Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Designing the Scriptures: A Brief History of the Manipulation of Printed Bibles

The following is my paper for the Society for Textual Scholarship Conference, New York University in Manhattan, March 19th, 2009.

Elaine Pagels, in her 2003 book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas,1 makes the argument that Irenaeus (the second-century bishop in Gaul) put forth a "bold interpretation" of the Gospel of John that "came virtually to define orthodoxy" with regard to the reading of the text. Pagels goes on to argue that these interpretive choices on the part of Irenaeus (to wit: the equivocation of Jesus with the preexistent Word and with God godself, in contrast to his predecessor, Valentinus's, more gnostic notion that both the Word and Jesus were inferior emanations of the Creator God) become the governing tropes for all subsequent translations of the opening passages of the fourth Gospel.

The result of this re-interpretation, so argues Pagels, is that Irenaeus offers believers "a kind of simple, almost mathematical equation, in which God = word = Jesus Christ." This simple formulation functions from the second century on as the norm for reading and interpreting the text. As Pagels put is, "those who read John's gospel today in any language except the Greek original will find that the translations make [Irenaeus's] conclusion seem obvious--namely that the man 'who dwelt among us' was God incarnate."

In her footnote to these claims, Pagels mentions the editors of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Herbert G. May and Bruce Metzger, as representative examples of this phenomenon. This is to say, May and Metzger particularize and interpret what Pagels claims to be ambivalent or ambiguous Greek phrases. In doing so, they disguise the ambiguity for the contemporary reader and assume the interpretive position that Irenaeus put forth some eighteen centuries ago.

Now I am not claiming I agree with all of Pagel's arguments or conclusions here, but I am very interested in the phenomenon to which her claims point. Namely, that the process of translation, interpretation, and above all publication of Bibles involves a fundamental manipulation of the text--both at the editorial and visual levels.

This is my first time at the STS, so this may not be a provocative position to take here. But I will tell you, it is a quite contentious position to take among my colleagues in the fields of theology and religion.

What I am offering here this morning will by no means do justice to the subject before us. Actually, this is part of a book project I am writing. But I want to present some ideas this morning to get your feedback and thoughts.

The paper will consist of three abbreviated moves: first, some analysis of Martin Luther's versions of the New Testament, particularly. Then, some analysis of a more contemporary version, the Chronological Bible. Finally, I will conclude with some reflections on this phenomenon from a general standpoint.

In a similar manner to Irenaeus, Martin Luther affected the use and reading of the Bible in profound ways. In particular we might cite his hermeneutic stance that the Book of Romans (and to a lesser extent Paul's other Epistles), the Gospel of John, and the first Book of Peter constituted the "True and Most Noble Books of the New Testament."2 These books formed the interpretive framework through which Luther judged all other New Testament writings.

His judgment, moreover, was intimately tied to the structure of the printed New Testament produced under his direction. For example, the table of contents for his New Testament included the book of Hebrews, the letter of James, the Letter of John, and the Revelation of John--though they were included as clearly set apart and inferior. The contents includes all other "acceptable" books in a numbered list. The four just mentioned are after the list; unnumbered, and set apart and aside from the others.3

Thus it is in the printed text that Luther's theology becomes encoded and ingrained into both the corpus and the interpretive structure of the Scriptures. Luther appends prefaces to many of the books of the New Testament, explaining and highlighting for the reader what she should expect to find in the writings themselves. Moreover, Luther adds an apparatus of textual glosses to the margins of the pages, directing the reader's intratextual apprehension of the various books and epistles.4

The effect of all this, to quote Mark U. Edwards, Jr, was that "Luther's translation and the accompanying glosses encouraged a reading of the text that differed sharply from a Catholic reading."5 This is, of course, to be expected at the level of interpretation, but the argument here is that the interpretive dissonances went deeper than extra-textual hermeneutics and fully penetrated the physical corpus of the printed pages of the Testament itself.

Edwards goes on to point out that Luther's redactions and emendations were quite successful, and that Luther's New Testament went on to become a sort of sixteenth-century "best seller," based upon the historical data we have regarding reprints and sales.6 Not all of the reprints reproduced the entirety of Luther's prefaces and glosses, it should be noted. However, the precedent for these sorts of additions was firmly established in these quite popular publications.
There is not time, of course, to highlight all the varieties of manipulated Scripture that have arisen since Luther's New Testament. A lot of my professional work has been spent exploring Bible manipulation, and I'm happy to talk more about that in the question and answer period. For the sake of illustration right now, however, I am going to single out one recent version that is especially thick with manipulations, the New King James Version Chronological Study Bible, published by Thomas Nelson.

