Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures through the Ages

Jaroslav Pelikan Viking Press, New York March 3, 2005
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Jaroslav Pelikan, who died last year, was Sterling professor of history at Yale University. Explicitly intrafaith in emphasis, this book defines the term “Scripture” in relation to the broad traditions of Judaism and Christianity (Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox), with occasional mention of Islam. He asks, How can Christians interpret certain Old Testament passages as referring to the Messiah whereas Jewish interpretations move quite another way? But the “Bibles” and subsequent hermeneutical traditions, parallel in some respects, prove significantly divergent in others. The book’s purpose is “to tell how and why each of them is different—not only in what it contains but also in how it has been read and understood, and to explain why that is still important” (p. 4).

Pelikan begins by stressing the dynamic oral function of divine “speaking” over the written text. The God who speaks, he argues, did not write anything until He gave the stone tablets to Moses. Different from the scribes, Jesus likewise gave primacy to “hearing over text” (p. 17). The author’s point is that God’s words were only later recorded.

Surveying the Hebrew tradition (chaps. 2–4), Pelikan walks the reader through the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. He says that some Bible events and persons can be recognized from ancient history; “however, most assignments of occurrences in the Tanakh [OT] to corresponding dates in the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Syrian, and Greek calendars are arbitrary and hypothetical” (p. 31). The book also traces the history of the Septuagint, the translation that allowed Moses to be read alongside Plato by diaspora Jews and also Gentile Christians (almost none of whom had knowledge of Hebrew). Pelikan also discusses at some length the “Oral Torah”—the Talmud—and other commentaries of importance in historic Judaism.

In turning to the New Testament Pelikan compares the function of the Talmud in Judaism (as the completion of the Torah) to that of Jesus Christ in Christianity (as the completion of the Old Testament). Christians, Pelikan says, soon saw themselves as the “new Israel” and eventually denoted the Hebrew Scripture as their Old Testament, albeit (he adds) appropriated more by allegory than literal meaning. “Sharing a common language,” Pelikan observes, “really can be a surprisingly divisive force” (p. 121), as evidenced in the virtual autonomy of Jewish from Christian scholarship through most of two thousand years. The author also asks in what sense Islam might be “a Third ‘People of the Book’ ” (p. 136). He likens the place of the Qur’an in Islam to that of Jesus in Christianity, that is, as the perfect incarnation of the eternal word. Pelikan admits, however, that the central teachings in the Qur’an vary sharply from the Old and New Testaments.

Several chapters chronicle the history of the Bible from the Renaissance to today, beginning with a return to the study of biblical languages and the proliferation of Bible translations. One result of this increased attention to the biblical text, Pelikan complains, is that now “a ‘scientific’ method of literal, grammatical interpretation”—with terms like “day” in Genesis 1—could be pressed into the service of fundamentalism, even as science was moving toward a view of an old earth. Pelikan, formerly a Lutheran, observes that the Reformation’s cry of “the Bible only” broke apart the single-faith community as multiple voices vied for different interpretations of Scripture. Moreover, to bolster sola Scriptura the Reformers had to define and defend terms like “inspiration” and later “inerrancy.” For Pelikan (who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy) “Scriptura” has never been “sola.” Instead it has always been complemented by tradition, creeds, liturgy, and church councils which “decided what the New Testament, and behind it the Tanakh [OT], meant for Christian faith and life” (p.180). In discussing the rise in biblical criticism Pelikan refers with some preference to Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779) that beckons Jews, Christians, and Muslims each to behave as though their religion is true while respecting the other faiths as though one of them might instead be true.

The final two chapters recount the explosion of Bible publishing in languages around the world, thus supporting Christian missions in languages from Albanian to Zulu—even though, the author adds, its messengers were (and are) often freighted with long histories of cultural and traditional assumptions. Nevertheless the Bible continually confronts people with the God who speaks and yet remains Wholly Other. No groups, Pelikan suggests, should claim that the Bible is their own possession. It is finally not man’s but God’s, and so, he opines, it is ever life-breathing. “Ultimately, we need therefore to look to a doctrine of multiple testaments, according to which the one God . . . has throughout the history of salvation formed a series of covenants but has not broken covenants or repudiated them” (p. 250). Pelikan concludes by arguing for multiple meanings of the text, the idea that “the Bible does not mean only one thing,” nor do the Scriptures belong to only one faith community.

Whose Bible Is It? sets forth a broad view of Scripture couched in tradition and interfaith generosity. Certainly Pelikan makes assumptions and draws conclusions that many evangelicals will rightly reject. He stresses a living word of God as defined through various religious traditions, but in doing so he gives little reason or basis for reform in any tradition. He urges sympathy and broadened understanding of the Bible’s covenantal grace to include modern-day Jews. His reference to Muslims as yet a “third ‘People of the Book’ ” is ambiguous, as though God’s word is simply a matter of religious preference. Thus Pelikan’s work suffers a fundamental flaw of changing meanings regarding what constitutes the Bible. A better title would have been Which Bible Is It? Pelikan’s work will frustrate evangelical readers, and rightly so. And yet it remains a masterful overview of the history of the Bible and its interpretation.

—J. Scott Horrell

July 1, 2007
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2007 vol. 164 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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