Monday, October 6, 2008

The Bible as an Archives

The word “bible” is derived from the Greek word “biblos,” which refers to the inner bark of the papyrus plant used for writing material in the ancient world. By implication, biblos also refers to a sheet or scroll of writing and is often translated as “scroll” or “book.” (Book, in its earliest sense, probably refers to writing material as well: the word is thought to be connected with the beech-tree, from which beechen tablets were made.) The Bible was first, in both Greek and Latin, Biblia—a collection of books, first in the form of scrolls and later in the form of codices.

Karel van der Toorn, in Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Harvard, 2007), prefers to avoid the word book to describe the literary productions of the ancient Near East: “There were documents, literary compilations, myths, collections of prayers, ritual prescriptions, chronicles, and the like.” And the Bible became a useful collection of such things: “The Bible is a repository of tradition, accumulated over time, that was preserved and studied by a small body of specialists” (5).

Rather than view the Bible as a library, van der Toorn argues that the Bible is more akin to an archives: “A biblical book is often like a box containing heterogeneous materials brought together on the assumption of common authorship, subject matter, or chronology” (15).

Of course this distinction depends on rather modern conceptions of libraries and archives. …

Below: Jerome at work on the Vulgate (detail from the Biblia Sacra title page above)