Thursday, April 23, 2009

Interview with Wayne Hastings of Thomas Nelson Publishers

On April 8, 2009, David Dault spoke to Wayne Hastings, Senior Vice President and Publisher for the Bible Division of Thomas Nelson Publishers, in Nashville, TN. A portion of the interview is transcribed here. Thank you to Michael Hyatt, president of Thomas Nelson, and my colleague David J. Dunn, for helping make this meeting possible.


David: Thomas Nelson has been in business since 1798, and in that time it’s business has been the propagation of the Word, but it’s also been in business, and so there’s always a balance between the desire to spread the word as widely as possible and the desire to have a work that is bought by as many people as possible. How, either in your own executive vision, or in terms of the vision of the company, is that balance struck between the market and the mission?

Wayne: They're the same. You can’t do one without the other. So if I didn’t make profit I wouldn’t have funds to reinvest into research to then reinvest into new products to then reinvest in more research. So it’s a cyclical. Without the profitability, without the market, you know, it’s very hard to give away Bibles, and suddenly you just run out of funds to do that unless you made a profit.

David: And so is a part of the mission of Thomas Nelson to actually produce Bibles that are able to be given away, in addition to the Bibles that are sold?

Wayne: We also came up with a program five years ago called The Million Bible Challenge, in which we put together a Bible that retailers were able to sell to churches for $1.00. It's a full Bible. They are sold to churches for $1.00. We would sell cases of them for $20. Twenty Bibles in a case for $20. Our goal was to do a million, and have stores equip churches to give away a million Bibles within 12 months. We hit the million mark in 3 months. And to date I think we’re over 6.5 million Bibles that have been taken by retailers to their local churches who then give them away.

David: And what, if I may ask, are the characteristics of those Bibles? Are they just a cover, Old Testament and New Testament? Or do they include any sort of critical apparatus or any sort of introductions or is it just….

Wayne: [Goes to shelf and produces a copy] No, it’s pretty simple. It’s pretty simple.

David: [Examining the book] Oh, so it’s just like a trade paperback? Fantastic. Okay. I see it's the New King James Version.

Wayne: Yeah.

David: And a very simple introduction.

Wayne: Mostly a "Welcome to the Bible" type of introduction. It’s purposely done without any theology in it. It’s just, Welcome to the Greatest Book of All Time.

David: Absolutely. And the little preface of the New King James Version and then…so what I notice first off is that instead of the traditional two columns there are three columns per page. At what point in the creation of this Bible was that decision made?

Wayne: In the early stages... the beginning, because the goal was to get the cost down as far as we could and biggest cost down was to save paper and so we wanted to develop a product that we could put in a page count that would match the matrix we needed to be a $1 at retail.

David: And where is this Bible produced? Is it produced here in Nashville or is it produced overseas or….?

Wayne: Printed?

David: Printed, yes.

Wayne: Well it started in East Tennessee but they moved their plant to Bogota, Colombia. So now there done in Bogota.

David: Gotcha. Okay. Fantastic. And the text is printed on a different paper stock then people might be used to in Bibles as well.

Wayne: Trade paper stock.

David: Trade paper stock, yeah. Part of what I look at in my own scholarly work is study the actual physical form of Bibles. Like how they are…the process by which they are put together and the physical "stuff" out of which they’re made. So this is very helpful for me to get this in my hands and to take a look at it. This is what I would consider the sort of "low end" of the scale…

Wayne: Right.

David: …it’s a very plain Bible with not a lot done to it other than just making sure that it’s printed in a durable way that gets into people’s hands. But on the other end of the scale of what Thomas Nelson produces you have, for example, the Life/Style Bibles with silver and other colored covers. You have the BibleZines. A lot of very high production values are put into those. When you’re moving from something that is obviously missional and bare bones, like the Dollar Bible, into the "higher production value" items like the BibleZines--items that are intended to evangelize populations that don’t normally feel comfortable picking up Bibles or populations that are on the edge of being churched, like a youth population--what are some of the decisions that go into that process in terms of creating Bibles?

