Wednesday, August 17, 2011

RKIA's Guide to Reading the Bible... part 12



I have been saying for months now that the Bible isn’t a book. It’s a library. When someone asks me for the best translation of the Bible, the assumption behind the question is that there is an original Bible somewhere that can be translated. There is no such thing. This is a very difficult idea to wrap one’s mind around. In this present age, we can go to a text and look at the printed page and look at the author’s forward and look at the copyright, the date of printing, which edition our particular copy is and probably, if we were really worried about the whole thing we could ask to see the original author’s manuscript just to make sure our copy is the real deal. Then we would be pretty sure that we had the original version of the book.

There is no original Bible sitting on a dusty shelf in the Vatican basement. There are bits and pieces of sheepskin, copper, silver, stone and papyrus found in caves and tombs and ancient garbage dumps in the desert. As far as we know, we have not one piece of paper that was written on by Mark or Luke or Moses or anyone in that crowd. What we have are handwritten scrolls or pieces of scrolls that are copies of copies of copies of handwritten scrolls.

Let your imagination take you back to an age before junk mail or faxes or e-mail or newspapers or those annoying bits of paper stuck in your windshield wipers while in the store buying stuff wrapped in cheap paper. In the western world there were only two sources of flexible writing material. There was sheepskin, but a book might take a few dozen sheep, and that’s gonna cost ya. Less expensive, there was papyrus which came only from a weed growing in the swamps of northern Egypt. There were bits of broken pottery which the ancients used like post-it notes and there were tablets in wooden frames that were joined together like little books. They could be scraped clean and reused, but had only two small pages of writing space. There was stone, hard to write on and much harder to carry around in the fold of your toga.

For things that mattered papyrus (from which we get the word paper) was the cheapest, best way to record things. It didn’t last forever except in a desert climate, so for really important things, calf or sheepskin vellum was the way to go (expensive, but long lasting). The Jews used vellum for the scrolls on which they wrote their sacred texts and they still do. When the “books” of the Bible were written, no books, such as we know them, even existed. There were only scrolls, usually written on only one side. They were large and clumsy.

The scroll of Esther of which Luther said “I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist” is sometimes called the whole Megillah (reciting) because its whole scroll is read out loud in synagogues on the feast of Purim. I have heard the Torah, the five books of Moses, called the big megillah, because it is, well, big. If the first five books of the Bible were such a big, unwieldy scroll, imagine what it would have been like to put all 73 books of the Bible on one scroll. You would need a fork lift just to get it off the shelf.

Another problem is that the people didn’t read. They listened. Sacred books, in fact all books were publicly read. In the early Church there were ordained lectors whose job was to make sure the sacred scrolls were publicly read. Books were too Expensive for just anyone to own. These days, a Torah scroll costs between 25 and 60 thousand dollars. And we have lots of sheep and cows. Only the very richest could own their own personal scrolls.

Lets do the math. At say $40,000 for five books, we don’t want the most expensive, but we don’t want the cheapest either, what would the neighbors say? At $40,000 for five books, a Bible of 73 books would cost around six hundred thousand dollars!!!! Yes that’s $600,000!!! (A Protestant Bible would only cost $536,0000, so you might want to be a Baptist in this situation.) Do you get my point? When the Bible was written, THERE WAS NO SUCH THING AS A BIBLE!!!!

So, how did we get the Bible as we now have it? Remember the wax tablet in the two wooden frames? Somebody got the bright idea around 50-100AD to put papyrus or animal skin sheets in the frames instead of the wax. You could fit a lot of papyrus or even vellum between two boards and it was easier to schlepp around than a scroll and easier to find where you left off, you didn’t have to unroll things. And thus the book as we know it was born. It was called a codex, from the Latin word for a block of wood. That’s because it looked like a block of wood.

The codex was a big hit, especially with Christians who moved around a lot. Remember apostle means missionary. We read of St. Paul asking for his winter coat and his animal skins. “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” (2) Tim. 4:13 Note that he says “especially the parchments,” not just the cheap papyrus scrolls. The codex made things easier and cheaper. You could write on both sides of the pages thus saving paper, and it was small and could be stuffed into the fold of your toga or your traveling bag. Still, the scroll remained the standard until around 300 AD.

Then a couple of big things happened. Constantine became emperor and a made Christianity legal. He commissioned a giant codex containing all the books of the Bible and had fifty of them made. Remember, this had to be done by hand, by bored drowsy professional scribes from the imperial bureaucracy writing on animal skins. That’s fifty large books!! At $600,000 a pop, that comes to about $30,000,000 (thirty million dollars)!

Pope Damasus in Rome seems to have done something similar at around the same time, but the idea of the Bible in book form as we know it seems to originate with Constantine in 331. We have two copies of the Bible from that time, one of which may be one of the original Constantinian editions. These are the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus. They don’t quite agree. There are different spellings and varying texts between the two most ancient “Bibles” , the Sinaiticus has four books of Maccabees, and the Vaticanus has no Maccabees at all. I ask you , is that any way to run a business?

The first two Bibles don’t even agree with each other! The Codex Sinaiticus was discovered on a dusty shelf in a monastery in the Sinai desert where the Greek Orthodox monks were using bits of old scrolls as fuel to cook their lunches. The Codex Vaticanus actually was found on dusty old shelf somewhere in the Vatican sometime in the 1500's. No one knows where it came from. Thank heavens, old rectories, convents and religious houses tend not to throw old stuff out.

So what does this all mean? If you are looking for an original copy of the Bible there is no such thing. If you believe in Sola Scriptura Bible alone I would like you to tell me which Scriptura you believe in and why! Thank God I am a Catholic and that I know the Gospel has been personally and faithfully transmitted by the community of the Church and that the minor variations in an ancient text don’t change the truth at all. I, unlike the Sola Scriptura crowd don’t have to depend on some medieval monk or some imperial Roman bureaucrat falling asleep in the middle of copying a sentence in a dark cold scriptorium sometime in the dark ages. I have a living tradition to sustain me and not a dead letter.


PS You’ll notice that in the Catholic Church, when we read from the text of Scripture we say “A reading from the Gospel of...” We don’t mention chapter and verse. That’s because we have been doing this since the days when we used scrolls in church. We have never gotten used to this new-fangled business of chapter and verse. Chapters didn’t happen until a few centuries after Christ and verses didn’t come into use until 1560. Give me that old time religion!


  1. You may have addressed this elsewhere, but how does this relate to inerrancy? I was taught that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts. But as you pointed out, we don't have the original manuscripts, but copies of copies. So...?

  2. Brian, you were taught the Protestant understanding of inerrancy.

  3. Well, yes since I was Protestant at the time! So what does the Church say about what I asked above?

  4. The Holy Spirit protects the Church from erroneously promulgating the Scriptures. The Vulgate has been repeatedly affirmed as accurate in all respects necessary for Salvation, and similar statements have been made regarding the old D.R. bible in English. The various other translations are just translations. For a fuller answer, there's a good article (or a series, I forget) in the archives at Jimmy Akin's site on the topic.