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Joy for the Disillusioned

Sean Sheehan

The English Bible: King James Version: The Old Testament and the New Testament and the Apocrypha: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Herbert Marks, Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch, Norton, 3848 pp. £36, ISBN: 978-0393347043

 

The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper admitted that he found “more pleasure in good literature than in dull (even if true) history”. Based upon his aesthetic, the fictionalised history that constitutes the small library of books called the Bible makes for a strange cocktail: good literature mixed with a potent, rarely dull but mostly untrue account of the ancient Levant. This concoction is at its best when not shaken, stirred or otherwise interfered with, so beware those versions identified by “modern”, “common” or “Good News” appearing somewhere on the label. That the King James Version is the kosher bible for readers of English is self-evident when one contrasts the seventeenth century English of the opening lines from Richard Dawkins’s favourite book of the Bible (Ecclesiastes);

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity
What profit a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but
the earth abideth for ever

with this example of the same lines from one of the many decaffeinated editions that clutter up valuable shelf space in bookshops;

Life is useless, useless, said the Philosopher, Life is useless, all useless
You spend your life working, labouring, and what do you have to show for it?
Generations come and generations go, but the world stays just the same.

Herman Melville, who also particularly liked Ecclesiastes, praised it as “the finest hammered steel of woe”; lamentation and bitter weeping for the editors of modernised versions who succeed only in reducing it to a pale plastic and it is difficult to forgive them even if they know not what they do.

The editors of Norton’s new publication of the King James Version are admirably aware of the Bible’s literary qualities and in their labour of love each book of the Old and New Testaments comes with an introduction that adumbrates what is interesting about its textual landscape. So, deftly summing up Ecclesiastes, we read: “Yet in the end, the value of Ecclesiastes may lie less in its wisdom, its attitudes and its precepts, however balanced, than in its rhetorical splendour – that gaiety of language which remains the last joy of the disillusioned.” The Norton edition, offering far more than literary appreciation, is superbly well annotated and, by way of contrast, puts to shame the meagre annotations that sparsely peppered the Norton Critical Edition of Herodotus that appeared last year. With The English Bible, instead, the reader’s cup runneth over with a wealth of historical and textual commentary, plus contextual material it would take forever to track down in libraries. It is helpful to be told who the likes of the Amorites, Jebusites and Moabites were; instructive to be reminded at the start of Leviticus, where the rules for Jewish sacrifices are set out, that etymologically “burnt offerings” comes from the Hebrew “olah”, from a root meaning “go up” (in this case, to heaven), a “whole offering” being a holocaust; and necessary to have elucidated how the language of Hosea (6.2) is not a prophecy of the resurrection and that the Hebrew prophets predicted nothing about Jesus Christ or Christianity.

Doubts and suspicions about the reliability of the scriptures gathered pace with the rationalism of the seventeenth century and the degree to which obedience to the Bible was necessary for salvation was the subject of heated debate. The issue weaves its way through the theological civil wars that blazed across the seventeenth century and a poem like Dryden’s “Religio Laici”, grappling with the claims and counterclaims of deists and fideists, is unthinkable today (which is why, despite its great verve and intellectualism, the poem is now so rarely read). But Biblical criticism continues to thrive and back in 1991 Robin Lane Fox presented a lot of evidence for non-specialist readers in his The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. He showed, for example, how the specificity of Luke’s gospel (2.1-5) regarding the circumstances of the Nativity inspires a confidence in its veracity that turns out to be unjustified;

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’ (and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria). ‘And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem’ – because he was of the house and lineage of David – ‘to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

There is more than one fly in this ointment because Quirinius (Cyrenius) became governor of Syria in C.E. 6, when Judaea passed to direct rule by Rome, but a local and not an empire-wide census was required to assess the province’s taxation. Moreover, Joseph, as a native of Nazareth in Galilee, would not in C.E. 6 have been liable to a Roman census or taxation since Galilee was still under an independent ruler. In any case, “his own city”, so far as the Roman administration was concerned, was Nazareth, his place of ordinary residence, not Bethlehem. In what is another case of manipulating the Old Testament, Luke probably wants Jesus born in Bethlehem to reconcile the prophecy of Micah (5.2), which is cited in Matthew (2,6).

