The scholar James Barr was once asked which of the English translations of the Bible gave the best account of the original text, and replied that he didn’t know. This was not a quibble about the competing meanings of the word “best” when applied in translations theory, or a conscientious doubt about the “original” text since he had never personally seen all the necessary manuscripts, but a genuine admission that he couldn’t really read the Bible in English. Since he knew the Hebrew and Greek text so well, whenever he read through a translation, it simply reminded him of the original words. If I’m understanding the idea rightly, he found he was unable to separate his existing knowledge of the text, and its various implications, from this individual experience of reading a particular translation. He might recognise individual words, and disagree with the way they had been rendered, or approve a neat turn of phrase which rewrote an earlier English version in a way which brought out the shades of meaning more precisely, but he couldn’t say which translation as a whole put the “right” ideas and implications into the mind of a reader.
I was reminded of this story the other day, when a group of students and I were comparing various English translations of the beginning of John’s Gospel. We discussed the different implications which each one chose to focus on, and the impossibility of a “final” translation of the text, and it occurred to me that even those of us who acquire ancient languages will often end up in the opposite situation to James Barr. Spelling out the opening of the Fourth Gospel with a primer in Koine and a dictionary (or even a set of marginal glosses), the text which reassembles itself in front of our eyes is likely to be a version of the English text we already know. Certainly in my own very hesitant stumbling over “archon”, “logos” and “theos” I am not reading these as Greek words, but rather as clues to the familiar cadences of “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.
In my case it even comes with a mental pronunciation, which plays with the stress in the last two clauses, which I’m pretty certain is the result of repeatedly hearing Alan Rickman read that line in his performance as Obadiah Slope. But even without the proto-Snape pronunciation, I’d be hard pressed to believe that I was “reading” the opening of the Gospel. I was recognising the words as markers which led me back to the English texts I knew, rather as Barr was recognising English words as markers which sparked the memory of the Greek and Hebrew which lay behind them.
The same effect is familiar from a text I used to be much more familiar with in the original language: Beowulf. Though I wrote plenty of essays about it as an undergraduate, had translated and annotated chunks of it, read various English versions, and (when I was in better practice) could read it in the original language, I was still only “reading” it in quite a narrow sense. I wasn’t recognising words in Beowulf from my extensive reading of the Old English prose and poetic corpus, or indeed from my everyday use of the language (indeed not), and reinterpreting them in their literary context as I encountered them in this poem. Many of the words in the poem were only familiar to me from this specific appearance, so I was essentially reassembling a modern English text from my various experiences with this work, and a handful of other Anglo-Saxon poems. In the case of the Bible, this effect was magnified significantly, since I did not already have a long familiarity with Beowulf before I encountered it in the original, but I already have an ingrained English version of many Biblical texts.
This seems to matter because I often find the idea of reading the Bible as if for the first time valorised in Christian discussions of Bible reading. It’s easy to understand the logic here: the Bible is such a familiar text to many practising Christians (and others) that it does not always have the same impact each time it is read. Evangelistic groups often talk about trying to get people to put aside their “preconceptions” about the Bible, and consider if “on its merits”. From that grows an assumption that the ideal reading is one which feels like reading for the first time, with the reader paying close attention to everything, and feeling the full emotional and intellectual impact of a new work. In literary terms, I can think of several times I’ve read a new author and been bowled over: Patrick O’Brien, for example, or Ruth Padel. It wasn’t that they were superb writers – though also that – but rather that they did things with their writing which I hadn’t known books could do. They genuinely made me reassess what I thought about reading itself.
Perhaps a closer equivalent to the experience of reading the Bible “as if” for the first time might be the first time I read War Music, Chris Logue’s poems based on the Iliad: I remember a friend and I saying excitedly to each other “this is what it must have been like!” Not this is what it must have been like to be at Troy, but this is what it must have been like to hear Homer’s work if you were an ancient Greek. It was exhilarating to read Logue’s work and feel that its very modernity, its ability to address us in an immediate and powerful way, somehow gave us access to the authentic experience of hearing Homer in the ancient past. The idea of hearing the Bible “as if for the first time”, or believing that this would be the best way to read the Biblical texts, does have a grounding in many people’s reading experience.
