A Bible reading plan without chapters and verses

Q. I would like to read through the Bible systematically over some period of time, free from chapter and verse interruptions but with approximately similarly sized sections each day, breaking at points that make some sense in context of the text. Are there word counts available for the various sections of Scripture, in order to draw up a reading plan?

Just the kind of reading plan you’re asking about has already been created. As I explain on the “About” page for this blog, I was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. My work with Biblica also included helping them develop a program of Community Bible Experiences (CBEs), in which groups read through the Bible following a reading plan precisely like the one you’re envisioning.

The CBE resources are now available through Zondervan, the commercial publisher of the NIV. On this site you can get a free digital sample kit that includes reading plans. All you would need to do is buy individual copies of the four volumes in which The Books of the Bible is now being published. But you can order copies through that same site.

I’d encourage you to start with one of the volumes—perhaps the “Covenant History,” Genesis through Kings—and see how it goes. I imagine that you’ll ultimately want to get all four volumes and read through the whole Bible following the natural literary forms of the books rather than the later artificial chapter and verse divisions. Happy reading!

Why is Daniel not among the Prophets in The Books of the Bible?

Q. I have two questions. Our group has read all The Books of the Bible series that are available to date and we are just finishing The Prophets. Why is Daniel not in the Prophets book and instead is slated for the Writings?

Second, Ezekiel is constantly referred to as “Son of Man.” Since this is a reference often used for Jesus, why is it that Ezekiel seems to singled out for same designation?

We have found The Books of the Bible to be an incredible read and one that I feel everyone should experience. Your blog is also a great source for thoughtful answers.

I’ll get to your questions in just a moment.  But first, let me thank you very much for your appreciative words! I’m glad your group is having such a great experience engaging the Scriptures in The Books of the Bible format. We’ve heard the same thing from countless others–when the Bible is presented in a way that allows readers to recognize and engage its fascinating variety of literary forms, it indeed becomes “an incredible read.”

You’ve probably noticed that in my posts I often refer to the Understanding the Books of the Bible study guides.  These were actually designed to accompany the new format and provide a “next step” for people who “read big” through large portions of Scripture using The Books of the Bible.  After you “read big,” the next thing is to “go deep” by returning to one or more of the books in that part of the Bible to study in more detail.

For example, after you’ve “read big” through The Books of the Bible New Testament, you can “go deep” by using the study guides to John or to Paul’s Journey Letters.  After reading through the Covenant History (Genesis-Kings), you can look at some of its material in more detail with the help of the Genesis or Joshua-Judges-Ruth study guides. Once you’ve read The Prophets, you can study Isaiah or the Minor Prophets Before the Exile.  Ideally a rhythm of reading and studying, of “reading big” and “going deep,” will help a group become deeply steeped in the Scriptures over the years and steadily transformed by the power of God’s word.  So if you’re enjoying the discussions here on this blog, I hope you might find the study guides just as helpful in understanding the Bible, but in an even more systematic way, and using the new edition you’re enjoying so much.

But now let me get to your questions.  I’ll answer the one about Daniel and The Prophets in this post, and the one about Ezekiel in my next post.

As I describe here, I was a member of the team that created The Books of the Bible. We put the biblical books in a non-traditional order because we realized that the customary order can actually hinder readers’ understanding in many cases.  As we explain in the Preface to The Books of the Bible (found in Biblica editions but unfortunately not in Zondervan ones), Paul’s letters “are badly out of historical order, and this makes it difficult to read them with an appreciation for where they fit in the span of his life or for how they express the development of his thought. . . . James has strong affinities with other biblical books in the wisdom tradition. But it has been placed within a group of letters, suggesting that it too should be read as a letter.”

Placing Daniel among the prophets is another way in which the traditional order leads us to have the wrong expectations about a book.  Daniel is actually unlike the prophetic books, which consist largely of poetic oracles.  Instead it’s made up of six stories of Judeans in exile, similar to the book of Esther, followed by a series of visions that have many characteristics of apocalyptic literature, like the book of Revelation.

