The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
The nature and history of the idea of Scripture is, and remains, about as tangled as an idea can get.
Besides disputes over the books to be included in the Bible, many religious traditions have further disputes over two additional matters: recension and hermeneutics. The technical terms may sound intimidating, but what they mean, respectively, is simply the version of a text you are dealing with and what you think it means.
In most faiths, there are some individuals, sects, and communities which believe in esoteric interpretations of that faith’s sacred text. The various contemplative orders of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches apply a technique of fourfold interpretation to Christian Scripture. (Several passages from the letters of St. Paul are claimed as exemplars for this procedure, such as Galatians 4 and I Corinthians 9 and 10, and it is implied in the Gospel of Luke that the method is derived from Christ’s midrash, or method of interpreting and commenting on Scripture.) Many Sufi Muslims take a similar approach to the Quran, and some Jewish commentators on the Tanakh employ a fourfold interpretation of its text which may be an ancestor to the Orthodox and Catholic model. (This is explored more fully in the second installment of our series on signs and symbols.) These devices are widely associated with mysticism, a variety of religious practice and experience that tends to emphasize a personal, immediate connection with the divine and a life characterized by extensive ascetic practices, such as fasting, poverty, celibacy, solitude, and sworn obedience to a superior.
Recension, or the particular version of a text, may sound like a trivial issue to some readers. Particularly for a document like the Bible, which has a more reliable textual tradition than any other ancient document, how much can recension matter? The answer—depending on whom you talk to—can be “quite a lot.” Some traditions consider their own standard recension not only good, but divinely inspired in its own right. Sometimes this is on the grounds that other versions have been corrupted; the Samaritan Pentateuch, for example, instructs the children of Israel to worship upon Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem, and they claim that the Masoretic text (the recension favored by mainstream Judaism and Protestant Christianity) has been altered. In other cases, the partisans of a given recension or translation assert that, like the autographs themselves, their preferred version enjoys divine inspiration. Some groups adhering to the “King James Only-ist” view do so on the grounds that the Textus Receptus,* or the King James translation itself, are inspired; a handful even accept the theory of the late Peter Ruckman, arguing not only that the King James is inspired in its own right but that ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts can be corrected from it!
Having mentioned the Masoretic text, the Textus Receptus, and the theory of divinely inspired translations, it is impossible not to come at last to the Septuagint. This was a translation of the Hebrew Bible and a handful of accompanying books into Greek, and its origin is festooned with legends. The traditional story is that in the early second century BC, Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus assembled a team of Jewish translators to render their holy books into Greek for the purposes of the Library of Alexandria. There were supposedly six from each of the twelve tribes, thus totaling seventy-two, sometimes casually rounded down to seventy; the Latin name Septuaginta means “[the version of] the Seventy,” and the Roman numeral LXX is frequently used as an abbreviation for it. One version of the story has it that each of the translators was shut in a separate room, and each independently produced an identical version of the Greek from start to finish, thus displaying the divine inspiration of the translation. The Greek Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint as its standard version of the Old Testament to this day,** and its general belief is that, in those places where the Greek text differs from the Hebrew, the changes were inspired—the most famous change being the alteration from עַלְמָה (‘almah, “young woman”) to παρθένος (parthenos, “virgin”) in Isaiah 7.14.
It is not always possible to establish the textual history of holy books as clearly as that of the Bible. The history of the Quran, although more recently completed than the Bible—not to mention coming from a single source and in only one language—is in some respects more difficult to trace. It seems to have been authoritatively compiled in writing (it was originally delivered orally) no later than the reign of Uthman, the third of the Rashidun or “rightly-guided caliphs”; this is based both on radiocarbon dating of the parchments containing some of the earliest Quranic texts, and on the fact that Uthman not only codified the contents of the Quran, but ordered that any variant texts be destroyed. (One manuscript, discovered in Sanaa, may be older still, dating to the late sixth or early seventh century; it is even possible it was written while Muhammad was still alive.) The textual history of the Quran is accordingly unusually uniform. One of the few famous controversies about its history is that of the so-called “Satanic verses”: allegedly, Muhammad was at one point deceived by a false revelation, and spoke a pair of verses in praise of three popular goddesses of Mecca; the error was quickly rebuked by the angel Gabriel, and the erring verses duly removed. Modern scholars (both Muslim and non-Muslim) are divided on whether the incident ever actually happened, and those who think it did do not agree on whether it happened altogether as recorded or has been embroidered in later retellings.
Lastly, we may take a brief look at another interpretive controversy that has animated the Great Conversation. Several religions, in addition to possessing a sacred text, believe in a sacred interpreter or “dynasty” of interpreters. In Shia Islam, this is the Imam (a title used far more broadly in other branches of Islam); in Mormonism, it is the head of the “Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” who bears the mellifluous title “President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator”; in the Catholic Church, it is the Bishop of Rome, also called the Pope. But other groups deny that there is any infallible interpreter of their sacred text: the disputes that led to the creation of Protestantism rapidly came to focus on the issue of sola Scriptura, the belief that “Scripture alone” was infallibly authoritative for Christians, no matter how wise and useful other guides might be in understanding Scripture. This issue remains a sticking point between Protestants and Catholics to this day—naturally enough, given that Protestants granting Catholic claims about the authority of the Church would tend to result in ceasing to be Protestants, and vice versa!
*The Textus Receptus (“Received Text”) is the critical edition of the New Testament compiled by the great scholar Erasmus in the early sixteenth century. This was one of the landmark accomplishments of Renaissance learning, and helped bring the critical apparatus into being.
**The Church of the East—a very ancient Christian body centered in northern Iraq, now mainly associated with the Assyrian people, but formerly stretching from Cyprus to northeastern China—also has an authoritative recension, the Peshitta, written in Syriac (a form of Aramaic). The traditional belief of these Christians is that the Peshitta New Testament is not a translation but the original, and that the Greek New Testament was translated from Syriac. This is not generally endorsed by current New Testament scholarship.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore
Published on 23rd February, 2023.