Something useful to say about the bits of the Bible we’re reading. (I hope.)

Signpost for Ordinary Sunday 16, 2013: Amos 8:1-12; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42.

It’s Tuesday evening, and I’m left alone at home, and have time to start writing the Signpost for next Sunday. I had decided to start earlier, and sat down after breakfast on Monday, and only got as far as the heading. I’d just walked home from the Doctor’s surgery to give a sample of blood to check my level of Warfarin. It is doing a good job of keeping me alive, but very occasionally a minute clot gets past, and another little bit of a route in my brain gets closed off. It hadn’t happened for several months, but the weird feeling that another had occurred came over me as I walked home, and I could not think of something useful to say about the bits of the Bible at the top of this article.

While I sat incapable of writing, and being very cross about it, I suddenly saw a scribe writing on a bit of streaked animal skin with a crude pen in a dusty arcade. He was recording in a weird code in which only the consonants are written (the vowels have to be learned by heart), ancient stories of his ancestors which had been passed on by word of mouth for countless generations. And it was to be commented upon by ME (with the help of a lot of different clever translations), THREE THOUSAND YEARS LATER!

After I’d described that scene, I realized that there was a group of tribes who had settled a few miles north of the group in the last paragraph, who claimed to have the same ancestor, a wandering herdsman called Abraham. Their stories, having been passed on by word of mouth, were by that time somewhat different from those of their southern neighbours. They decided to write them down as well, but their scribes weren’t such expert story-tellers as those of the southerners. That was a good thing, as you probably know.

Around 500 years later (a century or two don’t matter) all the top people (scribes, priests, royal descendents) of the southerners had been carried off to the capital of a near country. They were carrying their musical instruments, as well as their precious historical and religious documents. By this time, some of the northerners’ documents had somehow fallen into their hands. Written scrolls don’t last for ever, so they needed to be carefully copied from time to time, and this time some of the southern stories and those of the northerners were copied onto the same scroll, mixed up. Four hundred years later, give or take, the whole lot were translated into Greek, because there were a lot of Jews living in Egypt, who spoke only Greek, and didn’t understand Hebrew. Some mistakes were made in this translation. The problem for us, (and for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is that the Hebrew word for “young woman” was translated as “virgin” in the Greek. Luke and Matthew had a lot of trouble recording the origin of Yussuf (Jesus in Greek). Mark and John wisely left the subject alone.

In the nineteen sixties when I was going to training for being a Lay Reader in the Province of the West Indies, we were taught a lot of the facts that lie below my quick summary above. I took it as “Low Church” rubbish, and ignored it. I was true “High Church”. When I went home to England on leave, my father (High Church priest) gave me the first edition of the Jerusalem Bible to read from for the first lesson at Sunday Evensong. In the middle, as I read aloud, I recognised the sudden change from the beautifully written story by “J”, to a boring list by “E”. I was converted on the spot.

Happy reading, Brye.

P.S. The Jerusalem Bible was translated into French by some French Roman Catholic monks who were very good biblical scholars. The first edition in English was labelled ‘a good rendering of the French’ by some clever folk. The second edition that I work from, was translated by English R.C. monks, and there are lots of useful notes and essays about the text which distinguish between what they have found out and what the Vatican teaches. I feel safe in the hands of people are so brave to do that!

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