From a theological point of view, there is also a logic to this attitude. The New Testament, in particular, lays stress in several places on the value of hearing new ideas, of turning away from repeated and familiar thoughts, and of paying attention to a startling message. The repeated failure of the disciples to understand what Jesus’ sayings mean in the Gospels, or Paul’s insistence on the new saving action God has accomplished in Christ, provide support for the tendency towards valorising experiences of the New Testament which feel “fresh” or “new”. In the Old Testament, the shape of a number of texts contributes to this tendency as well: the tension in the story of Isaac’s near-sacrifice, for example, or the urgency of the prophets calling Israel back to God. They depend in different ways on the reader’s attention to a drama which is developing as the reading takes place, and their effect is heightened by an absorbed and immediate attention.
However, there is also an emphasis on continuity in a great deal of the Biblical texts, from an assurance that the God of all the Scriptures is the same God, to the need for a familiarity with previous religious languages and symbols in order to appreciate the meaning of later passages. The lamb imagery of John’s Gospel and Revelation, for example, which only makes sense in the context of an existing language of sacrifice and innocence (flowing through the story of Isaac I mentioned above, amongst other passages), or Jesus’ comment about the cleanliness of the outside and the inside, which is a striking reinterpretation of an earlier ruling on vessels and their cleanliness.
Re-reading seems to be as important as hearing for the first time in the Bible and in broader Christian tradition: it appears to be part of the literary and theological logic of the texts. It’s perhaps too obvious a point to notice, but the Gospels don’t really make sense if you read them for the first time with no knowledge of either the Old Testament nor the religious system they form part of. Edward Eve’s new book on the writing of the Gospels highlights this on a literary level (if the Gospels are literally unlike any other kind of narrative form, it is difficult to know how they could have been read or interpreted in the early Church), but it is also true on a more general level. The Gospels are highly symbolic texts, which make explicit and implicit references to earlier religious writings, and express their meanings in obscure and narratively difficult ways.
They are clearly not intended for people who have never heard of Christianity or Jesus before, as can be seen by a brief comparison with slightly later Christian texts such as the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The Gospels begin variously like this:
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram…
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth…
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…
They’re all striking and dramatic beginnings, but they assume that the reader can locate the text in a particular set of contexts. Any modern reader coming to this for the first time might be intrigued, but they would have almost no idea what it meant. It would certainly not provide a clear and simple message. In contrast, the second-century Letter to Diognetus starts thus:
I have noticed, my lord Diogentus, the deep interest you have been showing in Christianity, and the close and careful inquiries you have been making about it. You would like to know what sort of God Christians believe in, and what sort of cult they practise, which enables them to set so little store by this world, and even to make light of death itself – since they reject the deities revered by the Greeks no less than they disclaim the superstitions professed by the Jews. You are curious, too, about the warm fraternal affection they all feel for each other. Also, you are puzzled as to why this new breed of men, or rather this novel manner of life, has only come into our lives recently, instead of much earlier…
The letter certainly speaks from a particular time and place, and hastily adds in context as it goes (there’s more than a touch of “As you know, Bob, this new religious group is characterized by…”), but it is a much more comprehensible text for anyone genuinely coming to the subject for the first time. Even then, it assumes the reader has some understanding of who “the Greeks” and “the Jews” are, and how their religious lives are generally understood and contrasted.
So I wonder whether we are making a mistake when we valorise reading the Bible “as if for the first time”, and thinking of the most authentic experience of the Scriptures as the very first hearing. There are some kinds of meaning which are more likely to emerge powerfully at the first reading, and others which reveal themselves with closer attention and a more complex appreciation of the texts. The most sonorous phrases and highest contrasts probably have the best chance in this situation, whilst the nuances are likely to be brushed over. Judging all readings by whether they feel like the first experience of the Bible places the various kinds of meaning in a hierarchy, being evaluated by a criterion which just doesn’t fit them.
