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.

Why doesn’t The Books of the Bible show the “seven sevens” in the book of Revelation?

Q.  If The Books of the Bible is supposed to show the “natural literary outlines” of the biblical books, why doesn’t it highlight the “seven sevens” that structure the book of Revelation?

It’s true that many interpreters do see a pattern of seven sevens in the book of Revelation.  While the details can differ, the basic outline is usually something like this:
• seven letters
• seven seals
• seven trumpets
• seven signs
• seven bowls
• seven great enemies defeated
• seven last things

It’s also true that the letters, seals, trumpets, and bowls organize the episodes in their specific parts of the book.  For example, we don’t hear about John being told all at once to sit down and write seven letters.  Rather, he’s told at the start of each one, “Write to this church,” and we hear the content of that letter before he’s told to write the next one.  Similarly, the events following the opening of each seal are narrated before the next seal is opened.  And so forth.

Albrecht Dürer (woodcut), Seven Angels are Given Seven Trumpets

It would certainly be elegant if we could show that a pattern like this structures every part of Revelation.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

For one thing, only four of these “sevens” are actually named specifically in the text: the churches, seals, trumpets, and bowls.  The other supposed series of “sevens” are not named or identified as such in the text, suggesting that no such further series are being used as intentional structuring devices.

And are they really even “sevens”?  Of the so-called “seven signs,” for example, only five are introduced by vision formulas:
– “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun.”
– “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon.”
– “And I saw a beast coming out of the sea.”
–  “Then I saw another beast.”
– “Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb.”
Interpreters sometimes identify two other “mystical figures” as “signs” in this part of the book, the woman’s child and Michael the angel.  But these are actually characters in the ongoing narrative who are not presented as the focus of a given vision the way the others are.  (Remember, the question is whether the elements in a given “seven” structure a series of episodes.)  Besides, if the child and the angel count as “signs,” then why not count similar characters in the narrative as well, such as the earth, which helps the child, or the 144,000 who follow the Lamb?

As for “seven great enemies defeated,” it is true that after the seven bowls, Revelation describes the defeat and destruction of several enemies.  These are named, interestingly, in the reverse order of their original appearance in the book, suggesting some possible structural significance: Babylon, the beast, the false prophet, the dragon, death, and hell.  But the depiction of the sequential destruction of these enemies does not supply the structural outline for this section in Revelation.  Rather, almost all of the section is about the destruction of Babylon; the destruction of all the other enemies is narrated more briefly at the end.

And this would be only six enemies anyway. Gog and Magog need to be added to make seven, and they break up the general pattern.  They are not mentioned earlier in the book, only briefly here, and they are introduced and destroyed in the middle of the reverse-order sequence, between the beast and the dragon.  (For that matter, why do they count as only one enemy, when “death and hell,” which are always mentioned together, are counted as two?)

Finally, as for the “seven last things,” these are not listed or identified in the text, so interpreters need to pick and choose from among the many features of the closing visions to get a total of seven (for example: the new heaven, the new earth, the new Jerusalem; the river of life, the tree of life, the book of life; the throne of God).  But even so, once again these elements do not structure the episodes in this part of the book.

So if we try to outline Revelation based on “sevens,” what we actually get are four explicit sevens and three other sections that cannot be organized consistently into a sevenfold arrangement.  Besides, an outline of “seven sevens” is not able to encompass one of the key parts of the book: John’s vision (right after the letters) of the Lamb receiving honor from the creatures around the heavenly throne.

If, on the other hand, we take the phrase “in the Spirit” as our structural cue, as explained in the “Invitation to Revelation” in The Books of the Bible, and as developed in more detail in the Daniel-Revelation study guide, we find that this phrase appears explicitly at the start of four major sections, providing a comprehensive structure for the book and its contents.

Nevertheless, an outline based on “seven sevens” is to be commended in one regard:  it reflects an attempt to recognize the literary-structural signals that the book of Revelation itself is sending, rather than to rely simply on traditional chapters and verses as guides.  As a result, in several parts of the book such an outline yields a structural understanding very close to the one we have indicated in The Books of the Bible, at least in terms of the arrangement and progression of individual episodes.

