New Bible Is a Matter of Time

By Tim Murphy
Religion News Service
Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bob Sanford wanted to create a Bible that would bring order and clarity to the text. Instead, he's waded into one of the great debates of biblical scholarship.

The "Chronological Study Bible" will be released this fall in the midst of a Bible-publishing boom in the United States. In an industry that now has as much to do with profits as with prophets, Sanford expects his new edition to have wide appeal.

The challenge "is to take the scholarship and make it enjoyable to a readership that enjoys history," said Sanford, who oversees the Bible division for the giant Christian publisher Thomas Nelson.

The edition rejiggers the order of books, psalms and Gospels to provide a historical framework for a text most scholars consider chronologically challenged.

So, for example, whole sections of Isaiah and Nehemiah are reordered to better reflect an accurate historical timeline; the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are merged into one based on Mark's chronology; and some of St. Paul's letters, which traditionally appear later in the New Testament, are woven into the Book of Acts.

Some biblical scholars aren't buying the idea.

"Any biblical studies expert worth their salt would not have much interest in this at all, except as kind of a curiosity," said Pat Graham, a professor at Emory University.

At issue for scholars is a question they have grappled with for generations: When -- and by whom -- was the Bible written? For readers, the larger question is this: Does it really matter if Ezekial, say, appears before or after Nehemiah, and does it make a difference if a biblical timeline looks more like a zigzag?

The most recognizable changes in the "Chronological Study Bible" come in the placement of non-narrative sections -- the books that aren't necessarily anchored by specific people, places and events. The Book of Psalms, which appears in the middle of the Old Testament in most editions, is split up in the new edition by time period. All psalms relating to David, for example, will instead appear as supplements to the relevant books of the Old Testament such as 1 Chronicles.

Sanford says unlocking and reordering the Bible's chronology can help readers understand the context in which portions of the book were written. But in practice, scholars say, this can prove challenging.

For some biblical accounts, such as the Israelites' exile to Babylon, there are historical accounts to support the narrative. Other stories require a leap of faith. Scholars say trying to rearrange individual books requires getting to the bottom of some of the world's oldest known cases of identity theft: Many biblical works were the handiwork of multiple authors, all writing under a single name.

"It was very common in antiquity to attribute one's own writings to the most important historians in the past," said Michael D. Coogan, a professor at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., and editor of "The New Oxford Annotated Bible." "It happens not just in the Bible. Socrates certainly didn't say everything Plato quotes him as saying."

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