The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book

The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book

by Timothy Beal

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A professor of religion offers an “engrossing and excellent” look at how the Good Book has changed—and changed the world—through the ages (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
In a lively journey from early Christianity to the present, this book explores how a box of handwritten scrolls became the Bible, and how the multibillion-dollar business that has brought us Biblezines and Manga Bibles is selling down the Book’s sacred capital.
Showing us how a single official text was created from the proliferation of different scripts, Timothy Beal traces its path as it became embraced as the word of God and the Book of books. Christianity thrived for centuries without any Bible—there was no official canon of scriptures, much less a book big enough to hold them all. Congregations used various collections of scrolls and codices. As the author reveals, there is no “original” Bible, no single source text behind the thousands of different editions on the market today. The farther we go back in the holy text’s history, the more versions we find.
In calling for a fresh understanding of the ways scriptures were used in the past, the author of Biblical Literacy offers the chance to rediscover a Bible, and a faith, that is truer to its own history—not a book of answers, but a library of questions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547504414
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 02/16/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 101,949
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Timothy Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University. He has published eleven books, including Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know andRoadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and one of Publishers Weekly’s ten best religion books of 2005. He has published essays in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Read an Excerpt


The End of the Word as We Know It: A Personal Introduction

I REMEMBER MOM'S BIBLE especially well: the feel and smell of the dark red pebbly leather cover, the heft of it, the delicate paper, gray and silky-soft at the corners from countless careful turns, the way it flopped over her hands when she opened it. Like other Bibles in our home, its value as a holy thing came not only from its quality of materials and craftsmanship, and not only from our familial faith in the words on its pages as the inspired Word of God, but also from years of daily, devotional attention. It seemed both sacred and mundane, a hallowed object, demanding my highest reverence, and an everyday tool, lying open on the kitchen counter like an old phonebook.

Growing up conservative evangelical in the 1960s and '70s, mine was a childhood steeped in biblical devotion. Our two-story house in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains, outside Anchorage, Alaska, was filled with books, good for the long, dark winters. But no book was more treasured than the Bible. It was the cornerstone of our family's spiritual well-being, the go- to source for any serious question we might have, from sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll to heaven, hell, and why bad things happen to good people.

Mom and Dad were models of biblical fidelity, of daily living in the Word. My strongest childhood memories of them testify to the high value they placed on Bible study and reflection: Mom, awake before sunrise, kneeling before the living room recliner as if it were a prie-dieu, reading her Bible while our cat lay purring and pawing on her warm back; Dad, leaving early for breakfast Bible studies and meetings of the local chapter of the Gideons at Denny's; the two of them, at the end of the day, sitting together on the sofa in the TV room, or lying side by side in bed, propped up on pillows, silently reading their Bibles.

My parents' biblical faith was by no means sentimental or simplistic. It was as seriously intellectual as it was devout. On drives home from church, they discussed the preacher's biblical interpretations in rigorous detail. When we got home, the discussion often continued, with Bibles open on the kitchen table. Mom studied Greek in college, and sometimes she'd pull out her old Greek New Testament to see how else the text might be translated. Stereotypes of conservative evangelical Christians as anti-intellectual notwithstanding, the Bible culture in which I was raised fostered serious, reasoned, critical engagement with the Scriptures. Biblical interpretation demanded all your heart, mind, and strength.

Magic 8 Ball Bible

My own youthful version of biblical faith, however, shaped at least as much by the emerging Christian pop youth culture of the 1970s as by my parents, was considerably less sophisticated. I tended to approach the Bible as though it were a divine oracle of truth, the ultimate Magic 8 Ball. Ask it a question and it would give you God's answer. I'd close my eyes while flipping through it like a dictionary, stop at random, and point my index finger somewhere on the open page, trusting that it would land on the passage I needed to read at that particular moment. This mode of biblical divination remains popular among kids as well as adults to this day. Many people tell miracle stories about how it gave them exactly the life-changing answer they needed. For me, not so much.

