“The Bible … does not exist”

The title of this post comes from the opening sentence of the opening chapter of a recent book by the biblical scholars Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, both of whom have Wikipedia pages, and both of whom are (orthodox, I think) Jews, which I mention because it’s relevant (explicitly so: they bring it up) to the book they’ve written. Their book is called The Bible With and Without Jesus, and it looks like it is basically a kind of history of interpretation for ten passages of the Old Testament that were very important in the New Testament, with the goal of exploring Jewish (without Jesus) and Christian (with Jesus) approaches to these texts. The book looks pretty interesting. I might post more about it here when I’ve read more of it. Speaking of that, I do recognize that some people (myself included) might think it’s problematic that in my description of this book I used the term “Old Testament.” Maybe I’ll talk more about that at some point.

Back to their opening sentence. Here it is without ellipses, and with its second half.

The Bible, in the singular, does not exist; different communities have different Bibles.

The full sentence is a little less provocative than the title of my post. It clearly means: There is no particular form of the Bible that finds universal acceptance among people who claim religious adherence to the Bible. And in that sense, the statement can hardly be disputed. I do not bring up the statement by Levine and Brettler to dispute it but to affirm its truth. My own research has largely been focused on the different forms of the Bible, especially among Christian groups, and especially in regard to the Old Testament.

I don’t think it’s the most important thing in the world for Christians to recognize that the form of the Bible they use is not the only form of the Bible in the world, but I do think that for some Christians (and Jews, I suppose) it is a helpful thing to reflect on. Naturally, given my own interests, I have frequently received questions about the Bible that are easily answered—or easily shown to make little sense as questions—once you know a little about the history of the Bible, most importantly that it is a collection of books rather than a book.

I’ll end this post by providing just a little more context for that opening sentence.

The Bible, in the singular, does not exist; different communities have different Bibles. We don’t mean that they prefer different translations but that they have Bibles comprised of different books, in different orders, in different languages. The biggest difference is between the Jewish and Christian communities, for only Christians have a New Testament.

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