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The Meaning of the Bible Over Time

One of the most popular books in the world, the Christian Bible continues to be a source of spiritual inspiration and guidance for many people. We’ll explore the history of the Bible and the people w

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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Look in the nightstand in just about every American hotel room and you’ll find it: the Gideon Bible. It’s a perfect complement to the restless and mobile nature of Americans who also seem to have an enduring devotion to scripture. Just as American travelers have inspired a specialized Bible, the Good Book has been retooled and refashioned through the centuries. The Bible that worked well for the holy Roman empire was not exactly the same Bible that the pilgrims brought with them to Plymouth Rock. A new book traces the history of the Bible over a thousand year period and discusses the influences and the empires that have interpreted this scriptures. It’s called, “The Bible and the People,” and author Lori Anne Ferrell is my guest. She is professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University. Welcome.

LORI ANNE FERRELL (Author): Thank you. Welcome. It’s good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, as I just said, Americans seem to have an endless fascination with scripture. How important is the Christian Bible overall to the world in general?

FERRELL: I think its importance has changed and it’s changing now. One of the claims that I made in the book is that this is, at this point in history, still the most read, the most purchased, and apparently the most stolen book in the world. And I wonder if that status will remain throughout the 21st century or if other sacred texts, as we recognize the contributions of other religions and as, one might say, the West begins to share its power with other regions in the world, whether we’ll see their sacred texts in much the same kind of way or in such a ubiquitous way. But I think what may give the Bible an edge for quite some time to come is that Christians have been much more willing to refashion it into accessible forms whereas other sacred texts seem to stay in sacred form themselves. They are not translated. They are not turned into iPod broadcasts. And I think that might actually give the Bible an edge on that market.

CAVANAUGH: They’re not read by Charlton Heston.

FERRELL: No, they are not, and I don’t know when they will be.

CAVANAUGH: Your book focuses on the Bible from the 11th century to the 21st century. Why is that time period?

FERRELL: There’s a really simple reason for that and there’s not a thing about that that’s either academic or philosophical. It – This book began with an exhibition at the Huntington Library and that’s actually the span of Bibles that the Huntington Library owns. They wanted a – The director of the library and the president of the Huntington wanted a show that would be completely based on the Huntington’s holdings and their first book, their oldest book in the holdings is a Bible, is from the 11th century, so we began there.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. Now, from – back up – back us up a little bit and let’s talk about the first account of what we call the Christian Bible. How did that compilation of books manifest itself into the New Testament?

FERRELL: Well, we don’t always know. We do a lot of retrospective thinking when we try to figure out what – how the earliest Christians read their Bibles and what kinds of Bibles they read. The earliest Christians had a collection of books that could be different depending on the region that they lived in or the community in which they worshiped. And many of those books didn’t make it into the final cut, so to speak, and that’s why we’ve been getting all these great books lately, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Those were also sacred texts to early Christians. When Christianity became powerful enough to enforce its own doctrines, when it became a powerful force in the Roman empire in the – around the 3rd and 4th century, it was then able to make orthodox decisions and enforce those about which books should be – should be part of the real Bible. And about all that they could agree on in the beginning was that the Hebrew Bible had to be part of that because the earliest Christians began in – as Jews and that was their sacred text. So the New Testament was supposed to build on that. So they made choices mostly based on what would not disturb the formulations of doctrine so things like the Gospel of Judas and Mary Magdalene didn’t make it but any – any – books that could be ascribed to the writing of an apostle were – some books that were under a great deal of controversial conversation – The Book of Revelation almost didn’t make it in.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I know. I have heard that, yes. That’s fascinating. Is there anybody – is there any one person who perhaps really mapped out what the New Testament looks like now?

FERRELL: At that time?

CAVANAUGH: Or in subsequent…

FERRELL: Publications, right? Of some sort.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Yes.