Wayne: From my perspective it’s all based on the customer need and filling a gap. BibleZines are a great example. You look at what young…take Revolve as the best example…you take a look at what young girls ages 11 to maybe on the stretch 16 are reading today and then you compare that to a black bonded Bible. Well there’s a gap and you can say, “Well, gee, they should be reading that black bonded Bible." But the truth is, they’re going to be embarrassed to carry it. It doesn’t match what they’re already reading. And so our goal was to take something that was very familiar to the average young teenage girl, and then wrap in that the Bible text.

So we started at the customer…came to understand the customer…came to understand the habits of the customer and then produced a product that fit the lifestyle…you used a good word…the lifestyle and the need of that customer. What we found after the production of it was that they suddenly were very comfortable carrying it. They were very comfortable taking it to school. They were very comfortable leaving it out because it looked like everything else that they had but when a friend said, “Gee, what’s that?” they could say, “that’s my Bible.” And then that created a conversation that they never perhaps would have been able to have if they had a black bonded Bible with them, and had that barrier go up.

So that’s really where…just about everything where we start is at that customer need. So whether that customer need is exegetical material that’s extra-biblical and gives context, or whatever, or if it’s kind of look at the customer and say, “Okay, why is there a need and what is the gap we’re trying to fill?”

David: Now let me stop right there and ask what are the means by which that need is determined demographically?

Wayne: Oh, lots of things…sometimes it dart board and sometimes it's scientific…you just look at it. You first of all…at Nelson especially, you start with our core strength, which is our authors. Most of the core authors for Thomas Nelson are pastors.

David: Like Max Lucado and folks like that?

Wayne: Yeah. So you realize that they have a message and that message needs to be extended in format. And so you take that message and you blend it with Scripture and suddenly the customer has the feeling that they’re going through the Bible with Max Lucado. Or they have the feeling that they’re going through the Bible with John MacArthur and so you’re again filling a need for a customer.

The average Thomas Nelson Bible customer owns 3 to 10 Bibles. I know it’s a wide spread, but that’s the average. So when we talk to the customers, they are sincerely looking for God’s Word to them. They’re sincerely trying to understand the book, and by understanding the book they feel closer to God, more inspired by God. Understanding the message gives them hope, freedom. And believe me, these people are extremely sincere and want that message. I’m talking about my core, core customers.

David: Sure.

Wayne: And so they expand the breadth of their Bible collection because they have a feeling that something done a little differently is going to get them closer to what they really want, which is hearing from God. So you start there and you understand that about the customer. That there is…and I’m talking about the center of the bulls eye…

David: Yes.

Wayne: ….you start there with that understanding that there’s a desire for intimacy between that customer and God, and God’s Word. So now you start asking questions of the customer, of what is going to help facilitate that yearning. And so for some customers it’s having notes, and because those notes either exegete the Scripture, or exposit the Scripture, or inspire the Scripture if it’s a daily Bible or something like that. It doesn’t try to be Scripture, it just….in some broad sense amplifies the Scripture for that customer. That’s one way to do it.

For another group of customers it’s…fashion…it’s such a crass word sometimes, but it’s the look and the feel of the product. So the fashion element sounds kind of plastic, if you will. I have a good friend that owns a Christian bookstore down in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and he’s third generation bookstore owner. So he’s been through a lot. He’s seen all things in the industry and he made a comment to me, he said, “a woman came in the other day and asked me for a lilac Bible and I said, why do you want a lilac Bible? and she says, because it will match my Easter outfit.”

Okay, so now the Bible as fashion doesn’t dilute the message at all; it’s just making that customer much more comfortable carrying it. And it sounds funny, but that’s exactly how they feel. They want something that is appropriate to either style or color or something that sets…makes them…gives them a level of comfort. And we’ve seen it in other things in society. It’s not like they degrade the message, it’s just a level of comfort and a level of style.
We’ve seen it in society, Bibles are just a little slow to react, but go back…I mean I’m a lot older then you are…when I was a little kid growing up the only thing we had was AM radio.

David: Yes.

Wayne: And FM was kind of this underground, weird…I mean my parents didn’t even listen to FM radio even for music, they just didn’t go there. It was all about AM radio.