"Does Joanne like me?"

Flip, flip, flip. Stop. Point.

"He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD" (Deuteronomy 23:1).

Eventually I learned to flip far enough through my Bible to avoid the long legal discourses on skin diseases and crushed testicles in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But I still didn't find what I was looking for.

The biblical Magic 8 Ball game revealed more about me, about my hopes and wishes for the Bible, and especially my idea of the Bible, than it did about biblical literature itself. I conceived of the Bible as God's book of answers, which if opened and read rightly would speak directly to me with concrete, divinely authored advice about my life and how to live it.

This way of thinking about the Bible was not just my own private notion. It was, and still is, the most common understanding of the Bible: the literal Word of God, God's own book, The Book of all books, plainly revealing who God is and what God wants me to do and believe, from everyday things like dating and diet to ultimate things like heaven and hell.

Think of the hundreds of instruction books and manuals that are called Bibles, from The Bartender's Bible to The Curtain Bible to The Small Game and Varmint Hunter's Bible. What does it mean to call something "the Bible"? What does this title claim for a book? What does it promise? What is the cultural meaning of "the Bible" that a publisher claims when it publishes something like The Hot Rodder's Bible? What does "the Bible" mean?

It means authoritative. A book called "the Bible" is the ultimate authority. It is the first and last word on the subject.

It means univocal. A book called "the Bible" speaks for itself in one, unified voice, without contradiction.

It means practical. A book called "the Bible" promises to serve as a reference manual and a dependable guide for how to proceed along the path its reader has chosen.

It means accessible. A book called "the Bible" promises to speak to anyone and everyone clearly and simply, without ambiguity, in terms "even I can understand."

It means comprehensive. A book called "the Bible" claims to cover everything human beings may ever possibly need to know about its subject, past, present, and future.

It means exclusive. A book called "the Bible" admits no rivals, no alternative perspectives. It is complete unto itself, closed, self-contained within a single book, A to Z, alpha to omega, Genesis to Revelation. Nothing may be added or taken away.

This is what I call the iconic cultural meaning of the Bible. And it is this meaning that publishers claim for any book they call "the Bible." The Bible is above all an image of divine authority, the perfect Book by the perfect Author.

Nearly all Americans are familiar with this idea of the Bible, and most endorse it. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 78 percent of all Americans say that the Bible is the "word of God," and almost half of those believe that, as such, "it is to be taken literally, word for word." Polling data from theBarna Group indicate that nearly half of all Americans agree that "the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings" (88 percent of all "born-again" Christians believe the same), and the Gallup Poll finds that 65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible "answers all or most of the basic questions of life." These statements are shorthand descriptions of the idea of the Bible as God's magnum opus, the first and last word on who God is, who we are, why we're here, and where we go after this — depending, of course, on how well we follow The Book, aka B.I.B.L.E., "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth."

The Rise of a Cultural Icon

A cultural icon is different from a traditional icon. A traditional icon is a particular material object that is believed to mediate a transcendent reality, and its power to do so is created and maintained by the various rituals people practice in relation to it. An example might be a Bible used to swear in a new president, or a handwritten Torah scroll presented to a congregation in a synagogue. A cultural icon is not so concrete. It is not tied to a particular material object, visual image, or ritual practice. Its outlines are a little vague, hard to define sharply. It's a condensation of what people who identify with it believe in and value. It says something about the culture in which it holds iconic power. The American flag is a cultural icon of patriotism. The four-wheel-drive truck is a cultural icon of American independence, toughness, and, most of all, masculinity.

The Bible is a cultural icon of faith as black-and-white certainty and religion as right-and-wrong morality. It's no accident that the most common visual image of the Bible is that of a closed black book. The cultural icon of the Bible represents religious faith as what closes the book on questions about the meaning and purpose of life. It puts them to rest in the name of God. Faith is about believing the right things, and the Bible is the place to find them.

This idea of the Bible as a divine manual for finding happiness with God in this world and salvation in the next is so familiar to us today that we might well assume it's been around forever, that it's as old as Christianity itself. It's not. In fact, its genesis was in nineteenth-century Protestantism, where the Reformation ideal of sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," combined with a popular Protestant evangelistic movement, sometimes described as a new Puritanic Biblicism because of its romantic idealization of that earlier, seemingly simpler form of Puritan Christianity, to promote the Bible as the key to solving all of industrial America's emerging problems. The Bible, it was believed, could integrate immigrant populations in the new big cities. It could heal factions among Protestant churches and denominations. It could keep husbands sober and hold nuclear families together, even under new stresses of urban poverty and isolation. Rooted in nostalgia for the mythical, romanticized image of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritan piety, this movement believed that the Bible was the solution for all modern social, familial, and individual ills.

Writing in 1851, theologian and biblical scholar John W. Nevin described this movement's then-novel idea of the Bible this way:

In this sacred volume, we are told, God has been pleased to place his word in full, by special inspiration, as a supernatural directory for the use of the world to the end of time; for the very purpose of providing a sufficient authority for faith, that might be independent of all human judgment and will ... The great matter accordingly is to place the bible in every man's hands, and to have him able to read it, that he may then follow it in his own way The idea seems to be, that the bible was published in the first place as a sort of divine formulary or text book for the world to follow ... so that the dissemination of its printed text throughout the world, without note or comment, is the one thing specially needful and specially to be relied upon for the full victory of Christianity, from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth.

Nevin's reference to "without note or comment" alludes to one of the movement's most important organizations, the American Bible Society. Founded in 1816 and modeled on its British sister organization, the British and Foreign Bible Society, its sole objective was "to encourage a wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment." The society's initial address "To the People of the United States" is indicative of the missionary zeal surrounding this new movement to "claim our place in the age of Bibles."

This is no doubt of the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes. But what instrument has he thought fit chiefly to use? That which contributes, in all latitudes and climes, to make Christians feel their unity, to rebuke the spirit of strife, and to open upon them the day of brotherly accord — the Bible! the Bible!

Led primarily by Christian businessmen who made their money in the emerging fields of insurance and banking, the American Bible Society followed the latest industrial business models and was quick to adopt new innovations in the print industry, especially stereotype plates and steam power. Its highly efficient methods of management, production, and distribution led to tremendous success in fulfilling its mission to get the Word out, which its members fervently believed to be the only way to save American society.

The ABS's stipulation that Bibles be printed "without note or comment" was central. It was an expression of commitment to the Puritanic Biblicist ideal that the Bible was complete unto itself, spoke for itself, and required no supplemental explanations or interpretations.

The fundamentalist movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century was the theological heir of the Puritanic Biblicism championed by the ABS and others. What distinguished it as a new movement was its reactionary character. It was first and foremost a defensive reaction to two intellectual revolutions toward the end of the nineteenth century, both of which challenged any reading of the Bible that treated it as an empirical account of human history or as the literal Word of God. The first, which is well known, was the rise of evolutionary theory in the wake of Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. The second was the rise of German and British "higher criticism" of the Bible, which championed a deductive, scientific approach. It examined biblical literature not as the authoritative source for history, but as data for reconstructing history. That is, it examined biblical literature in light of history rather than the other way around. The most influential of these early higher critics was the German linguist and historian of ancient Israel, Julius Wellhausen. As notoriously irreverent in his social behavior as he was scientific in his approach to biblical literature, Wellhausen, rumor has it, would time his Sunday-morning stroll to the swimming hole to coincide with the letting out of church. But what most famously provoked the ire of many Bible-believers throughout Europe and the United States was his "documentary hypothesis," which argued that the first five books of the Bible were compiled from four different literary strands or "sources." He dated each of these sources to a different period of Israelite and Judean history, and believed that they had been edited together to form the narratives of Genesis through Deuteronomy at a later time, after the Babylonian exile. It was in reaction to this kind of dissecting and historicizing of the Bible that fundamentalism formed its doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which proclaims that the Bible is God's literally inspired Word, entirely without error or contradiction, and therefore entirely authoritative. The Bible, it was asserted, must not be subjected to modern science or historical research. On the contrary, those disciplines must be subjected to it.

