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Most of us use the words “the bible” confidently, sure that they refer clearly to some text, some specific book. They do not. Often we hear someone say, “It’s in the Bible,” or “but the Bible says…,” and for the most part we understand what they mean, though it is important to notice that there is no unambiguous “thing” the words “the Bible” refer to. In some sense, of course, the same may be said about any book: when we say, for example, The Great Gatsby, do we know exactly what object in the world has that name? Fitzgerald’s novel existed first in manuscript form, then was printed, and was a set of galley proofs; they in turn were corrected and reset for printing. In spite of the care taken there may have been errors (in spelling, punctuation, a word changed here or there) that were not found and corrected until the second edition or later. Which is the unique object picked out by the words “The Great Gatsby”? Is it the manuscript? the galley proofs? the first edition? or is it the “critical” edition published later which includes all of the amendments and variants over the history of the edition? Many of us would argue that it is the latter edition, the critical edition, combining as it does all of the changes, authorial emendations, printer’s errors, and editorial corrections that is The Great Gatsby, and we would use any such edition in doing any critical analysis of Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald wrote about fifty-five years ago and he wrote in English. We have the manuscript and all of the editions of The Great Gatsby. Furthermore, Fitzgerald was alive when it was published and could go over the text after printing to insure its accuracy.

Or, think of a somewhat earlier book, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. When we use the words “The Waste Land” to refer or pick out some item in the world, what exactly do we refer to? Is it the handwritten manuscript? the corrected copy with Pound’s changes? the typescript? the fair copy? the first edition? If we look at T. S. Eliot The Wasteland: A Facsimile And Transcript Of The Original Drafts Including The Annotations Of Ezra Pound we find all of these drafts and changes and can see how much influence Ezra Pound had on the final poem. Pound made hundreds of corrections and suggestions to the handwritten manuscript, many of which were incorporated by Eliot. Studying that facsimile gives the reader an idea of the organic nature of a text. Pound’s editorial pen wipes out whole stanzas as he prunes the manuscript, or adds as he makes suggestions about changes and alternatives. Part of the initial excitement of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was that we hoped to have something like the Eliot book to give us a better idea of the history and development of the Biblical texts.

The text of a creative work, like stories, which are related orally, is a constantly changing, almost living, thing. The arrival of the printing press made for more textual stability since there is something fixed about the printed word, which is not present in the spoken word. Legends and sayings of cultural heroes related as part of a culture’s oral tradition would obviously have had less stability than those texts that were written down and later printed. In the examples of Fitzgerald and Eliot we have two writers who were alive while their work was maturing and who were able to follow it through the maturation process from initial intent to final production.

Imagine a somewhat more difficult problem with an older literary text. Let’s say you are editing a new edition of “Hamlet” by Shakespeare. You want to get the text as accurate as possible, as close to what Shakespeare actually wrote as is humanly possible. You start by trying to find the manuscript (so called foul papers). But after some four hundred years no one has been able to find any of the foul papers. We just do not have one original manuscript for Shakespeare’s plays. We do have the First Folio, an edition published in 1623, some half-dozen years after the author’s death. But we also have two quarto editions of “Hamlet”. Which is the “real” play? There are three early texts of “Hamlet”: the first quarto (Q1) of 1603, a pirated, garbled version; the second quarto (Q2) of 1604-05, probably set up by the printer from Shakespeare’s own manuscript; and the text of the play as it appears in the first folio (F1) of 1623. A typical example of the differences between the three versions occurs in III, iv; towards the end of the closet scene:

Q1 reads:

Ham.: Why doe you nothing heare?

Queene: Not I.

Ham.: Nor do you nothing see?

Queene: No neither.

Ham.: No, why see the King my father, my father

in the habite

As he lived, looke you how pale he lookes,

See how he steales away out of the Portall,

Looke, there he goes. (Exit Ghost)

In Q2 the text reads:

Ham.: Doe you see nothing there?

Ger.: Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.

Ham.: Nor did you nothing heare?

Ger.: No, nothing but our selves.

Ham.: Why looke you there, looke how it steales


My Father in his habite, as he lived,

Looke where he goes even now out at the


(Exit )

In the First Folio we find:

Ham.: Do you see nothing there?

Qu. : Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.

Ham.: Nor did you nothing heare?

Qu. : Nothing but ourselves.

