Nature of Scripture, Part 1: Scripture as Art

Abbey Bible
Picture Credit: https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/09/getty-museum-medieval-bible-.html

It is debatable whether more ink or blood has been spilled throughout history over disagreements about the nature of scripture. The greatest expenditure occurred during the Reformation, but the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also resulted in a substantial outflowing. And yet the issue has never been settled, either amongst the denominations or within any single church. In addressing this subject in our age, I need not fear violence, but I fear I may not hope for many readers either.

There is much to love about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not the least of which is its unique take on scripture. We believe the scriptures to be the word of God in a sense not entirely pinned down, but we do not believe in scriptural infallibility. From this perspective, church members should be free to appreciate the scriptures in a relatively free and broad-minded manner. Yet we tend to slip into the habit of reading our scriptures as if the main point was simply to set forth true doctrine (i.e., “Mormon doctrine”–what we already believe and understand)–as if the scriptures reached no higher and probed no deeper than the Gospel Principles manual. Without denigrating the eternally important purpose of teaching true doctrine, I hope to set forth other aspects of scripture to encourage a less dogmatic approach that is both richer and truer to the text. Stay tuned over the next week or two for a series of posts highlighting what scripture is besides doctrinal instruction, starting with art.

Scripture as Art: A God Who Puns

Among scholars of scripture, the claim that scripture is art must be one of the few uncontroversial claims. Whatever else it is, whatever more than art, it is certainly not less than art. The canonical words of the Bible and Book of Mormon come down to us in the particular art forms and genres that developed in the ancient Hebrew culture; the great sections of the Doctrine and Covenants are stamped with a wonderful conglomerate style that mingles two of the literary high points of English prose–King James’s reign and the mid-19th century.

Part of the reason we tend to miss the artistic aspect of scripture is that some of it is lost in translation. “Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” The Greek word “petros” (rock) made this statement a pun. This is one of the better known instances, but punning and word play is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Few of them translate into English. Nor would any use of meter, consonance, assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.

But though we lack direct access to the original sounds that the original authors used to aesthetic advantage, we are still without excuse if we fail to recognize scripture as art. Many of Jesus’s parables are perfectly constructed gems from a purely aesthetic perspective, leaving aside their truth and moral power. Much of the prophetic writing in the Old Testament is in verse (though the King James translation fails to capture this fact). And while much of the aesthetic flourishes of scripture do not translate, some do. When Jesus told Peter, “I say unto you, not until seven times, but until seventy times seven,” the wordplay here translates pretty well. The word “times” in English evidently corresponds with the original language’s word. Both carry the related meanings of “instances” and “multiplied by.” Both cultures used a base-10 system of counting so that “seven” correlates with “seventy.”

Note that if Jesus had intended merely to express clearly and unambiguously the actual doctrine, he would have simply said, “always forgive” or some such statement. His use of aesthetic flourishes actually risks obscuring  his meaning for a people who seemed to take everything he said literally. So why did he not adapt himself to their weakness and speak in plain, unmistakeable prose? There are no doubt many good answers to this question, but my main point here is not to address the why of it, but just the fact itself: the scriptures bespeak a God who is alive to the richness and play of language, and who sometimes prefers a good pun or an ambiguous story, that he may express his meaning (or meanings) in a manner pleasing to the sense, tractable to the memory, and demanding of the intellect. Because of this, scripture requires, even more than most texts, an interpretive act whereby we put something of ourselves into the text.

Next: Scripture as Myth: A God Who Comes Alive Again

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2 thoughts on “Nature of Scripture, Part 1: Scripture as Art

  1. I have grieved a little at times for the modern church translators who have to take a general conference address that relies heavily on alliteration or other English language-specific devices to emphasize its meaning and try to convert it to other tongues in a way that makes sense to the worldwide church.

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