Bibliotheca

Last week, about a year after I had ordered it, my copy of Bibliotheca arrived.

Bibliotheca is an edition of the Bible produced by Adam Lewis Greene. He aimed to restore a way of encountering the Biblical text which we have lost as our approach to the scripture has become more encyclopaedic and more cerebral. So here is a beautifully produced piece of the bookmaker's art, printed on fine paper and in a clear, attractive font, with a sewn binding and cloth covers so that it opens flat. It is printed in four volumes, with one extra containing the Apocrypha, each volume being 400-500 pages, and each about the size and weight of  a hardback novel.



There are no chapter of verse numbers, and no textual apparatus of any kind; there is just the text, beautifully bound and printed on paper which is as lovely to touch as the firm covers. I am already part way through a reading of the whole Bible, so immediately swapped to Bibliotheca and unwittingly and gently brought myself face to face with the issues which gave rise to Adam Lewis Greene's project in the first place.

Greene has chosen to order the books of the Old Testament using the Jewish rather than the accepted Christian system. The Jewish Scripture has three sections: 1. Torah (law) 2. Prophets (including the Former Prophets (what we would call the Historical Books) and the Latter Prophets (what we would call The Prophets)) and 3. Writings (everything else) I had just finished Nehemiah when Bibliotheca arrived, and was about to read Esther, and had to rearrange my projected schedule somewhat, as these two books are part of The Writings, and are amongst the last books of the Jewish Canon, not in the middle as they are for us Christians. I began reading therefore, with the Latter Prophets, with Isaiah.

My reading of the whole Bible is about immersing myself in the vast sweep of the Biblical story, and not in the small fragments of it with which we Christians overwhelmingly deal. A few days of reading Bibliotheca brought a realisation which I should have made decades ago: that the mere reordering of the component parts presents a quite different narrative. It is also a significant shift in perception to name the Books of Samuel and Kings and so forth not as History, but as Prophets: these are not just the mere presentation of the facts of some time past, but a selective and polemical exposition based on those events. The Jewish story is about the establishment of Law, accompanied by prophetic commentary on the way the law is lived, accompanied by devotional reflection on the God who is revealed by The Law and the Prophets. The Christian story is more linear: it is the story of a  revelation unfolding, from a set beginning, over generations and culminating in the person of Jesus Christ.

I have found reading this clear text disconcertingly personal. Over the centuries we Christians have put extreme effort into understanding the text, beginning with the medieval convention of dividing it all up into chapters and verses. Then we have a vast literature of commentary and criticism, some of which is present in almost every printing of the Bible in the form of footnotes and cross references and marginal annotations of various kinds. It is almost impossible to read the Christian Bible without some unknown person telling us what to think and believe about what we are reading. These Bible Helps are useful and educative, but they do have the effect of objectifying the text. The Bible is something, out there, to be studied and thought about. But here, holding this beautiful book, for the first time in many many years, the unadorned, plain text invited me in and let me inhabit it.

The translation used is a slightly revised form of the American Standard Version, which is, to me, comfortably authoritative and yet accessible. I am pleased with the convention used of stating the divine name as YHWH. Over the years the unutterable name has become more holy and precious to me, and I appreciate this avoidance of the theological freighting of any attempt to render it.

When I sit to pray the physical act of going to my study and kneeling on my stool has myriad unconscious effects on me, reminding me in uncountable ways that this is a special act I am doing, and important. In a similar way, the specialness, difference, and quality of the Bibliotheca volumes speaks to my body and soul when I pick them up. I find myself handling them lovingly and reverently, and this attitude seeps into my reading of the text. The prayer of reading is somatised and made a part of me in a way it is not when simply undergoing Bible Study.

This is an expensive book. With handling costs I paid around $250 for my copy, but I'm glad to have it, and slightly awestruck that it has come to me at this point of transition.

Comments