We Christians really are the only Bible that some people will read.
Meanwhile, about a week ago the Christian publisher Zondervan launched the Bible Across America tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the New International Version of the Bible. Two couples will be touring the country in an RV asking people to copy a verse of the Bible twice onto special paper. When completed, one “original” will be offered to the Smithsonian and the other will be auctioned off to benefit the International Bible Society. Zondervan hopes to have photo facsimile copies ready for sale by Christmas 2009.
Do you think these two efforts are good things? My first reaction is to say that anything that gets the message of the Bible more in the public eye is positive.
Could we have a “read the Bible for a week on live television” event here in the U.S.A.? The Italian effort is being carried out on a state-owned television network. We don’t have a state-owned television network here in America and if we did, church-state separation concerns would prevent it from airing a continuous reading of the Bible unless, I suppose, equal time was given to the reading of texts of other tradition.
Perhaps a Christian network could be used, but such a network is mainly watched by Christians so not much outreach would result. Besides, from what I’ve seen of Christian television, the simple reading of the Word of God might be viewed as too low-key and even boring; I guess the readers could sit in a big gold chair or something. The major broadcast or cable channels would never sell that much time and the cost would be prohibitive, anyway.
Maybe we could do it on local access cable channel. But that would reach a very small audience and nobody takes seriously what they see on such a channel anyway. I once saw an interesting fellow offering “Christian teaching” on local access cable. One week he talked about how people weren’t taking him seriously because he was a male exotic dancer. Another week he wore a bunny costume while he talked about the resurrection. Like I said, we might want to be taken more seriously than that.
What about the “let’s get thousands of people to copy a verse of the Bible” effort? If they were letting people paraphrase their verse, that would be a real problem, since the last thing we need is a version of the Bible that amounts to a compendium of people’s opinions. Granted, the work even of trained and seasoned translators is subject to the influence of preconceived notions and even bias, but still, trained and seasoned translators are at least trained and seasoned. And granted, all of us go to the Bible out of our own experience and with our own needs and I certainly believe that in the moment of encounter between the text and the seeking reader the Holy Spirit can, will, and does illuminate us and grant us insight into our situation. But I wouldn’t want such a “personal” reading legitimized or universalized by putting it under a cover with the word “Bible” on it.
But that’s not what the Bible Across American project is doing; they’re having people simply copy the verses. It will be interesting to see what if any scribal errors exist in the text when it is finished. As most students of the Bible know, the ancient manuscripts that we have reflect the activity of the scribes in correcting mistakes that had been made in copying. Moreover, the remarkable work of the Masoretes, those Hebrew scholars who did such important work in the 6th-10th centuries C.E., indicates the rigorous scribal effort to insure the accuracy of the text. No one, so far as I know, is claiming any special inspiration for these modern copyists, which is good. The effort may nonetheless offer a bit of insight into the difficulty of producing hand-written copies of any text. Or, they may manage to produce a mistake-free manuscript.
So far as I know, I won’t be copying a verse for the project, which, as those of you have ever seen my handwriting know, is a good thing. The Bible needs to be read and understood and my script would be a barrier to that enterprise. Even when I try to be careful my writing can be a mess. Such will probably be the case with some of the copyists in the Bible Across America project. Certainly the discrepancy in handwriting styles from verse to verse is bound to be jarring to the reader.
That raises an interesting possibility. Imagine if you will that the bombs finally drop or the planet finally overheats or nanotechnology finally produces something that devours almost everything and everybody. Still, this is not “the end” and thus a remnant of humanity survives, albeit in primitive fashion. After many, many centuries humankind and civilization develop to the point that such sciences as archaeology and linguistics are resurrected. One day a team of archaeologists unearths fragments of a long-forgotten holy book. In trying to explain the different types of script in the holy book, scholars develop some interesting theories of language development. “Clearly,” one expert writes, “when this holy book was written down, it was the practice of the scribes to change their style of script every few lines.” “No,” another one writes, “what we have here is evidence of divine inspiration; under the ecstatic influence of some spirit, the prophets wrote with different hands.”
And if I had copied one of the fragments they found, they would argue over whether that part was written in a super-holy-and-thus-indecipherable-by-humans script or whether some ancient scribes were just uneducated.
Hey, it could happen.
Seriously, though, I think these two endeavors are noble. As for me, though, and maybe as for all of us, what really matters is that we read the Bible every day, that we pray for illumination, and that the words get written on our hearts in a way that accurately reflects the life and teachings of the living Word who is Christ our Lord.
After all, such efforts to get the Bible heard notwithstanding, we Christians really are the only Bible that some people will read.
Michael Ruffin is pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. This column appeared previously in his blog.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.