Comparing these three versions we find many differences in spelling, in syntax, in utterances. In Q2 the Queen’s line in response to Hamlet’s question about seeing is changed strikingly by the addition of “yet all that is I see” which is a much different claim than the simple “no, I see nothing” of Q1. If we looked at the complete scene we would find even more striking differences: in Q1 the Queen swears she will help Hamlet in whatever he devises. There is nothing of this in the other versions. When F1 is compared with Q2, it will be seen that Hamlet’s speeches have been considerably altered; F1 omits nineteen lines that occur in Q2. Further the version in Q2 is so lightly punctuated that at times it is difficult to determine the sense of the passages. F1 is a more carefully prepared version, but probably not a direct printing from Shakespeare’s manuscript. There is a discrepancy also between the two versions at the end of the scene. In Q2, the scene ends at “Exit” and the next scene begins with: “Enter King, and Queene, with Rosencrans and Guyldensterne,” as if the Queen had gone out and come in again. In F1, Gertrude is left alone at the end of the scene for a few moments, and then the King enters alone. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not enter until the King calls for them, at line 32.

Which version should you as a modern editor choose? Which is the “real” text of “Hamlet”?

Shakespeare, of course, wrote in English; at a time when printing, libraries, scholars, and universities were all around. Imagine now the problems in selecting what will go into the Bible. Here is material going back some three thousand years, and written in languages quite strange to us today. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, which was an ancient Semitic language spoken in the territory of present day Syria. Beginning in about 500 B.C. Aramaic began to supplant the Hebrew language in Palestine, where in the days of Jesus a dialect of the Aramaic was the language commonly spoken. The New Testament was written in Greek with a few words and expressions in Aramaic. In short, “the Bible” is always a work in translation, in addition to being an edited text. We call the editor (or editors) who put together the books of the Bible a redactor from the Latin redactus, which means “to write out or draw up, to arrange for publication.” Many parts of the two testaments were undoubtedly part of an oral tradition for years before ever being written down in the language of the day. To read the texts today in translation is to read the end result of a complicated human process of selection, translation, and judgement which necessarily removes us from the “original” texts. Some of the apparent contradictions and oversights in the stories come from the vari- ous sources being brought together in the final draft by a redactor who could not change things consciously without great trouble of spirit because these books were believed to have been written by God. It would be the height of blasphemy to edit God’s words. The Bible then is a compilation of texts put together around 100 C.E. and established as canon by editorial (theological) committees of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Look, for example, at the differences between the Hebrew and Christian Bibles:

Hebrew Bible Christian Bible
Torah: (Law)
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,

Numbers, Deuteronomy

5 5
Nebi’im: (Prophets)
Former prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings 4 6
Major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel 3 3
Minor prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah,

Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zechariah, 

Zephaniah, Haggai, Malachi

1 12
Kethubim: (Writings)
Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth,

Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Chronicles,

Ezra – Nehemiah

11 13
Total 24 39


As I mentioned in Chapter one, “Esther” appears in the Old Testament and in the Apocrypha in the Christian Bible, and is worth looking at to see the differences between the two renditions of the same story. In the Old Testa- ment version there is no mention of God or His influence on events in the world of the story. In the Apocrypha version divine influence is seen throughout the story. The Greek version found in the Apocrypha, provides an explicit religious element to the story, while in the Hebrew version God is not mentioned. Both versions provide a foundation for the Feast of Purim, but the Greek version becomes a cosmic story of God’s intervention into Hebrew history. Not only do we find different books in different compilations, but we also find the same book writ twice.

As a current book on the Old Testament puts it:

Modern editions of the Bible are the end products of a long and complex textual history. Since none of the authors’ original manuscripts (autographs) of Biblical books has survived, the oldest manuscripts in our possession are copies, which in turn were copied by hand from yet other copies, and so on back to the originals. From the time of Ezra the task of copying Biblical manuscripts and thus keeping the books in circulation fell to the lot of professional scribes known as Sopherim (“men of the book”). They originally wrote in a consonantal Hebrew on scrolls of papyrus or leather (the codex or book form did not appear until the third century A. D.) with no system of punctuation, ver- sification, or chapter divisions. Notwithstanding the reverence in which these copyists held the Biblical text, the primitive conditions under which they worked made common errors of the eye and ear unavoidable. [West, James King, Introduction to the Old Testament, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1971, page 5]

We have to be careful when we use “the Bible” to refer to “a text” since there are so many different collections of texts which we might be referring to. Usually when we say “the Bible” we mean to use the words to refer to the collection of works we are familiar with or which has been a part of our reli- gious training. The important English versions of the Bible are:

1384 Wyclif’s first translation of the entire Bible.

1525 Tyndale, translated from Hebrew and Greek.

1535 Coverdale.

1537 Thomas Matthew.

1539 The Great Bible.

1560 The Geneva Bible.

1568 The Bishop’s Bible.

1611 King James.

1881 English Revised.

1901 American Standard.

1952 Revised Standard Version.

1976 The New English Bible.

1981 The New King James Version.

Most of us raised in a Protestant tradition who know the bible at all know the King James version, a version which has caught the imagination of millions of readers with its Shakespearean language and its rich and vivid images. Complete with chapters and verse numbers, the King James runs to 1,189 chapters with 929 Old Testament and 260 New Testament chapters.


What difference does any of this make? Yes, there are many translations, and yes, there are various readings among the translations, and , yes, there have been errors in the text from time to time. Just as with Shakespeare’s plays, or any other literary text, we want to make sure that we have the best text when attempting to discover or uncover meaning. The differences can be more than “mere style,” and at times change the meaning. Compare these four versions of Psalm 100:

King James Version:

  1. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. 2. Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing. 3. Know ye that the Lord is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves: we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 4. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. 5. For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.

Revised Standard Version:

  1. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! 2. Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing! 3. Know that the lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 4. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, And his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! 5. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

The New King James Version:

  1. Make a joyful shout to the lord, all you lands! 2. Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before His presence with singing. 3. Know that the Lord, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. 4. Enter into His courts with praise. Be thankful to him, and bless His name. For the Lord is good; And His truth endures to all generations.

The New English Bible:

  1. Acclaim the Lord, all men on earth, worship the Lord in gladness; enter his presence with songs of exultation. 2. Know that the Lord is God; he has made us and we are his own, his people, the flock which he shepherds. 3. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. 4. Give thanks to him and bless his name; for the Lord is good and his love is everlasting, his constancy endures to all generations.

Are we to acclaim the Lord by shouting or by making a joyful noise, or by singing his praise? Or are the lands supposed to make the joyful noise (RSV) while the people are to sing? Are the lands and the people the same or different? One translation says we are his while another says we are his people. Is there a difference? Does “his people” suggest a coherence, an identity, a unity that is missing in just “his”? Are we his individually or collectively? Are we to go into or before his presence? One says “into his presence” which is much more embracing and inclusive than “before his presence” and suggests a quite different relationship between worshipped and worshipper. And yet another says “enter his presence with songs of exultation” which again has a different connotation. If one either enters his presence or goes into his presence that suggests a kind of merging with God that is not in the phrase “before his presence” which suggests a complete difference between the subject and the object of the gladness and thanksgiving. That is a significant difference. How are we to relate to this God? Are we to be supplicants who stand before him or are we to be taken into his presence to know first hand the mercy, truth and love that are predicated in the poem as eternal attributes of god? And, which is it: his steadfast love or his mercy which endures “to all generations”? These kinds of differences abound in the various translations, but above all it seems important to remember that, as Northrop Frye puts it: “…Christianity…from the beginning has been dependent on translation.”

Each time a new translation of the Bible is published there is a hue and cry about the passages that are “ruined” by the new translation. Familiarity in this case does not lead to contempt but to a conventional response: the translation most familiar to us must be the “right” one. Some of the best-known stories are subtly different in different translations. In the New Testa- ment, for example, Luke 2.14 has caused a great deal of critical comment because the newer translations of the passage restrict the peace declared by the heavenly hosts to a subset of mankind. The King James version has, `Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ The blessing of peace is clearly one to be given to all peoples, and is unconditional in its distribution. Many people, Christian and non-Christian, respond to that famous passage at least once a year. It expresses a hope for the future, a possible world in which peace and good will extend beyond our tribal concerns to include the entire family of human beings.

The Revised Standard Version, however, translates the passage differently. Here we find: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.” There is an obvious and severe restriction on the blessing delivered by the multitudes of heavenly hosts in this rendition. “Among men with whom he is pleased,” sounds much more like the Old Testament God who has chosen a certain people to bless and cares nothing about the rest of humankind. Here there is a quid pro quo.

In the New English Bible the translators give the passage as, `Glory to God in highest heaven, and on earth his peace for men on whom his favour rests.’ Now instead of the highest glory being bestowed on God, it is God in the “highest heaven” as if there are many layers of heaven, with possible gods in each layer, for if there is a highest heaven there must be a lowest heaven. Again, as with the Revised Standard Version, peace is to be distributed only to those men who are favoured. Once again this rendition seems to suggest an arbitrary God – arbitrary as long as we are not aware of what the criteria are for being favoured – who favours some and not others. And unlike the cases of Fitzgerald or Eliot we have no author to check with to determine what is intended. Indeed we have no “foul papers” either, but are constantly making copies of copies of the text. Cut off from the author’s original intention, and without any of the original manuscripts, we are in a position that requires extreme caution and creative reading.

