During the Revolutionary War it was difficult for people to import Bibles to these shores due to embargoes and blockades. So an enterprising printer from Philadelphia began to print a small King James version Bible at his own expense. This edition was small enough to fit in a coat pocket. The printer was Robert Aitken. Aitken petitioned the Continental Congress, for whom he had done other print jobs, to approve his Bible and later to provide support for it. Congress did give modest recognition to his project, but never gave any monetary support. In the end Mr. Aitken lost a significant sum on this project, but today you can find at least one internet source selling individual pages from that Bible at exorbitant prices. Today Bible printing has become big business, and there are more versions and editions than any one person would ever want. But it is well to remind ourselves that these riches were not always the case in America. Furthermore, Robert Aitken stands as one more example of the type of American entrepreneur that has contributed to the greatness of this country. He saw something that needed doing, and set out at personal expense to get it done.
In an earlier post I explained that the Bible of the Puritans was the Geneva Bible, and that it had extensive marginal notes. Today Bibles with study notes are ubiquitous. Three stand out to this writer. One is the NET Bible. It has over 60,000 translators’ notes. These are non-sectarian and very useful for the person who has at least a basic knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. For the general reader there are two that I would recommend. One is The Archaeological Study Bible in the New International Version. The notes are interesting if you are interested in archaeological research as it pertains to the Bible, especially the Old Testament. There are also footnotes of a general sort, and introductions to the individual books. Perhaps the most thorough conservative study Bible I have encountered is the Holman Christian Standard Bible in the study Bible version. It is a virtual library in one volume with extensive notes, introductions, sidebar articles, timelines and useful indexes. It tries to translate in a completely up-to-date manner with an effort to balance meaning with exactness. There are many more study Bibles in this age of biblical study riches, at least in the English speaking world.
Thomas Jefferson was a scholar as well as a founding father of this country. While he never identified himself as a Evangelical Christian he did consider himself a follower of the one whom he said the world continues to crucify. Details about his own cut and paste Bible are difficult to come by. Chapter six of The Bible and Bibles in America gives about as good a summary as can be found of Jefferson’s book, which was titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It was never published in his own lifetime. It was not until Congress published it in 1904 that it became generally available. Though Jefferson is often labelled a Deist, he called himself a Christian saying in a letter to Benjamin Rush, “I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.” In saying this he affirmed Jesus’ manhood, but of course denied his deity. He was most certainly Unitarian rather than Trinitarian. His version of the Gospels includes all that he thought was the best in Jesus’ moral teachings, but the miracles and anything that seemed to imply his deity are missing.
The Bible is both a cause and a support of American freedoms. It is no accident that totalitarian regimes the world over have made efforts to suppress free access to the Bible. Despite differences of interpretation, and conflicts over its applications to politically charged issues, the Bible continues to undergird American freedoms. To the extent that the people look to the Bible as a source of higher principles, transcendent ideas, and moral guidance; to that extent they will not tolerate political agendas that threaten these beliefs. The Bible has led Americans to insist that human government is not God, and that the Living God of Holy Scriptures will bring all into judgment. Thus the individual conscience before God has been one of the constant refrains of biblical faith, and a major guardian of American principles of freedom. It is an interesting irony that the very conflicts which have historically marked American uses of the Bible, are also the marks of the freedoms derived from it.
Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) had been an Augustinian monk. But in 1528 he became a Lutheran Pastor. He wanted to see the Bible, the complete Bible, in English and began translating in 1534. He relied on the works of earlier translators like Tyndale. One of the more interesting aspects of his efforts to get the Bible printed was his political sense. He won favor with influential men like Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, and wrote an elaborate dedication to King Henry VIII. He also had the support of Henry’s wife, the evangelically minded Anne Boleyn, and mentioned her in his dedication. Coverdale set a standard for all future Protestant English Bibles by relegating the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament to the end, with a note that these did not have the authority of the canonical books. In the end Coverdale’s Bible met a sad political fate. When King Henry divorced Anne, it became apparent than He would never authorize Coverdale’s Bible. Thus it would never achieve the widespread use that later translations would gain. Want to know more about the history of the English Bible? I recommend A Visual History of the English Bible by Donald Brake.
The decades leading up to 1861 included extensive and ever more heated debates about the meaning of the Bible with respect to slavery. Public debates were held, articles were written in periodicals, tracts were distributed, all to shape public opinion for or against slavery. Even secular writers were inclined to support their arguments by referring to the Bible. Mark Noll summarized the issues in his book, America’s God, “Despite the protests of many at the time, the question was never just the nature of the Bible as such but always and everywhere the nature of the Bible-as-read in the history of a Protestant (and white) America, where during the previous century a massively democratized effort had been carried out to convert the new nation for Christ.” (395) Though the issues have changed this continues to be the nature of America. We are a religious nation that wants to justify our social and political positions with sanctions from the Bible. The current culture wars over abortion and homosexual marriage, for example, are heavily involved with the “Bible-as-read” by people deeply concerned about these and like issues.
A friend who read the previous post called my attention to a NY Times article from Dec. 22, 2011. It is called “The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible.” It is a thoughtful piece worth a look. From Dostoyevsky to Faulkner, Dante to Melville, their insights are biblically connected. It is possible to say that their literature could not have been written, at least not as it was, without the Bible. Yet, our current educational system neglects the book of books. How sad. Perhaps there is afoot in the land a new appreciation for the Bible as/and literature. Regardless of one’s personal convictions, this would be a good thing.
Some years ago when I was enrolled in a graduate English course on the writings of Hawthorne and Melville, I was shocked by how little my fellow graduate students knew about the content of the Bible. These were English majors, a discipline that should know how pervasive the Bible is in the vast literature written in English. When we came to the famous opening sentence of Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) the class did not recognize the biblical allusion, nor did they see how pervasive biblical references are throughout that book. To see this vividly just find a copy of A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, by David Lyle Jeffrey, General Editor. Open it to any of its over 900 pages, and you will be greeted by the rich influences of the Bible on literature written in English. Not only will you learn about English literature, but also about the Bible.
Preceding the King James Bible by 51 years, the Geneva Bible was the book brought to America by early settlers, especially the tens of thousands of Puritans that landed on these shores in the 17th century. The fact that King James sponsored the Authorized Version was enough in itself to keep Puritans away from that translation. King James was a mortal enemy to those who were discontent with the English church, and sought to purify it. The Geneva Bible (1560) was what today we would call a study Bible. It was packed with marginal notes reflecting the beliefs of the Protestant Reformation, especially as articulated by those Christians called Reformed. The King James version would eventually surpass the Geneva Bible in popularity, but that would come later. No translation from the Hebrew Old Testament, or the Greek New Testament is perfect. Translation is not an exact science. People today who think the King James Version is the only worthy translation need to look again at history.
The Bible has shaped American history and experience more than any other book. It is virtually omnipresent in either the foreground or background of American life. It is the most studied book in America, and there can be no adequate account of our national life that ignores its influence. But this influence varies in degree and type because the book must be, and always is, interpreted. Everyone’s impression of the Bible’s content is through the filter of the Bible-as-interpreted. In this blog I will explore the Bible’s influence from Puritanism to Post-modernism. Since I am beginning this in an election year, I will be watching for, and commenting on, the Bible in contemporary politics. Come back often, and join the conversation.