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Engaging Bible history adds little new knowledge

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The Story of the Bible

The Fascinating History of its Writing, Translation and Effect on Civilization

By Larry Stone

Thomas Nelson, 96 pages, $44

That collection of sacred writings known as the Bible is, unquestionably, the most influential book in world history.

For centuries it has been the basis of spirituality and moral behaviour, artistic inspiration and personal reflection for hundreds of millions of people. It is one of the foundations of western civilization and its sonorous passages have become memorable in hundreds of languages. At Christmas time, we pay it particular attention.

It is certainly the most studied of all books, scrutinized by critics and faithful alike, dissected minutely for any and all hints of its authorship, chronology and transmission over time.

Countless other books have been written about it -- some of them works of arid scholarship and others riding the bestseller charts, some written by unbelievers and others by eager defenders of the Christian faith.

Among the latter we must count Nashville-based Christian publisher Larry Stone, author of this ambitious, accessible and colourful, though simplistic, history of the Bible's literary roots.

Stone believes that though the Bible was written over a period of 1,500 years by more than 40 authors in three languages, the book presents one consistent message from God to humanity. As such, the story of the book is a tale worth telling.

Stone begins at the very beginning: with papyrus, parchment and alphabets, the raw materials of the written word. He shows how the ancient Hebrews emerged as a distinct people in the Middle East and how their sacred Scriptures came to include their god-received law, histories of their settlements, conquests and defeats as well as books of poetry, praise and prophecy.

He is particularly interested in how these writings survived in both Hebrew and Greek versions and how the discovery in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the accuracy of the Scriptures that have come down to our generation.

In examining the formation of the Christian Scriptures, Stone makes an interesting claim: that, of all ancient texts, the surviving copies of the New Testament are closest in time to the original compositions.

Only 70 to 170 years separate their authors from surviving manuscripts of the Gospels and letters to the early churches. For other books of the classical period, 350 years lie between the writings of Vergil and the oldest manuscripts; for the Greek dramatists our oldest copies date from 1,000 years after their originals.

After recounting the decisions that led some early Christian writings to be considered worthy of inclusion in the definitive collection that became the New Testament, Stone follows its spread to the barbarian peoples who overran the Roman Empire.

The Irish Book of Kells and the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels, which emerged from the medieval campaign of evangelizing pagan Europe, are two of the enduring ornaments of western civilization.

Stone then takes up the problem of Bible translation and those religious rebels who sought to make the Scriptures available in the language of the common people.

In opposing translators such as the English priest John Wycliffe, the Catholic Church made the accurate prediction that putting the Bible in the hands of ordinary folk would lead to a dangerous explosion of interpretations, with each man deciding what the word of God might mean.

This proved to be the case in the 16th century when vernacular versions of the Bible produced in Germany by Martin Luther or in England by Matthew Tyndale helped fuel the conflagration that was the Protestant Reformation. After that there was no putting the genie back in the bottle, and by the 21st century the Bible had been translated into thousands of languages around the world.

This is an important history but Stone's text, engaging though it is, adds little that is new to our knowledge of the Bible. Where this book might claim to take an original approach is in its inclusion of 23 "life-sized pull-out pages" from important versions of scripture.

Readers can hold in their hands facsimiles of the Codex Vaticanus, the Geneva Bible and a fragment of the Nash Papyrus. Some might think this is too much like a pop-up book for adults but others might appreciate the chance to handle paper that looks like parchment or vellum.

Should the publishers wish to put out a second edition of this attractive, over-sized volume, they might want to invest a bit in a good editor. Stone, who is a vice-president of the Nelson company, is not a trained historian.

His book confuses the Viking invasions with those of the Saxons (an error of 300 years); he asserts that the pope returned St. Mark's body to Alexandria (Paul VI only donated a bone fragment; the body remains in Venice); and he seems to think that British and English are interchangeable terms.

University of Manitoba history professor Gerry Bowler is the author of Europe in the Sixteenth Century, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas and Santa Claus: A Biography.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2010 H10

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