1,000 Years of Biblical Literature

Hello again! I am hoping to resume posting more regularly.

In an earlier post, I discussed at length the fact that, though “the Bible” is a book, it is not one book, but three: a Jewish Bible, a Catholic Bible, or a Protestant Bible. I also pointed out that omitting the Apocrypha from the Protestant Bible leaves a gap of two centuries between the (originally) Hebrew books of the Old Testament and the (originally) Greek books of the New Testament.

That last comment is based on an assumption that was obvious to me but may not have been so to all of my readers—the Bible is an anthology. To speak only of “my” Bible, the Jewish one, it’s an anthology of literature created over a period of 1,000 years.

One reason it’s easy to forget this is because most of us read the Bible in English translation, and each translation is made in the space of a relatively few years, in more or less the same English “voice.” The various books may be translated by different individuals, but there is generally someone (or more usually, I believe, a committee) responsible for smoothing out inadvertent differences in the language of the various books.

They are not always completely successful—more on this, perhaps, in a future post—but in general our translated Bibles all sound as if they were written at more or less the same time (which indeed they were).

The real Bible, though, doesn’t sound like this. Take a moment to remember what 1,000 years of literature looks like. Subtract 1,000 years from 2010 and you get the year 1010—well before The Canterbury Tales (1390s?) and most of the way back to Beowulf (sometime before 1000). The Middle English of Chaucer is quite a struggle for most of us, and the Old English of Beowulf is simply impossible. We can’t read these great works of English literature until they are translated into English for us.

The situation is a little more complicated once we get to Shakespeare. Though some of us first learned these stories from the later, prose versions in Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, the plays themselves are still widely available and regularly performed in their original wording. Shakespeare’s English is close enough to our language that we understand it quite well (or think we do). We no longer say “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind”—we say “whether it’s nobler” or “whether it is nobler” or “whether it would be nobler”—but we adjust our ears to the slight difference. We all understand what it means to be “hoist by your own petard,” even though most people don’t know what a petard is. (The phrase literally means “blown up by your own bomb.”) But how many of us can hear the phrase “caviar to the general” without thinking—mistakenly—of someone in a military uniform? And only specialists (and Jacques Barzun, specialist in everything) know that Hamlet’s “buzz, buzz” means “You’re telling me stale news.”

We would expect the 1,000 years separating the earliest and latest biblical texts to exhibit a similar range—from the most recent and (relatively) easiest to understand back 1,000 years to a text that is more or less incomprehensible. But this expectation is wrong in two ways: (1) The oldest and newest texts are linguistically much closer to each other than Beowulf is to us; and (2) the biblical texts that are easiest to read fall in the middle of the time range, not at its end.

We’ll eventually get to a discussion of the history of Biblical Hebrew, a fascinating and contentious topic. But first—next time—let’s take a look at the oldest extended text in the Bible, the Song of Deborah.

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