Timothy Beal

Timothy Beal is Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University. Raised as an evangelical Christian, he has published several books on the cultural history of the Bible, religion and popular culture. He has written essays for many magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Washington Post. His new book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible, is out now.

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Timothy Beal

Timothy Beal is Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University. Raised as an evangelical Christian, he has published several books on the cultural history of the Bible, religion and popular culture. He has written essays for many magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Washington Post. His new book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible, is out now.

Timothy Beal on Wikipedia
Timothy Beal's official website

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I love the idea behind your topic – that there are, and always have been, hundreds of different versions of the Bible.

Yes. We tend to think that the invention of the printing press led to the standardisation of the Bible, the flagship of print culture. What we actually saw was an explosion of different versions and editions. By 1800, there were over a thousand printed editions in English alone. Since the 1970s, the number of worldwide versions has soared. Over 6,000 editions are now published each year.

Your first choice is The New Oxford Annotated Bible.

I teach biblical studies at a secular university and I use this version a lot. It’s the standard critical edition for academic study, but many people use it for personal reasons. It uses the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation, which I think is among the best.

Do you mean the most accurate?

‘Accurate’ is a problematic word when talking about biblical translations. We don’t have a single original Hebrew or Greek source for anyof the books of the Bible, let alone the Bible as a whole. There are many different manuscripts. The people who produce these translations work in large committees of language and biblical scholars. Some are Christian, some are Jewish and some aren’t religious at all. They sort through the manuscript evidence and decide which texts to use and translate.

Do you understand Greek and Hebrew?

Yes, I read and translate them.

And are parts of the Bible in Aramaic, 

the language Jesus spoke?

Some of Daniel and Ezra are in Aramaic. Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew and looks the same. There are some differences in vocabulary and grammatical forms. The translation committees also look at the early biblical manuscripts in other languages. For example, the apocryphal texts are in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Syriac and Arabic versions.

Sorry, you were talking about the NRSV translation…

There’s a kind of lineage from the Geneva Bible and the King James Version to the Revised Version Bible of 1885. The Revised Standard Version is a mid-20th century revision of the Revised Version. The New Revised Standard Version was published in 1989 and has a flavour of the familiar King James English.

There are many translations out there, including ‘functional equivalent’ ones. These are where you might take a sentence, or even a whole paragraph, from the Greek and put it into modern English. It becomes extremely hard to know what’s behind it. ‘My cup runneth over’ becomes ‘you blow me away.’

Eek.

The other great thing about The New Oxford Annotated Bible is its essays and critical notes. They provide a lot of information. The notes don’t try to tell readers how to interpret the text. They contain relevant facts so that readers can make their own decisions. A lot of so-called ‘Study Bibles’ are more about steering people’s interpretation in certain directions.

Can you give an example? For instance, how do the notes handle the quotation that always makes me curious: Jesus saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?

That’s the story in Luke about the rich young ruler. In many Bibles, you have the translation and then the notes at the bottom trying to explain away the challenges of the text. They might say: ‘There was this place called ‘the eye of the needle’. It was a rock formation with a small hole in it. In order to get through the hole, camels would have to get down on their knees to crawl through it. What Jesus really meant was that, although it was not impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, it was hard and he would have to humble himself.’

That’s a very common ‘explaining away’ of a radical text. It seems to me to have a straightforward literal meaning. There are many examples where notes provide figurative interpretations and say ‘it doesn’t really mean that.’

That phrase endures from my religious-studies classes at high school.

An example is the different accounts of the death of Judas in Matthew and Luke-Acts. In Matthew, he repents when he realises Jesus is condemned, gives the money back and hangs himself out of remorse. In Luke-Acts, it says that he bought a field with the money and, while walking on it, tripped and gored himself on a rock. There is divine retribution in the story but they are two very different versions of how he died. One leads us to sympathise with him; the other does not. Many ‘Study Bibles’ will try and explain away the contradiction.

How?

One is the ‘weak rope’ theory: ‘The rope broke and he stumbled around, fell on a rock and was gored.’ See – they are both true!

