Saturday, March 28, 2009

Who Owns the Bible?

My attention has been drawn to a couple of posts over at the Better Bibles Blog. David Ker writes about the question of publishers, bibles, copywright and bible in open source and online resources. He first of all raises the following questions:

  1. Who owns the Bible?
  2. Who owns the copyright on the Bible?
  3. Who owns the copyright on editions of the original languages?

He then goes on to observe:

What we’ve seen in the last century is publishers becoming the key players in Bible distribution in the developed world. We are at an interesting transition period in which Bible Societies are fading, Bible publishers are being snatched up by secular publishers, and an open source movement is afoot that is redefining the concept of “The Bible.” What is The Bible? Is it that book on your shelf? Or the software on your computer? Or the mp3s on your iPod? And the seemingly endless array of specialty editions of the Bible have further eroded the concept of “The Bible.” Study notes, cross references, little boxes with devotional thoughts in them. The list goes on. Is all that stuff “The Bible?”

On the same blog, Wayne Leman asks: "Where have all the bibles gone" largely taking up points raised by Robert Jimenez on the Inquiring Minds blog. Leman and Jimenez provide data on the top ten bestselling bibles in the US and raise concerns that the TNIV or Today's New International Version doesn't seem to be selling and thus is not available in Christian bookstores. I must confess I'd never heard of the TNIV before and am going to have to add it to my collection.

I have quite a few bibles. Naturally I have a Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament. I also have the Rahlfs Septuaginta as wel as a Latin Vulgate Bible. In English, I have my trusty and well thumbed NRSV with all the deuterocanonicals. I also have my first bible, the Jerusalem Bible, which I've had since I was quite young/teens. I have a Douai Rheims English translation based on the Vulgate, plus 2 King James bibles - a small pocket version without Apocrypha/deuterocanonicals and a larger one with both them and the notes. I have the Lamsa bible based on the Peshitta, and the NIV, and the New American Bible, the JPS Tanakh. I also have a Good News Bible, the Orthodox Study Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls Bible., the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) and Brenton's 19th century edition of the LXX with Greek and English text. Plus, I have translations of individual books, mostly Genesis and Psalms, and the Schocken Torah. I also have translations of 1 Enoch and Jubilees and anthologies of texts including such parabiblical texts as Barnabas, Hermas, 1 & 2 Clement, Didache and Epistle to the Laodiceans and 3 Corinthians. I also have a couple of copies of the Odes of Solomon. Plus I have Bibleworks software package to boot. Finally I have three different transations of the Qur'an, one with Arabic and English text. All of these represent different types of bibles, translations and canons.

However the varieties of bibles Leman and Jimenez are largely variations of the one theme, the standard English bible based on Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament, the basic Protestant package as distributed by Bible Societies for the last two centuries. The TNIV is the latest instance of it. With its predecessor, the NIV, it has been very successfully exploited by Zondervan into a suite of 'niche bibles'. I have one example on my shelves, not mine but loaned to me a by a friend, True Identity: The Bible for Women, using the TNIV. There's also, as I said, a range of other such bibles - I've even seen a businessman's bible and I have to wonder what the NIV Adventure Bible was. True Identity is a rather fun read because it embeds the biblical text in a mass of notations and pious commentary promoting a woman's identity as wife and mother. Some of these juxtapositions are a Monty Python dream such as embedding Ruth in a mass of material about pre-marital sexual abstinence and the dangers of living together before marriage together with the importance of having your mother-in-law as your mentor. Ruth and Naomi, of course are the very model of woman to woman love; furthermore at Naomi's urging Ruth sets out to seduce Boaz, 'uncovering his feet' (3.7) to ensure his attention and marital commitment. At the end of the book, Boaz has disappeared (in Jewish tradition he died soon after his wedding night) leaving Ruth, Naomi and the child by Boaz as the perfect model of lesbian co-parents. Boaz is not much more than a sperm donor in this book.

But I want to return to Ker's piece becaue in it he highlights and celebrates moves towards the establishment of comprehensive open source biblical resources online. This is very much to be welcomed. I think it's important for the third millennium that a more ecumenical understanding of biblical variety be not only adopted but positively promoted particularly amongst the varieties of Catholicism (these are, after all, Catholic Bibles one and all). For the Old Testament, as Augustine argued against Jerome, both Greek and Hebrew versions should run side by side (and I would add the Samaritan Torah and Joshua plus other variant editons of OT texts from Qumran such as Psalms and the Great Isaiah scroll). Such a move for the Old testament alone makes for much bigger bibles (especially if including 1 Enoch and Jubilees and other texts that have been part of canons in the past or currently in eastern churches).

In fact it is the internet and bible software packages that really make possible the establishment of a truly ecumenical bible (the Targumim, Vulgate and Peshitta can also be incorporated easily in such platforms). That way people can come to appreciate the full breadth of the biblical texts and their variety, which I would also hope might serve as a corrective against literalism and fundamentalism. That's why it's sad to see on the Open Source bible site that they are sill stuck in the standard Protestant canonical format; it's merely one, and the most recent at that ,of a variety of Christian biblical canons.

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