Seamless Bible reading

Most seminarians are insufferable.

Don’t flip out. I’m allowed to say that because I once was one of these scholarly theologians, dropping words like “hermeneutics,” “eschatological” and (the absolute worst), “Johannine” in everyday conversation. I’m sure everyone around me, save my fellow seminarians, thought I was obnoxious, and even now, when I stumble across a tweet from my seminary days, I can’t help but to roll my eyes. At myself.

But since graduating from seminary in 2012, I like to think that I’ve largely purged all that off-putting theology nerdery. I mean, yes, I occasionally retweet @BibleStdntsSay, adding comments peppered with a slight hint of theological elitism (but, honestly, who wasn’t thinking this? The joke basically wrote itself!), but all in all, I’m someone who can talk about religion like a normal human being.

That is, unless there’s something in the news that causes me to get on my theological soapbox. Something like Bibliotheca.

Bibliotheca is a contemporary Bible, divided into several volumes and – this is the kicker – omitting section headers, chapters and verses. And I love it.

That the original biblical manuscripts had neither chapters nor verses is a fact both obvious and easy to forget. What may be less obvious, however, is how those postliminary divisions can affect our interpretation of the Bible. If you’re like most people, when you finish a chapter in any book of the Bible, you get a sense that a certain subsection of the book has come to a close, right? At the end of his first chapter, Luke has clearly ended all of the introductory and prophetic material. The second chapter, then, he has devoted to relaying the birth of Christ. Obviously. 

That’s a benign example; I can’t imagine anyone’s theology (or soteriology, to use a five-dollar theology word) is dependent upon their interpretation of the rhetorical flow in Luke 1-2. And yet, it exemplifies how these chapter divisions teach us to create a mental separation of ideas when, perhaps, the original author had not intended one. It’s not that important for the first two chapters of Luke, but what about more theology heavy books like Romans or Hebrews?

In a seminary hermeneutics class, we were once challenged to strip a book of the Bible of all its artificial divisions, read it, decide where we thought natural breaks should occur, and then compare our version to the translation of our choice. It was an insightful exercise for two reasons: first, reading the Bible without section headings or chapters truly changes how one understands the text. I highly encourage that you try it. Second, the exercise highlighted the variances in how different people clumped ideas and themes together.

The Bible already comes to most lay people through a series of translations and filters, do we really need this additional editorial element? The way we understand the Bible is important. How we are taught the Bible – that is, how religious authorities understand the Bible – is important. How the Daughters of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in Vietnam understand Jesus’ call to care for the least of these matters. The same for the Mary Queen of Mary Missionaries in the Philippines.

Don’t get me wrong. Although I think artificial divisions are a hermeneutical hindrance (ones that I largely ignore in my personal reading) I’m not on a crusade against chapters and verses in the Bible. But I think the idea behind Bibliotheca is worthwhile. And I may or may not be putting the tomes on my birthday list.

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is a staff reporter for Global Sisters Report.]