In the Hebrew Bible, Daniel is not placed among the Prophets, but among the Writings.  It was moved to the prophets in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), whose book order our English Bibles largely follow.  We felt that the the distinctive kind of literature represented in the book of Daniel could be best recognized if that book were once again placed among the Writings, which we grouped according to literary type in The Books of the Bible.  (For a broader discussion of the distorting effects of the traditional book order in the Bible, see pp. 67-75 in my book After Chapters and Verses.)

I hope this explanation is helpful, and thanks again for your encouragement!

The Books of the Bible: The Prophets from Zondervan

What order would you put the books of the Bible in?

You walk in to your adult group at church and the leader gives you a collection of paper strips with the names of the books of the Bible written on them.  “What order would you put these in?” the leader asks.

A friend of mine actually did this in the group he leads, and he got some interesting responses.

One person said immediately, “Well, THE order, of course!”  For that person, custom and use had already fixed the books of the Bible in THE order, and there could be no deviation.

But others felt freed by the exercise to think about some possible alternatives.  One person put books like John and James first and the “hard stuff” last.  Why?  They said they were thinking about people who were new to the Bible; they wanted to make it more accessible to them.  Another person put the books in chronological order so a reader would progress sequentially through time when going through the Bible.  And someone else tried to put books together that spoke to the same audience, so readers could see how they addressed similar situations and concerns.

There’s nothing improper about doing an exercise like this.  Book order was actually quite fluid for the first three quarters of the Bible’s history.  “THE order” that we know today only appeared around 1500 with the advent of printing.  Before that, a variety of orders were used, in pursuit of different literary, historical and liturgical goals.  So there’s nothing that says various orders can’t still be used today.

The non-traditional order of the biblical books in The Books of the Bible, it should be specified, is not intended to create a new fixed order, another version of “THE order” to replace the conventional one.  Rather, that order was chosen because it served the goals of the edition, which were to encourage the reading of whole books with an appreciation for their historical and literary contexts.  But other orders could legitimately serve other goals, such as the ones just described.

How about you?  What order would you put the books of the Bible in?

A “periodic table” of the books of the Bible created by Tim Challies. Note that if you go from top to bottom and read straight across from left to right, rather than reading down the left column and then down the right column, you get a non-traditional order that helps you appreciate books of similar literary genres in both testaments.

Are Jeremiah’s oracles rearranged in The Books of the Bible?

Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel portrait of Jeremiah

Q. For The Books of the Bible, did you just reorder the biblical books? You didn’t, say, put the oracles within Jeremiah in chronological order? I was just reading Jeremiah in my other Bible and it’s so dang confusing going back and forth between kings and what not. I was wishing the oracles were more orderly.

The creation of The Books of the Bible did not involve any internal rearrangement of biblical books.  That was something that our project team agreed early on with the NIV translation committee to leave off the table.

However, the question of internal order within Jeremiah specifically has come up on several occasions over the course of our work.  This is because, as the “Invitation to Jeremiah” in The Books of the Bible explains, it appears that a large section of that book has been dislocated.

Jeremiah has four major parts:
1. Mostly poetic oracles, undated, likely not in chronological order.
2. Mostly narratives, dated, but not in chronological order.
3. Mostly narratives, dated, in chronological order.
4. Poetic oracles against the surrounding nations.

The introduction to Part 4, however, is found right after Part 1, suggesting that the oracles against the nations were originally placed before Part 2.  This is where they are found in the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the First Testament.

It would certainly make sense to put these oracles against the nations back in their original location, right after the introduction to them, or at least to read them after that introduction.  Accordingly, in the reading plan for the Prophets module of the Community Bible Experiences, Biblica explains how Part 4 of Jeremiah appears to be out of order, so that people can choose to read it after Part 1 if they wish.

As for the lack of chronological order within Parts 1 and 2 themselves, this is due to Hebrew scribes’ preference for “chiasms,” intricate arrangements in which passages that feature certain themes or key words are paired opposite one another.

