I have in my inbox an e-mail sent on behalf of the American Bible Society. The subject line reads: “Create your own Custom Bible from American Bible Society.”
I suspect some folks are thinking I’m going to draw the obvious lesson that we shouldn’t have our own custom Bible. After all, the correct Sunday School answer, whenever it’s not Jesus, is “everything it says in the Bible.” Others are probably thinking that if I do so I’ll be horribly unfair, as indeed I would. What the American Bible Society (an organization I strongly support) is doing is offering the option for organizations to get Bible bindings for particular situations. This is simply an application of modern printing technology. In many churches you’ll find Bibles with dedication labels. Some evangelism efforts have Bibles with contact information added. Modern technology lets you build all of that into the printing. I don’t have a problem with such editions.
But the line still intrigued me, not because I think it’s so wrong, but because I think that taken out of context, it describes what pretty much all of us do with the Bible. We have our own custom Bible. Not only am I not writing to criticize us for that; I’m actually going to suggest it’s impossible for us not to have our own custom Bible. Why? Because we are such very custom individuals. Often we don’t even realize what we are bring into the text.
I remember once discussing the issue of oaths with a someone who believed that Matthew 5:33-37 meant that one could not swear to tell the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in court, whether or not one added “so help me God.” Now my issue is not with his view of that text. He could be right. Rather, the issue is with the basis of that interpretation. He stated to me that his view was that we should take a scripture passage to mean what an average American high school graduate would understand from it. Thus, “don’t swear” would, he told me, mean “don’t swear” to this average American high school graduate. I then pointed to Matthew 5:29-30, which says we should pluck out our eye or cut of our hand if it offends. He immediately told me that this meant that one should be prepared to give up everything, even our lives, through martyrdom. I, being the mean, obtuse, and twisted person I am, asked him immediately if that was how the average American high school graduate would read it.
He had a tradition that suggested how he should read these various texts. His tradition customized his Bible. In fact, tradition commonly customizes our reading of the Bible, and we rarely can escape that completely. We can be so certain that a text means a certain thing, that we don’t even consider alternative readings. I’m often annoyed by the extent to which modern commentaries cite every which possible reading and understanding of a passage before coming to any conclusion. It results in commentaries of 500+ pages on five page books. But there’s a good reason why scholars are taught to look at other commentaries: It forces them to think about approaches to the text that are different from their own.
Tradition isn’t the only way we filter the text. When I first saw the e-mail subject line I though immediately of our favorite verse, chapter, book, and so forth. I remember one class I was teaching. After a couple of weeks they would laugh whenever I used the words “one of my favorite,” simply because I had designated so many passages as “favorite.” But that doesn’t exempt me from having a custom Bible. I still have passages I read more than others. I tend to avoid some of the favorites. I know more about Hebrews than Galatians or Romans, for example. I know more about Leviticus than Isaiah or Jeremiah. This is because of my personality, which tends to avoid well-trodden paths.
Should we try to make our Bibles less custom? I think it’s a good idea to do so, but only so long as we remember that we won’t get there completely. When we forget the things that influence our own interpretation we tend to get arrogant.
My company, Energion Publications, will be releasing a book early next year. I’ve already had a chance to read the manuscript, and will be announcing it as forthcoming within the next couple of days. In the meantime, look at this cover and especially the subtitle: