Saturday, October 28, 2017

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha

I took a class in college on the Bible as literature, and this edition of the Bible was the recommended text for that course. Indeed, my copy still has the price stamp from the college bookstore on its first blank page -- $27.95.

Now, years later, when I had set out to read the entire thing, I knew that, unlike many of the books I read, I had no intention of composing a long and detailed review of my experience for the pages of this blog. That would require far more effort than I was willing to offer this experience. And indeed, after the first seven hundred pages or so, the reading became so tedious that I purposely moved onto other books, simply trying to knock off ten more pages of the Bible every day I could. With the books of the Apocrypha included in this volume, the total page count topped out at just over 1,900.

Why? Simply so that I could say whenever asked that I had, in fact, read the Bible. Yes. The whole damn thing.

Of all the things I could cite, therefore, let me reference only three. First, this early paragraph in this edition’s preface, which, to me, serves as a more than adequate warning against believing that you have achieved any true understanding on the words printed on these pages.

The first English version of the Scriptures made by direct translation from the original Hebrew and Greek, and the first to be printed, was the work of William Tyndale. He met bitter opposition. He was accused of willfully perverting the meaning of the Scriptures, and his New Testaments were ordered to be burned as “untrue translations.” He was finally betrayed into the hands of his enemies, and in October 1536, was publicly executed and burned at the stake.

We know that the meaning of the words we read in the Bible have been argued and fought over for centuries. But contemplate for a second that, regardless of the English edition, we’re not even reading them in their original human language. Which, of course, presupposes the idea than any human language can adequately contain the transcendental truth of the omnipotent, timeless creator of the universe. Any way you slice it, keeping your focus on the cultural influence of these words, and not their literal meaning, is the only reasonable way to approach them.

Second, this excerpt from the editor’s introduction to the Book of Philemon, which contains one of the most shocking apologetics for human slavery that I’ve encountered. Here’s the situation:

What should be done when a runaway slave who has robbed his master repents of his misdeeds and becomes a Christian? The Letter to Philemon, a resident of Colossae in Phrygia, is a model of Christian tactfulness in seeking to effect reconciliation between Onesimus, the runaway slave, and his master, who according to Roman law had absolute authority over the person and life of his slave.

And here’s what the editor have to say about it:

When it is realized that in the ancient world slavery was regarded as a legitimate and necessary segment of the social order, and that severe laws punished those who interfered with the rights of slave-owners, it is not surprising that neither Jesus nor any of the apostles attacked the institution of slavery as such.

Stop. Read that sentence again. Only this time, in place of “the ancient world”, insert “1850s America”. Now, is the first half any less true? And is it or is it not surprising that neither Jesus nor any of the apostles attacked the institution of slavery as such? Okay. Let’s keep reading.

At the same time, Jesus’ teaching of the essential worth of every human soul … and the church’s recognition of the brotherhood of all Christian believers … were destined to reorganize society. This Letter to Philemon reveals yet another side of the apostle Paul. In a situation which involved no doctrinal or ecclesiastical dispute, he writes with a delicate appreciation of the legal rights of Philemon, while inculcating at the same time a principle … which would soften the harshness of slavery and eventually operate to banish it altogether.

So in other words, slavery in the ancient world was okay because Christianity, through a series of tepid and deferential entreaties to slave owners, eventually accreted enough human sympathy to banish it as an institution. Well great. I guess all the uncounted millions who lived lives of abject suffering pale in comparison to such models of Christian tactfulness.

But this really shouldn’t surprise any critical reader of this text. Slavery may be the most visceral example of the dynamic of gods who care almost nothing for human suffering, but the Bible is littered with other less obvious examples. In fact, as I came to understand, when you dismiss the editorial frame that the prefaces and book introductions attempt to impose, and when you approach the flawed English text directly, you find a surprising number of examples of a very impersonal god. Here’s my third citation, from the great Book of Job:

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. Does not the ear try words as the palate tastes food? Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days. With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding. If he tears down, none can rebuild; if he shuts a man in, none can open. If he withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land. With him are strength and wisdom; the deceived and the deceiver are his. He leads counselors away stripped, and judges he makes fools. He looses the bonds of kings, and binds a waistcloth on their loins. He leads priests away stripped, and overthrows the mighty. He deprives of speech those who are trusted, and takes away the discernment of the elders. He pours contempt on princes, and looses the belt of the strong, He uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light. He makes nations great, and he destroys them: he enlarges nations, and leads them away. He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth, and makes them wander in a pathless waste. They grope in the dark without light; and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.

So impersonal, in fact, to be almost entirely absent. Because here, as in many other places, all the things that God is said to be able to do can alternatively be seen not as the exertions of an all-powerful agent, but as the inscrutable whims of an infinitely complex system.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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