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Beware the Bible traffic Wardens

02 November 2006


I have never warmed to church documents - such as the communiqué recently issued by the Churches of the Global South - that pepper every paragraph with bracketed chapter-and-verse Bible references. It's not because I want to distance theological disputation from the Bible. Quite the reverse: it's because this way of referencing the text can distort what the Bible is trying to say.

It is worth remembering that early Bibles had no chapter-and-verse referencing whatsoever. Eusebius of Caesarea began to categorise each Gospel into numbered sections, but the first New Testaments to have anything like our modern divisions of chapters and verses were published by the printer Robert Estienne in 1550. These divisions did not fall from heaven: he made them up on the long journeys between his two presses in Paris and Lyons. Over the broad sweep of Christian history, chapter-and-verse theology is a distinctly modern invention.

Of course, it's a convenience, and helps readers find their way about. But what it has also done is to give the impression that biblical truth exists at the level of individual sentences - as if the Bible is built up, truth by truth, as one might build a house out of bricks. The only other thing we read like that is letters we get from the solicitor or instructions on how to assemble an Ikea wardrobe. For the most part, when we read a piece of literature, we allow it to disclose its message over many pages. The meaning is revealed within the narrative as a whole.

Imagine how different it would be if we had to find our way around the Bible by referring to passages as "You know, that bit that comes after he turned water into wine." That is how the stories were known for many years. Reading the text without those distracting numbers allows the narrative to flow and the imagination to spark. Suddenly, you are dealing with a wonderful collection of poetries, parables, and histories rather than a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

It's clear now that even biblical scholarship got overly caught up in desiccated arguments about questions that are basically puzzles - such as the synoptic problem and source criticism. Such scholarship tried to understand the Bible by cutting it up on the scholarly anatomy table rather than by watching it dance and sing.

Ultimately, I'm afraid I can't help but think of those who constantly refer to chapter and verse as the traffic wardens of the biblical scene. It's the sort of theology employed by those who use the Bible to control people rather than to inspire them.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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