The Electronic Labyrinth

The Bible

The Bible is the name given to the collection of manuscripts which form the scriptures of the Christian religion. The most influential version of the Bible in English, The Authorized King James Version (1611), is divided into three parts: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Apocrypha. The Old Testament is the Christian name for the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament consists of those writings recounting the life of Jesus Christ, and the Apocrypha of those books of the Hebrew canon considered as informative for instruction but not divinely inspired. The antiquity of the Old Testament is not known, but it is generally agreed that the first compilations of folkloric material that would form the Hebrew canon were undertaken circa 1000 BCE. The New Testament was compiled by an ecclesiastical committee which selected from a large collection of early Christian writings; it first appeared in its present form in the Festal Epistle of St. Athanasius (367 CE).

Despite the fact that what should and should not be included in it was decided by vote, the Bible is traditionally understood as the direct, undiluted word of God. Its corollary was the cosmos itself, or The Book of Nature; both texts revealed the divine truth of God's plan for creation. Literal interpretations of the scripture, however, soon collapsed under the weight of repeated disconfirmations of some of its more pointed prophecies. St. Augustine provided a convenient means of by-passing the literality of the scriptures by reading them as a form of allegory. The Reformation saw a swing back to treating the Bible as the literal truth (a movement still in evidence today in Christian Fundamentalism), but also succeeded in wresting authority for the interpretation of scripture away from the Catholic Church (which still claims to be the final arbiter of God's word) and placing it in the hands of the individual believer. This is the basis for what is known as Protestantism.

The history of the Bible, then, is at one with the history of The Book; with the publication of Johannes Gutenberg's version, the Bible became the first printed book and exerted an increasingly great influence on the idea of what a text should be. The Bible, Christian exegetes claim, speaks to a basic human desire for limits, for certainty and closure. However, in its efforts to maintain its image of textual coherency, the Bible has been as much a site of interpretative struggle as ideological; it demonstrates, indeed, that the political is imbricated in every reading and every writing. The historical shifting of the locus of truth in the Bible from the word, to an authorized interpretation, to the subjective response of the believer, belies the impossibility of ever fixing truth to the polysemic nature of the sign; the history of Bible is nothing but the history of its many interpretations, of its demonstration of the irreducible polyphony of the sign and of language itself. It is the history of the effort to forestall the inevitable slippage of meaning into the free play, the multiple and mutable truths of the writerly text.

Indeed, with its many interlocking parts (the Synoptic Gospels, for example, tell many of the same stories from different points of view), its tentative sequentiality (unlike a novel, very few readers actually read the scriptures from beginning to end. Many find it just as useful to open the text to any page and read what ever chance/divine guidance shows them), and its history of multiple interpretations and re-writings (William Blake, for example, believed Satan was the hero of Genesis), it is just as possible to see the Bible as the model of hypertext as it is of The Book. In every Book, one might say, is a hypertext struggling to get out and vice versa. This should not, however, obscure from us the fact that the Bible continues to fascinate, and to inspire its believers precisely because it holds out the possibility of the divinely ordained word.

See also: The Electronic Bible.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
contact us