Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Bible is not a Book: Making the Word Flesh

When this College was founded in 1872, a library was one of the first things required. As a result of gifts and efforts of early benefactors, our collection includes a number of rare and important volumes, including Bibles. We do not have the 1611 first edition of the King James Version whose four hundredth anniversary is being celebrated this year, but there are two copies of the King James from later that century, as well as two even older bibles, a Latin Vulgate and the earlier English translation, the Geneva Bible, the translation used by John Donne and William Shakespeare.

But any Bible is itself a library. The name "Bible" derives from the Greek term “ta hagia biblia” – meaning “the holy books”, plural. The understandable mistake that the Bible is a single book stems not from theology but technology - the capacity of modern printing and book-binding to present it in one readily-purchased, stored or transported volume. The Bible however does not thus become a book, any more than Shakespeare’s plays become one work, just because collected between boards.

Like any library, the Bible was collected, not composed. The first holy books of Christianity were simply those already collected within Judaism. In the century or so after the life of Jesus, writings which reflected on his story and its significance were generated too, and these were received by his followers as expressing authentically their faith in him, and thus added to the category of holy books.

Occasionally various sacred books were bound in one volume for corporate or liturgical use, but of the earliest codices which have survived and which seem to have attempted a comprehensive collection of holy books, none correspond exactly to what is bound in a King James Bible or its more recent successors. Some of those ancient volumes omit books later regarded as biblical, while others include additional books later omitted from the canon of scripture. While the defined character and scope of the King James Version and other English Bibles may give the impression this matter was resolved, Protestant, Roman Catholic and eastern Orthodox Christians all maintain slightly different collections as canonical. The differences are admittedly few; the importance of this has less to do with what writings are included but rather how we read, both these books and others. The Bible is a collection of poetry and prose, history and fable, proverbs and predictions, jostling together on a shelf of faith, creatively, unpredictably, as faithful and true and diverse as its readers. In claiming these as inspired Christians make a claim to the diversity of revelation and its open-endedness.

But what difference does it make that the Bible is a library? When you read one book, it may be fair to ask “is this true?” or “is this right?” But such questions, to which fundamentalism always tends because it misunderstands the character of the Bible, are the wrong ones to ask of libraries. It is both impossible and insufficient for a library to be “true” – a bus ticket or a tax invoice can be true, but the truths of a library are diverse. One should ask whether a library is outstanding, expansive, comprehensive, useful – it must, simply, be “good”. A library does not exist to contain propositions, but to change lives.

Unsurprisingly the Bible contains its own varied wisdom about books and libraries themselves; the cynical preacher of the Book Ecclesiastes famously anticipated the attitudes of jaded teachers and students alike, observing (according to the King James Version) “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh”. But the Gospel of John casts a different light on the multiplicity of books, and about their relationship to truth. It begins by speaking of a word, the Word, who was in the beginning with God but whose true expression was not found in writing; “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.

At the end of that same Gospel, the subject of words returns; again to quote the King James Version, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” The closing words of the Gospel come just a few verses later: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”

The books are, in the end, not the point; that unique life, beyond the power of all books to contain or convey, the origin of the faith that led to this College being established, is. That life inspires us to seek in and for one another here all what is good, and what is true, and to strive for it. For the Word written, and above all the Word himself, inspires us to seek wisdom not only in facts and books, but in the whole of our own lives.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Contesting the Legacy of Abraham: Guy Stroumsa at the Oxford Patristics Conference

Guy Stroumsa gave the opening lecture of the 16th International
Patristics Conference last night, on "Athens, Jerusalem, Mecca: The
Patristic Crucible of the Abrahamic Religions" at the University Church.

Stroumsa began reflecting how Henry Chadwick, Henri de Lubac and Harry Wolfson were all reflecting on the Church Fathers during horrors of WWII that affected them quite directly (it was hard not to think of being here amid the dreaming spires while London or parts of it have been burning again).

He suggested that while the Church Fathers are often the preserve of ecclesiastics and seminaries that these three remarkable individuals (apparently he met them all) remind us that Patristics is fundamental to the humanities, as foundational for later Western thought. In a sweeping survey both of important ancient writers and their modern interpreters, he was (appreciative but) critical of Harnack's view of Christian exceptionalism and leant rather to Max Müller's pioneering work in comparative religion, notably the idea (drawn in part from Islam) of "religions of the book".

Stroumsa argued that it was necessary to consider not only "Athens" and "Jerusalem" as has often been done (the juxtaposition of Greco-Roman tradition with Judaism and Christianity) but to include Mecca (S., as a part-time resident of Jerusalem now, was not being entirely "armchair" about this I suspect).

His exploration of this link was based in late antique specifics rather than more abstract ideas such as that of "monotheistic religions" (a very recent idea and coinage). More fruitful for Stroumsa was the Abrahamic link - not quite in the sense of that other recent coinage of "Abrahamic religions", but rather considering how the three ancient traditions contested over the legacy of Abraham.

From (Paul to) Justin to Eusebius we find the claim that Christianity restores Abrahamic faith - interestingly sometimes with a swipe at Moses and the dross of the ritual law in passing. Likewise Islam claims its faith was Abraham's too, and that it was restoring what Jews and Christians had corrupted.

Just as Christianity was originally a Jewish heresy in effect, Islam began as a Christian heresy - at least in the eyes of such as John of Damascus. Each claimed to be the true exemplar of Abraham's faith. This commonality and this contest are the scarlet thread running through the Fathers, and late antiquity.