For example, as the “Invitation to Jeremiah” also explains, at one point in the book a prayer of Jeremiah’s is surrounded by two episodes that feature potters.  The very next prayer is surrounded by episodes that feature two  men named Pashhur.  And these two clusters of episodes are then surrounded by matching episodes relating to the city gates.

Similar chiastic arrangements are found in other prophetic books.  As I explain in my Isaiah study guide, for example, many of the arrangements there are “a bit like the kind of trophy case you’d find in the front hallway of a school. The trophies, awards, and plaques in such cases usually aren’t arranged in historical order, from left to right. Instead, the tallest trophy will likely be in the middle, with shorter trophies on each side, and even shorter ones towards the edges of the case—regardless of when they were won. Photos and plaques will be hung on the back wall where there is space and visibility, but not necessarily right behind trophies from the same era. The overall goal is to create a pleasing and appealing visual arrangement. In the same way, the poems, stories, and songs in the book of Isaiah are arranged not historically but artistically, to blend together into an overall message prophetic responses to significant challenges that the people of God faced at different times.”

The same can be said about the arrangements in the non-chronological portions of Jeremiah.

I hope this helps you navigate through that book a bit more easily!

If everyone in a Community Bible Experience is using the NIV, how can they become aware of valid alternatives for translating specific passages?

Q. The Books of the Bible uses the text of the NIV translation. I agree that the NIV is one of the best overall translations. 

But as some of the conclusions of my studies, I think there are some places where I think they translate the text in a poor way. I accept that translation will always involve interpretation, but I think that in some cases, the translators have misunderstood what the text meant and in some cases it is simply unclear what the authors meant, but the translators made their best guess among a range of possibilities. 

What do you do when you run into these situations when discussing such texts when reading big chunks in community?

Participants in a Community Bible Experience in western Ireland. Photo courtesy CBE Facebook page.

I personally consider the NIV to be the most accurate and readable translation available in English today.  But I acknowledge that no translation of the Bible can convey every possibility of meaning that’s present in the original languages.

As you say, sometimes a range of possibilities is present in what an author says, and translators must make a choice among these possibilities.  When they do, English readers miss out on the others.  Beyond this, translation necessarily requires a tradeoff between wording and syntax in Greek and Hebrew and meaning in English.  Different translations will favor one or the other in any given case, with different results conveyed to readers.

Ordinarily, one of the best ways to overcome this difficulty is to make sure that a group of people who are reading and studying the Bible together are using a number of different translations.  People will typically speak up when their Bible says something different from someone else’s, and this helps the group appreciate the various ways that words or phrases could legitimately be translated.

But there’s also great value, in an activity like a Community Bible Experience, in having everyone use the same translation.  As they each “read big” using The Books of the Bible and then come together to share their observations and reflections, they’ll be drawing on a shared experience of the Scriptures that will allow them to connect with one another quickly and deeply.

So how can the liabilities of a single translation be overcome in a situation like this?

For one thing, typically a whole church will do a Community Bible Experience together, and when they do, the messages in worship will be coordinated with the readings.  This provides an ideal opportunity for the preacher to point out and explain any places in that week’s readings that have a range of meanings that one translation alone can’t bring out.  (This presumes that preachers will prepare well and study the Scriptures in the original languages, or at least use resources that help disclose their meaning!)

Beyond this, it’s ideal to alternate “read big” experiences of the Bible with “go deep” experiences.  After spending several weeks reading through a big chunk of the Scriptures, it’s good for a church or similar group to go back and study one or more biblical books within that chunk for an extended period of time, before reading through another big chunk together.  And in that time of more detailed study, it’s natural for people to explore other ways that biblical words and phrases can be understood.

In fact, one of the original ideas behind the Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series was that they would make a great “next step” for groups that did Community Bible Experiences.  The guides are based on the NIV (it’s a privilege to be able to use such a great translation), but in many places they explain the range of meanings implicit in a biblical word or phrase and suggest alternative ways of translating it.

So the “go deep” season of study that ideally follows a “read big” season can, like preaching during a Community Bible Experience itself, provide an opportunity for people to move beyond the necessary limitations of a single translation, without losing the advantages of using that translation for their readings together.

