The Ancient Wisdom of Proverbs

The Ancient Wisdom of Proverbs

I was invited recently to participate in the 30 Seconds or Less project of presenting every book of the Bible for Lent. In thirty seconds.

That wasn’t at all intimidating! I was to try to distill the ancient wisdom of the book of Proverbs down to thirty seconds. Or less. Fortunately I was also given a chance to state what I thought the “Good News” of Proverbs was, also in thirty seconds.

Here are my attempts, with text and video. Enjoy!
Continue Reading..

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

In a recent conversation about the Bible, I referred to it as “a collection of texts known as the Bible.” Someone responded:

In the collection known as the Bible?? I’m sorry, my friend, but you have gone off the deep end…

This response was a bit of a surprise. The fact that the Bible is comprised of various books by various authors is common knowledge to anyone who has taken a single religion class in high school or college, or to anyone who has actually opened a Bible. As a young child, I was required to memorize “the books of the Bible.” Continue Reading..

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Guest post by David Schell.

NO_LEFT_TURN_signPeople think I moved left because I wanted to compromise with the world, because I wanted to fit in better.

People think I moved left because I was deceived by the devil.

People think I moved left because I’ve been reading the Bible without the help of the Holy Spirit.

People think I moved left because I just stopped reading the Bible.

Continue Reading..

Christianity Divided by the Cross

Christianity Divided by the Cross

A guest post by theologian and scholar Marcus Borg – a fitting addition to our series on Atonement. (This piece originally appeared on

American Christians are deeply divided by the cross of Jesus – namely, by how they see the meanings of his death. At the risk of labels and broad generalizations, “conservative” Christians generally believe a “payment” understanding of the cross: Jesus died to pay for our sins so we can be forgiven.

Most “progressive” Christians (at least a majority) have great difficulty with the “payment” understanding. Many reject it. Some insist that rather than focusing on Jesus’s death, we should instead focus on his life and teachings. They are right about what they affirm, even as they also risk impoverishing the meaning of Jesus by de-emphasizing the cross.

It is the central Christian symbol. And ubiquitous. Perhaps even the most widely-worn piece of jewelry. Its centrality goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. In one of the earliest New Testament documents, Paul in the early 50s summarized “the gospel” he had taught to his community in Corinth as “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1-2). In the New Testament gospels beginning with Mark around 70, the story of Jesus’s final week and its climax in crucifixion and resurrection dominates their narratives. All four devote more than a fourth of their gospels to Jesus’s final week. And all anticipate the end of Jesus’s life earlier in their narratives. It is as if they are saying: you can’t tell the story of Jesus unless you tell the story of the cross.

Thus for Christianity from its beginning, the cross has always mattered. The crucial question is: what does it mean? Why does it matter? What is its significance?

The most common meaning in much of Christianity today is the “payment” understanding: Jesus died to pay for our sins. Insisted upon by “conservative” Christians, it is foundational and fundamental to their theology. Its influence extends beyond. Many, perhaps most, of today’s mainline Protestant and Catholics grew up with it even if perhaps in a softer version. The language of most Christian liturgies is shaped by the payment understanding and thus reinforces it through ritual repetition.

But the payment understanding has serious problems, both historical and theological. The historical problem: the payment understanding was not central in the first thousand years of Christianity. In the New Testament, it is at most a minor metaphor. Some scholars argue that it is not there at all. I am inclined to agree.

But regardless of the verdict on that question, the first systematic articulation of the cross as “payment for sin” happened just over nine hundred years ago in 1098 in St. Anselm’s treatise Cur Deus Homo? Its Latin title means, “Why Did God Become Human?” Anselm’s purpose was to provide a rational argument for the necessity of the incarnation and death of Jesus.

He did so with a cultural model drawn from his time and place: the relationship of a medieval lord to his peasants. If a peasant disobeyed the lord, could the lord simply forgive if he wanted to? No. Because that might imply that disobedience didn’t matter that much. Instead, compensation must be made. Nothing less than the honor and order of the lord were at stake.

Anselm then applied that model to our relationship with God. We have been disobedient and deserve to be punished. And yet God loves us and wants to forgive us. But the price of sin must be paid. Jesus as a human being who was also divine and thus perfect and without sin did that.

To repeat: familiar as it is, the payment understanding is less than a thousand years old. On historical grounds, it is not ancient Christianity, not traditional Christianity, not orthodox Christianity, even though it has over the last several centuries become dominant in Western Christianity. It has become a lens through which a number of New Testament passages that seem to support it are seen. But without that lens, they can be understood quite differently.

