Pelikan: Whose Bible Is It? (2005)

Is it possible for a Christian clergyman to write an “objective” history of the Bible? Even if not, Jaroslaw Pelikan comes really close to it in “Whose Bible Is It? History of the Scriptures through the Ages”. He, besides being a Lutheran pastor was also a professor at Yale up till his death 4 years ago, gets a lot of the history and context right. This is the best concise book on the Bible I read for several reasons:

  • He treats with respect all the people of the books. This means that he calls the Hebrew scriptures Tanakh as opposed to the Christian centric label of the Old Testament. He is consistent in his usage throughout the book in this regard.
  • He keeps a fine balance between the Tanak and the New Testament. The book is more or less chronological, this the first part deals with the Tanakh. He first explains what it means for the Jewish people, then he goes onto what it means for the various Christian denominations. But he doesn’t mix up the two or emphasize one over the other.
  • He covers the canonization process of both parts of the Bible as much as possible. I met many people of all faiths, who prefer to believe the dogmatic view about ther birth of their holy scriptures. Again, Pelikan explains the orthodox view and offers the academic view along with it.
  • He recognizes that holy books developed through stages, including an “oral” phase, when they were transmitted via spoken world only. He comes back to this point over and over and draws conclusions from this nature of the books, that is often overlooked from our culture’s perspective, from where it is difficult to imagine a time before writing. This is one of his key points.
  • Similarly, he tells the reader about the history of the various translations, their role in the development of the religions, their uses, misuses and problems rising from them. This is a great summary of how spoken and written language influences the relations between clergy and laity.
  • A short summary of ever single book of the Bible is in Pelikan’s book and is placed within the context of canon: which canon includes it and which not and why. This is possible the most useful part for the book for a beginner scholar.

These were the main reasons the book was a joy to read: its objectivity, scope, historical depth and respect. However I have two reservations about the book. One has to do with the minimal coverage of modern Biblical criticism. Pelikan mentions it, but doesn’t devote as much space to it as I think it deserves. The “documentary hypothesis” for example gets zero coverage, while I think this is the most important development in biblical scholarship in the 19th/20th century. I suspect that its suggestions are in such a contrast with Pelikan’s own belief system that his conscience prevented him to write about it.

The other caveat is the point he is trying to make in the book. Besides writing a great book on the good book, I believe, he also had an agenda: he was trying to advocate better understanding between Christians and Jews. That is something I can fully support to. But I think his reasoning was mistaken. I am afraid I need to provide a extended quote before I can counter it. This is from page 122:

“How much better the nations of the world would understand one another, we regularly urge, if only they all knew what those “others” are saying, unfiltered through a translation…. [Serbs and Croats] speak basically the same language– which means they ca understand each other very well when they call each other some of those obscene and quite untranslatable names, and they are kept apart by a common language. Sometimes it almost seems as though the peoples of the Balkans might get along better if only they could not understand each other. So also during the “Middle Ages,” both in Western Europe and in the Eastern Roman so-called Byzantine Empire, rabbinical scholars and Christian scholars were kept apart by a common text, whether they called it Tanakh in Hebrew or Graphe in Greek of Biblia Sacra in Latin.”

He is right that it would be simpler to share the same language, because translations distort. I don’t think thought that he is right that having different languages (or scriptures) would help understand each other better. At least sharing something common gives them/us connecting point. The question is whether these connecting points cause more friction or help to improve relations. The answer I believe is up to us, what we make of it. But as any couple therapist would tell you those couples last longer who have more in common. The same principles apply here too.

The book at

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