Studying the Bible without chapters and verses

A commenter on this post wrote that The Books of the Bible was “great for just reading,” but that a “regular Bible” was “almost necessary to study.”

In response, I insisted that The Books of the Bible, which takes out the chapter and verse numbers and presents the biblical books in their natural literary forms, actually makes a great “study Bible” as well.  That’s how this series of study guides could be created to be used with it (although the guides can be used with any version of the Bible, as this post explains.)

I also promised to share a real-life experience that illustrated what “studying the Bible without chapters and verses” looks like, as related in my book After Chapters and Verses.  Here’s the story.

I was recently part of a Bible study group that was going through the book of Daniel.  When we took up the third episode in the book, the participants were fascinated to hear how Nebuchadnezzar had made a statue ninety feet high out of gold.  Some of them glanced down at the notes in their Bibles and read them out loud to try to help the group understand why he’d done this.

One note suggested that using gold for a huge statue was an ostentatious display of the wealth, power and prosperity of the empire.  A note in another Bible observed that a huge gold statue would have been overwhelmingly bright and dazzling.  But I asked the members of the study to consider whether anything we’d encountered earlier in the book of Daniel would explain why Nebuchadnezzar had made this statue out of gold.

They thought back to the previous episode, which we’d discussed the previous week.  They remembered that the king had had a dream about a statue.  Its head was made of gold, but its chest and arms were silver, its torso and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were made of iron and clay.  Daniel’s interpretation of the dream was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, symbolized by the gold head, would be displaced by an inferior empire, which would then be replaced by another, and then another, in the years to come.

In light of this dream and its interpretation, our group recognized that Nebuchadnezzar had created a statue entirely out of gold to offer a direct and very public rejection of the message he’d received from God.  He was saying, using the very symbolism of the dream God had sent him, that his own empire would actually last forever and never be displaced.  And by insisting that all the officials in his kingdom bow down to this statue, he was requiring them to join him in contradicting God’s revealed vision of the future, and to give their allegiance to him and his empire instead.  No wonder Daniel’s friends felt they had to disobey!

Our group wouldn’t have found such satisfying answers to its questions, and we’d have missed an essential dynamic within the book, if we’d simply “read the study notes” and moved on.  We got a much greater insight into the passage when we understood how it functioned within the book of Daniel.

But we haven’t been trained to study the Bible this way.  We haven’t been taught that we need to read first in order to be able to study afterwards.  In fact, we haven’t been encouraged to “read” at all, not in a continuous way.  We’ve more often been  asked to consider isolated parts of larger works (“chapters” or “verses”) without being shown how they fit within a whole book and how we can appreciate the meaning they have there.  We’ve been encouraged to try to understand them instead by looking at other isolated biblical passages in series of cross-references, or by consulting the notes in our Bibles, study guides and commentaries, or asking our pastors, teachers and group leaders.

In other words, our definition of “studying the Bible” has been moving back and forth between the text and explanatory resources.  This approach to Bible “study” isn’t effective.  The units it engages typically aren’t the structurally and thematically meaningful ones within a book.  Even when they are, we don’t appreciate the meaning they receive from their place within the book as a whole.  This kind of studying can easily devolve into a running commentary on interesting or puzzling features of an ill-defined stretch of text.  It depends on people having an implicit trust in the knowledge and trustworthiness of group leaders and the authors of notes and guides.

We really need to adopt a new definition of what it means to “study the Bible”:  considering the natural parts of a biblical book to recognize how they work within the book as a whole.  This means that studying has to be the second step in a process whose first step is reading.

It also means that the best “study Bible” is one like The Books of the Bible that first makes a great “reading Bible.”

Is the Bible what it has become?

In this series I’ve used the following examples to explore generally whether the accumulated marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact become part of its essential substance and meaning.  I’ve done this as a means of asking specifically whether chapters and verses and other historical accretions should now be considered an integral part of the Bible:
– The cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling;
– The famous crack in the Liberty Bell; and
– The isolation of the figure from Whistler’s painting Arrangement in Grey and Black as “Whistler’s Mother.”

What can each of these examples help us understand about the Bible?