The theological difficulties of the payment understanding are even more serious. It seriously distorts the story of Jesus and the meaning of the cross:

*Makes Jesus’s death part of God’s plan of salvation – indeed, God’s will. It had to happen so that we can be forgiven. Really?

*Emphasizes God’s wrath and that it must be satisfied. But is that what God is like?

*Makes Jesus’s death more important than his life, and thus obscures his message and what he was passionate about (for example, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ focuses on the last 18 hours of his life).

*Makes believing in Jesus more important than following him

*Makes Easter irrelevant. Of course, Christians who believe that Jesus paid for our sins also emphasize Easter. But there is no intrinsic connection between his death and resurrection. What matters most is that he paid for our sins.

Given the theological implications of the payment understanding, it is not surprising that progressive as well as many moderate Christians have problems with it. They should be problems for all Christians.

The rejection of the payment understanding does not make Jesus’s death irrelevant for Christians. On the contrary, it has robust meanings in the gospels and the New Testament as a whole. In my next blog, I will describe those. The purpose of this blog is to invite conversation about the payment understanding and its effects upon Christianity.

Marcus Borg_FMarcus J. Borg is Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon.  Internationally known in both academic and church circles as a biblical and Jesus scholar, he was Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007. He is the author of many books including Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

What I meant to say…

“What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say…”
– Paul Ricouer

“Really?” you might ask.

I think most of us have a hard time believing that.  How could anyone make such a statement?

Surely the most important thing is what the author meant to say when he wrote it.  I tweeted this quote recently and someone responded in such a fashion.  The meaning then is more important than the meaning now.  I am inclined to agree.  As a student of the New Testament (and the Hebrew Scriptures), and someone who preaches, I spend a lot of time working hard to understand what a text meant when it was originally written, in other words, ‘what the author meant to say’.

My assumption is that the more I can understand the original intention, the better job I’ll do of being true to that text. So from this perspective, what the text originally meant seems to be the most important thing!  Upon first glance then, Ricouer, a French philosopher of language, appears clearly wrong.

But here arises the challenge of understanding what the original intent actually was. We don’t always get this exactly right, do we?  Someone says something, and we want to know what they intended to mean.  In reality, this isn’t always accomplished even in everyday life, in face-to-face conversation.  We want to be understood, and get incredibly frustrated when we are not:

Didn’t you say…?

“But I meant to say…”

“You misunderstood me!”

“That’s not what I meant at all.”

One of the worst things possible is being misunderstood.

Yet if it can happen to us today, in face-to-face direct speech acts, how much more might the written word— indirect speech—be misunderstood?  And even further, the written word from a different language and culture by an author who is now centuries and even millennia dead.

(Of course this is where, in an act of faith, one might trust that the Holy Spirit will step in and say, “What I meant to say was…”!)  But for the purposes of this post, let’s leave that component to the side for the time being.  (Invoking the Spirit is necessary, but can often be an easy out in place of the hard work I believe God calls us to do in understanding the text).

Since misunderstandings can (and do!) happen, it seems that our best recourse is to disagree with Ricouer, and assume the original meaning as intended by the author is the most important.  After all, why would we spend all the time we do trying to understand this meaning if it were not the case?  In fact, it seems such an open and shut case, that perhaps we should be done with it.

But… yet…  perhaps…

Importance of the Now

Back to the original provocative statement:
“What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say…”

We noted earlier that it seems almost intuitively obvious that this statement is wrong.

Yet I wonder… perhaps there is something to this after all.

I wonder, if our interpretation, our attempts at recovering what the author meant to say and thus declaring what in fact the text said and says, is, in fact, more important.  Think of it this way:  When a preacher preaches on any given text, and supplies it with meaning —that is the meaning the listeners take away.  When a person reads a verse with their morning coffee and senses, “What I just read means [this] to me”—that is the meaning this person is taking away.  In this sense, I think Ricouer is right.  What the text says now is more important than what the author meant to say.  In fact, this has to be the case.  Think about it.  What the text says now is all we have.  The author is dead.  The Apostle Paul cannot rise up when we read a selection from 1 Corinthians and say, “But what I meant to say was…!”  (Though we surely wish he would!)  What we have is our understanding of the text now.  What we have is what the preacher interprets the text to mean.  What we have is what we ourselves take a text to mean anytime we read the Bible.  That is what we have.  That is the meaning of the text here and now—and it is that meaning, not the original meaning, that goes on to have impact and live into the world.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying that what the author meant to say is irrelevant or unimportant.  Hardly!  It is crucial.  And we must work hard to attempt to recover that meaning in any reading and work of interpreting.  But the facts are that we can’t sit down with the writer of Matthew when we open that Gospel and make sure we ‘get it’.  It’s impossible.  We can’t sit down with The Teacher when we read Ecclesiastes to make sure he was as skeptical as he seems.  We can’t dissect a Psalm and have David back up our interpretation.

