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Alyssa Beall Essay

My immediate response to The Question is another question: which Bible are we going to discuss, and why?  Our understandings of The Question are formed, in large part, by which groups of texts we are considering to be authoritative; by whom that authority is then wielded (and how), and also by challenges to or criticisms of those stances.

Historically, different groups of Jews and Christians have used a fair variety of texts, which counted as "the Bible" for those groups. Some of these we have fragments or full copies of, others are likely completely lost to us.  In the Humanities, I don't think we can simply avoid these because they weren't the texts of the "winning" historical groups.  Rather, our job is to understand the contexts they were told and written in, and hopefully gain a fuller picture of what all those texts accomplished for their communities.

A second layer of questioning then arises around how and why a particular group of texts (which became authoritative for one group, historically) maintain that authority today.  Asking how ancient texts are to be read, translated, and understood in the current day is important for all kinds of people and groups! One particular quote from an article in my Religion/Sex/Gender course comes to mind, here: in the context of discussing norms of gender and sexuality, Judith Plaskow argues that the biblical traditions are constantly shifting and that views or readings of texts that might be in the minority one decade or century can become the majority position in other time periods. She then continues, “once we acknowledge the possibility of deeply questioning any element of tradition, we seem to undermine the hope of religious certainty at a level that goes far beyond the specific issue at hand.”[1]  What is at stake, then, is not just one text, or one sentence of a text, but the larger authority the text holds in society.

Does a question/answer of "which Bible" do anything for the initial question?  For me, such answers point to the innate value of Religious Studies as a discipline: we don't simply accept the legitimacy of a particular understanding of a group of texts.  What Religious Studies often asks is: what is important to whom, and why?  What is gained by putting forth one group of texts as legitimate?  Who benefits, who suffers, and who gets completely excluded from the conversation?  Those are the questions we can ask about any group of religious or cultural texts, be they Christian or Buddhist; written scriptures or the visual arts; historical or modern.


The Dead Sea Scrolls:

The Gnostic Gospels:

Plaskow, Judith. "Authority, Resistance, Transformation: Jewish Feminist Reflections on Good Sex." In Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World's Religions, 128. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2001.