What interests me most about this Bible is that it completely shatters any sense of canonical ordering. To a small degree we saw this sort of rearranging of the canonical books with Luther's rearrangement of the table of contents I mentioned a moment ago, but the Chronological Study Bible takes this rearrangement to an unbelievable degree.

The justification for this rearrangement, according to the Introduction, is to present "the Bible as it really is."7 By this they mean, in effect, the Bible narrative re-mapped onto the "actual" historical ordering of events to which the narratives refer.

Such an effort, of course, raises the question of "actual history" itself. The events and their chronology are hotly debated issues and far from settled. The editors, in their introduction to the Chronological Study Bible do their best to acknowledge this, claiming that the approach they choose "treats evenhandedly the entire spectrum of credible opinion on disputed matters."8

Despite such assurances, however, there remains the lingering doubt that the text of the Bible can ever be adequately or satisfactorily "converted" into an historical text of the type the editors envision. Moreover, it would be hard to imagine such a converted text being of much use in a liturgical context.

That the radical rearrangement of canonical elements (both at the level of whole books and at the level of pericopes) is considered acceptable by these editors and publishers is a testament to the depth to which what we might call a positivist notion of history holds sway for them. Moreso, notice that the concern of the editors is to map the narrated events onto this historical chronology. This is quite a different question (both methodologically and textually) from that of attempting to map and reconfigure the order to accord with the chronology of the writing of the books. In other words, the textual development and redactive process by which the texts came to exist as literary units is entirely ignored. This process is instead collapsed into the assumed chronology of narrative qua "actual historical" event.

Needless to say, I find this approach problematic, but I also want to point out that it is not fundamentally different from the approach we observed in Martin Luther. Nor is it fundamentally different from any of a number of other published Scriptures we might examine. This holds true whether we are exploring recent or ancient publications. The common denominator of all published Bibles is, I will assert, that they are products of editorial and hermeneutic manipulation.

In making such a claim, I am standing in contradistinction to theological writers such as John Webster. I mention Webster specifically because his book, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is absolutely fantastic. I disagree with its argument and its premise, but I still recognize it as a simply excellent work.

Webster wants to take issue with the claim (such as I am making) that the biblical text 's "being is defined by reference to its occupation in a natural field of communicative activity."9 In other words, for Webster, it is the assumption "that the biblical writings are instances of the natural class of texts which is to be resisted."10

Where Webster and I differ, in other words, is in the assumption that there can be a meaningful realm of interpretation in which Scripture is "defined, not simply by its membership [in] the class of texts, but by the fact that it is this text--sanctified, that is, Spirit-generated and preserved--in this field of action--the communicative economy of God's merciful friendship with his lost creatures."11 For you non-theologians out there, this basically boils down to an argument about whether a version of Scripture exists which is beyond and unaffected by human manipulations. Webster posits that there is such a possibility, and I remain skeptical.

To develop this point much further would be to engage in a theological paper, and not a chiefly textual one, however. So, acknowledging the disagreement I have with fellow scholars on this point, I would like to make a few suggestions toward a conclusion.

First, to restate my premise that, for as long as there have been printed Bibles (and, there is some good evidence to suggest for a long time before this, as well), there has been the manipulation of Bibles--by which I here mean the attempt to restrict the possible interpretations and meanings of the text available to readers through editorial and graphic emendations.

These emendations exist across a range. They are translational, graphic (elements such as font, page layout, illuminations within manuscripts, as well as choices as to whether to capitalize or not capitalize certain words to reflect theological assumptions, e.g. the Hebrew ruach, which is translated as "spirit," is at points in certain English Bible versions rendered with a capital "S"), and paratextual elements12 (so elements such as the table of contents I mentioned in Luther's New Testament, or the addition of chapter and verse divisions, punctuation, and critical apparatus to ancient texts that had none of these in their earliest forms.

Second, as we have seen with both the examples of the Luther Testament and the Chronological Study Bible, these editorial manipulations reflect ideological positions, which themselves can and should be examined in detail as part of the process of hermeneutic exegesis and textual analysis.

It is not the goal, however, of such analyses to reach a point where the printed text could be considered "purified" of such manipulations. This, as I mentioned briefly a moment ago, is the error of John Webster and those like him. The error, I assert, of imagining that our analysis can get us past the point of the smudgy human fingerprints on the text. I want to suggest that, far from the manipulation of Bibles being a process we might redeem through a more refined hermeneutic, it is instead (to steal a line from a different conversation about religion), manipulation all the way down.