In that sense—a perfect recovery of what any given author meant (of a text in the Bible or any other text)—is impossible.  The meaning we supply to the text is the meaning we have.  That’s it!  That’s the meaning that lives in the world today.  And the meaning that lives in the world at any given moment is the more important meaning—that is the meaning that causes people to act in certain ways, to believe certain things, to commit themselves to a certain path. We simply don’t have the original meaning in full.  What the text says now is more important, as Ricouer so daringly ventured.

And this actually squares with a Reformed understanding of preaching.  There’s a classic statement that says, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” (As stated in the Second Helvetic Confession.)  I always thought this was a bit presumptuous, and laid too much emphasis on the role of the preacher.  Yet, in light of Ricouer’s analysis, I think there is a  lot of merit to this approach.  When the community gathers, and the Word comes forth, and that Word is explicated, interpreted, delivered: we all have some sense that something sacred is happening, that God is engaging us, indeed, that God is speaking.

Consider Calvin:
“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”

Or Luther:
“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth…”

Invisible Readers

Ricouer notes that through writing, “discourse escapes the limits of being face to face. It no longer has a visible auditor.  An unknown, invisible reader has become the unprivileged addressee of the discourse.”

In other words, at one time, the text belonged to the writer—he wrote it down, and he shared it with people, and could inevitably correct misunderstandings if they engaged the writing in person.  But once the work becomes widespread – such corrections vis a vis a face-to-face encounter with the writer, becomes less and less possible.  And once the author dies, impossible.  The text will reach readers that were invisible to the author, indeed, readers who did not yet exist.

Merold Westphal says it is this invisibility that gives the text an autonomy, an independence from authorial intention. This is known in interpretive circles as “the death of the author.” The absolute author (the one who knows what he or she meant to say) is not replaced by an absolute reader, but by one whose authority is limited, relative to a particular context, and without the presence of the author.

You and I are such readers when it comes to any ancient text (or even reading Steinbeck or Updike).

But here our interpretive journey takes another turn.

Perhaps the author him- or herself is not in full possession of the meaning of what they have written.  Perhaps more is being said than even the author was intending!

Merold Westphal notes that “not even the author is in full possession of the whole that would give fully final and determinate meaning.”

In other words, perhaps what the author intended isn’t the whole of its meaning. (I would say this is particularly the case when it comes to Scripture.)

Nick Wolterstorff gives an example of this possibility of a multiplicity of meanings:

At dinner Mom says, “Only two more days till Christmas.”  To her young children, who think that Christmas will never come, her speech act is a word of comfort and hope.  But to her husband “she may have said, in a rather arch and allusive way, that he must stop delaying and get his shopping done.  One locutionary act [vocal utterance], several illocutionary acts [words of comfort and hope, words of warning, even command], different ones for different addressees.”

Wolterstorff shows how a single utterance can have different meanings for different hearers, and they can each be right!

Merold Westphal notes that as Wolterstorff tells the story, Mom is the godlike author whose words have just the meanings she put into them.  They mean different things to different hearers so that the meaning of her discourse is a plurality of different meanings.  In godlike sovereignty she knows all the hearers and controls the meaning each receives.

Westphal then proposes:

But suppose they weren’t all at dinner and Mom didn’t know that Dad was in a position to overhear her.  Dad would rightly take Mom’s speech act to be one of reminder, warning, and perhaps even command, though that was not the meaning she (intended to) put into her discourse.  The meaning of the utterance escapes the horizon of its author and its original, intended audience precisely because of the invisibility of at least one additional audience.  This is the situation of human authors in general, says Westphal, biblical or otherwise.

By now you’re incredibly uncomfortable with this analysis.  You’re resisting this approach.  You’re thinking that preachers and scholars are in an awfully important (and scary) position – because they most often are entrusted with helping us understand the text.

This is true.  Yet in a sense we all are in this position, we are the invisible readers, at least those of us who read and engage texts (of any sort), especially the Bible.

But fortunately, there is more to it.  We’ll get to this in the next post.