FERRELL: Well, I think, actually for the earliest Christians it would have been Paul who’s – you know, so much of his – so many of his, you know, writings are in, you know, comprise the New Testament but they also spend a lot of time telling people what they should be reading and understanding from the Gospels and I think that became sort of a map onto which successive leaders in the church began to think through what would be the kinds of writings that would express Christianity in the most vibrant and powerful and honest way. Subsequent to that – I think this gets a little boring, a bit like, I don’t know, like committee meetings or faculty meetings or the kinds of things that you or I might be more familiar with. It is, I think – It was a question of political decision making on the part of an increasingly powerful church. And by the 5th century, the Christian church which had begun as a persecuted minority group of scattered, you know, sort of peoples and worshippers had become, you know, the sort of the power behind the Roman empire and at this point the decisions about what sort of public face, I suppose you would have, or what kinds of expressions of the faith would be acceptable had to take into account the need to evangelize in the broadest possible way so you couldn’t have any secret gospels, you couldn’t have any special kinds of doctrine that only the cognescenti could know. So I think a lot of the decisions were made on – on – for reasons that I think are very engaging and actually sort of admirable, which is let’s alienate the fewest people that we can find with our writings. So – But what we know now is, you know, by doing that, they certainly didn’t dumb down the scriptures. They’re still very hard.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Lori Anne Ferrell. She is a professor of early modern history and literature and she has just written a book called “The Bible and the People.” And since your book is mainly about the book, the actual book of the Bible and how it’s presented to people, let’s talk about some of the early manuscripts. I think most people realize that these were handwritten, often illuminated, beautiful, beautiful books. And who had access to these rare manuscripts of the Bible at that time?

FERRELL: Monks. Church leaders. And by the end of the, what we’d call the middle ages, very wealthy laypersons who mostly still had it in a form where simply it was the extractions of, say, the Psalms with illustrations, so that they would have sort of personal prayer books. So these were, in the beginning, for the church, large volumes that would stay put. They would be in a monastery library or they would be owned by a cathedral and presented back and forth. These were often put to – The most beautiful ones that we see, which are by no means the majority of the ones that were once produced, were made as presentation copies. You know, Bishop So-and-so trying to impress another Bishop So-and-so. By the middle of the middle ages—that seems odd but that’s probably the best way to put it—by the 11th and 12th century we begin to see the emergence out of the monastery of monks that actually took to the road and preached in cities and towns and established universities. This would be the Dominicans and the Franciscans. And they needed books they could carry and they needed Bibles they could carry. And then we see the Bible change size, go from being a very large kind of unwieldy volume to being a kind of thick and still, I think, pretty unwieldy volume but I suppose if you had pockets big enough, you could sort of pop one in and you could carry it about with you. So they became movable and portable at that time and that’s when you see, I think what’s one of sort of the great moves in sort of Bible format and that would be to go from something which has to sit on a dais or sit in a shelf and goes – and it gets handsized…


FERRELL: …and graspable.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And when we move forward to the first printing press and the Gutenberg Bible and the idea that this finally – the stories that people have been hearing, if they are literate, they can actually begin reading the Bible and the confusion that that engendered in so many people, I thought that was fascinating in your book because I’d never actually thought of it that way. Because the Bible is a rather hard read.

FERRELL: Yes. One of the things I did when I was invited to do the exhibition was, I thought, umm, it’s actually been a while since I’ve read this book cover to cover. I was raised as a Bible-reading Baptist so I’d had a lot of exposure but sometimes one stops reading for a while. And when I got finished—it took me an entire summer, which is actually a pretty fast read—and so I didn’t delve into it as deeply as I might should have but I finished it up and thought that’s really the hardest book I’ve ever read. And this is after years of, you know, university training. So I think what we don’t always recognize is that before the Bible became accessible and in the languages of everyday life, people heard it spoken and they heard it in Latin and, in some sense, they took it on in a rather visceral way. I think the Latin phrases, the ways in which they were exposed to the Psalms in liturgical settings where people were praying, becomes almost a somatic or physical experience. Imagine living out the Bible’s verses in that way and then being handed a big, old heavy book where – and your – and let’s say your reading capacity is not well-trained, and being told that now you need to read this to understand it. It’s a completely different kind of understanding. And I think the kind of comfort, for example, that certain Psalms may have sounded, perhaps reading them, you know, I sat down and wept by the waters of Babylon, while that still sounds beautiful it may have been very – They’re not at the waters of Babylon.


FERRELL: And so it’s strange and it’s exotic. And things that we hear in our own language that don’t make sense to us, I think, are much more confusing and frightening than things that seem to be in the control of a reassuring language of authority.

CAVANAUGH: And that’s how you write after the reformation when people were – the new protestants were urged to read their Bible and get very familiar with it, there was sort of this mass confusion because the Bible is not necessarily a linear narrative. It has all of these names and all of these places that people were completely unfamiliar with. And yet, that has translated into the way that people relate to their Bibles today.