I also think we’re setting up a lot of people to fail if we set the standard of Bible reading at “feeling as if this is the first hearing”. That strikes me as a very particular kind of experience, and one which is genuinely more prevalent in certain personality types. A clear, energetic, uncomplicated reading of the Bible – a reading that feels “fresh” or “new” – is characteristic of many people’s faith and religious life, but I do suspect it has a lot to do with temperament and theological tendency.
Many people can be sustained for years, even decades, in a feeling that the Bible is speaking newly and clearly to them every single morning. They can often be very effective and charismatic people, who do enormous good in the Church, from the conviction that everyone should have the chance to experience what they do when they read the Bible. Their enthusiasm and evident joy in the Scriptures can attract attention from people who perhaps haven’t given the book much consideration before. But I suspect there are a lot of people attracted by their enthusiasm who will never have quite the same experience in their own reading.
The strong implication that all that is needed to read the Bible “as if for the first time”, without “preconceptions” or “prejudice” might be rather dispiriting to the large numbers of people who don’t share that temperament nor that approach to the Bible. It would be equally depressing to be told by an aged and erudite scholar that the only way to understand the Bible is to spend decades studying ancient languages, but at least the disappointed believer would know there was something they were missing. Insisting on reading the Bible as if it had never been read before strikes me as denying that there is anything the listener could do to understand better (except be more hermeneutically “innocent”), and might be quite baffling and frustrating. At least the ancient and crusty scholar is pointing to how the trick is done, and admitting the difficulty of it, where the energetic and upbeat preacher insists that there’s nothing to it and doesn’t see the problem.
I even doubt whether the “this feels as if this is the first time I’ve heard this” reading actually matches up with the first experience of the text. As I mentioned above, the New Testament is a complex, symbolic and diverse set of texts. First readings are inevitably partial, patchy and possibly aware of that fact. I’d like to suggest that part of the exhilaration of the “first reading” feeling when I encountered it in Chris Logue or Dorothy L. Sayers was a dialectical experience, as a staggering new meaning appeared from a familiar text or genre. (I “knew” what Homer sounded like, I “knew” what novels could do to me, or thought I did.) Literary critics (and other compulsive readers) will be familiar with the excitement of reading a long-known book “as if for the first time”, as entirely new shapes and patterns form themselves in front of the reader’s astonished eyes.
Part of the wonder and joy is the impossibility of this being literally “new”. After all, the text is familiar and well-worn, it cannot have anything so shining and unsuspected hidden within it. Any unknown text can have simple novelty, since you don’t know what’s in it. But only a deeply-known and long-read book can produce that kind of delighted astonishment. I wonder how much we mistake this kind of joyful and startled discovery for the actual experience of hearing something for the first time, when in fact it is far deeper and more radical. This feeling may be persuading us that we actually feel the same way as when we first read a text, and thus to talk in terms which confuse and obstruct others who are genuinely not that familiar with the Bible.
Having started with the question “can we read the Bible?”, I’ve come round to the idea that we probably can’t. Not if we imagine “reading” to be a straightforward process of letting our eyes move along a page, converting the collections of symbols into discrete ideas which are relatively new to us, and arranging them into narratives and arguments with which we weren’t familiar before. There are particular difficulties and complexities involved in reading the Bible, which we have to face if we’re going to make sense of it, and if we’re going to make sense to each other when we talk about the Bible. This isn’t a new problem: the history of Christianity is crammed with ingenious, dramatic and impassioned ways of reading the Bible. But I think most of them were ways of “re-reading” it, rather than the straightforward process we imagine when we use the phrase “read the Bible”. If I’m sceptical about the possibility of reading the Bible, I’m hopeful about the possibilities opened up by re-reading it. “Re-reading” sounds a little dry and obscure, perhaps. But it can do astonishing things.