New looks at a very old book
’Tis the season ... for re-examination, apparently. Each year, publishers roll out dozens of new religiously themed books in the months and weeks leading up to Easter. This season, several high-profile releases ― coinciding with the 400-year anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible ― take a critical (and sometimes controversial) look at how the Bible came to be, who wrote it, how and why, and what kind of cultural impact the holy text has had on civilization. Whether you are interested in learning more about the Bible’s origins, dismissing its veracity, or simply considering alternate views on how it can be understood, this season's offerings will not disappoint. Verily, Verily: The KJV ― 400 Years of Influence and Beauty by Jon Sweeney (Zondervan) “I’ve buried quite a few Bibles in the last decade.” So begins Sweeney’s engaging, breezy look at the King James Bible and its enduring influence. Sweeney’s is easily the most accessible (and refreshingly humorous) of the three most recent books taking on biblical authorship and interpretation, based on months Sweeney spent delving into the 1611 English version of the Bible often referred to as, simply, “The Authorized Version.” The result is an astute and deeply personal meditation on the “thee and thou” version of the Bible that he, like some many readers, found impenetrable as youths. So why has Sweeney been burying Bibles? “That’s what you’re supposed to do with no-longer-needed holy books,” he writes. His Vermont church holds an annual book sale and Sweeney is in charge of donations. A dozen or so Bibles invariably turn up ― nearly all of them copies of the KJV. “They always appear well-worn, with tattered edges on the old leather covers,” he writes. “No one wants to buy them. I usually can’t even give them away. ... I carry the leftovers home and get the tall shovel out of the shed ... and make a hole large enough for a dead pet. In they go.” Sweeney provides a rapid, educational and entertaining history of how the KJV Bible came to be, as well as an overview of the KJV’s influence on classics of the English language (Shakespeare, Milton, etc.) and its meaning for historical figures as diverse as Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain. Sweeney’s charming exploration of the KJV, which joins several other recent titles celebrating its 400th birthday, made me want to blow the dust off my copy and have another look. Forged: Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Bart Ehrman (HarperOne) Ehrman has built a reputation as a biblical bomb-thrower at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (he’s the author of the best-selling Misquoting Jesus among other titles) and his latest book is no different. Not one to shy away from provocative or sensational takes on the Bible’s history and veracity, Ehrman argues in Forged that the authors of the Bible are not who they say they are, and that other scholars’ claims that it was widely acceptable in biblical times to write under someone else's name are spurious at best. The “issue of modern hoaxes brings me back to a question I have repeatedly asked in my study of forgeries: `Who would do such a thing?”' Ehrman writes in his latest salvo. “I hope by now you will agree with my earlier answer: ‘Lots of people.’ And for lots of reasons. And not just modern people. “From the first century to the 21st century, people who have called themselves Christian have seen fit to fabricate, falsify, and forge documents, in most instances in order to authorize views they wanted others to accept,” he writes. “Possibly they felt that in their circumstances the Golden Rule did not apply. If so, it would certainly explain why so many of the writings in the New Testament claim to have been written by apostles, when in fact they were not.” Hey, Happy Easter everybody! The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy Beal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) In its starred review of Timothy Beal’s new book, Publisher's Weekly said Beal “presents a convincing case for a radical rereading of the text, an honest appreciation of this sacred text.” Beal, a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University, does not begrudge the Bible’s influence or inspiration (be it divine or human). Instead, he turns to our cultural understanding of the Bible and how it has changed and evolved over time. “The idea of the Bible as a divine manual for finding happiness with God in this world and salvation in the next is so familiar to us today that we might well assume ... it is as old as Christianity itself,” Beal writes. “But it’s not. In fact, its genesis was in 19th-century Protestantism. “Rooted in nostalgia for the mythical, romanticized image of 16th- and 17th-century Puritan piety, this movement believed that the Bible was the solution for all modern social, familial and individual ills.” Thus was born, he says, the image of the Bible as cultural icon.