FERRELL: Oh, I – Absolutely. That’s, I think, the other thing that amazed me the more I worked on, first, the exhibition and then the book. It was – I hadn’t thought about it this way before, and I’ve been teaching for years. And I’ve been teaching in the seminary – I taught in the seminary for several years. I teach in religion programs. I hadn’t realized that people read the Bible because it’s hard, not because it’s easy. I think we believe that we only do the things that are made easy for us and I also think that it’s been thought that putting it into English, for example, makes it easier for people. Putting it into an iPod makes it easier for people, making it something that they can carry in their back pocket. All of this only means that it’s easier to get your hands on or your ears on, or whatever if you’re doing your iPod, a set of challenging, extraordinary, exuberant, terrifying ideas, and every – and nobody seems to want those to be easy. If they were easy, I think everybody would put it down and stop.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Lori Anne Ferrell. She’s the author of “The Bible and the People,” a new book that traces the history of the Bible over a thousand-year period. And, Lori, I’ve got to tell you, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how the Bible changed in America, all the different versions, all the people who tried to translate it in sort of their own fashion. When the pilgrims came over, what version of the Bible were they carrying with them?

FERRELL: We think they were carrying – There’s a lot of argument about that. And I think that scholars would love if they were carrying a very famous Puritan Bible called the Geneva Bible, which was filled with all kinds of notes on the side that explained why people should be strict Puritans in doctrine, for one thing. But probably they carried what we call in this country the King James Bible but what is referred to in England as the authorized version. The 1611 Bible commissioned by King James the first, and which is still the bestselling, most sold and most read and most stolen book in the world. And what’s interesting to me about that, or ironic, is, of course, the pilgrims and the people that followed the pilgrims came to the new world to get away from King James the first. And they carried, you know – When – In America, that Bible actually still bears his name and it’s still, you know, it’s the one we know the best and it’s the one that sounds, as my son once said, I think, famously, it’s just like Shakespeare, it has a lot of quotes in it. It’s – That’s the familiar sound of the ‘thees’ and the ‘that’s’ and the ‘begats’ made familiar to us by the fact that it’s been an American Bible. So they carried that Bible with them and that Bible didn’t give them a lot of directions on how to read their Bibles but, luckily, they had people like Cotton Mather to tell them how to read it.

CAVANAUGH: And Thomas Jefferson wrote a version, a compilation book of – about Jesus from the Bible. Tell us about that.

FERRELL: And he didn’t write it. Actually, what he did was he cut it up. He took a Bible. He was very concerned about what he felt was a distortion of the pure message of Jesus Christ, which was, for Thomas Jefferson, a very philosophical kind of set of treatises and, you know, the side of, you know, love your enemies, nothing about sort of Christian doctrine per se or belief in the, you know, in Jesus as a savior. This kind of thing, I think, was, to Jefferson, a problem. So he decided that he was going to read through his New Testament and embark upon this kind of philosophical examination of Jesus’ words and figure out which ones he thought, based on that, were the true words of Jesus and the true New Testament. And so instead of writing it, he took the Bible and he cut out the passages and repasted them into a new book and that was, you know, eventually that was printed but so we have this kind of cut and paste Jefferson Bible which, I think, would be very – It’d be interesting. Think about if we had a president now, let’s just say, you know, President Obama, who said these are the parts of the Bible, I’ve cut them up, and these are the parts I think are true. And I think even if he did the parts that seem much more religious to us than, say, Jefferson did, we’d still be appalled that he took scissors to the Bible to begin with.

CAVANAUGH: People in those days were much more revolutionary than we are today.

FERRELL: Oh, I think they used books – I mean, I can only wish that my, you know, that – that I had the same sense of sort of freedom with a book. They marked them up. They cut them up. And Bibles were not treated with any – in fact, they were treated with less respect because that was the book most – people were most likely to have. That’s why people scribble the name – you know, it’s not just genealogies. Eventually, in the 19th century, they produced inserts that you could write your family names in a nice, sanctioned space. People just used to write them all over free space. But you can also find in old Bibles recipes, one of the – the Huntington has one that has a recipe for getting rid of owls in your house. This is an important thing, and it struck somebody, I think, right around the Book of Galatians, you know.


FERRELL: What is going on in this book and what – why are those owls still, you know, in my eaves.

CAVANAUGH: And Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the Women’s Bible.

FERRELL: Yes, and that’s actually – She felt a lot more latitude and that is a rewritten text. And she actually – she also had a team of researchers with her just like King James only these were women. And she said what I’m going to do is I’m simply going to concentrate – it was more of a commentary on the Bible. But I’m only going to concentrate on the verses that have anything to do with women. And then there’s – the line that follows is, I think, one of her best lines, which is she said, as these only comprise about a tenth of the Bible, this will not be a particularly arduous undertaking because we won’t have as much work to do. It was absolutely shocking, though, for its time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, what is the impact, I wonder, of the – these – the living Bible, this American vernacular version of the Bible. Has that really taken on and taken root in America?