These differences are understandable. Every generation needs to translate its literary classics, to try to bring to bear on the old texts the new knowledge of language and a new vocabulary of life. Greek classics also are newly translated by each generation, and as we learn more about the syntax and semantics of the texts, our translators do their best to bring us texts which are close to the intention contained in the original. But translators are also people with certain assumptions and beliefs, people who work out of an official line, stated or not. Most of us are always reading the Bible through the eyes of a committee of translators. Sometimes, as in the example from Luke, a completely different meaning is evident in different translations. Other times the differences are subtler, are found in the particular diction chosen by the translator, or in the metaphor chosen as vehicle of meaning. Compare these three versions of the same early story:

RSV (Genesis 3.20-22)

The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them. Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” – therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

NEB (Genesis 3.20-22)

The man called his wife Eve because she was the mother of all who live. The Lord God made tunics of skins for Adam and his wife and clothed them. He said, “The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; what if he now reaches out his hand and takes fruit from the tree of life also, eats it and lives for ever?” So the Lord God drove him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he had been taken. He cast him out, and to the east of the garden he stationed the cherubim and a sword whirling and flashing to guard the way to the tree of life.

KJ (Genesis 3.20-22)

And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them. And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the Garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword that turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Two of the three have a “flaming sword” while the third has a “sword whirling and flashing.” One sees a flaming sword as on fire while the flashing sword is reflecting the light from some other source like the sun. The visual image is different even if the meaning is not: in all cases cherubims and a sword block the way to eternal life. The Lord God character in the RSV passage speaks in sentence fragments while in NEB he is given a complete sentence in the form of a rhetorical question. King James handles that difficulty by not using quotation marks at all and by a judicious use of the colon. The colon plus the “therefore” give the King James Version a stronger and more formal sounding causal relationship between the actions in the story. Whether the clothes were garments or tunics or coats seems to tell us more about the time and place of the translation than about how to visualize these two characters after they learn about good and evil, and suddenly for the first time feel guilty about their nakedness.

A bit later in Genesis we are told about the relationship between the women of the earth and the sons of God or the sons of the gods:

RSV (Genesis 6.1-2)

When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose.

NEB (Genesis 6.1-2)

When mankind began to increase and to spread all over the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of the gods saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; so they took for themselves such women as they chose.

KJ (Genesis 6.1-2)

And it came to pass, when man began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

RSV and KJ have the sons of God taking the women as wives while NEB has the sons of the gods taking the women. How many gods are there? How many sons of gods are there? Heaven, or whatever the name of the home of the gods is, seems to be a place populated with several randy sons. The picture we get from the beginning is a confused one as to the heavenly population. This story sounds like so many stories from the Greeks and other Middle Eastern tribes, who tell of gods with god like sexual appetites who visit the earth from time to time for strikingly non-spiritual sports. KJ uses a recurrent phrase, “and it came to pass,” which suggests an inevitability about the events depicted in the story – the sense one gets is that the story is already there in all of its details just waiting for the next paragraph of narration to reveal it. The suggestion is that there is an eternal text already written with a beginning, middle and end. In all cases the offspring of the union of woman and son of god will be giants.

One of the oddest, and possibly oldest, stories is found in the early part of Exodus after Moses has been chosen by Yahweh to lead his people out of Egypt. Moses and Zipporah, with their young son, are traveling toward Egypt to begin the task of convincing the Pharaoh to release the Hebrews from slavery and oppression. On the way they stop for the night. Yahweh attacks Moses. First he is chosen then he is attacked. Here is the story:

RSV (Exodus 4.24-26)

At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. Then it was that she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

NEB (Exodus 4.24-26)

During the journey, while they were encamped for the night, the Lord met Moses, meaning to kill him, but Zipporah picked up a sharp flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched him with it, saying, `You are my blood-bridegroom.’ So the Lord let Moses alone. Then she said, `Blood-bridegroom by circumcision.’