To take them in reverse order, the detail from Whistler’s painting provides a great example of how “snippets” from an artistic creation can be isolated and given a meaning contrary to the one the artist intended.  This effect is particularly pronounced when they’re also given a different name and when other material is added that reinforces the contrary meaning, like the potted flowers in the “Mothers of America” stamp.

This happens all the time with the Bible.  Episodes or even sentences are snipped out, isolated, and supplemented, and as a result, even if they still say something edifying, we miss what they really meant in their original context.  The “parable of the prodigal son,” for example, is a wonderful story of repentance and reconciliation, but if we don’t see it as only one part of the “parable of the unforgiving older brother,” we miss the overall point that Jesus wanted to make.  So there’s a strong case for the approach taken in The Books of the Bible:  removing chapters and verses and headings and presenting the books of the Bible as whole literary compositions.

However, the example of the Liberty Bell shows us that sometimes the settings and adaptations introduced by later users can enhance rather than obscure the original creative intentions behind what has become a cultural artifact.  This is true of the Bible in the sense that all of its individual works take on a deeper significance (but one that is still consistent with their original meaning) when they are gathered into a collection where they can be read in light of one another and in light of the grand story they all tell together.  The Books of the Bible is designed to encourage such a reading by grouping those books that can be read most meaningfully together and by situating each book within the grand story of Scripture.

Finally, the example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling shows that we do become accustomed to engaging artistic creations as they have become known, and that it can be a pleasant surprise (or even an unpleasant shock) to encounter them in something much closer to their original form.

Some people may always prefer what the Bible has become, and see it as a book inherently divided into chapters and verses.  But our hope is that through The Books of the Bible, many will be able to encounter the artistic creations (literary compositions) it contains in a form much closer to their original one, and so have a more enjoyable and meaningful encounter with God’s word than they otherwise would have had.

Interior page from The Books of the Bible

“Whistler’s Mother” or “Arrangement in Grey and Black”?

In this series of posts, to consider whether chapters and verses specifically should be accepted as an inherent part of the Bible, I’ve been exploring more generally whether the accumulated marks of any artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact become part of its essential substance and meaning.  We saw last time, in the case of the Liberty Bell, that the cultural artifact with its distinctive marks of wear—specifically, the famous crack—is actually preferable to the original pristine artistic creation, but only because this is an even better expression of the creators’ intentions.

In other cases, good reasons can be given for stripping away at least some of the marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact, similarly in the interests of preserving or recapturing the creator’s original intention.

Consider the painting that James Abbott McNeill Whistler originally entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black. It has been given the popular title Whistler’s Mother and it has become an icon for motherhood and filial devotion.  In 1934 the U.S. Post Office even issued a stamp “in memory and in honor of the mothers of America“ that included only the figure from Whistler’s painting, not the overall composition, and even added some potted flowers!

It is safe to state that this appropriation of the figure is not just different from, but directly counter to, the artist’s intentions in painting it.  In explaining his artistic philosophy, Whistler once insisted:

Art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it; and that is why I insist on calling my works “arrangements” and “harmonies.”

In other words, Whistler himself explicitly rejected the sentimental approach to art that a title such as Whistler’s Mother would imply.  A viewing of his painting that was informed by this title, and which saw it as an expression of filial love and devotion, would therefore necessarily be in opposition to his intentions.  If we wish to understand the painting at all according to Whistler’s intentions, its popular title, at least, should be stripped away and replaced with the original one, and the figure should be situated within the entire original composition, so that viewers can once again appreciate Whistler’s purposes in painting it.

Some might counter that the figure in the painting has a universal quality, evocative of timeless human experience, that permits and even demands that its meaning not be limited by the views of the man who created it at a particular moment in Western cultural history.  Suppose that’s true.  Then even though we would certainly want to be aware of Whistler’s views and intentions, we could find a meaning in this figure that transcends them and reaches into interpretations that Whistler not only didn’t intend, but would actually have opposed.  In other words, a viewer might, in the end, see greater value in Whistler’s Mother than in Arrangement in Grey and Black.

