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At Large - The Greatest Story Ever Informally Told
by Michael Coren

We dwellers in the contemporary world have an apparently inexorable need to indulge in hyperbole. How we exaggerate! The greatest, the best, the finest, the most successful. The literary context is no different. What we consider to be bestsellers of universal importance are seldom significant for more than a year or two and those we laud as brilliant and timeless almost always limp away from the dark corridors of artistic fashion with only their bank balances intact. There are, in fact, very few books that have changed the world in any genuine sense. Freud's conclusions have been under siege for some time, Darwin has been demoted from dogma by many leading scientists, and most of the novelists who led their generations are known more from movie adaptations than actual book-reading.

There is one book, however, that is studied in groups and by individuals every moment of every day, read more now than in any time in the past, translated into ever more languages, and published in ever more editions. Most readers will have realized, perhaps grudgingly, that I am writing about the Bible. It is comforting for many people to dismiss the Bible as a work of historical interest and contemporary irrelevance. But the more we learn about ancient history and archaeology, the more reliable the Bible becomes even for those without any faith in its meaning.

The very secular discipline of textual analysis, for example, reveals some fascinating facts about the Bible. We can produce a fairly good indication of the accuracy and reliability of an ancient book by the date of the earliest manuscript and the number of such texts. Caesar's Gallic War was written around 50 B.C. and the earliest extant copies (ten) were made almost one thousand years later. Tacitus wrote around 100 A.D. and the twenty oldest copies were produced one thousand years later. Thucydides wrote about 400 B.C.; the eight oldest copies were made about 1,300 years later. The New Testament was written between 40 and 100 A.D., and five thousand Greek, ten thousand Latin, and 9,300 other full manuscripts date back to only three hundred years later. We do not doubt the accuracy and the existence of Caesar, Tacitus, or Thucydides, but some of us reject the verisimilitude of the Bible.

Every new discovery beneath the ground of Israel seems to present another confirmation of Biblical writing, and the anti-Christian scholarship that was so important between the beginning of this century and the 1960s has long given way among serious thinkers and writers to a whole new approach to Biblical studies.

Of course, those who study the Christian Bible only for its historical accuracy are very different creatures from those who believe that it is the divine word of God, telling the story of the coming of the Messiah. The latter believe that without the workings of the Holy Spirit the Bible cannot be fully understood. It is for that reason that new, accessible translations are becoming more common. The New Living Translation (Tyndale) is a recently published orthodox version relying on a team of experts and linguists. It continues the work of the Revised Standard and the highly popular New International Version, expunging some of the more archaic vocabulary and style of a book that was, after all, written in a Greek that was both common and colloquial.

It was this difference in Greek-between the formal idiom in which history and philosophy were written, and the informal, in which the New Testament was written-that inspired Eugene H. Peterson to write The Message (Navpress). This version was published in 1993 and has become an international success. It is deeply faithful to the original, but sophisticated and astute in its interpretation to modern English. This, from Mark ii:

"Later Jesus and his disciples were at home having supper with a collection of disreputable guests. Unlikely as it seems, more than a few of them had become followers. The religion scholars and the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company and lit into his disciples. `What kind of example is this, acting cozy with the riffraff?' Jesus, overhearing, shot back, `Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I'm here inviting the sin-sick, not the spiritually-fit.' "

Somehow I cannot imagine some of the finest minds of the Year 3000 spending their entire lives translating the works of Shirley McLaine or Wendy the Wicca. The New Age noodles continue to produce their saccharine spirituality and it does fairly well in the bookstores, so that North Americans with too much material wealth can gain a transitory, ersatz emotional contentment with guides to angels, crystals, horoscopes, reincarnations, and meditation. The Bible, on the other hand, continues to dominate every book list in virtually every country. In fact it makes even the Koran and the Talmud look like publishing failures.

A parting thought: The official Soviet dictionary defined the Bible as a book of fairy-tales, based on primitive fears and of no major importance. The Soviet Union, just like so many empires before it, decayed into dust. The next translation of the Bible is due within five years.


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