How does The New Oxford Annotated Bible approach contradictory stories?

It identifies where the contradictory event appears elsewhere. It doesn’t try to explain away the second story. It leaves you to think and read for yourself. The next Bible on my list is another great example of that.

Yes, tell me about The Jewish Study Bible.

Do you know about the TANAKH translation?

No – and can you clarify for me: is the Jewish Bible the same as the Old Testament?

I tend to call it the Hebrew Bible, but it’s the same thing. TANAKH is an acronym. It’s what the Jewish Publication Society calls its translation of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. TANAKH stands for the three parts of the Hebrew Bible as laid out in the contents of Jewish scriptures. The ‘T’ stands for Torah and comprises the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They are in the same order as in Christian Bibles. The ‘N’ stands for Nevi’im. This means ‘prophets’ and refers not only to Jeremiah and Isaiah but also to the ‘historical books’, as the Christian Bible calls them. These are Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings. The last letter, ‘K’, stands for Ketuvim, meaning ‘writings’. These are the remaining books in the English Old Testament. That’s the basic Jewish structure of the canon – those three parts. The table of contents is different but the actual books are the same.

If our Old Testament is translated from the Hebrew, how was the order jumbled?

It’s a puzzle. Although they followed the Hebrew text, Christian Bibles took the table of contents from the Septuagint, which assembled things in a different way.

So why is this Bible on your list?

It offers an alternative perspective to Christian-oriented Bibles. The translation is very different, beginning with the very first verse. The NSRV says: ‘In the beginning’. The TANAKH says: ‘When God began to create’. They have two very different meanings and it makes you consider there is no single version of the Bible. The TANAKH is also different in terms of the ordering of the books and the fact that there’s no New Testament or Apocrypha.

In your own book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible,

you argue that we shouldn’t really be using the term ‘the’ Bible at all.

Yes, I would rather use the word ‘scriptures’. I think it’s a better term.

Your next choice is The Green Bible

.

Is this really an eco-friendly version?

It’s trying to be. It’s green in terms of the materials it’s made from. And it tries to guide readers towards an environmental engagement with the text. It’s a growing interest among many Christians, even conservative evangelicals. This Bible literally highlights in green the texts that have ecological implications.

Such as?

The first chapter of Genesis is all in green, as is anything that relates to creation or nature. That includes references to animals. In the Passover story in Exodus, verses four and five in chapter 11 are highlighted because the firstborn of the livestock are going to be killed. I’m not sure how useful that is for constructing an environmental theology.

The Green Bible includes essays by fairly well-known theologians, such as Wendell Berry and Brian McLaren. There’s also a green subject index at the end, which refers readers to relevant passages.

I’m not sure the Bible is the first place I would go to construct a case for environmentalism.

I like Mark Twain’s idea of the Bible as a drugstore where you can find poison and cure. There are many moments in biblical literature that, interpreted in certain ways, can contribute to an eco-spirituality or eco-theology. But there are also passages that can lead to environmental irresponsibility. This includes the first creation story, where God tells us to subdue and have dominion over all living things. It suggests you should control and stomp over nature and use it as you wish. There are, of course, ways around reading the text in that way.

So you don’t see this Bible as a gimmick and part of the ‘biblical consumerism’ you talk about in your book.

It’s certainly trying to tap into that market. My guess is that it’s not the first Bible most people own. Part of the challenge of Bible publishing is to add value and encourage people to buy another version. People frequently buy Bibles as gifts and I can see how this Bible might appeal. I’m sympathetic to this Bible’s interests and I don’t think it’s a pure gimmick. But publishers are always thinking about new markets.

Next is Bible Illuminated. The cover picture is of two people kissing. And there’s a photo of a gun-toting boy above a quote from Jesus saying he’s not interested in peace.

Yes, that’s quite provocative. It’s an example of the way Bible Illuminated likes to juxtapose images and text in ways that don’t make obvious or immediate sense. The gun image is used in Matthew when the text says: ‘I do not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ The text is highlighted in yellow and it’s used as a caption under a picture of a boy holding a semi-automatic weapon.