This illustrates that much about the structures of the biblical books can be recognized implicitly, so that even interpreters who are committed to different outlines can end up in broad agreement at many points.

Why isn’t Galatians Paul’s first letter in The Books of the Bible?

Q. If you’re trying to place Paul’s letters in chronological order in The Books of the Bible, why isn’t Galatians first?  I was taught it was the earliest of Paul’s epistles, written around AD 49

Actually, scholars disagree about when Galatians was written.  The date depends on how the visits to Galatia and Jerusalem that Paul describes in the letter correlate with the ones described in the book of Acts.  A related issue is what Paul means by “Galatia.” If he’s speaking of Galatia simply as a province, the letter was probably written to people he visited in the southern part of the province on his first journey, or even from Tarsus before going on any of his journeys.  But if he’s referring to Galatia as the home of an ethnic group, the Galatians or Gauls, who lived in the center and north of the province, then the letter was likely written later, to people he visited on his second journey (when, as Luke tells us in Acts, “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia“).

After considering all of the evidence and arguments, our Bible Design Group, which created The Books of the Bible, agreed that a date towards the end of Paul’s second journey made the most sense to us.  Our “Invitation to Galatians” explains:

“It’s difficult to know exactly when and where Paul wrote his letter to the churches in Galatia. He doesn’t say where he’s writing from, as he does in his letters to Thessalonica and Corinth. And while he says he’s writing on behalf of all the brothers and sisters with me, he doesn’t say who these ‘brothers and sisters’ are. Many interpreters believe that Galatians may actually be the earliest of Paul’s letters. However, its themes and language are so close to the letter he sent to the church in Rome that it is quite probable Galatians was written about the same time as Romans. This would mean he wrote it from Corinth around 56–57 AD while arranging for the offering to be sent to the poor in Judea.”

In my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, I offer this fuller explanation:

“The scholarly conversation about when Paul wrote this letter continues. But this study guide will follow the interpretation that it was written in Corinth, when Paul was preparing to travel to Jerusalem with the collection. Many interpreters believe that Galatians was actually written several years before this. However, certain details in the letter arguably correspond best with this particular moment in Paul’s life:
• Paul writes in Galatians that the apostles in Jerusalem asked him to ‘remember the poor,’ and that he was ‘eager’ to do this. It’s unlikely he would bring this up years before he’d actually done anything about it, but it makes sense for him to mention it in the middle of the collection.
• Paul’s language of being ‘eager’ is identical to his reference in 2 Corinthians to the ‘earnestness’ [‘eagerness’] of the Macedonians in their giving.
• Paul’s encouragement to ‘do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’ may similarly refer to the collection.  (The Galatians were taking a collection of their own at this time.)”

The study guide also notes the similarity between the language and themes of Galatians and those of Romans—for example, the discussions of what it means to be dikaios (righteous or justified) by faith; the appeals to the example of Abraham; and the believer’s relationship to the law.

While it is possible that Galatians was written at an earlier time (this is a respected position among scholars), a setting in Corinth while Paul was arranging for the offering provides a reasonable and cohesive account of the letter that is consistent with its contents.  This is what persuaded me and my fellow editors of The Books of the Bible to place Galatians just before Romans as we worked to put Paul’s letters in their likely chronological order.

The Roman province of Galatia stretched from near the Black Sea almost to the Mediterranean Sea. One issue in dating Paul’s letter to the Galatians is whether he was writing to people in the south or the center/north of the province.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Didn’t the Holy Spirit place Luke with the other gospels, and not with Acts, as the Bible was taking shape?

Q.  Didn’t the Holy Spirit, in His wisdom, intend for Luke and Acts to be separated?  Since the biblical canon in its final form was designed with them separated, aren’t we violating inspiration if we put them back together?

Q.  I think your decision to place Luke and Acts together is misguided. While other books were split because of their length (1 Samuel through 2 Kings), or were ordered with no regard for their content (the Pauline epistles), Luke and Acts were separated in order to place the gospel of John as the last gospel.  If you have any faith in the efficacy of the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries, you have to trust that God was at work in the construction of the canon. If you’re going to re-order the gospels, you’re starting to question the construction of the canon–in which case you have bigger problems than separating Luke from Acts.

