I recently attended a discussion on biblical inerrancy. More precisely, the gathering in question consisted of a number of people who hold firm to the view that every part of the Bible is a literal and accurate historical document, containing teaching that cannot be questioned, and some other people whose views varied from those who valued the Bible as a holy scripture without buying into the idea of the book as a literal record of all it contained, to those who didn’t think much of it at all.
But actually no, this is not going to be a post about inerrancy or the little battles between the fundamentalists and the rest. My point here is a different one. During the conversations (or maybe I should say declarations, there wasn’t much give and take) every so often someone would quote from the Bible. And what struck me was that people were quoting from different versions and translations, some of which were familiar to me and some of which definitely were not. One person used the following quote: ‘Those who want to come with me must say no to the things they want’. I guessed that this must be from Matthew 16, but the particular form of words was entirely new to me. By googling it later I discovered that it was from a version called ‘God’s Word’, which I suspect is a paraphrase rather than a translation.
Whatever views we may have on the relative merits of this or that version of the Bible, what strikes me is that we no longer have a common language for scripture. It is not just that we have our own preferences in terms of the style and language of different translations, we also have versions that base themselves on a particular theological outlook that has helped to fashion the text (such as the New International Version).
When I was growing up there was only one Bible I would come across — the Authorised Version. At that time the New English Bible had made an appearance, but (at least in the circles I moved in) it was not normal to see it used in worship; it was more a study aid. And so my generation of young people had a significant fund of biblical passages which we could quote easily from memory.
Nowadays that is not so. Clearly part of the reason is that our society has a much more tenuous relationship with organised religion than it did back then. But I suspect that scripture is something less direct for us because, when we hear it, it can take any number of quite different forms. For a while I had begun to think that, perhaps, the New Revised Standard Version might become the dominant Bible, but I suspect this is not happening, and if I am honest, I have to admit that I am going off it somewhat; it, too, has too much of an agenda.
Maybe I am being nostalgic about something that had to come to an end anyway and that cannot be restored. But at least part of me regrets that we have lost the idea of scripture as a common property that is not just somewhere in the background but that is part of us and is, in large passages, remembered by us. I think we have lost something.