At the heart of the biblical fundamentalist movement was the Bible study, a small group of people that gathered in someone's home or at lunch break for Bible reading, sharing, and prayer. Modeled on the "social religious meetings" promoted by the great preacher of the Second Great Awakening, Charles Grandison Finney, as a means of keeping spiritual fires burning after the revival meeting ended, these Bible-study groups facilitated focused reading and discussion beyond what people could get from a sermon, applying biblical truths to the spiritual challenges and moral choices individual group members were facing in their own lives. The idea behind them, again, was the conviction that the Bible, as the infallible and literal Word of God, spoke in clear, unambiguous terms that any "plain man" can understand and apply directly to his life. The Bible-study movement thus brought together fundamentalism's rather dry intellectual commitment to biblical inerrancy and revivalism's emphasis on personal piety and moral uprightness.

Outside the intimate setting of the Bible-study group, conflicts between biblical fundamentalism and the new higher criticism were playing out in high public drama. In the early 1890s, the Presbyterian Church conducted a series of heresy trials against the Reverend Charles A. Briggs, a professor of biblical theology at Union Theological Seminary and champion of the new biblicalcritical methods. These highly publicized trials led eventually to Briggs's suspension from ministry and Union's decision to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church. But the most dramatic, and ultimately most humiliating, battle for the fundamentalist movement was its showdown with Darwinian evolution in the 1925 case Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, which tried Scopes for teaching evolutionary theory in his high school biology class in defiance of state law. Although Scopes lost, the news media surrounding the so-called Monkey Trial succeeded in portraying the biblical fundamentalist perspective, championed by Presbyterian minister and three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, as narrow-minded and intellectually backward.


Excerpted from "The Rise And Fall of the Bible"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Timothy Beal.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The End of the Word as We Know It:
A Personal Introduction 1

Magic 8 Ball Bible 2

The Rise of a Cultural Icon 5

The Way of Salvation 12

So Long, Judas 18

The Course of This Book 21

My Utmost, Revisited 24

2. The Greatest Story Ever Sold 29

Sodom and Gomorrah Equals Love 30

Biblical Consumerism 32

Expectations of Biblical Proportions 36

By Whose Authority? 38

3. Biblical Values 41

Felt Needs 44

Values Added 48

Finding Your Niche 50

Necessary Supplements 54

If That’s What It Means, Why Doesn’t It Say So? 58

Manga Bibles 64

A Different Cookie 68

4. Twilight of the Idol 70

The Evangelical Dilemma 70

Selling Out 72

Type’s Setting 78

Distress Crop 80

Behold Your God 83

5. What Would Jesus Read? 85

Jesus Sings 86

Christianity Before the Bible 96

No Original 102

No Canon 106

Early Christian Network Society 108

6. The Story of the Good Book 111

Remembering What’s Lost 111

Scrolling Down to the Book 113

Scattered Throughout the Whole World 117

After Gutenberg 120

Multiplying the Leaves 129

Lost in Translations 140

Not a Rock but a River 143

7. Library of Questions 146

Mark Twain’s Drugstore 155

Letting Suffering Speak 160

Trials of God 163

Weak Rope Theory 168

Is the Bible a Failure? 171

Faith in Ambiguity 173

Nothing but a Burning Light 176

The Bible by the Side of the Road 178

8. And I Feel Fine 180

Cracking the Binding 184

Loose Canon 187

Back to the Future 189

Living Conversations 191

Seeds to Go Around 193

Word Without End 196

Acknowledgments 197

Notes 200

Index 226

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