Sacred Reading


Lectio Divina is the Latin for ‘Holy Reading’ and was a form and approach to praying with Scripture that was common among medieval religious orders. The value of Lectio Divina was rediscovered in the twentieth century.

Essentially Lectio Divina involves taking a short passage of Scripture and pondering it. This can be done alone or in a group, and normally involves prolonged periods of silence.




Choose a reader.  The reader will read the text through four times, slowly, with a time of silence between each reading.  Allow the words to wash over you.  Be present.  What is God saying to you right here and now?  Open yourself to His Words.

From the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John:


“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.  Where can you get this living water?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water. . .”

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No Interpretation Needed? Part 2

Last post we asked if it is possible to just read the Bible and understand what it says without having to ‘interpret’ it.

It’s a nice-sounding option, in theory.  Unfortunately for us, that option doesn’t exist.  In fact:

Is not every devotional reading (silent), every sermon (spoken), and every commentary (written) an interpretation or a series of interpretations of a biblical text?

We cannot escape interpreting the Bible.  We are not God.  Therefore, we are relative (conditioned by factors that are neither universal nor unchanging).

The entire history of Christian thought shows that Christians in different times and places have interpreted and understood the Bible differently.

Even at any given time and place, such as our own, is there not always a “conflict of interpretations” between, among, and within various denominational and nondenominational traditions?

approaching the text

If it were as simple as reading it and understanding it, there would be less divergence within Christianity.  But the reality is that there are manifold ways of understanding the text, just as there is no end to the number of denominations and traditions within Christianity.  This does not mean anything goes, or that all interpretations are valid – but merely that the text is rich, deep, textured, and from another time and place, meaning we should never become too strident nor certain that we have ‘the’ interpretation or have it all figured out.

We might be tempted to think that at one point — earlier in history, like in the early church — it was clear and everyone understood it the same.  James K.A. Smith reminds us this was not the case:

For Christians, many of the anxieties of hermeneutics (the theory and process of interpretation) are nothing new.  Well before we were haunted by the specters of Derrida and Foucault, the Christian community grappled with the conflict of interpretations (to say nothing of the Jewish/rabbinical precedents).  One can see such conflicts embedded in the New Testament narrative itself.  In Acts 15, for instance, we see a conflict of interpretations of “the law” — and we see a community grappling with interpretive difference in its midst.  Despite a common mythology, the early church was not a hermeneutic paradise; rather, debates about what counts as the tradition have been integral to the Christian tradition.  The early church was not a golden age of interpretive uniformity; rather, the catholic councils and creeds are the artifacts of a community facing up to the conflict of interpretations.

But often enough, as we noted last time, people simply deny that interpretation is necessary and unavoidable:

“We encounter this general attitude when we offer a viewpoint about, say, some controversial moral or political question to someone who (1) doesn’t like it and (2) doesn’t know how to refute it (perhaps deep down knowing that it is all too much on target) and so replies, “That’s just your opinion.””

Similarly, an unwelcome interpretation of some biblical text may be greeted by the response, “Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…” In other words, “You interpret; I just see what is plainly there.”

This, however, is simply not the case.  We all interpret.  It is impossible to do otherwise.  We read words or speak words, they combine to form meanings, and we interpret what that meaning is.

This “no interpretation needed” doctrine says that interpretation is accidental and unfortunate, that it can and should be avoided whenever possible.  Often unnoticed is that this theory is itself an interpretation of interpretation and that it belongs to a long-standing philosophical tradition that stretches from certain strands in Plato’s thought well into the twentieth century.  This tradition is called “naive realism” in one of its forms.  It is called naive both descriptively, because it is easily taken by a common-sense perspective without philosophical reflection, and normatively, because it is taken to be indefensible on careful philosophical reflection.  (Westphal, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?)

So is there no one ‘right’ interpretation?  Well… there is the original intention of the author, and then the original intent of the Holy Spirit… and certainly we must hold that God knows what he meant (means) to say.  But the point holds: we are not God.  Therefore, there is always a distance between us and that truest understanding of the text.  This is where faith and community comes in, and Merold Westphal, in his terrific book, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?, sounds this note exactly:

We need not think that hermeneutical despair (“anything goes”) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have “the” interpretation) are the only alternatives.  We can acknowledge that we see and interpret “in a glass darkly” or “in a mirror, dimly” and that we know “only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all, to the Holy Spirit.

My friend Chris put it in very nearly the same way, in response to my first post:

Reading the Bible doesn’t require any special study; understanding it is another matter.