Robin Lane Fox, notwithstanding the plaudits he has acquired as an ancient historian, is capable of writing less-than-riveting prose and The English Bible covers the ground of The Unauthorised Version more accessibly and compactly. The above case of Luke (2.1-5), for instance, is neatly handled in a footnote annotation – write the vision and make it plain – succinctly conveying what a reader needs to know.

Thomas Paine was not way off the mark in his description of the Old Testament as a collection of “obscene stories […] voluptuous debaucheries […] cruel and torturous executions and unrelenting vindictiveness”. Just look at what happens when Aaron and his sons are consecrated as the chief priests of the tabernacle. They are meticulous in their duties and when the due sacrifices are made they are rewarded with a sign from the Lord that is all is OK. Everything is looking good but then Aaron’s eldest sons make an offering of “strange fire” that God did not request;

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them
his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and
offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded
them not. And there went out fire from the Lord and devoured
them, and they died before the Lord (Leviticus, 10)

As early as the third century, though, the Christian biblical scholar Origen was ridiculing readings of the Bible on a literal level and presumably this passage from Leviticus should be read allegorically: monitory advice about meddling with powers that should on no account be meddled with. The difficulty, whatever level of allegory is brought to biblical hermeneutics, is that partisans tend to find in the Bible what they want to find. As Twelve Years a Slave shows, many Christians were not conflicted when it came to slavery; after all, both Old and New Testaments take slavery for granted. When Noah was seen naked by his son Ham, the father’s humiliation resulted in a curse on Canaan, son of Ham, that condemned all his descendants to slavery (Genesis 9.20-27). Categorising black races as children of Ham was a convenient step to take, though a completely unwarranted one on the basis of what Genesis says. To be fair, more enlightened readers of the Bible questioned how the practice of slavery could be squared with the words of Jesus and campaigned accordingly. The most egregious use of the Bible, of course, is the Zionist exploitation of another passage from Genesis (17.8);

The Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, ‘And I will
give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou
art a stranger, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting
possession; and I will be their God’.

It takes more than a lump of figs to recover from what this has led to and one turns to Nietzsche with blessed relief: “There [the Old Testament] I find great human beings, a heroic landscape, and something that is rarest in the world, the incomparable naiveté of the strong heart; furthermore, I find a people.”

The Bible is perhaps best read as a work of literary interest in its own right – if in doubt about this just dip into the book of Isaiah to find in the sonorous imagery some of the Bible’s finest poetry – and as a series of texts that have immensely influenced thinkers and artists across the centuries. Only now, in secular cultures, is the Bible’s importance losing its position of centrality, or perhaps that should read “lost” given the findings of a survey by the Bible Society that indicated one in three could not identify where the story of the birth of Jesus could be found. Just as alarmingly, over 45% of the adults questioned managed to identify a Harry Potter plot line as coming from the Bible. The time is coming when a crash course in reading the Bible will be a necessity for English undergraduates and students of art, otherwise they will be severely handicapped in their understanding of literature and works of art.

As well as its literary interest and influence, the Bible is also of huge historical significance and the Norton edition excels in explicating the relevant scholarship. Given that the editors need nearly four thousand pages to present their annotated version, it could be a daunting task for readers not already acquainted with the books of the Bible to get to grips with the Old and New Testaments. One helpful general guide is The One-Stop Bible Guide published by Lion. It offers a graphic overview of the Bible story in chronological order, divided into units each of which consists of a two-page spread, richly illustrated with maps and photographs. It is written from a religious point of view and tries to inculcate Christian teachings even when the textual evidence lends itself to Thomas Paine’s interpretation. The slaughtering that occupies the book of Judges, for instance, is taken to validate the consequences of compromising with one’s beliefs: “That is why Christians believe that it is wise to ruthlessly remove whatever gets in the way of their relationship with God”. When it comes to the tedious genealogies and lists found in parts of some books, this shows “God’s concern for detail about things that matter to people” and, for a laugh-out-loud moment, we are told the incredible age that some biblical characters live to is because “the effects of sin had not yet fully affected the human race (note how life-spans get shorter as the story progresses)”. The text is very simply written and, when not proselytising, informative. It may be more suited to young readers than adults, but if ignorance is as appalling as the Bible Society’s survey indicates then a guide like this has its merits.
24/03/2014

Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012

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