As long as there are printed Bibles, there will be a conflict of interpretive interests. As long as there are conflicts of interpretive interest, printed Bibles will be products of human, not divine, manipulation. Amen.

1 All quotations from Pagels are from Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage, 2003), pp. 150-151 and 220.
2 Cited in Mark U. Edwards, Jr., Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1994), p. 112.
3 Edwards, 113.
4 Edwards, 115 - 118.
5 Edwards, 118.
6 Edwards, 123.
7 Timothy B. Cargall, ed., et al, "Introduction," The Chronological Study Bible: New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), p. xi.
8 Cargall, et al., p. xi.
9 John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2003), p. 29.
10 Webster, 29.
11 Webster, p. 29.
12 The term "paratext" draws upon the work of Gerard Genette.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Teh Bibel in lolcat. Srsly.

The process of translation is not limited to trans-linguistic situations. This is to say, one does not simply translate from ancient languages into contemporary ones and be done with it. Franz Rosenzweig asserted that "everyone translates, and everyone must." It is actually a continuous, constant intra-linguistic process, as well.

For a good example of this in action, try to get your hands on a British and American version of the same Harry Potter book. While both are targeted to a language we loosely refer to as "English," there are distinct and forceful differences. The word "boot," for example, will be used in distinct and differing ways in the two versions--one referring to the heavy shoe and the other to the rear storage compartment of a car.

You don't even have to compare the King James to the New King James to see this in action. Merely go to a library archives and look for a King James from 300 years ago. Yes, it is in "English," but not really an "English" we contemporary readers understand anymore. The letter "s" is more often than not an "f" in those versions, and the spelling and grammar is remarkably obtuse to modern readers.

Or consider that the New International Version has now been updated to Today's New International Version. s they describe in the TNIV website, "Although a basic core of the English language remains relatively stable, many diverse and complex cultural forces continue to bring about subtle shifts in the meanings and/or connotations of even old, well-established words and phrases." When these shifts occur, we have no choice but to translate between them. Everyone translates, and everyone must.

Language is mastered, after all, not in its grammar but rather in its idioms. One is fluent when one can swing with the nuances of pronouns--knowing, for example, the important difference between "coming up" and "coming on" to someone.

Idioms are often regional, and sailing among them can be informative. For a good example of this, pick up any of Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch versions of the Gospels and Paul's Letters. The regionalism and idiomatic English allow readers to experience some of the geography, ethnic tensions, and revelation of the Gospels in a striking manner. No doubt about it, idioms can be informative.

So, despite my academic pretensions and the urging of several of my friends, I am not going to dismiss the lolcats Bible project out of hand, tempting though that might be.

For the three of you out there unfamiliar with the phenomenon, "lolcats" (a neologism for "Laugh Out Loud Cats" or somesuch) are a fictional posse of felines that exist mainly through text-modified photos on the web. It works roughly like this: find a cute photo of a cat or kitten (other animals will work, too, if the context is appropriate), add some garbled English-esque text, and post it to a site (or many; these things tend to get forwarded).

The lolcat Bible project is ambitous. It is a wiki-based endeavor, involving many multiples of contributors, and its intention is really and truly to render the whole of the Bible into lolcat-ese. Why I find this so interesting is partly because it is an English-to-emergent-argot-of-English sort of project. In other words, the lolcatters are not (so far as I can tell) working from ancient languages (unless you consider Standard American English ancient, and I guess some do). There is a grammar at work in lolcat, and it is relatively stable (in much the same was as grammar is stable for English speakers from the Bronx, Trinidad, Wales and Liberia--that is to say, there is fluctuation).

Even more interestingly, there is a theology at work in lolcat. God is the "ceiling cat." Good things are cheezburgers, bad things are wet. There is even a nascent eschatology (though the editors scorn technical theological language or anything approximating it). This theology is important to watch--it is dynamic equivalence at work. In other words, if you are of the belief that "meaning" can somehow be moved from language to language with no real regard to grammar and structure (as some advocates of dynamic equivalence seem to suggest) then the lolcat Bible project is a perfect test case. If "meaning" is truly above all culture and context, then we can even make fictional cats understand, right?

I am not saying I agree with any of this. Rather, what I am suggesting is that things like the lolcats Bible project are live test cases, unfolding right before our eyes, of some of the theoretical positions that have governed biblical translation and distribution for over a century. We should pay close attention.

And, at the end of the day, reading the lolcats Bible project is a more worthwhile undertaking than, say, paying any attention at all to Rob Lacey's The Word on the Street. Srsly.