Monday, May 31, 2010

Bibles And Lightsabers

I once heard someone jokingly state that if God were so inclined, he could file the mother of all copyright infringement lawsuits against George Lucas. I’m not certain that the original Bible is covered by any sort of copyright, but I understand the sentiment behind the statement just the same.

Perhaps some would begin by comparing the general themes of these two great works. Both contain stories of good versus evil. Both center around epic heroes, including at least one born of a virgin. And both propose the possibility of redemption for the fallen sinner.

I, on the other hand, am more inclined to look for the quirky similarities. A short list might include the following:

1. Much like the Jedi, the Christian missionaries in the book of Acts tend to travel in pairs. Consider, for example:

Acts 14:1: At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue.

Acts 15:27: Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing.

Acts 19:22: He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia.

Of course, the seventy-two disciples in Luke 10 were also sent out in pairs.

2. Like Jedi, Christians are provided with a “sword” as their primary weapon. Much like the lightsaber of Star Wars, this weapon is useful only in the hands of one correctly in tune with “The Force.”

Ephesians 6:17: Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

The weapon in Genesis 3:24 sounds eerily similar to a lightsaber, in any event: “After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”

3. Similar to Obi Wan Kenobi, we observe Elisha performing something akin to a Jedi mind trick upon the men sent to capture him. Compare the relevant quotes:

Obi Wan: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

2Kings 6:18-19: As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, “Strike these people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked. Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.”

I’ll leave you with these final two comparisons:

Anakin Skywalker: The Jedi are selfless. They only care about others.

Paul (Philippians 2:3-4): Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Luke: I can’t believe it.
Yoda: That is why you fail.

Matthew 17:19-21: Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Spurlock Museum

I first read about Papyrus 23 in “Encountering The Manuscripts” by Philip Comfort. He argued that its paleographical resemblance to Beatty IX suggested a date of 200 AD, or perhaps even earlier. That would make it the oldest fragment of James’ Epistle in the world.

But what really caught my attention was its location. Urbana, Illinois – just an hour and a half from Lafayette. There was no question in my mind I would be going to see it.

Papyrus 23 is among the manuscripts known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. These manuscripts were found by archaeologists working in Egypt around the turn of the century, and include thousands of ancient fragments. Among these are several biblical works, from both the New Testament and the Septuagint.

Because I despise any kind of winter driving, I opted to wait until March before leaving for Urbana. Not that there wasn’t plenty to do at home. Most important was to begin memorizing the Greek text. I didn’t just want to see Papyrus 23 when I went to Illinois – I wanted to read it for myself. Frankly, the thought of reading from the same manuscript that was being used in a Christian congregation 1800 years ago felt exciting. The text was short, anyhow – only a handful of verses.

It was a bright Sunday afternoon as we left Lafayette. I was very fortune in this instance to be married to a woman who loves road trips. In fact, if Liz had had her way, we’d probably have stayed in Urbana all weekend.

The trip was uneventful, if relaxing, and we arrived at the University of Illinois after just one wrong turn. It was only now that I discovered the one thing that I had failed to plan for: parking meters.

After a delay of nearly twenty minutes driving around the campus, and a stop at Jimmy John’s to make change, we arrived at the Spurlock Museum – for a second time. Getting out of the car, I inserted six quarters (two hours) into the parking meter. Only then did I notice that parking was free on weekends.

Once inside the museum, the remainder of the afternoon proved much better. The museum was divided into several large rooms, each corresponding to specific regions of the world. We decided to begin in the European room. Here, my attention was first drawn to a fine collection of illuminated manuscripts. Among these was a luminous text produced in 15th century France, and a German manuscript of the same era with colored woodblock initials.

Moving along we stumbled upon a collection of Reformation items, including a handwritten indulgence and a fifteenth century printing of Martin Luther’s “On Aplas Von Rom.” Nearby were a loose leaf from a Gutenberg Bible and a page from a handwritten Latin Vulgate.

Working our way through the displays, we observed a large Torah scroll produced in the fifteenth century, and a very nicely illuminated Qur’an. Nearby was a collection of cuneiform clay tablets. This trip was proving reasonably exciting for someone with an interest in the history of writing and linguistics!

And so, at last, we arrived at the Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection. There, nestled between a widow’s petition and Thucydides Book V, was Papyrus 23.

Μη πλανασθε αδελφοι μου αγαπητοι…

Who, I wondered, had read this tiny fragment in its earliest days? Here before me was a page of Scripture copied before the Reformation, before the Great Schism, before the Council of Nicaea, nearly a hundred years even before the birth of Constantine. Here before me was a fragment of James’ Epistle only 125 years removed from the original. Truly, it was a privilege to see and read this tiny page of Greek writing firsthand.