David: Right.

Wayne: Well then as I became a teenager FM became extremely popular and as FM matured suddenly you not only had just Top 40 stations and country stations and classical stations, they began nicheing those genres down into Hot Country stations and Oldies Country stations and Modern Classical stations, and you’ve got Satellite radio now and you’ve got a whole station that’s nothing but Beatles 24 hours a day. So society in itself…I mean cable channels have done the same thing. As a kid growing up we had 13 channels, that’s all we had. I think I’ve got 500 stations on my television. I mean it’s nuts. And everyone is this little niche that….and magazines, we saw it magazines, you know.

So Bibles have just been a little slow in following, in that we’ve just niched down the presentation of it to very narrow audience types. But in the aggregate they all have the same need. Does that make sense?

David: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. What I want to ask then…what I wonder is have you experienced, as these new demographics are being sort of "narrow-casted" to these Bibles, what happens to the notion of little ‘C’ catholicity? The notion of the people of God reading the same word. Is that lost somehow or is that…?

Wayne: That was lost a while ago. And where it was lost when and I don’t have exact date, but in my mind it was lost when pastors moved away from saying, "this is the only Bible you can read." And they began…and computer software helped in this, because suddenly my pastor could look at 7 different translations on his computer screen and find exactly the word he wanted to describe the point he wanted. And he was smart enough to know that all those words could mean the same thing in the koine [Greek], so he could look at the word and say, “yep they’ve done it there, all around the word, but this one describes it the best. So this Sunday I’m going to show The Message up on the screen….”

But he might also have the King James up, the New King James up, the NIV up, NASB up, and he’s just looking for a way to make his point with his congregation. So pastors did two things…they did three things….they stopped pounding the pulpit and saying this is the only Bible you can read, because they were just concerned about people getting in and reading the Bible. Secondly they started projecting scripture up on the screen and people began not leaving their Bibles at home and then third they went multitranslation on us.

And so the Small ‘C’…everybody reading the same word, just doesn’t happen. Even in my church which is pretty close to…you know my pastor preaches out of the New King James. But even to the point of him never deviating from the New King James, I’ll bet you that our congregation is probably 60% New King James, maybe 10% King James and the rest is mixed. So the translation thing left awhile ago.

In fact when I was in Christian retail, if somebody would walk into the Bible Department and say I want a Bible and I would ask them what translation they wanted, the two most common answers I got were "English" and "Holy." And so even the customer today doesn’t know, because there’s 60 some-odd translations out there. They’re not all carried at retail, but if you go online…some of the online sites….just look at that list…it’s huge.

David: Yes.

Wayne: So translation has really lost its prominence in the customers' mind, and our research shows that less than 15% of people actually making a buying decision based on translation. It’s a little skewed because sometimes they might already know in their head what they want, but for the most part it’s less than 20% that really make a decision based on translation. They’re making a decision based on some other value that they have…sometimes it’s price….sometimes it’s price driven only…sometimes it’s features and benefits….sometimes it’s look and feel, but it’s not necessarily translation anymore.

But it’s just…that’s what makes it work. It’s when something comes together…I mean have you seen our Chronological Study Bible?

David: If it’s the one I’m thinking of, I think I own it.

Wayne: When I was in retail every year one of the best selling Bibles besides Tyndale’s One Year Bible in January was a Bible by another publisher that was a chronological devotional Bible.

David: I think I’ve…it was an older version. Came out like in the 70’s, right?

Wayne: So I walked in one day and said, guys, what would it be like if we did a chronological Bible?…but there’s so many people who don’t understand that the Bible is relevant, they think it’s set over here and all of society was going on over here, and then the Bible just sort of sits here outside of society. What if we did a Bible that glued together culture and history and everything else and put it in order so it was much more readable by the customer and we made it relevant? So we went to our sales team…our sales team goes…I don’t know if that’s a good idea, but if you did this, this and this, this could be kind of cool. So my editorial team…God bless them, they take my ideas and make them real. My editorial team went out and did all those changes…we made it full of color…we brought in page samples, which is what the guys really wanted was full color and page samples, and the guys fell in love with it the second time around.