Q.  It seems to me that we must respect the tradition of the church, believing that the Holy Spirit continued to work through his people as the books God inspired were recognized, put in the category of Scripture, and organized in a certain way. The “four-fold gospel” is a significant indicator of God’s intentions in the NT. Acts placed between the gospels and epistles is a significant indicator of movement within the NT. The church itself has not been unanimous on how the NT books should be ordered, but neither was it unanimous about which books should be included. Without tradition, how would we even know which books to include in the NT?

All three of these questions suggest that if we put Luke-Acts back together as a 5807single work, as they are presented in The Books of the Bible, and as they are treated in the Luke-Acts study guide, we are overlooking and perhaps even resisting the role that the Holy Spirit played in the preservation, recognition, and collection of the biblical books—a role that may have extended to their ordering.  And so, on the authority of centuries-long church tradition, which presumably reflects the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t Luke and Acts be kept as separate books, and all the gospels kept grouped together?

It is true that church tradition exerts significant authority over our understanding and treatment of the Bible.  However, I think most of us would agree that the Spirit’s hand is not evident in every single aspect of tradition as it relates to the Bible.  Many of us would be prepared to dispense, for example, with the chapter and verse divisions, even though these are the aspect of tradition that certainly influences contemporary readers of the Bible the most.  (By frequently running paragraphs run right through badly-placed chapter breaks, many modern publishers show openly that they don’t adhere to this part of the tradition.)

How, then, can we determine which aspects of tradition reflect the Spirit’s hand, and which ones don’t?  I think that most people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God would agree that the determination of the contents of the canon reflects the Spirit’s influence, while the placement of chapter and verse divisions does not.  But what about something in between, like the order of the books in the canon?  I think some would see the Spirit’s hand in this, and others wouldn’t.  In other words, this is a matter of individual conviction, not of doctrine.

That being the case, I think it’s reasonable for resources such as The Books of the Bible and the Luke-Acts study guide to be made available for those whose convictions about the Spirit’s role in the presentation and transmission of the Scriptures permit them to explore what additional perspectives and further insights can be achieved when the books are placed in new orders.  Putting Luke and Acts back together as volumes 1 and 2 of a unified history, whose overarching structure and unfolding message then become much more evident, can open up great vistas into the meaning of the life of Jesus and the story of his early followers.  I think that by making this possible we’re working with, not against, the Holy Spirit.

Russian icon of St. Luke from around AD 1400
Russian icon of St. Luke from around AD 1400

Indeed, The Books of the Bible seeks to draw upon the best in the church’s tradition of the biblical book ordering even as it arranges the books innovatively and creatively.  As its New Testament introduction explains, “The order of the New Testament books in this edition seeks to express the ancient concept of the fourfold gospel in a fresh way.  The traditional priority of the stories of Jesus is retained, but now each Gospel is placed at the beginning of a group of related books.  The presentation of four witnesses to the one gospel of Jesus the Messiah is enhanced by a fuller arrangement that will help readers better appreciate why the books of the New Testament were written and what kind of literature they represent.  The four sets of books, each headed by a  Gospel, form a cross, as it were, around the central figure of Jesus.  Each sheds its light on his story in a unique way.”

One final observation.  It’s a demonstrable fact that the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries have done so in a great variety of orders.  (I document this in my book After Chapters and Verses.  In fact, as Bruce Metzger notes in The Canon of the New Testament, “While the gospels . . . are always kept together, they are found in nine different sequences, including two in which Luke is placed last and followed immediately by Acts, possibly out of a desire to keep the two volumes of this historical study together.”)  Even if we assume that this great variety of orders simply reflects a stage on the way to the ultimate emergence of the Holy Spirit’s chosen order, how do we know whether we’ve arrived there yet?  How do we know that The Books of The Bible, for example, isn’t instead part of the Holy Spirit’s effort to keep shuffling the books until they get into the real “God-intended” order?

In other words, if you prefer a particular book order because it’s the outcome of a long historical process, how do you determine the end point of that process?  On what basis do you pick 1500, when the order we know today was established basically by printers?  Who’s to say that the process isn’t still continuing?  Or that it didn’t end in A.D. 240?  The real problem here is that authority is being divided between Scripture and tradition, that is, between fixed texts and an ongoing historical process.  My commitment is to the authority of Scripture, and in treating Luke-Acts as a single work, my goal is to keep the Bible’s interpretation from being limited to what is implied by the historical shaping the Bible has received to date—because I believe, as John Robinson said, that “the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth out of His Holy Word.”

