Is nothing sacred? The Bible, at least, is immutable, right? Mt. Kilimanjaro may lose its snow and Manhattan might sink, but isn't the Bible fixed, standardized for all time, its very unchangeableness a fundamental quality of the Book of Books?

Actually, the Bible as we know it today developed over a long period of time, and four new books by biblical studies scholars shed light on that not-simple process. Some even challenge readers to rethink exactly what the Bible is.

The Bible Plus

A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar.) integrates books that are not part of the Bible we know today and encourages readers to take those additions just as seriously as the gospels or the letters of Paul. After all, the argument goes, books such as the gospels of Thomas and Mary, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the strange poem “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” circulated among Jesus-following believers in early centuries just as did the books that made the cut and became part of the canon. But A New New Testament is neither argumentative nor academic. It is, according to its subtitle, A Bible for the 21st Century. Hal Taussig, who edited the book and provides commentary throughout, wants readers to use it with full spiritual engagement. "With a light and open heart, approach this reading with joy, anticipation, and what beckons to you," he writes. Senior editor Jenna Johnson explains that "the project is not just scripture but a groundbreaking effort to reframe the conversation about the Christian Bible." She identifies "spiritual seekers" as well as "those interested in the cultural impact of faith" among the readers they hope to reach.

Complicating the task of precisely defining the Bible is the fact that we don't have an original. That makes the discoveries of ancient texts such as those found around the Dead Sea in Israel and Nag Hamadi in Egypt especially significant. Dating from times before the collection was canonized, they show what books were still in flux around the period of canonization. Geza Vermes, one of the foremost scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christianity, brings a lifetime of work to bear on his latest book, Christian Beginnings: from Nazareth to Nicea (Yale, Mar.). Vermes discusses the transformation from a Jewish prophet-type Jesus of Nazareth into the cosmically messianic Christ of a new religion, and the texts that reflect this. Along the way, he shows just how messy and uncertain that process was, even centuries after Jesus' life and death.

Some early biblical manuscripts reward close readers with hints of pre-biblical diversity. But only now is one early witness available to English-speaking readers. The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah (Eerdmans, Mar.) makes it easy to see where the Samaritan and traditional Jewish texts differ by laying them out in parallel columns. Senior Editor Allen Myers notes that "textual and linguistic study of the Hebrew Scriptures [Old Testament] has long been an emphasis of Eerdmans’ Biblical Studies program." He hopes that "this English translation will open the Samaritan version to a large audience, for many readers previously unfamiliar with or unable to access the text itself, as well as for textual critics interested in comparison of the ancient biblical traditions." Its translator, Benyamin Tsedaka, is among those who believe that the Samaritan version may reflect an even more "original" Pentateuch than does the official, Masoretic text.

The implications of these early texts are profound. If translation is based on a different version than the ones traditionally accepted (because of a presumed oldest age), then it might seem that our Bible has been reinvented.

And a Fresh Translation

Translation itself is a kind of reinvention. The so-called "historical books" of Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1 and 2), and Kings (1 and 2) have some of the best-loved stories in the Bible--Joshua and the battle of Jericho, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath, Solomon's wise judgment, Elijah and Elisha--so they would hardly seem to require fresh treatment. Yet, Robert Alter's new translation Ancient Israel (W. W. Norton, Apr.) not only tells the biblical stories again with all of their intrinsic drama, but also reflects the literary artistry of the original Hebrew. After initial skepticism, Alter says that he was "pleasantly surprised" to find that his English version indeed captures much of the "stylistic power and subtlety of the Hebrew."

Such a remark reflects what Steve Forman, senior editor and v-p of W. W. Norton, reports is Alter's humility about his remarkable depth of scholarship paired with acute literary sensibilities. Forman has worked with Alter on several books of biblical translation, including Genesis; the five books of Moses; the Psalms; and Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Like those earlier books, Ancient Israel includes extensive commentary about the language and text, which Forman says is like having "an ideal expert whispering in your ear as you go through the text." Readers will benefit from Alter's effort to apply such treatment to the entire Hebrew Bible.

Books such as these that explore the dynamic origins of biblical texts and translate ancient lyricism into modern English show readers just how new the old can become.