However, we must note that a viewer making this judgment is not really seeing Arrangement in Grey and Black, but only a detail from it.   It is this detail, isolated from the rest of the composition, that people have used as an icon for filial devotion (as on the 1934 stamp).  Some meaning contrary to the artist’s intentions may be imputed to this isolated figure, but not to the composition as a whole, in its entirety as he created it.

This example shows that if the originally intended form or meaning of an artistic creation has been lost to “cultural associations,” repristinating that creation requires not only stripping away accretions, but also situating isolated parts back within the whole.  In the case of Whistler’s painting, the popular title should be taken away and the rest of the painting should be brought back.  (And the potted flowers have to go, too!)

I’ll conclude this series next time with some thoughts about the Bible in light of the examples I’ve explored.

James Whistler, “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” 1871

Would the Liberty Bell still be the Liberty Bell without the crack?

If we could restore the Liberty Bell to its original condition, removing the famous crack, should we?

This is one more way to ask the big question I’ve been pursuing in this series of posts. As someone put the question in the case of the darkening and harmonizing patina that had accumulated on the Sistine Chapel ceiling before it was cleaned, “Do cultural associations and markings of the passage of time heighten or mar the aesthetic value of art?”  That is, does the full creative process include settings and adaptations introduced by later users?  Or do the accumulated marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact never really become part of its essential substance and meaning?

Our interest in these questions arises from the way The Books of the Bible seeks to strip away the accretions of centuries from the Scriptures.  This leads us to ask, Is the Bible what it has become? And if it is, does that mean we should keep engaging the Bible as it has come to be known, in its chapter-and-verse form, rather than by seeking to repristinate it in some way by recovering its constituent literary creations?

To help answer these questions, let’s think about the Liberty Bell.  It was designed as an object that would be not just functional, but beautiful.  Beyond any beauty of form or adornment, it was specifically intended, like all bells, to produce a pleasing musical sound (rather than to summon the attention by making a jarring noise, like a horn or a siren).

When the Liberty Bell cracked, the beauty of its sound was marred.  So there is certainly a difference between how the bell was originally intended to sound and the way it would sound if it were struck today.  What reasons might we give for preferring the original “art“ or “beauty“ of the bell to its present “art“ or “beauty,“ or vice versa?  In other words, if it were somehow possible to restore the bell to the condition it was in before it cracked, and recapture the original sound of its tone, would we want to do this?

Probably not.  The Liberty Bell has become a powerful cultural icon in its present condition; the crack makes it instantly identifiable.  It has come to symbolize the foundational American value of “liberty“ for a series of reasons:
– Its inscription, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land”;
– Its association with the founding generation through its use to toll their deaths (many believe it was during the 1835 funeral of Chief Justice John Marshall that it cracked beyond repair);
– The symbolic use that was then made of it by abolitionists and suffragists.

Most poignantly of all, because of the crack, this is a “wounded” bell.  It has been injured in the cause of “proclaiming liberty.”  Freedom can only be had at a price, and the wounded bell now represents and commemorates all who have paid this price for our freedom.

And so most of us would likely prefer the “art“ of the bell with its “cultural associations and markings of the passage of time“ to the “art“ of the musical note that might be restored if its crack were repaired.  All of the rich cultural associations this bell now carries would hardly be sacrificed simply to recover its original tone.

In other words, there seem to be some very good reasons for preferring the Liberty Bell as we have come to know it to what was originally the “Pennsylvania State House steeple bell.”  So is this evidence that subsequent cultural development sometimes should be preferred over original artistic intent?

Not exactly.  This bell may actually have been intended from the start to become a cultural icon.  Many historians believe that it was commissioned in 1751 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Charter of Privileges, by which William Penn transferred legislative authority from his Proprietorship to the Pennsylvania Assembly.  This is why, they argue, the bell was ordered with its inscription about “proclaiming liberty,” which is actually a quotation from Leviticus, referring to the year of jubilee.

