What could possibly be new about biblical scholarship? After all, "there's nothing new under the sun," according to Ecclesiastes—the biblical book, or guy, by that name. Or if you're reading that book in Hebrew, it's not Ecclesiastes but Qoheleth, so some English translations call him "the Preacher." If all this sounds confusing, that's one reason people can still make a living studying and teaching the Bible and why new Bible reference books are still being published. Biblical scholarship is alive and well, yielding fresh insights into that ancient text.
The Bible continues to outsell all other books, and it is authoritative for millions of Jews and Christians. But the Bible is complicated, and translation issues are only one part of that. The longer it lives in faith and culture, the more there is to say about the Book of Books.
For example, the King James Version has proved enormously influential. It preserved an archaic style of speech that many think of as "biblical language"—"saith," "yea," and all those "thees" and "thous." It also contributed many common and familiar phrases to the culture. The KJV turns 400 this year, and in recognition of this milestone, several books look afresh at it and the man behind it (Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible by David Teems; Thomas Nelson, Oct.), its development (Bible: The Story of the King James Version by Gordon Campbell; Oxford, Oct.), and the ways in which it has influenced English writing style (Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible by Robert Alter; Princeton, Apr.) and turns of phrase (Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language by David Crystal; Oxford, Dec.). Thomas Nelson is partnering with the History Channel Club, the History Channel Magazine, and Salem Communications to bring information about the KJV to online, print, and radio venues, opening the text anew to religious and nonreligious people around the world.
While these books examine matters of translation more or less directly in the context of focused topics, other books focus on translation itself. The Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex by Hayim Tawil & Bernard Schneider (Jewish Publication Society, May) traces in extraordinary detail—generously supplemented by photos—the development and survival of the oldest existing Hebrew-language manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. This "Aleppo Codex," completed in 930 C.E., lies behind nearly all translations of Old Testament books. That we don't have a complete manuscript earlier than this should give pause to readers of Joel M. Hoffman's And God Said when they come to its subtitle: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning (St. Martin's/Dunne, Feb. 2010). Hoffman notes that any given word might have a range of meanings in the original biblical language, a quality that Pamela Greenberg exploits in her fresh translation of the Psalms (The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation, Bloomsbury, Apr.).
Language and culture continue to change, making new translations and interpretations as important as ever. Two issues of modern concern that generate fresh scholarly contributions are sex/love and science and the natural world. Michael Coogan's God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says (Twelve, Oct.) offers the best scholarship on a topic of timeless fascination in a form that's engaging for general readers, but also brings information that may surprise even some scholars. The authors of Sex & Religion in the Bible (Calum Carmichael; Yale, Feb. 2010) and With All Thine Heart: Love and the Bible (Ilan Stavans, Rutgers, Sept.) are not biblical scholars, but bring academic sensibilities to the topic. They differ markedly between Carmichael's professorial tone and the conversational style and arrangement of Stavans (with Mordechai Drache).
In Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters by Terence Fretheim (Baker Academic, Sept.) and The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder by William P. Brown (Oxford, Mar. 2010), specialists in the Hebrew Bible discuss some of the concerns people raise today about humans' relationship to the natural world—how we understand it, how we live in it, and how the Bible describes God's earthly involvement. Fretheim tackles one of the most intractable biblical problems—where is God in pain and suffering, and more specifically, what is God's role in natural disasters? Brown invites readers to appreciate what is wondrous about the natural world. Seeing that wonder as common ground for science and faith, Brown finds harmony between the two.
We are still learning about the worlds of the Bible, its languages, and its development. The work of academics can enrich and inform general readers' understanding of how the Bible speaks to contemporary concerns and how people interpret and apply biblical texts today. Each generation must learn again what their predecessors knew to build on or correct received knowledge, wrestle with the big questions, and entertain the spunky angels of curiosity and wisdom.
Kristin Swenson is the author of Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (Harper, Feb. 2010) and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.