Anyone can “get something” out of just reading the Bible (or any other piece of literature). But if we’re concerned to do our best to “get” what the author(s) intended, then we have a lot of work ahead of us, especially dealing with a collection of ancient books written in ancient languages from ancient and diverse cultures with ancient and diverse systems of law, morality, and religion. If that work is beyond us, then we at least have the work of learning from the experts.


So should you read the Bible on your own, in light of all this?  Yes!  Of course.  God will speak.  Just be sure you check with your friends (and maybe a good commentary) before you say, “God told me…”

No Interpretation Needed?

Are you skeptical about biblical interpretation?  Does it seem that someone can just “make it say anything?”  Are you one of those who would prefer to just “read it for what it says”?


You’re not alone.  Many are intimidated by the vast amount of study some seem to think reading the Bible requires.  Can’t I just take the “plain sense” of a text and arrive at what God is trying to say to me?


See? It clearly says right here...

When someone encounters an interpretation of the Bible she doesn’t like, she may respond with, “Well that’s just your interpretation.  My Bible says this instead…”


After all, much easier to dismiss someone’s interpretation (which involves a bit of their own thinking), than to actually dismiss a passage of the Bible itself.  So perhaps we are better off trying to rest on the “Bible” instead of an “interpretation.”



As Merold Westphal puts it:


“Common sense . . .  claims to “just see” its objects, free of bias, prejudice, and presuppositions (at least sometimes).  We can call this “just seeing” intuition.  When [this] view of knowledge and understanding is applied to the Bible, it becomes the claim that we can “just see” what the text means, that intution can and should be all we need.  In other words, “no interpretation needed.”  The object, in this case the meaning of the text, presents itself clearly and directly to my reading.  To interpret would be to interject some subjective bias or prejudice (pre-judgment) into the process.  Thus the response, “Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…”  In other words, “You interpret (and thereby misunderstand), but I intuit, seeing directly, clearly, and without distortion.”




Westphal refers to an ad for a new translation of the Bible billed as so accurate and so clear that the publishers could announce: “NO INTERPRETATION NEEDED.”  The ad promotes the “revolutionary translation that allows you to understand exactly what the original writers meant.”  (Unfortunately he doesn’t mention which Bible made this claim).


The “no interpretation needed” approach says that interpretation is accidental and unfortunate, that it can and should be avoided whenever possible.


What do you think?  Is interpretation unnecessary?

The Intimidating Task of Bible Study, Part 2

The Intimidating Task of Bible Study, Part 2

Second in a series of posts taken from Wes Howard-Brook’s introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, Becoming Children of God: Read the first post here.

If we choose to accept this life-changing invitation, how do we start? How do we know that the path we take is not simply a trail that loops back to Egypt ends in a cul de sac in the desert? If we journey alone, we indeed run a high risk of picking a futile road to nowhere or, worse, to a place of great danger. The Bible’s narrative of God’s mighty acts and words is heady stuff that can, to the misguided, justify the worst sort of violence and brutality.

Fellow travelers somewhere in Turkey

The antidote is the one given by the Bible itself in nearly every story: to journey not alone but in the community of fellow travelers. Whether that means starting a Bible study group, going to church, or delving into the scholarly conversation, the joyous task of encountering the Bible makes sense only as part of an interpretative community. From Eden to Revelation, the Bible’s various forms of discourse present one of the most intensely social collections of writings known to humanity. Its people are constantly in dialogue, either with other people or with God directly.

And its questions are persistently in the first-person plural: Who are we and where are we going? The Bible contains virtually no notion of the isolated individual, no flinty-faced Marlboro man gazing outward with a private vision. The first challenge of reading, then, is to share in whatever ways we can in acknowledging this most basic premise of the text.

This book is an attempt to share some of my own reading of a particular text from the Bible. By putting my reading into writing, I am aware that I risk the same freezing of live conversation that the gospels writers themselves risked. Each day, new insights unfold for me about the fourth gospel, as I continue to grow in my self-awareness and my awareness of the gospel’s own intertextual and intercultural contexts. But, as with the gospel, I hope that readers of this writing will continue the conversation, albeit at a distance, by continuing to think, pray, and act in response to what they read here.

This work, as with the Bible, is the product not of an isolated individual but of the collection of energies that make up the matrix in which I journey. In the following section, I will state openly some of my life commitments and reading strategies. I do this not so much to persuade readers that these are the best or the correct perspectives, but in the interest of encouraging all Bible readers to continue the process of demythologizing the notion of the “objective” or “scientific” reading.