David: Gotcha.

Wayne: But we still don’t know if anything is going to happen with this thing. It’s just like…it’s still kind of weird. So then the Bible is released. I’m interviewed by a reporter actually. And he wants to pick a fight. He wants to pick a fight with me about, "why in the world would we disrupt Canon?" and, "did we make the right choices?" Now we made choices…we made informed choices…that’s the best you can do because some of it isn’t recorded so how do you know, you know…

David: And if I remember correctly, in the introduction to the Bible you basically state just that…you say…

Wayne: This guy wanted to pick a fight. He just was one of those reporters that just wanted to pick a fight. So we did the interview, but I knew when the article came out it was going to be a negative article. And it did, it came out in Christian News…whatever that news service is…it was extremely negative and a lot of outlets picked it up. So I wrote a rebuttal on my blog…I just wrote a rebuttal on my blog and just outlined what we did and just told the facts as I knew…I didn’t mention the reporter at all ,but just the facts of the product. Is one of the most popular blog articles I’ve ever written and what was funny was…that’s still a bestselling Bible…and it was just…you know you just walk in with an idea and you go how do we make this thing more relevant and it clicks.

David: Would you mind sharing with me your blog address?

Wayne: Oh yeah. It’s That’s my release valve. I love to write.

David: Thomas Nelson has been in the specialty Bible business for a long while. The earliest Bible that I know of that Thomas Nelson has done for the specialty market was the Heart Shield Bible in WWI. Do you know of one that was earlier than that?

Wayne: Well it depends on how you define "specialty." Actually Thomas Nelson himself broke Bibles into signatures so people could afford them. And so he was selling 32 page installments so people in the 1790’s and early 1800’s could actually afford to have a Bible in their house. So the original special Bible…we laugh…the original specialty Bible publisher was actually Thomas Nelson himself.

David: So like later generations would buy an encyclopedia on an installment plan, you could buy a Bible on an installment plan? And then when you got it all together you could stitch it together yourself, or just keep it in the signatures?

Wayne: His whole gig was making books affordable. I mean, he was one of the first….in fact you can read this on Mike’s blog [Michael Hyatt is president of Thomas Nelson]. He’s done some history on Thomas Nelson. [Nelson] was one of the first publishers who understood the mass market, and that books just weren’t for the elite. So he did all kinds of things. In fact, I think he was the first guy that had started book fairs so people could actually see the books and see what they were. He invented the rotary press--but didn’t patent it--so he could print them more effectively, more efficiently and cheaper. And then he broke these Bibles into signatures and sold them. So he was just an entrepreneur who wanted to get books to the mass population in Edinborough, Scotland.

David: There’s a couple more specific questions that I’d like to ask, because in the process of talking to people about this book I'm writing, these are questions that they’ve asked me.

Wayne: Okay.

David: First, and this sort of has a…sort of a sacrilegious tone…so again, it’s not my question but somebody else’s: When I was talking to somebody about BibleZines and how BibleZines are modeled on magazines that are popular in "unchurched" demographic segments, somebody asked me the question, "well is there any limit on what they would do?" In other words, for example, there are unchurched populations that read adult literature…what is the policy for limiting what you would model a BibleZine on? Does that make sense?

Wayne: Yeah. Gosh that’s a good question. I mean…

David: Not just adult magazines, but like Guns and Ammo

Wayne: Yeah. Yeah. There is an editorial filter for everything we do. But in the case of a BibleZine we try really hard to use features to make Scripture relevant in the kids' lives. So even if one of the features is, you know, top 10 music of 2009…Christian music of 2009…it’s there to help them bridge that gap. Oh this is relevant. I see that. So we’re putting something in a BibleZine, and some of it is overtly tied to the Scripture it’s next too. So you’re in First Timothy and it’s talking about leaders and there’s a sidebar about leadership. I mean…it’s an expositional article about leadership…biblical leadership…and that’s cool. Then there’s some other stuff in there that isn’t [directly tied to Scripture], but they're all religious, all moral. It’s not taking any kind of stand but it’s there to bring in the relevancy factor because, I’m sorry, there’s just a lot of kids out there that don’t think the book is relevant.