KJ (Exodus 4.24-26)

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision. [emphasis God’s]

RSV’s rendition has the clearest pronoun reference to indicate who gets touched with the foreskin, and KJ is the only translation that has the party staying in an inn. A “lodging place” is not at all specific while “encamped” suggests a tent pitched on the sands of the desert, but the Elizabethan “inn” seems completely out of place for the time and place of the journey. What seems to be reported here is an ancient ritual, which sounds like it includes a magical incantation, chanted to protect the bridegroom from the local god-power. In the Moses story this attack can indicate the danger of the quest, but other than that it points out the nature of this Yahweh that Moses is dealing with: irrational and unpredictable.

The famous beginning of the Book of John is another example of the subtle differences that translations can make in the text and hence in our understanding of it.

RSV John 1.1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

NEB John 1.1-5

When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was the Word was. The Word, then, was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be; no single thing was created without him. All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it.

KJ John 1.1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of man. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

King James is the only translation to announce unequivocally that “in him was life” – which is the theological point or proclamation of the story that John tells us in his gospel. The other translations emphasize the conflict between light and darkness in a struggle for mastery. In all the translations the idea of special creation is presented and the divine is seen as the Word or spirit and not as the material. This idea is consistent with the Genesis creation story and the “In the beginning…” opening harks back to the Genesis opening reminding us that John is telling a story about the beginning of things just as surely as is the writer of Genesis. Here the story is about the beginning of Christianity and the opening line proclaims that Christ was present with God from the beginning of time. This is obviously a re-reading of the Genesis story from a particular official line – John reads back into the story the proclamation of his own story.

Most of us read the Bible in translation and should remember that translations change over time because of additional knowledge and can be influenced by certain assumptions and beliefs. Language is a living, growing, organic sort of symbolic system, and as such is never frozen in time with its meaning locked up forever. No matter how we approach this complex set of texts – as myth, as literature, as history, or as revealed “truth” – we are aided in our task with some knowledge of where it came from, how it came together as one “book,” and how it grew into the collection of living literature which we know today.

Armed with some critical sense of the complex nature of the question, “What is the Bible?” we are better able to discover its meaning or meanings in a close reading of the text we have today.

With Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Eliot’s The Wasteland we deal with a text by a single author, written in English. With Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” we have a further complexity – no original manuscript exists, and three different texts compete for our attention. The Bible poses an even more complex set of problems. Written in ancient Hebrew and New Testament Greek, languages which are no longer living; compiled over the years in various “packages;” written by who knows who – we have to be careful when making claims about this collection of books.


People who claim the bible is literally true, if they are to retain a rational stance, have to explain (1) which “bible” they have in mind; (2) the several contradictions which occur in all versions; (3) what it means for a text to be literally true. When Yahweh says, “my bow I set in the sky…” aren’t we to take “bow” as a metaphor for rainbow? Metaphor plays an important part in the Biblical texts and literal interpretation seems to block the possibility of reading these texts as we read other texts – with an eye and ear to figures of speech and to the many levels of meaning such figures can bring to a reading of a text. Mistakes in fact and inconsistencies in account are also stumbling blocks for the literalists. For example, everyone knows that pi is equal to 3.1416… and that the relationship between the circumference and diameter of a circle has not changed its value significantly over time. As we have improved our method of calculation we have seen it change from 3 1/7 to a computer generated number with billions of places, but it has always been known to be more than three. And yet we find:

He then made the Sea of cast metal; it was round in shape, the diameter from rim to rim being ten cubits; it stood five cubits high, and it took a line thirty cubits long to go round it. All around the Sea on the outside under its rim, completely surrounding the thirty cubits of its circumference, were two rows of gourds, cast in one piece with the sea itself. (1 Kings 7, v.23)

A simple deduction here yields a value of 3 for pi. How can the literalist explain this? If she does so by saying, “Well, it’s just a human mistake,” are we then justified in asking how do you know this is the only “human mistake”? What criteria are to be used to determine what counts as a “human mistake”? The hypothesis (if it is one) that everything in the Bible is true is not justified because of this one counter example. Someone making the “truth of the Bible” claim must have some other sense of “truth” in mind than “corresponding to the facts.”


There are a large number of “doublets” in the Old Testament. For example 2 Samuel 24.1 tells us that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, `Go, number Israel and Judah.'” But in Chronicles (1 Chron. 21.1) the same event is given in this way: “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel.” Not only are the causal forces different in the two versions but also the results are different, for in the first case, Israel, we are told, has 800,000 men and Judah has 500,000 men; while in the second version the count is Israel 1,100,000 men and Judah 470,000 men. Israel in the Chronicles census has become a much larger nation than its neighbour to the south. We are given the Decalogue in both Exodus 24.4 and also in Exodus 34.28, and there are differences in the parallel stories. Hagar is ejected from Abraham’s household in Genesis 16 and again in Genesis 21. In the first telling of the story Sarai mistreats Hagar because she is jealous of her ability to conceive, and Hagar runs away. In the second version of the story Sarai asks Abraham to drive Hagar away from the camp and after checking with Yahweh Abraham does so.

The Ten Commandments are reported twice. In Exodus 20 we read:

God spoke, and these were his words: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other god to set against me. You shall not make a carved image for yourself nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God am a jealous god. I punish the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I keep faith with thousands, with those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrong use of the name of the Lord your God: the Lord will not leave unpunished the man who misuses his name. Remember to keep the sabbath day holy. You have six days to labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; that day you shall not do any work… Honour your father and your mother, that you may live long in the land which the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not commit murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false evidence against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house…wife, …slave…ox…or anything that belongs to him.

Later in the book of Deuteronomy we are told the same story over again. This time Moses reports on the giving of the law and tells what the Lord said with only very slight changes. In the Sinai episode of Exodus 24 verses 9-11; 12-15a; and 15b-18a seem to be reporting three different versions of the same event. We read of three different summons to ascend Sinai: the first fo- cuses on the covenant between Israel and its God in the context of a covenant rite, climaxing in a covenant meal, and a vision of the God of Israel. The second concentrates on Yahweh’s personal role in writing and handing over his law on two stone tablets, while the third revolves around the unique mode of Yahweh’s appearance on the mountain as a mysterious presence that looks like a fire behind a cloud.

Doublets are important in the New Testament as well. In the synoptic gospels we read of Jesus’ birth in two of the three gospels and the two versions differ on some important points. Mark gives us no birth narrative at all, and Paul never mentions either the miraculous birth or any of Jesus’ miracles. The crucifixion stories in the gospels also differ in some interesting ways, which we will consider in a later chapter.


“The Bible,” as Frye says, “is clearly a major element in our own imaginative tradition, whatever we may think we believe about it. It insistently raises the question: Why does this huge, sprawling, tactless book sit there inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage like the “great Bogg” or “Sphinx” in Peer Gynt, frustrating all our efforts to walk around it?”

Standing at the centre of our own cultural heritage, the Bible has meant different things to different people over the years – at one time believed to be the answer to all human questions, at another thought to be a tissue of fabrications meant to keep people in line and to promote a certain kind of power structure. The importance of the book will depend upon whether its human stories touch us as readers – depends upon the stories living within us, moving us to contemplation and to action in the real world. To the extent that the concerns, characters and events of this book can engage your mind and heart – to that extent the Bible is a living and important work.


In Leviticus (18:9) we read: “The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home or elsewhere, their nakedness you shall not uncover,” (NKJV, p. 119). This same passage, in The Living Torah, is translated less euphemistically as: “Do not commit incest with your sister, even if she is legitimate or illegitimate, you must not commit incest with her,” (TLT, p. 346). The message, in either translation, is clear enough: even a half-sister is taboo as a sexual partner. And yet, of course, Abraham, the sacred hero-ancestor of the Old Testament, does marry his half-sister and even denies she is his wife on two occasions, passing her off as only his sister.

The Leviticus discussion of “nakedness” in which “uncover the nakedness of” becomes a way of talking about incest or the act of sexual intercourse in general is useful in understanding the story of Ham’s curse. First a few words about interpretation in general. Are all readings of a text equally valid? What counts as evidence for a given reading? When is the instructor “reading into the text” and when is s/he reading the text?

Look again at the first murder story, the Cain and Abel story. We are told that Abel’s sacrifice is acceptable to Yahweh and that Cain’s is not. We are not told why one is acceptable and the other is not. We can read back into the story and say that Yahweh knew already that Cain was a bad piece of work since Yahweh knows all, but this doesn’t really help us to follow the story or learn what makes a sacrifice acceptable, because to take this approach is to give up on reading stories entirely and to accept a kind of fatalism. We could also look for further information about the story in another story, for example, we could point to the allusion to Cain and Abel in the book of Hebrews: “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.” (Heb. 11.4) This passage occurs in the famous discussion of what faith is, and the writer uses several examples from the Old Testament to make the point that faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It is a good idea as a reader to search out further examples of the use of a word like “faith,” or a phrase like “uncover the nakedness” to see how the writers used the word or phrase. But notice that the use of “faith” In Hebrews is not just a report of how the word is used it is an interpretation of the earlier story. In Hebrews several examples from the book of Genesis are used to provide examples for how a Christian should have faith – all of the heroes of the Genesis stories are heroes therefore they must have had faith – but that is to read back into the stories from a particular point of view.

Ham’s story is also instructive as an example of a way of reading the texts. Here is how I read the story and why:

“And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethern without. … And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.”

There are clues in the story that are intriguing: if all Ham did was see his father naked then why is the punishment so great? The curse of Ham is passed on to his son Canaan and to his son’s sons – and the curse is that their offspring will be servants (read slaves) to the others. Also, we read “and he knew what his younger son had done unto him” which suggests more than merely seeing him naked, for how could one know that another had seen him? These bits of evidence are not conclusive but they are sufficient to make one wonder what is going on. Now we do want to know how the phrase “saw the nakedness of” is used in the books – not how it is interpreted but what it means. And so we look for the phrase in other parts of the collection. It shows up in Leviticus in a long discussion of what sexual practices are to be prohibited.

“And if a man shall take his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s

daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness; it is a wicked thing; and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people: he hath uncovered his sister’s nakedness: he shall bear his iniquity.” (Lev. 20.17)

This passage is translated “Do not commit incest with your sister, even if she is the daughter of only your father or mother. Whether she is legitimate or illegitimate, you must not commit incest with her,” in THE LIVING TORAH by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. [“see her nakedness” = “uncover her nakedness” = “commit incest with her”]. The phrases “see his nakedness” or “uncover her nakedness” are translated “commit incest” as can be seen above. So what was Ham’s crime? Homosexual incest. And that is in the story.

Here is Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of The Art Of Biblical Narrative:

All the other biblical occurrences of the common idiom “to see the nakedness of” or “to uncover the nakedness of” are explicitly sexual, usually referring to incest (it is precisely the phrase used for the act Ham perpetrates on his father Noah), and perhaps Joseph feels a kind of incestuous violence in what the brothers have done to him and through him to his father. Reuben, … the first born of the ten, actually lay with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine and Rachel’s maid and conjugal surrogate, not long after Rachel’s death, when Joseph was still a boy. (p.164)

What about the application of the Leviticus rules of sexual conduct to the Genesis heroes? Is Abraham exempt from this sexual taboo? Was he not subject to the laws because he came much earlier and in that earlier time there were no such laws yet revealed to men and women? Or is this just an example of an inconsistency in the Bible, which we hear of all the time?

What one says about this kind of problem will depend upon what one knows about the dynamics of the Old Testament – the literary, historical, and philosophical ingredients which make up these books. Myth is one of these constituents, and an important one. “Myth” is not used here to mean merely “fictional,” or “not real,” but in its full sense. As the German theologian, Bartsch, has said, “Myth is the expression of unobservable realities in terms of observable phenomena.” Myth then is always used to interpret reality, to read the physical and psychological world. Myth is metaphor. It is story. It explains the complex in terms of the simple. It may be non-rational, but it is not false. Myth is true to not true of the world. The non-rationality of myth is its very essence, for religion requires a demonstration of faith by the suspension of critical doubt. “In this sense,” as Edmund Leach puts it, “all stories which occur in The Bible are myths for the devout Christian whether they correspond to historical fact or not.”


One of the common characteristics of all mythological systems is that of redundancy. Important stories are told in several different versions. A second characteristic is information. Myths are information “packages” delivered in several forms (redundancy) in order that we may get the “message” (information). For example, man/woman is created twice in Gene- sis; then, as if the first two men/women were not enough, we also have the story of Noah, in which God starts anew once more. Edmund Leach, com- menting on this characteristic of redundancy, writes: “Now in the mind of the believer, myth does indeed convey messages which are the Word of God. To such a reader the redundancy of myth is a very reassuring fact. Any particular myth in isolation is like a coded message – badly snarled up with noisy interference. Even the most confident devotee might feel a little uncertain as to what precisely is being said. But, as a result of the redundancy, the believer can feel that, even when the details vary, each alternative version of the myth confirms his understanding and reinforces the essential meaning of all others.”

