with biblical authorship. Many books of the Bible, even though ascribed to one writer, had multiple authors. The final written version of many books of the Bible are compilations of texts, many of which had their origins in spoken words and were committed to writing only after these stories had established themselves in an oral tradition.

The arrangement of the biblical books is yet another contrast between the Bible and our experience of books today. Like other libraries, the library of the Bible was collected over a long period of time. One cannot approach the Bible assuming that the various books were written in the order they appear in the Bible.

For example, the most ancient portions of the Old Testament are considered to be parts of the Book of Exodus, not Genesis, and the oldest portions of the New Testament are considered to be some of Paul's epistles, not the Book of Revelation. Also the Gospel of Mark predates the Gospel of Matthew-probably by at least 20 years-but Matthew's gospel gets placed first in the New Testament.

The Bible was first spoken and then written by many disparate peoples. It is made up of individual books often assembled by anonymous editors, and eventually arranged and bound into a single volume.

It took the Christian Church almost 400 years before it proclaimed which of the many possible books should be included in the official canon of scripture. Until the second century there was no need to reference the Hebrew scriptures as the "Old Testament." Once Christian writings were collected, it became necessary to differentiate these new scriptures from the older Hebrew scriptures. The Christian writings then became known as the New Testament.

The Council of Laodicea, about the year 360, and Pope Damasus, who reigned from 366-384, both have been credited with making statements about what books constitute the canon. But it was not until 1546 at the Council of Trent that the Roman Catholic Church decreed both the contents of the Bible and the closing of the biblical canon.

The word canon means a "measurement." And the phrase canon of scripture refers to the officially approved books of the Bible. Other books, similar to the biblical books but not included in the canon, became known as apocryphal books. Some Bibles include these books in a section called "The Apocrypha."

Translation, please
Once the contents of the Bible were settled, translating this Bible posed many problematic episodes for the church. The various books in the Bible were originally written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Translations of these various books into the one common language of Latin was achieved by Saint Jerome in the fifth century. He translated the Bible into Latin, the language of the people. This translation, known as the Vulgate, served as the "official" Bible of Catholicism.

Since Latin waned as the common language of people, this official edition of the Bible became foreign to many ordinary people. Eventually only priests, clerics, and a relatively few educated people who knew Latin could read the Bible.

The Bible in its totality was not completely translated into English until the 14th century. John Wycliffe first translated the entire Bible into English in about 1384 and promptly brought the wrath of the official church upon himself. In 1408 the Roman Catholic Church condemned this English version and any future translations.

Regretfully this was a time when the church was suspicious of movements that eventually brought the Bible into the languages of the people. But three events of history surpassed the church's hesitancy and moved the Bible into mainstream life. First was the 1455 moveable type printing press invention attributed to Johannes Gutenberg. This invention paved the way for the mass production of books inexpensively.

The second historical event that moved the Bible into mainstream life happened 62 years later, when Martin Luther, protesting policies and practices within Catholicism, gestated what has become known as the Protestant Reformation. His translation of the Bible into German was the first in a modern European language based on the original languages rather than on the Vulgate as the source for translation.

The third event that brought the Bible into the mainstream was the rise of literacy, not just among the aristocracy, but in the common people. As more people learned to read, in large part due to the work of many Catholic religious orders, the Bible became an object of interest.

Luther, in addition to translating the Bible, also dropped some of the Old Testament books from his canon of scripture: Tobit, Judges, Wisdom, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch (including the Letter of Jeremiah), 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, and parts of Esther and Daniel. Thus a Protestant version of the Bible emerged. Today many Protestant versions of the Bible print these books in the Apocrypha.

William Tyndale emulated Luther by translating the New Testament into English between 1525 and 1531. Using the older, non-Latin texts, he never completed the Old Testament because he was tried for heresy and burned at the stake.

Probably the best-known edition of the Bible in English is the King James Version. James I, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, gathered about 54 scholars to develop a new translation of the Bible for the Anglican Church. It appeared in 1611. The King James Version is one of the masterpieces of the English language, filled with beautiful prose and colorful words that reflect the level of the English language at that time, sometimes at the expense of technical linguistic accuracy. By today's standards its Shakespearean and Spencerian English makes the King James Version beautiful though obsolete for many contemporary readers.

All translations of the Bible struggle between two sometimes contradictory ideals: accuracy and readability. How this is achieved is no simple task. Languages differ in structure, content, number of words, and usage.

A people's culture poses other problems for a translator. For example, how should sheep be translated in a language that has no word for sheep? How should wheat be translated in a culture that has no wheat? Some linguists think that translators should use the nearest equivalent within a language. Other linguists claim this practice leads to inaccuracies.

A translation should be approachable, understandable, and engaging in its new language form. At times this is done by translating ideas rather than words. However, if a translation of the Bible, in its effort to produce a highly readable text, strays too far from accuracy, one questions the worth of such a translation. It's a difficult balancing act to achieve, but a worthwhile one to pursue.

Modern-day readers of the Bible should take heed that this problem of the plethora of translations and editions of the Bible is not new to this age. Jerome, King James, and Martin Luther, as Henry Carrigan pointed out in the Oct. 9, 1995 issue of Publishers Weekly, all had the same goal, "To provide the best translation of the ancient texts in clear, accessible language to contemporary readers."

I've always been partial to the Jerusalem Bible: I like the introductory essays for each of the Bible's books, the translation is quite readable, and the footnotes are useful for study. One little-known fact about the Jerusalem Bible is that the late J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was one of its general editors. This fact impresses young people who find Tolkien's books engaging.

Brother Mark McVann, F.S.C., chair of the Religious Studies Department at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, has his students purchase the Catholic Study Edition of the New American Bible. "The more than 500 pages of introduction and commentary are very helpful. The translation and the critical notes are very good." This edition is also frequently recommended for Catholics by the staff of Earthen Vessels Bookstore, and it is also the version used for the lectionary at Mass.

Reference check
There are also books about the Bible that function as worthwhile guides to reading the Bible. Understanding the Bible (Mayfield, 1992) by Stephen L. Harris gives excellent background and on-target orientation to the various books of the Bible. Its glossary of major biblical characters, terms, and concepts is a particularly useful resource.

The New Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon, 1994) includes "general articles and introduction, commentary, and reflections for each book of the Bible, including the Apocryphal/Deutero-Canonical Books." The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), a six-volume work, is another fine resource.

People looking for a single-volume work can do no better than John L. McKenzie's Dictionary of the Bible. First published 25 years ago, it still shines forth as a wonderful, worthwhile, biblical dictionary written in the clear and colorful prose style of the author.

Bibles that include helpful information and books that contain reference materials on the Bible might not be needed by computer wonks. "A whole shift in the way Bible publishing is done might soon be on the horizon," bookseller Heskin claims. "Vast quantities of biblical background information are now available on CD-ROM. Bible atlases, concordances, and biblical dictionaries are also increasingly available through computers. People into computers will need less of this material within their actual Bibles."

Before purchasing a Bible, don't forget to read a few familiar passages, perhaps Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd," or the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke's gospel (10: 25-37). Compare the translations. Ask yourself which of the translations you are most comfortable with. Or, if purchasing a gift Bible, ask yourself which translation might be most appropriate to your recipient.

The Complete Parallel Bible (Oxford University Press, 1994) contains four reputable chapter by chapter translations of the Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, New American Bible, and New Jerusalem Bible. People with access to this book through a library will find it an excellent resource for easily comparing translations.

Selecting a Bible is not a mindless activity like purchasing a paperback book at an airport to wile away the time. Nor is it as easy as selecting breakfast food from the cereal aisle of the grocery store. It is a serious activity requiring knowledge and discipline. But, then, the Bible is not escapist literature. It is literature of involvement.

The Bible invites readers into the sacred experiences and religious traditions of the Judeo-Christian heritage. It's well worth the time and effort to understand this unique library and make an intelligent and informed choice as to what specific Bible to read, study, or give as a gift.