I really like this Bible. It’s evocative without being interpretative and the visual images are stunning. It’s a more aesthetic approach to biblical literature. It has no commentary or notes – just an occasional textual highlight and an image with a loose connection to it. It’s not obvious how they relate and it creates, almost like a parable, a tension in the mind with no obvious resolution. It destabilises how one might read that text in relation to the image, and vice versa. For young people who haven’t found a way to engage with biblical literature, Bible Illuminated might open something up.

Finally, you’ve chosen The Woman’s Bible.

This was an historic breakthrough in biblical scholarship. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the great women’s rights activist, was the main editor. It’s a commentary on the Bible from a feminist perspective, published over a century ago and produced by women biblical scholars of the time. Its contributors were a small voice in the academic world and this brought their voices together. More than any other text on the oppression of women, this work had a profound influence.

The contributors re-read the biblical texts in ways that detach them from sexist and patriarchal interpretation. For example, Eve is seen as the mother of wisdom. She’s the first to be curious because, as the text says, she saw that the apple was good to eat and would make her wise. Adam, of course, just takes and eats: he doesn’t need a reason.

I discovered this Bible while working on the book of Esther. The way these women read that text, especially the character of Vashti, is quite profound. Vashti is the queen who Esther replaces. She’s essentially described as the first feminist, refusing to be ogled by the king and his friends at their big drinking party. She exposes their patriarchal insecurities.

The Woman’s Bible tackles many other passages, such as the one that says women should be silent in church, and undermines their use. In the New Testament, Paul interacts with Junia, an apostle in the church, and a couple, Priscilla and Aquila, who were Christian missionaries. The Bible acknowledges that authoritative leaders of the early church included women. A hundred years on, it’s still well worth reading.

In your own book, you have a picture of Eve in a Manga Bible giving a seductive look at the reader.

That version is horrible: its approach to the biblical text is irresponsible. Eve as the seductress and temptress, Adam as the good guy the serpent wouldn’t touch… there’s nothing in the text that suggests that. It makes you cringe.

If I want to read a Bible as a bedtime book, which of your choices would be best?

Bible Illuminated could be great. It depends what kind of bedtime reading you like.

Normally novels, but nothing too heavy. I know the Bible has some good stories.

I try to offer something like that with my book, Biblical Literacy. It contains the Bible’s greatest cultural hits – texts that have more of a cultural significance than a theological one. It’s not laid out in the typical two-column format and it doesn’t have verse numbers. It uses the NRSV translation and I provide introductions designed to lead people into the story.

I’m intrigued by the whole concept of biblical literacy. You hear how important religion is in the United States and how it influences politics and lifestyles. I meet people who seem to go to church more than Europeans do. But in terms of knowledge of what’s actually in the Bible, there seem to be some big gaps.

Especially outside those lectionary texts used in the pulpit, which represent a narrow selection of biblical literature. But you’re right. Having spoken to executives in some of the big evangelical publishing houses, this is a major concern among some ‘big steeple’ church ministers too. In these evangelical circles, biblical literacy isn’t always very high. What I say in The Rise and Fall of the Bible is that biblical consumerism is replacing biblical literacy. Buying Bibles is more important than reading them.

What about for kids?

There’s a new Bible translation called The Common English Bible. Part of it – the New Testament – is published and they are working on the rest. It’s from a group of top-flight scholars, an ecumenical group, and it’s aimed at seventh-graders (13-year-olds).

What about iPhone apps? Are publishers moving into this area?

Yes, and so are app creators because so many biblical texts are out of copyright. I think these texts are going to circulate in smaller chunks. They’ll get attached and connected to non-biblical texts and disseminated through social networks. That’s probably truer to the way these texts circulated before they became part of a physical book.

It will be like the first centuries of Christianity, with different scrolls floating around.

Certainly, in that early period you had non-hierarchical networks of communities who shared texts with each other. They were circulating in informal networks – separate, in most cases, from the larger biblical context. I think there’s an affinity there.

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