Will the signs at football games just read “John”?

Q. If The Books of The Bible has the desired impact, in the future will we see the guy at the football game holding up a sign that just reads, ‘John’?

John316

I’m sure we’ve all seen the “John 3:16” signs on televised football games. There may even be some signs like this at the Super Bowl on Sunday.

This question provides a great illustration of how The Books of the Bible, the version these study guides are designed to be used with, encourages referencing not by chapter and verse, but by content and context.

The word count is pretty limited on those signs, but if you had the chance to speak with someone at slightly more length, think of how much more meaningful it would be to refer contextually to “what Jesus told Nicodemus when he came to see him early in the gospel of John,” rather than to use the chapter and verse shorthand.  Or, by content, you could refer to how the Bible tells that that “God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son,” summarizing the message rather than just giving its address.

Along these lines, instead of reading simply “JOHN,” a sign at a football game might say something like this:

GOD LOVED THE WORLD – GOD GAVE HIS SON.

Or, in bigger letters:

GOD LOVED
GOD GAVE

I bet that would get the attention of the television cameras.

Hezekiah and the 130-proverb collection: does it really add up?

To justify your organization of the book of Proverbs in The Books of the Bible, you claim that the collection of proverbs “compiled by the men of Hezekiah” has 130 sayings in it because this is the value of Hezekiah’s name in Hebrew.  But his name is actually spelled different ways in the Bible, so the value could be 136, 140, or 146 instead.  Besides, there are 138 verses in this section of Proverbs, or 137 if you don’t count the heading; neither of those match any possible value for Hezekiah’s name.

Hebrew, like several other languages, uses letters for numbers, so every word has a total numerical value that can be employed for symbolic purposes.  The argument I’ve made in the introduction to Proverbs in The Books of the Bible and in my study guide to Proverbs/Ecclesiastes/James is that the compilers of this collection put exactly 130 sayings in it as a way of honoring their royal patron.

It is true that the name HezekiaHezekiah130h is spelled different ways in the Bible, resulting in different totals. In the book of Kings, for example, it’s typically Hizqiyahu, which adds up to 136.  In the title to the book of Isaiah, it’s Yihizqiyah, which totals 140. And in Chronicles, it’s usually Yihizqiyahu, totaling 146.

However, the issue when it comes to appreciating the design of the book of Proverbs is how the name is actually spelled in the heading in that book that introduces the second collection of Solomon’s proverbs.  There it is Hizqiyah, which adds up to 130.  If the compilers of the book are using the value of Hezekiah’s name to determine the size of this collection, then 130 is the value we must consider them to be using.

And while it is true that the traditional verse divisions typically do correspond one-to-one with the individual sayings in the book of Proverbs, this is not the case in every part of the book.  In this second collection of Solomon’s proverbs specifically, there are several longer sayings that make up more than one verse, for example:
Remove the dross from the silver,
and a silversmith can produce a vessel;
remove wicked officials from the king’s presence,
and his throne will be established through righteousness.
(This is Proverbs 25:4-5 in the traditional numbering.) So there will be something less than 137 actual proverbs in this collection.

It would not be difficult to propose a division of the material that would result in a total of 130 discrete sayings.  However, it would be just as easy to dispute this division and suggest a different one that would yield another total.  I don’t think it’s possible for us to establish today exactly how the compilers of Proverbs intended for this material to be divided up.  However, the way they use, to all appearances, the value of Solomon’s name, 375, to determine the size of the first collection, which clearly contains 375 discrete sayings, strongly implies that the same thing is going on in the second collection of Solomon’s proverbs, the one “compiled by the men of Hezekiah.”  This is particularly true since a few proverbs are repeated from the first collection (e.g. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts,” 18:8 = 26:22), suggesting that the compilers were trying to get up to a particular total.

A reader of this post has asked, “But how does knowing about Hezekiah and the 130 proverbs help me to be more like Jesus?” To see my reply, click here.