David: Oh absolutely.

Wayne: So you got to tease them a little bit with editorial content that’s going to let them know that it is relevant. And that’s all. I know we’ve had our critics, but that’s really what we try to do. So there is tremendous amount of intentional content that drives kids to Scripture, but there’s also some content in there that just lets them know that…you know, like one time we put in an article about 10 ways to attract a guy. We got a lot of flack on that.

David: I think I remember reading some blogs

Wayne: Yeah. But one of the ways was be in prayer. Dress modestly. So it was like…come on…I mean it’s G rated material but girls are thinking about guys all the time. So let’s put it in there.

David: I have a related question about that intentional content. The entire visual package of a highly specialized Bible--full of color, lots of production values, either the chronological study Bible or BibleZine, to take two examples--is going to include these additional written pieces, and they're also going to include footnotes and pictures and visual presentation. s At what point in the process is the graphic design and the layout staff brought into the process…?

Wayne: Early, early, early.

David: So there’s a general theological feel established that is sort of global to the product and then everybody is sort of on board with working with that page by page?

Wayne: Yeah. That’s right. Highly talented graphic designers who understand the Word. And so it’s really kind of…they're just great people…but they’re still visual and they just shuffle the deck and there it is and we change it and they say there it is and then we go…

David: And so the last question that I would have…you had the flash of insight about the Chronological Study Bible, and then from that point--when an idea sort of hits the ground--to a finished Bible that’s in the stores…about how long on that process?

Wayne: If it’s a major content driven Bible like a Chronological, or Dr. Stanley’s Bible or John MacArthur’s Bible it’s a good 2-2.5 years. I mean the Bible alone is a million words. That’s a lot of words. And then you add 300,000 to 400,000 words so right there…you know the average book is what, 60,000 words?…so you’ve got 5 books that you’ve got to edit. So we put it through at least two if not three proofreading exercises from different proofreaders. Even though we have data files of the text…the Bible text…we still proofread that. Just because anything can happen at the printer or the typesetter…even though the typesetter just importing the file, anything can happen. So we proofread that. And then you’ve got the page layout work. You’ve got the writing work. So it’s a 2-2.5 year process. It’s not a cheap book to make and it’s not a….we have to plan a lot of edits. That’s hard…publishing sometimes can be hit driven…you know, so Sarah Palin becomes the vice presidential candidate and six weeks later somebody’s got a book on Sarah Palin. It’s like, oh my gosh, we could never do that in this division.

David: Mr. Hastings, thank you very much for your time.

Wayne: You're welcome.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Jimmy Barker responds to "Original Text vs. Critical Text"

Note: Jimmy sent an email reply to the previous post. I have taken some excerpts from his response, and he has agreed to let me post them here for you. Many thanks again to Jimmy for starting - and continuing - this conversation.


Here are a few thoughts on your blog post: One spelling correction: papyrology not papriology. Overall I'm quite pleased with your highlighting "original text" vs. "critical text;" I think it's a very important distinction.

Later on, in mentioning "texts, translations, and interpretations," you say that we're not getting at the "best" version of the "original." At least as far as textual criticism is concerned, though, I think that would actually be the stated goal; though here I think it's important always to put 'original' in quotes. However, as text critics, as best we can, we do want to get back to the earliest layer of text.

For example, between two readings, one convoluted the other easily intelligible, the rule of lectio difficilior (the more difficult reading) is an important principle; we're imagining that someone (later) made sense out of something that (earlier on) didn't make sense. What I think gets lost at this stage of textual criticism, however (and where a project like yours can make a great contribution), is the fact that these later 'corrections' end up creating their own meanings (ones that often carry the day, in that they're usually part of the 'majority text' which went into the KJV, which determines what modern English translations are allowed to say).

