I agree with all the positive things Travis LaCouter said yesterday about Adam Greene’s Bibliotheca Kickstarter campaign, an effort to present a reader’s edition of the Bible, stripped of all verse numbers and other annotations and bound in four handsome volumes, one for the Law, one for the Prophets, one for the Writings, and one for the New Testament. Indeed, I was happy to make my donation and see that Greene’s fundraising goal has been met. It’s an elegant project, and you can easily see the appeal of a text unencumbered with tiny numbers and footnotes (which Philip Yancey once described as the print version of listening to someone say “um” between all their sentences). But I also think it’s worth emphasizing again why the Church eventually came not to prefer a project like Greene’s.
In the first two Christian centuries, as Larry Hurtado has discussed, Christians apparently did bind particular books or sets of books (such as the Pauline letters) together without linking them to other portions of what became the recognized canon of Old and New Testaments. The earliest examples of multi-text codices for which we have evidence date from the early- to mid-third century, and among these is, for instance, a collection of the Pauline epistles bound together with the four Gospels and Acts. The Old Testament, in its Hebrew and Greek versions, wasn’t included, nor were the later chapter and verse divisions (those came in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries respectively), which makes these earliest codices similar, in some ways, to what Green’s Bibliotheca project is attempting.
But in subsequent centuries, Christians came to prefer codices that contained both Old and New Testaments between two covers. Stanley Hauerwas and Alan Jacobs, among others, have suggested that this preference, far from being arbitrary, was rooted in a Christian theology of typology—reading the Old and New Testaments in light of each other (to put the matter too simply). As Jacobs wrote several years ago in an essay titled “Christianity and the Future of the Book” for The New Atlantis, “There is an intimate connection between the Christian message, the Christian scriptures, and the codex.” This is because the codex—a single bound volume—facilitates typological reading strategies:
Jesus’ invocation of the Biblical sequence from Abel to Zechariah [Luke 11:51] can be seen as both an anticipation of the rise of the codex and a commendation of that technology, or of the patterns of thought that it supports. For the codex is the technology of typology—just as it is the technology of Biblical integrity. Here it is important to note the distinction between sequentiality and linearity. When we talk about linearity we tend to think in terms of movement that cannot be arrested or reversed, of constant unidirectional impetus. But typological thinking, while it embodies the idea of invariable sequence—Adam and Abel and Zechariah will always come before Jesus—requires also the ability to look back, and then look forward again. For this purpose the codex is an unrivaled technology, especially once the manufacture of paper makes it feasible for the ordinary Christian to use a book that contains the whole of the Bible. When we add to that the miracle of dexterous fingers, so that with one hand… we can not only hold a book but give ourselves immediate access to different stages in the sequence—this is when typological thinking comes into its own.
In other words, the Church’s determination to read the Old and New Testaments together, to consider them a sequential set of texts with theological integrity, led to, or at least made itself deeply at home with, a widespread use of a single codex for the unified Christian Bible.
But I might add one more point that Jacobs doesn’t mention—a point about why we today might still prefer a single bound volume for our Bibles, with all the accouterments of marginalia. Sticking with the standard one-codex version of the Bible can be a way of taking a stand with tradition, with the way the Church has come to read Scripture. We don’t have to try to peel away centuries of encrustations to try to get back to some purer, less distorted version of the Bible. The reason we don’t have to make that effort is because we trust that the history between the apostles and the Church today is all of a piece (despite its obvious tragic tears and seams). As the hermeneutical scholar Sandra Schneiders has expressed it, channeling Gadamer,
[T]he historical distance between between the present interpreter and the text is not primarily an obstacle to understanding to be overcome by a self-translation of the interpreter into the world of the author but an advantage for understanding in that the tradition which is operative in the interpreter helps him or her to draw from the text a richer meaning than was available to the original audience.
While Greene’s project is an ideal way to reinvigorate one’s Bible reading (as I hope will be the case with my copy) or introduce readers to Scripture for the first time, it won’t ultimately prove as effective in helping us read Scripture theologically and spiritually, with and for the Church, as the editions you and I already have on our shelves.