FERRELL: Yes, and I’m – I was a little surprised to find that but I think this is because, by trade, I work on early modern literature and there is probably something about the King James Bible that remains, you know, sort of powerful to my heart. But – So you look at, you know, the Bible in modern dress, in modern linguistic dress, and we might be tempted to look askance at it and see it as too free and easy. It’s pretty clear, though, that the Bibles that will be used are the Bibles – In other words, the most popular Bibles will be those that people will use in worship. I still think the Bible, as much as it’s a book that you find when you’re by yourself and have nothing to read in your hotel room or you’re feeling lonesome, the Bible’s also a community document and in the churches that use these living Bibles, we will find people responding to them. They will rewrite their hymns. I think the worship service begins to revolve around that celebration of the word. But, you know what, those Bibles are not – they’re not translate – the ones that are more, what we might call thought for thought, that’s actually – I wish I had thought that up but that’s actually a scholar named Daniel Rodosh, thought for thought rather than word for word translation where you’re trying to get the sense of a passage. I think that even if – even given those but any new translation, the new revised standard version, the new King James, which they have all – they haven’t changed all that much. That’s actually what’s astounding to me, that the Bible out – you know, translated from Latin into English, you know, using older texts and Greek and Latin as the reformers did, straight through to the ones you find inserted in these teenage magazine Bibles that are extraordinary.

CAVANAUGH: Teenage magazine Bibles.

FERRELL: Yes. I – that was my throwaway line. Let me finish this sentence. I find that that’s a – it’s a remarkably stable text in a set of remarkably unstable forms. Yes, there’s a – They’re wonderful. They’re called Revolve and Refuel. Refuel is for boys, Revolve is for girls. They look like teen magazines. Refuel has guys with guitars on the front and Revolve has really, really attractive girls in cute outfits and they’re smiling and they’re happy, and it says things like, you know, makeup tips and, you know, how to get along with your mom and, you know, what’s the best – So the outside looks also with the blurbs that a magazine would have. Inside, is the actual text of the Bible, the New Testament, in both cases, with sidebars relating those words to the preoccupations of today’s mostly evangel – I think these are actually marketed for evangelical teenagers but teenagers of all sorts, worrying about how much makeup is too much makeup, my mom and dad won’t let me get a tattoo, I can’t stand my little brother.


FERRELL: There’s also much, I think, harder hitting doctrinal messages throughout, teaching you how to read. Those sidebars teach you how to read the text of the Bible that’s in the middle. But it – you know, it’s reaching teenagers where they live, which is about, you know, what do I do at school if the in crowd doesn’t like me?


FERRELL: Reading a Bible might not be it but…

CAVANAUGH: That’s really amazing. Do you have a – oh, an easy source to remember how many versions that you looked at of the Bible? Are there dozens? Or are there hundreds?

FERRELL: Hmm. Closer to dozens than hundreds. After the reformation, there was remarkably – There were lots of sort of what I think of as informal or academic versions of the Bible produced. We didn’t want those in the exhibit. We wanted Bibles that people had actually read and seen. But if you look at sort of the – what I think of as the Bibles that people know of, the kinds of versions, you have – from 1611, you don’t have another flurry of translating until the 20th century. And that’s – This has been the new century. This must be just, I think, very indicative of the 20th century. We go immediately from the revised version to the revised standard and then the new version’s like newer, some of the new international version, the Bible for Modern Man, as they called it back in the – was it the seventies? So the more thought for thought translations, that’s been an explosion, I think, analogous to the communications explosion in the 20th and 21st centuries.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder after all this study, do you have a favorite passage or a story in the Bible?

FERRELL: I do but it’s triangulated. I like all the – I actually like all the Psalms even the ones that sound scary and sad but I learned to reread the story of Noah through the eyes of medieval writers who wrote it as a play and they added to it because the story of Noah is not that exciting a dramatic piece unless you have some more human interest. And they added to it by giving Noah’s wife a voice and she became a rather powerful shrewish voice in the Biblical story of Noah as played out on the streets of, you know, Coventry in England in the 15th century. Then I went back to the Noah story and realized that it’s a story about reconciliation and the two-by-two is particularly poignant because it’s about people finding, you know, in some ways finding relationship. I mean, that may sound a bit – that sounds very 21st century to me. So that’s – that’s actually one of my favorites. And I also like – I think there’s a great – I think it’s in the Gospel of John. It’s, perfect love casts out fear. That just seems to me to be something that we can take and carry in our pockets in and out of religious settings.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I have to thank you so much for – There’s just so much fascinating material in this book. Lori Anne Ferrell has been my guest. Thank you so much.

FERRELL: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Her book is “The Bible and the People.” You can go to for more information.

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