Another way to look at this is to take more of a nominalist approach and consider every witness a discrete text. This can become absurd, of course (since many many witnesses agree verbatim or nearly so). However, with something like Codex Washingtonianus's longer 'longer ending of Mark' (which mentions the rule of Satan etc.), we see an example of a text that has/creates its own meaning, and simply considering it a 'secondary' addition to what was already a secondary edition shouldn't virtually deny the codex's existence.

Sorry to get all metaphysical, but I haven't thought this aloud in quite some time, and I guess that's part of what bugs me about my discipline: not enough people look at what's going on in the variants (Bart Ehrman's dissertation The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is the one example of such an approach--the only one that comes to mind off the top of my head).

I was also interested in your take on "original Hebrew/Greek." I actually tend to consider this a separate issue from original vs. critical text...but maybe I shouldn't. Appeals to "the" original Greek would, of course, be problematic if we're talking about a particularly difficult passage from a text-critical standpoint (e.g. Matthew's Parable of the Two Sons) since we don't know what the 'original' text was...but in such a case we at least know that Greek was the original language of the text.

For the most part, then, in appealing to original languages I think people are signifying that English translations often either get something wrong or at least miss a nuance that's there in the 'original/base' languages. As a Greek teacher, I'm always in favor of people learning the 'original' languages. Of course, as far as the 'original' Greek tells us, Aramaic was the 'original' language for Jesus' sayings, but that's another matter; one, however, that may be worth pursuing in some of your work given that Historical Jesus scholars (most notably Joachim Jeremias back in the day) use our Greek NT texts to go behind what's in the text to recover the 'original' Aramaic, which then can 'correct' or 'refute' what the Greek text tells us...fascinating! (and/or infuriating). Maybe we should talk about "the" "original" "text" or "language"...but that gets quite cumbersome!

On a related note, one place I'd love to see you (as a theologian) do some work someday is on evangelical statements of faith that talk about 'inerrancy in the original manuscripts.' As a biblical scholar it would already be a strawman argument to me (since we don't have any autographs), but as a theologian you could probably make more sense out of how such language works (however well or poorly) theologically.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"Original Text" vs. "Critial Text": a plea for caution in one's terminology

In the concluding chapter of his excellent and highly recommended On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) gives the reader a glimpse of his writing process "with the door open." In other words, he gives a reproduction of the first draft of a short story, "The Hotel Story," in its entirety. Immediately afterward he reproduces a facsimile of the story (now titled "1408") with his revisions visible--lines are marked through, words are replaced, entire sections gutted and moved.

The chapter is helpful to aspiring writers, certainly, in its bald assertion that a lot of what gets written gets cut and rearranged, and that this process (despite our over-protective suspicions) is okay. It is in fact quite natural. In the process of writing, rewriting and self-editing happens (and happens very often repeatedly before a "final" draft is achieved).

I want to use this illustration of the process, however, to raise a question that cuts to the heart of "Biblical Studies" (and "Theology") as they seem to be undertaken in current practice. That question is, "Having now seen the process laid bare by King that this story has been revised and rewritten prior to its 'first appearance' as a published piece, what, would we venture to say, is the original text of this story?"

The question is tricky. In order to answer it, the answerer is required to make some preliminary decisions about what "original" would mean in such a case. For example, "The Hotel Story" is clearly original in a chronological sense--it comes before "1408" in time, after all. There would be no "1408" if "The Hotel Story" had not existed first. So, in this sense, "The Hotel Story" is "original."

However, it is also clear (from King's testimony in the book, at least) that "The Hotel Story" is inferior to "1408," and therefore it is to be rejected and abandoned by the author in favor of the later revision. In this sense, the author "intends" for "1408" to be the true story, the one upon which the author places name and imprimatur. It is "1408," and not "The Hotel Story," which is first published as a short story proper (as opposed to the pedagogical exercise here in On Writing, where they both appear to demonstrate the process). In this sense, "1408" would be considered the primary text, and thus "original," would it not?

The question, I submit, is problematic for us even when we have a contemporary text distributed through modern publication channels at a time when the author is still alive and available to answer questions about these matters (as occurs in On Writing, above). In other words, the availability of all these aides to our process of answering the question does not actually help us at all in the answering of the question, "What is the original text here?"