We cycled around each of the manuscript collections several more times before heading to Biaggi’s in nearby Champaign for dinner. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day. Parking meters and all.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Opening Confession

I have a confession. I collect Bibles. All kinds of Bibles. I’ve tried cutting back in the past. I sorted through them, selecting the volumes I was willing to part with. I donated some to Goodwill, and donated others to the library’s quarterly book sale. Some I gave to friends. And yet, strangely, the collection only seems to have grown larger.

It’s grown so much, in fact, that I’ve recently been forced to re-organize it into seven sub-groups.

1. Original Language Bibles. If it’s Hebrew or Greek, I just can’t let it go.

2. English Translation Bibles. It’s my goal to have as many translations as possible represented in my collection. Currently, I stand at thirty.

3. Foreign Language Bibles. Of course I don’t have any real purpose for a Bible in, say, Chinese - but how can I let go of a book written in such a beautiful script? That it incidentally happens to be a Bible is just a bonus.

4. Special Bibles. Everything from Study Bibles, to Audio Bibles, to Bibles with special features or formats.

5. Sentimental Bibles. A few that were gifts, and several that I’ve “marked up” over the last ten years. These are the Bibles I’ve come to know the best, the ones I’ve carried with me and used for my devotional reading. They represent, perhaps, the most justified sub-group of my collection.

6. On-Location Bibles. Because you never know when you’re going to need a Bible on the go. I keep one in my pocket, one by my bedside, and a third in my car’s glove box.

7. Display Bibles. These are the ones I can really show off. A few small scrolls, a handwritten Book of Esther, a tiny Sefer Tehillim inserted into a keychain.

Put together, there are about fifty Bibles in these combined collections. I know that I don’t need so many, and yet each one seems to be a legitimate “keeper.” Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad, except for the constant drive I feel to buy yet more. I used to tell myself, “This will be the last one, and my collection will be complete.” Now I know better than to believe such empty words. There will always be another Bible.

Just a few weeks ago, I found myself at the local Christian bookstore flipping through the NIV 30th anniversary edition “Bible Across America.” I knew, of course, that I didn’t really need another NIV. In fact, I had nine of them already. But this one was different: Each verse was handwritten by a different individual. Over 30,000 people had helped to complete the project. How could I resist such a symbolic throwback to the days before Gutenberg? I had to have it.

And my wish-list continues to grow. How can I be satisfied with a collection that lacks, for example, Everett Fox’s brilliant translation of the Torah? Or such historically important translations as the Latin Vulgate, the Douay-Rheims Version, or a facsimile of the original Geneva Bible? What about Genesis 1 inscribed on an egg? Or the entire Bible on a keychain? Perhaps I should take it a step further and buy the Bible inscribed in micro-print on a single crystal. (Never mind I could never read it without a microscope – it’s written in Latin anyhow.) And on and on it goes.

Of course, my wife is less than thrilled by my addiction - and understandably so. As I continue dragging home new copies of the book I already own, she watches helplessly while our free shelf space continues to disappear. My Bible collection has slowly spread from one shelf, to two, to three, to an entire bookcase. And now they've begun their infiltration atop another. If they continue at this rate, we’ll soon own more copies of Scripture than the stores I’m buying them from.

It’s not as if I don’t read them. I work my way through the Bible a minimum of once every year. And it’s not as if I don’t use all of the Bibles in my collection (sans the Foreign Language collection, perhaps.) I vary the translation I’m using almost weekly. I review the notes in my Study Bibles daily. And I consult my Hebrew and Greek Bibles at least on occasion.

So why do I feel so guilty? Perhaps it’s the knowledge that so many Christians through history couldn’t own even a single Bible if they’d wanted to. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that, at the end of the day, seven or eight versions are more than sufficient to represent the translation spectrum. Perhaps it’s just sympathy for my poor wife, many of whose books are now re-located to the closet.

And yet, as I write this, I find my mind wandering to the next addition. In just a few weeks, I’ll have saved enough of my personal spending money (a mere $30 a week) to purchase a leaf from a Latin Bible hand-written in a French monastery around the year 1260. Never mind the fifty-some Bibles I already own: none of them is more than sixty years old. This is an incredible 750 years old. And while it will be, by far, the most expensive piece I’ve bought to date, somehow I know that it’s worth it. And I know that it will be a huge step towards finally completing my collection.

For now, at least.