Further information on Winter 2020 courses


Richard Jorgensen: A Long and Winding Road–How the Bible Became the Bible


Expanded description:


Course text

Suggested Reading:

There are no required texts for this class. The following is a list of recommended books. (Some of these may be on hand at Content Book Store in Northfield.)

  • A History of the Bible, by John Barton. This 2019 publication is an encyclopedic but very readable book. For the purposes of this class, it may be helpful to refer to individual chapters.
  • God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson. A fascinating read. Not long after Tyndale is executed for his English translation, the king announces that “We will have an English Bible after all.” (Much of it Tyndale’s.) And who knew that one of the most beautiful works of literature in the English language was produced by a committee?
  • Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it inspired, by Benson Bobrick. Intrigue, suspense, murder—all because of the Bible!
  • How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. Cahill describes how—among other ways that the Irish “saved civilization”—Irish Catholic monks were largely responsible for copying and safeguarding the books of the Bible after the fall of Rome and throughout the Dark Ages.
  • The Gifts of the Jews, by Thomas Cahill. The sub-title summarizes the book’s theme: “How a tribe of desert nomads changed the way everyone thinks and feels.”

A Study Bible

This class is not a “Bible Study” in the sense that phrase is used in many churches, but because of our subject it is suggested that participants bring a Bible. A study Bible in the New Revised Standard Version is recommended, preferably including the Apocrypha (see list below), but we will also make reference to the King James Version.  We will not concentrate much on “chapter and verse” readings, but study Bibles have good introductory articles regarding the composition and dating of the books, the milieu in which they were written, and the formation of the canon. These are all good study Bibles, containing the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the New testament, and the Apocrypha.

  • The New Interpreters Study Bible with Apocrypha (NRSV)
  • The HarperCollins Study Bible with Apocrypha (NRSV)
  • The Catholic Study Bible, Third Edition
  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (NRSV)
  • The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter. This is a highly-acclaimed new translation. It’s a costly ($78) three-volume set; I will have a copy at the class.



Unpacking the Bible Box

  1. The writings that make up the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament are usually bound in one volume for reasons that will be discussed. But this binding can contribute to a general assumption that it is a single “book.” It may be useful to think of the collection as, rather, a box of books. In this session we’ll unpack that box—beginning with the books of the Hebrew Bible—and see the variety of styles, sources, eras, and agendas that are represented in the individual volumes.
  2. The earliest Christians did not have a “New Testament;” as a movement that developed within Judaism, their scripture was the Hebrew Bible (which the Christian Church later came to refer to as the Old Testament or the First Testament.) As we continue to unpack the later additions to the Bible Box, we again find a variety of kinds of writing. And when and how did these “new” books come to be considered holy scripture along with the venerable writings of their ancestors?

Constructing the Bible Box: The Biblical Canon

  1. “Canon” is a word that means “the authoritative writings.” After hundreds of years of geographically scattered transmission of scripture—by scroll, parchment, and word-of-mouth; individual copies passing from settlement to settlement on foot or horseback—and with isolated scribes producing new writings or commentaries on the old ones, religious leaders (in both Judaism and the nascent Christian Church) found it necessary to arrive at an agreement regarding which writings would have the authority of scripture. Less is known about this process in Judaism than in Christianity, but in both cases the decision was made by some kind of religious council.
  2. The development of the Christian canon (the Hebrew Bible plus the New Testament) is caught up in the history of empire and ecclesiastical politics. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE resulted in the literal scattering of the Jewish-Christian movement. The official acceptance of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in 313 gave new status to bishops, who came together to decide on which of the books that had been produced in the intervening centuries merited inclusion in the canon. (And we’ll look at some that didn’t make the cut.)

Waiting for Gutenberg

  1. After the formulation of the Christian biblical canon, eleven hundred years passed before the marvel of Gutenberg’s printing press. That’s a long time for church and synagogue to preserve and transmit their sacred writings—a period that includes the era known as the Dark Ages. Some give credit to monks hunched over their writing desks for producing copies, and for protecting them in times of upheaval and invasion.
  2. With the advent of printing, the Bible could be “placed in the hands of any plowboy” (in the words of William Tyndale). So why was Tyndale executed—by the church and the state—for the crime of producing a good, readable Bible in English? It’s a gripping story, one that culminates in the publication—approved by church and state!—of the King James Bible in English (which has its own gripping story).

“To Know Shakespeare and the Bible”

  1. For centuries, The King James Bible and Shakespeare were considered to be the “two great pillars of culture,” especially in the English-speaking world; a well-educated person would have at least some familiarity with both. (The inclusion of the Bible in this duo is because of its status as an academic and linguistic touchstone as much as a religious one.) Is this still the case? In an educational environment of separation of church and state (a policy this presenter agrees with), ought the Bible still be taught as literature? Should it be part of a Humanities curriculum?
  2. The western literary tradition is permeated with biblical influence and biblical citations. “Moby Dick,” for example, a book rightly regarded as “the great American novel,” and which has no overtly religious agenda, would, nonetheless, not hang together without its biblical background and references. Martin Luther’s renegade vernacular translation of the Bible, and the King James Bible, are considered to have provided the framework of the modern German and English languages; phrases from William Tyndale’s English translation have become a part of everyday conversation. In this final session, we’ll consider a number of ways—both obvious and subtle—in which the Bible is found in our literature, our language, and our understanding of the world.