In the next section we will note the importance of asking the question: “Where are you from?”, in order to name one’s commitments before encountering the Word.

Stay tuned for Part 3!

The Bible Project

The Bible Project

A friend sent me this article…  Read it and let me know what you think.

In Jerusalem, scholars trace Bible’s evolution

By MATTI FRIEDMAN Associated Press
Friday, August 12, 2011

JERUSALEM (AP) — A dull-looking chart projected on the wall of a university office in Jerusalem displayed a revelation that would startle many readers of the Old Testament: the sacred text that people revered in the past was not the same one we study today.

An ancient version of one book has an extra phrase. Another appears to have been revised to retroactively insert a prophecy after the events happened.

Scholars at work at Hebrew University

Scholars in this out-of-the-way corner of the Hebrew University campus have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of the most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies — publishing the authoritative edition of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, and tracking every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia.

And it has evolved, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary.

For many Jews and Christians, religion dictates that the words of the Bible in the original Hebrew are divine, unaltered and unalterable. For Orthodox Jews, the accuracy is considered so inviolable that if a synagogue’s Torah scroll is found to have a minute error in a single letter, the entire scroll is unusable.

But the ongoing work of the academic detectives of the Bible Project, as their undertaking is known, shows that this text at the root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was somewhat fluid for long periods of its history, and that its transmission through the ages was messier and more human than most of us imagine.

The project’s scholars have been at work on their critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, a version intended mainly for the use of other scholars, since 1958.

“What we’re doing here must be of interest for anyone interested in the Bible,” said Michael Segal, the scholar who heads the project.

The sheer volume of information makes the Bible Project’s version “the most comprehensive critical edition of the Hebrew Bible in existence at the present time,” said David Marcus, a Bible scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who is not involved with the project.

But Segal and his colleagues toil in relative anonymity. Their undertaking is nearly unknown outside a circle of Bible experts numbering several hundred people at most, and a visitor asking directions to the Bible Project’s office on the university campus will find that many members of the university’s own staff have never heard of it.

This is an endeavor so meticulous, its pace so disconnected from that of the world outside, that in more than five decades of work the scholars have published a grand total of three of the Hebrew Bible’s 24 books. (Christians count the same books differently, for a total of 39.) A fourth is due out during the upcoming academic year.

If the pace is maintained, the final product will be complete a little over 200 years from now. This is both a point of pride and a matter of some mild self-deprecation around the office.

Bible Project scholars have spent years combing through manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek translations on papyrus from Egypt, a printed Bible from 1525 Venice, parchment books in handwritten Hebrew, the Samaritan Torah, and scrolls in Aramaic and Latin. The last member of the original team died last year at age 90.

The scholars note where the text we have now differs from older versions — differences that are evidence of the inevitable textual hiccups, scribal errors and other human fingerprints that became part of the Bible as it was passed on, orally and in writing.

A Microsoft Excel chart projected on one wall on a recent Sunday showed variations in a single phrase from the Book of Malachi, a prophet.

The verse in question, from the text we know today, makes reference to “those who swear falsely.” The scholars have found that in quotes from rabbinic writings around the 5th century A.D., the phrase was longer: “those who swear falsely in my name.”

In another example, this one from the Book of Deuteronomy, a passage referring to commandments given by God “to you” once read “to us,” a significant change in meaning.

Other differences are more striking.

The Book of Jeremiah is now one-seventh longer than the one that appears in some of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers, appear to have been added after the events happened.

The year the Bible Project began, 1958, was the year a priceless Hebrew Bible manuscript arrived in Jerusalem after it was smuggled out of Aleppo, Syria, by a Jewish cheese merchant who hid it in his washing machine. This was the 1,100-year-old Aleppo Codex, considered the oldest and most accurate version of the complete biblical text in Hebrew.

The Bible Project’s version of the core text — the one to which the others are compared — is based on this manuscript. Other critical editions of the Bible, such as one currently being prepared in Stuttgart, Germany, are based on a slightly newer manuscript held in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Considering that the nature of their work would be considered controversial, if not offensive, by many religious people, it is perhaps surprising that most of the project’s scholars are themselves Orthodox Jews.

“A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy,” said the project’s bearded academic secretary, Rafael Zer. “But as soon as the words are given to human beings — with God’s agreement, and at his initiative — the holiness of the biblical text remains, even if mistakes are made when the text is passed on.”

Link to original article.