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Scripture goes east

24 October 2014

Peter Price on its use and impact there

The Bible and Asia: From the Pre-Christian era to the postcolonial age
R. S. Sugirtharajah
Harvard University Press £22.95
Church Times Bookshop £20.65 (Use code CT912 )

R. S. SUGIRTHARAJAH's book The Bible and Asia is a rich and fascinating account of the history of the Bible in Asia from the pre-Christian era to the post-colonial age. The author writes directly and informatively a series of essays on a variety of themes varying from a definition of "Asia" through to the way in which the Bible appears "Between the Lines of Asian Fiction".

Key to understanding the part played by the Bible and its place in Asia are merchants, moralists, and poets. Sugirtharajah explores the little-known history of the period between 50 BC and AD 100, when India played a leading part in the world's history, commerce, and wealth, and how this influenced the part played by religion in the Mediterranean region.

From the colonial period, the reader is invited to consider the impact of Semitic influence upon Asian theology, and of the necessity for the Asian nations of going "through their own experiences of exodus, captivity, nation building, rebellion against heaven", if salvation history is to have authenticity in Asian cultures.

The impact of the use and abuse of Christian texts by Western missionaries, and their demonisation of traditional Asian religions, makes fascinating, if disturbing, reading. At the same time, while Sugirtharajah comments on the way in which many played "fast and loose" with the text and honour of the Bible, he also indicates the necessity of reading it with Asian eyes, and interpreting it appropriately.

The colonial era produced Hindu and Buddhist writers who challenged "both colonial rule and the colonial version of their indigenous faith". They perceived their task as one of "reforming Christianity" through the elimination of Hebrew Scriptures and the passages in the New Testament where Jesus is depicted as "quick-tempered and intolerant".

Perhaps most fascinating for the contemporary reader is the author's chapter on "Paul the Roman in Asia". Here, the attitude of St Paul to empire, which is described as "a complicated one", is played out in the way in which Paul was used and abused by missioners and their critics alike. In my view, this book is worth reading for this chapter alone.

This book deserves a wide readership, not least because of the re-emergence of India as an economic, military, and cultural power in today's world. But, further, if we are to achieve an understanding and mutuality of peoples of faith in the struggle to see the world saved from the worst excesses of religion towards humanity, then Sugiritharajah's plea for understanding, research, and study needs to be heeded.

The Rt Revd Peter Price is a former Bishop of Bath & Wells.

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