Wednesday, June 22, 2011

100 year predictions of the biblical landscape

So I figured a fun topic is what will bibles look like in 100 years. I invite anyone who wants to crack out their crystal ball to give it a shot. Here are my predictions.

 I think the idea that a bible should be “general purpose” will die in the next generation.   This in my mind is a legacy of the KJV pre Living Bible / Good News Bible tradition where the same bible was used for liturgy, study, devotion.  Translations will stop aiming to be all things to all people and instead will focus on a niche like most products do in America.  The KJV may very well survive for “high liturgy” like funerals, being treated like Shakespeare or the Old Latin liturgy of the Catholic church.  Study bibles, will no longer be based on liturgical bibles and thus can do the obvious thing of forking off both a literal and a dynamic translation marked up with notes.  Thus they will be explicating the text using a dual strategy having a literal translation at least as much so as the NASB and possibly more like a good interlinear and a profoundly dynamic translation capturing the meaning of the Greek. The concern with preserving traditional phrasing will be gone since these bibles will be made exclusively for study.   Churches will use liturgical bibles designed to be understood best when read out-loud, translation like the Voice and highly poetical bibles for liturgical functions.  The pew bible will be one of these read out-loud bibles.  

I think the fact that evangelicals, including the most conservative with the ESV, have adopted the UBS/NA text is a fundamental shift in their relationship with the bible. Evangelicals today read bibles with “some texts contain X while others say Y", or "while the majority of the Greek texts say X the Syriac / Latin says Y”, etc…. In other words a view of translation has emerged which says:

  1. The actual originals are unknown, what you are reading is an estimate.
  2. The act of compilation is active not passive
  3. The act of translation induces inevitable distortion in meaning.

That’s not a small thing. Evangelicals are undergoing what liberals did in the mid 19th century, but while liberals were having to follow a trail blazed first by radicals Evangelicals will be following the trail blazed by large institutional mainline Christianity, a much wider trail.  Evangelical Christianity is fundamentally (no pun intended) about the bible, the gospel and being born again.   Evangelicals have always focused heavily on bible study, the popularity of study bibles today which is far beyond what it was a generation ago. With computerization the amount of information in the tools used for lay study is exploding.  I think these 2 trends merge and the study bibles of 100 years are loaded with lower criticism and textual variants, made much simpler since study bibles will be computerized interfaces and not books.

On the liberal side, I think this adaption of lower criticism by the right is going to push them further to the left over the next 50 years.  Liberal bibles today are still very conservative.  I've written elsewhere on this blog how delightful it was to read a translation of John in Bultmann’s order.  Given how easy it is for a computerized book to have multiple arrangements I think this transition, a switch to go back and forth will become common.  And once it happens for John we might see arrangements in other books, like Corinthians with Schmithal's decomposition.  For the Synoptic Gospels,  given how well know Q and the documentary hypothesis is, I think we'll see the Q material clearly delineated and since Q is now such a common term possibly broken out further according to the internal structure of Q.    So while conservative bibles will incorporate lower criticism, liberal bibles will incorporate higher criticism.

This shift left by the mainstream churches will force texts teams to begin to assemble more comprehensive documentary break downs, i.e. mainstream biblical scholarship / divinity schools to go in its natural direction towards where Religious Studies professors are today.  So in terms of the UBS/NA40 (or whatever it is called) the Greek (and maybe even the Hebrew ) will present a tree view of the origins of the text (see Mack the Knife and biblical development). The books will show trees of descent, you will be able to track lines as they evolved in the 5th century from a host of sources. For example the UBS/NA Luke will clearly show what came from Ur-Lukas (Gospel of the Lord), which came from later Q additions or refinements from Matthew, which came from Mark and which came from reading the epistles back into the gospels.

As an aside, of course if divinity scholar have moved to where Religious Studies professors are today, its hard to know where these scholars will be 100 years from now.  But if the last generation is any hint I imagine they will be reconstructing the sects that gave birth to Christianity and by then people will have a fairly thorough timeline of Christianity's parents, its birth and its childhood.

Getting back to bibles, I think the debate on the canon will be fiery in 100 years. In the last 15 years we’ve started to see several bibles that are arguing for changes to the canon. Today almost no evangelical believes that Hebrews is “Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews” and it is becoming acceptable to question the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles even within conservative circles. The counter evidence is just too strong, in the same way that evolution was absolutely rejected in 1850 and considered the norm in Evangelical circles in by 1980; I believe the political nature of the canon will be mainstream.   So once 100 now the idea that the canon is essentially political in nature not religious is mainstream the big theological question will be how to respond. It took the first 200 years of the reformation for evangelicals to admit that the corrupt theology of the 16th century church really went all the way back to the 5th century and that revolution not reformation was the goal.

Today the fringe view that evangelical Christianity is free to construct their own canon rejecting the Catholic canon will be a well represented minority view. So put me down for Gospel of Thomas in at least one mainstream translation by then.    The Jesus Seminar's 5 Gospels included it in 1996 and  John Henson's Good as New which was directed at liberals in Great Britain included it in 2004 so this prediction, it wouldn't shock me if it were fulfilled by 2030, other bibles will have followed suit by 2070 though I believe in 2111 Evangelical bibles will retain their current canon.  But the debate on canon once opened will be raging, and this change will open the door to other revisions, though I'm unsure what specifically people will want since today they consider the canon closed.

So feel free to comment on my 100 year predictions or go for it and give your own.

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