Another characteristic of myth is its binary aspect: seeming opposites as heaven and earth, male and female, living and dead, good and evil, first and last, gods and people. In an attempt to bridge these binaries, a new element, “mediation,” is introduced into the story. “Mediation” is achieved by introducing a third category which is “abnormal” or “anomalous.” Thus myths are full of fabulous monsters, incarnate gods, virgin mothers, and the like. This middle ground of half-gods and super-humans is abnormal, non-natural, holy. It is typically the focus of all taboo and ritual observance. Leach, com- menting on the tales of the patriarchs, says, “this long series of repetitive and inverted tales asserts: (a) the overriding virtue of close kin endogamy, (b) that…Abraham can carry this so far that he marries his paternal half-sister…, (c) that a rank order is established which places the tribal neighbours of the Israelites in varying degrees of inferior status…the myth requires that the Israelites be descended unambiguously from Terah, the father of Abraham.”

Notice that in the Noah story Noah becomes a unique ancestor without the implication of incest. (And yet the theme of homosexual incest recurs when drunken Noah is “seduced” by his own son Ham). Myth can be seen as a way of establishing certain basic taboos or rituals in a culture. In this sense myths are repositories for human beliefs about what ought to be the case. In order, for example, to discourage certain sexual practices we might invent stories showing the terrible consequences of participating in those practices. These stories can be used to suggest what behaviour is prohibited and what behaviour is commanded. We are what we read, and the simplest way to teach ethics to a people is to recite stories. Stories are vessels for the official line – the prescribed way of behaving within a culture.


Northrop Frye in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature says that “the Bible tells a story” and “the Bible is a myth” are essentially the same statement. Frye argues (p. 31, ff) that myth means, first of all, mythos or plot – the sequential ordering of words, and in this sense all verbal structures are mythical. Hence, he says (p. 30) “to demythologize any part of the Bible would be the same thing as to obliterate it.” If one stretches the meaning of the word “myth” in this way then one has the problem of universalizing: if every verbal structure is a myth then calling a given story a myth tells us very little. But, there is a second sense of mythical that Frye develops here (and in his earlier works). He says, “mythical…means the opposite of “not really true”: it means charged with a special seriousness and importance.” (p. 33) “Mythology,” he writes, “is not a datum but a factum of human existence: it belongs to the world of culture and civilization that man has made and still inhabits.” (p. 37) In this second sense myth is not merely a mistaken explanation of natural phenomena but is rather a form of imaginative and creative thinking that helps to produce the world we occupy. And that world includes our stories just as it includes the objects of the physical world. Again Frye: “…the real interest of myth is to draw a circumference around a human community and look inward toward that community, not to inquire into the operations of nature.” (p. 37)

If we ask questions about the truth value of the statements in the Bible then we work within a correspondence theory of truth, asking “is this statement true OF the world?”; better to ask “is this story true TO the world?” Many statements are true in both senses: “there came a famine in the land” is true of the world and true to the world of the story in which it occurs as a device for moving characters around.

Some see myth as primitive science, in which sense we are to think of myths as limited methods for explaining the phenomena we discover in the world. For example, one might think of the end of the flood story in Genesis as a putative explanation for why we have rainbows in the world. Or, as some have argued, the creation story (only one of them, remember), which has Eve made from Adam’s rib, is there to “explain” why women are subordinate to males. Offering the “justification” for a social convention in the form of a story is a part of the larger human story. Although conventions change, there is something that does not change – the human need to tell stories.

Mythology’s themes are of perennial interest, and more than this, possess a value that is real. Mythology is also document and record – existing not merely in the dim past, but in the living present – of peoples’ thought, of their attempt to attain that happiness which Virgil tells us, arises from “knowl- edge of the causes of things.”

Myth has these characteristics:

  1. form: primarily narrative (but may be pictorial)
  2. time: set in the past or the universal present – the same thing said in a different way at the same time – or, more simply, the past is universally present.
  3. subject-matter: themes are drawn from the realm of the non-verifiable, or at least from that which was incapable of demonstration at the time of the creation of the myth.

There are these kinds of myth:

  1. myths of the gods
  2. nature myths
  3. myths of origins
  4. philosophical myths
  5. myths of the “hereafter” or the other world

they function as:

  1. allegories
  2. explanations of the beginnings of something
  3. para-scientific explanations
  4. expressions of the collective story of an age.

A myth is living or dead not true or false. We cannot refute a myth because as soon as we treat it as refutable it is no longer a myth but has become hypothesis or history. We need not believe everything we read in the Bible as literally true (because it is not), but it can be read as pointing toward a truth, or truths, about the human story. Sometimes we may smile at the naivete of the stories but we should never sneer at them. Often the seeming naivete is indeed just that, seeming. Myths are like parables – to be meaningful they must create their own lens for viewing the world. We see the world through these lenses.

A myth is a story about something that never happened but is always true.


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