We are unaided because the answer cannot come from the text itself. Rather, it must come from the presuppositions we make in what constitutes an "original" text--is it chronology? It is intentionality? Is it some other factor we might choose as a criterion? This decision constitutes the status of the "originality" of a text--not some inherent quality of the text itself.

I make the point because there is a defect in the terminology many of us reflexively utilize in the sister disciplines of Biblical Studies and Theology. Let me put it this way: if I had a nickel for every time a student (myself included) has looked at the Biblia Hebraica or the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece and said, "Let's see what the original Hebrew (or Greek) says..." to settle a textual dispute, I would have so many nickels I likely would not have had to take out all those student loans during my graduate work.

We (many of us, myself included) reflexively appeal to these publications as the "original" language for the text in question. For many of my students in seminary, this is a highly uncritical process--but I also observe professors making the same reflexive claims. It is, I submit, a systemic reflex at all levels of the academy (again, for many--not all--of us).

But it must be clearly stated that these texts are no more "original" than the Latin Vulgate. They are not facsimilies of autographs in any sense. Rather, they are themselves assemblages of fragments that are incomplete, often contradictory, and long-disputed.

What we hold in our hands is not the "original" text in such cases, but rather a critical text. This is to say, a text that has been assembled and agreed upon through a critical process that has certain conventions and methodologies, and that is based upon certain preliminary assumptions about what the given text will be allowed to be. These assumptions, moreover, are not generated by "the text itself" (remember - there is no "text itself") but rather through external agreements such as grammar, lexicography, papriology, and so on.

The danger of a terminological blurriness on this point is that, in using the term "original Hebrew" or "original Greek" as our reflex, we might imply an ontological quality to the text which is not proper. An "original text" can exercise an absolute authority over translations and interpretation. A critical text, in contrast, still can exercise and authority in such matters, but it is a negotiated authority. The authority is conventional and debatable--not ontological and absolute.

A result of this claim would be that we acknowledge that our conversations about (biblical) texts, and their translations and interpretations, are not ever attempts to render the "best" version of the "original." Rather we labor to render the "best" version of the given critical text we have agreed, for the purposes of this particular conversation, to read and use at that time and that place.

What I am arguing for, then, is a scruple about the term "original text." If you are like me, it will be difficult to dispense with the reflex to use the term. However, with practice, I hope for myself (and anyone reading this who might share the concern) that the term might come to be replaced with a reflex to call the item what it is--a critical text. Conventional, limited, negotiable and tacit in its authority, though still authoritative and useful in a local, rather than a transcendent sense.


(I want to acknowledge the graciousness of my friend and colleague Jimmy Barker in helping me think through these points recently. I am deeply thankful for his insights on these matters. I do not claim he agrees with all the points I have made, of course, and any errors in the arguments above are mine, not his.)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Numbers 23:23

Today, April 2nd, marks the death of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code. Morse passed away in 1872.

On May 24th, 1844, Morse sent the first official message via telegraphy, to commemorate the opening to the line between the B&O Railroad Station in Baltimore and the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Since this is a blog about the material form Scripture takes in our world, and the interpretations that come from the various physical media in which Scripture is transmitted, it seemed fitting to mention this event, as Morse's first official transmission was Numbers 23:23 - "What hath God wrought?"

I find the implications of his choice intriguing. This was the first time Scripture was transmitted in electronic (or, at least, electric) form. This is the precursor to James Earl Jones reading the Scriptures aloud, or versions of the Bible online, and my favorite, of course) the GoBible iPod edition.

For the true nerds out there, here is the code of Numbers 23:23 in all its glory:

.-- .... .- - / .... .- - .... / --. --- -.. / .-- .-. --- ..- --. .... - ..--..

Di-dah-dah Di-di-di-dit Di-dah Dah, Di-di-di-dit Di-dah Dah Di-di-di-dit, Dah-dah-dit Dah-dah-dah Dah-di-dit, Di-dah-dah Di-dah-dit Dah-dah-dah Di-di-dah Dah-dah-dit Di-di-di-dit Dah Di-di-dah-dah-di-dit