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Ted Vehse Essay

In a lighthearted caricature of the rabbinic mindset, one best answers a question with another question. To begin, therefore, we should ask: which Bible? Are we talking about the Tanakh, sacred text of the Jewish People, which includes the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings? Or, are we perhaps discussing the Christian Bible, with its two Testaments, Old and New. If the latter, are we also going to consider the Bible of the Church of Latter Day Saints with its crucial supplement, the Book of Mormon? There are surely many similar questions to ask at the beginning of any such conversation. Answering them will set the stage for our approach.

Secondly, one might ask: a positive or negative force for whom? Are we asking in regard, for instance, to the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1960’s? (Surely, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and writings lend important insights here.) Are we asking on behalf of the Women’s Movement world-wide and, if so, what shall we do about the story of the Rape of Dinah in Genesis or the Apostle Paul’s writings on marriage and feminine subservience, generally? Are we asking on behalf of a community or each for her- or himself, alone? Again, knowing how to answer these questions will determine much of how we approach the larger question.

Finally, it seems to me we must ask, when? The Bible, in fact, has not existed “throughout history.” Most scholars agree the earliest components of the Biblical text date to the 8th century BCE. The latest components of the traditional New Testament date to the late 1st or early 2nd century CE. Composition of the Biblical text or texts probably spans a millennium. Are we going to ask with respect to the much later Middle Ages in Western Europe or the era of modern colonialism in the Americas? What? When? Where and for whom? These questions we must answer before moving on seriously to “the Question,” as it has been posed.

Perhaps, we might venture an answer of both yes and no in either case: the Bible as positive or negative force. This raises the prospect that, for better or worse, the Bible has made a big difference. It would seem, then, what we’re really asking is whether we should consider the Bible influential or great.

While possibly a matter of moral ambiguity, greatness usually is interesting to discuss. It can, for example, be said to have certain drawbacks. (Something plainly can be great without also being uniquely good. The hero of ancient Greek myth, Achilles, is obviously great; it is a matter of opinion, often of debate, whether he should be considered good.) Maybe the Bible has made life interesting in a particular way at certain points. The cases of Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press or of Britain’s King James I and the eponymous English translation spring to mind.

Whether positive or negative, the Bible surely has been a far greater force in human experience than we’re generally aware of on a daily basis. It deeply has influenced language, thought, politics, law, economics, and the arts. It has been a force of one kind or another in virtually every area and aspect of human life.

For an interesting take on comparison between the Creation Story in the Book of Genesis and a possibly related ancient Near Eastern text, see the following link: