A Plethora of Bibles
Lori Anne Ferrell. The Bible and the People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 320 pp.
This book is a wide-ranging account of the history of the Bible. It is, to be more precise, a partial history: it focuses particularly on the Latin manuscript text from about the year 1000, with highlights from the 11th century to the printed Bibles of the English Reformation, and does its most interesting work from thence to the present in America. Ferrell describes herself as having taught at a liberal seminary for 16 years; currently she is a professor of early modern history and literature at the Claremont Graduate University, from which she acted as a guest curator for the exhibition on the Christian Bible held at the Huntingdon Library in 2004. This volume is a fruit of that endeavor, and one suspects that the book's rather breezy, even colloquial style (unusual in a university press monograph) as well as its popularizing inclusions (and omissions) owe to its being geared for a general secular audience.
Ferrell makes her non-faith-related purpose clear in her introduction: "What I will not do is attempt the impossible task of explaining divine inspiration, nor will I presume to justify Christian practice and belief." She has been successful in this regard; in many asides and remarks she indicates, for example, her distaste for Roman Catholic views of the Bible in the Middle Ages and evangelical views of the Bible after the 17th century.
From the point of view of a confessional Christian reader, the first two chapters, on the medieval period, are both interesting and frustratingly incomplete. For example, she seems to criticize medieval Bible manuscripts for their lack of user-friendliness, noting that "individual verses were not numbered until the later 16th century." Well, this is true as far as it goes; even the New Testament of William Tyndale (1526), like that of Luther's Bible and the Wycliffite medieval English translation of the 14th century, did not have the numbering system of the 1602 Geneva Bible and 1611 King James Bible that we now find so useful. But she neglects to note that by 1208, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton had divided the entire Bible into chapters for the first time. This was an enormous advantage for straightforward reading, and arguably preferable to verse divisions, which are in many cases more arbitrary. Langton's chapter divisions had become more or less standard by the 13th century.
There are other unfortunate gaps. Ferrell tells us three times that in the medieval period the Bible was more or less the sole property of Latinate clergy and a few "elites—nearly all of them male" (which is accurate only in the narrowest sense), but she neglects to say anything about lectio divina. This practice of prayerful reading and memorization of the Scriptures was a common feature of Christian life for a much larger sector of the community. Lectio divina is in fact of indispensable importance for understanding how the Bible influenced Christian culture during this time.
Ferrell also tells us that Jerome's Vulgate was without exception the standard Latin text. But in fact other translations, including the old Latin and numerous defective versions, were in use at Oxford as late as the 14th century, and laxness about their use bedeviled theological discourse (John Wyclif is among those who lament it.) When treating Henry VIII, Ferrell unfortunately neglects his Thomas Jefferson-like publication of an incomplete, politically bowdlerized Bible in 1535. This Sacra Biblia, as the title page calls it, is essentially a Vulgate New Testament with selected parts of the Old Testament. It omits, for Henry's purposes, all of the chronicles of Israel's kings, the prophets, and other passages. The "Bible according to Henry VIII" has neither Nathan's denunciation of David's adultery nor Elijah's denunciation of Ahab. Surprise, surprise.
Ferrell seems to me on surer ground when she is surveying the modern period, especially in America. Here her many illustrations and title pages enrich her contention— unfortunately warranted, it seems to me—that in America the Bible in translation becomes increasingly captive to sectarian causes; translations are more likely to be swayed by the culture of the intended readership than constrained by a sense of obligation to the original text. Her discussion of the lavishly illustrated, multi-volume Kitto Bible—a chic leather-bound Bible of the 19th century known for its woodcuts and engravings by Durer, Blake, and others—is both lively and informative.
Perhaps best of all—if most embarrassing for evangelicals—is her exposé of the plethora of market-serving "versions" of the Bible made to please sub-groups and consumerist niche markets. Here her focus falls on the magazine-style Bible for teenage girls, Revolve, which has tips on cosmetics and boys inter alia where once might have been exegetical commentary. She also notes the Refuel edition ("a guyish" counterpart), the African-American Woman's Study Bible, the Promise Keeper's Bible for Men, and the Twelve-Step Bible. Mercifully, she omits bowdlerized (and rewritten) Bible versions for alternative lifestyles and the recent Green Bible with its preposterously green-inked verses having to do with the environment. One shudders to imagine what may yet await us in this vein—I would not be surprised to see advertised a Bible for middle-aged men in mid-life crisis, complete with Harley Davidson ads and tips on motorcycle maintenance in the margins.
The history of boutique Bible manufacture is certainly interesting, as well as possibly disturbing for thoughtful Christians. Ferrell's book, especially in its treatment of the modern period, is to be commended for its exposé of the shallowness and crass commercialism that has driven so much of modern Bible production. Unfortunately for evangelicals, it is also thus exposes the loss of biblical authority in our time to which, however counter-intuitively, evangelicals have contributed so much.
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities in the Honors College at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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