June 2005

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages by Jaroslav Pelikan

A Jew, a Roman Catholic, and a Protestant walk into a bookstore. Each of them asks to purchase a Bible. The clerk asks, “Which Bible do you want?”

Still waiting for the punch line? According to Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures through the Ages, you’ve just heard it. From his opening example of what would be included in each “official” Bible purchased by the individuals in his hypothetical twist on the “a rabbi, a priest, and a minister walk into a bar” joke form, Pelikan provides a readable and thought-provoking history of the writing of the Bible, its many translations, and its impact on human culture.

Pelikan, a longtime professor of history at Yale and ordained Lutheran minister, is undoubtedly qualified to tackle the subject. The author of such important works of scholarship as a five-volume series on the Christian tradition and doctrine, as well as such popular works of history as Jesus Through the Centuries and Mary Through the Centuries, Pelikan has spent much of his career studying doctrinal history and has won, among other prizes, the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences.

The author seeks to deconstruct exactly what is meant by the question “whose Bible is it?” by examining, first, how the written book was produced in a largely oral culture, and by whom. Stating that the first five books of the Bible are traditionally attributed to Moses, whom tradition also holds recorded the words told him by YHWH (the Hebrew god whose true name pious individuals wouldn’t even pronounce out loud), Pelikan makes a strong case for the Bible’s roots as a work that was meant to be heard, rather than read. He also proceeds, at a scholarly but not belabored pace, to identify exactly which books of the Bible are accepted by which faiths, and the historical precedents for the forms of both the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible, often referred to by others as the Old Testament) and the New Testament.

In addition to sorting out just how different parts of the book came to be written and accepted (the “history of the Scriptures,” according to the author), Pelikan also describes the dispersion of Jewish people throughout the world and the spread of early Christianity as factors leading to the many translations of the Bible, first from Hebrew to Greek, and eventually from Greek to Latin, German (during the Protestant Reformation), and numerous other languages. In later chapters he further details the more modern history of, and resurgence of interest in, the study of the Bible both as a theological and literary document, and concludes in his afterword that biblical study will continue to be the core activity of both Jewish and Christian faith communities.

I’d like to speak more about my favorite part of the book, a short paragraph in which Pelikan suggests that earlier and more allegorical translations of the Bible might actually have better assimilated modern scientific theories about evolution than the literal, creation over the course of six twenty-four-hour periods, interpretation, but I can’t, primarily because I can’t find it. In a completely inexplicable and inexcusable move, the Viking Press has seen fit to issue this work of timely and relevant scholarship without an index. Readers hoping to use Pelikan’s academic text in research works or conversations of their own are hereby forewarned that they should mark any passages they find interesting with bookmarks or highlighting.

All in all, Whose Bible Is It? is a thoughtful and remarkably even-handed work that should appeal to biblical scholars, readers of history, and really, anyone who has ever sought to read and understand the Bible. Whether it will appeal to those who already believe they know exactly whose Bible it is, thank you very much, is doubtful, but, as Pelikan himself points out, “as both the Jewish and the Christian communities of faith have always affirmed, the Bible is the Book of God and the Word of God, and therefore it does not really belong to any of us.”

Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages by Jaroslav Pelikan
Viking Press
ISBN: 0670033855
274 pages