The later uses of the bell as an icon for liberty would therefore be a development of these original intentions.  We can reasonably surmise that the Pennsylvania colonial legislators who ordered the bell would not want us today to sacrifice its greatly heightened iconic value simply to restore its tone.  Not repairing the crack would thus not only be preferable from a cultural and artistic standpoint, it would also be in keeping with what seem to have been the original intentions of the creators.

In other words, if this historical theory is correct, what came first was the Pennsylvania Assembly’s desire to commemorate the anniversary of the Charter of Privileges.  What came second was a specific means of marking this anniversary:  the commissioning of a bell.

So when we prefer the current, cracked bell with its heightened iconic value, this isn’t just an aesthetic judgment (“certainly a national symbol shouldn’t be destroyed just to restore the tone of a bell”).  Rather, it is an expression of respect for the original intentions of the bell’s patrons.  Precisely because the bell is cracked, it can now be used only as an icon for liberty (its constituting purpose), and not also for secondary purposes such as summoning the Assembly, celebrating special events, etc.

So in this case, the “markings of the passage of time” that we wish to retain are meaningful because they express the ultimate intentions of those who created the bell.

But in other cases, good reasons can be given for stripping away at least some of the marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact, specifically in the interests of preserving or recapturing the creator’s original intention.  We’ll look at such a case next time.

Was the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling a crime against art?

At the end of the last century, a 20-year project to clean the soot and grime off the Sistine Chapel ceiling was finally completed. In my book After Chapters and Verses, I use this cleaning as an analogy for the way The Books of the Bible similarly strips away the accumulated accretions that have obscured the original appearance of the biblical writings.

It should be noted, however, that this cleaning was actually quite controversial.

Many responded with delight and wonder to the discovery that Michelangelo’s colors had originally been so bright and bold.  But others were deeply disappointed. They felt that the true art of the chapel was its frescoes as they had come to be known. They lamented that this art was lost forever when the darkening and harmonizing patina was taken away to reveal what they derided as “ice cream colors“ beneath.

Michelangelo’s portrait of Daniel before and after cleaning (courtesy Wikipedia)

As one observer put it, “Many people loved the Sistine Chapel’s subtle hues and shadowy figures and were dismayed by the brilliant pink, turquoise, lapis blue, and tangerine now uncovered from beneath centuries of candle smoke and other gunk. Through the dramatic transformation, these people lost what they had loved—even if they might have gained a masterpiece more similar to what Michelangelo had created.”

Another observer (Tim Griffins, in a post no longer on line) said the cleaning of the ceiling raised the profound question, “What is art?” He wondered, “Do cultural associations and markings of the passage of time heighten or mar the aesthetic value of art?”

This same question applies to the Bible. Is the traditional Bible, like a sooty fresco by Michaelangelo, actually better off for the wear? In other words, have the chapter and verse divisions become an essential part of what the Bible now is for us today?

For many people, they apparently have.  One young man described his initial experience with The Books of the Bible this way: “My very first impression was one of discomfort. It felt weird and somewhat disrespectful to me to pick up the Bible as a book without those little verse numbers and chapter headings. Bibles have those.”

However, after he had read in the edition for a little while, he changed his mind. “Reading Scripture this way flows beautifully,” he reported. “Rather than missing the verse numbers and chapter headings, I like them gone. They got in the way.”

In the end this young man had a very positive experience with the Bible in a new format. But a certain belief nearly prevented this—that when it comes to chapters and verses, “Bibles have those.”

Expressed more generally, this is the belief that the Bible is what it has become. This is actually an aesthetic commitment: that a work of art is not finished or complete in the form in which its creator releases it.  Rather, it continues to grow and take on substance and meaning throughout its subsequent history as a cultural artifact. If that’s the case, then something essential to the Bible actually is lost when the shaping of later centuries is undone, as happens in The Books of the Bible.

Does the full creative process include settings and adaptations introduced by later users? Do the marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact become part of its essential substance and meaning?  Is the Bible what it has become over the centuries? And if so, does that mean we should keep engaging the Bible as it has come to be known, rather than seeking to repristinate it in some way? I’ll start exploring these questions next time by considering another artistic creation that has become a cultural icon.