This week, the last Sunday of October, the Church of England gives us three options. We can keep the Last Sunday after Trinity in which case we use the Revised Common Lectionary readings. Or we can keep the feast of the Dedication of the Church if we don’t know the correct date – that’s usually only true of very old churches, and since we know ours that wasn’t a choice. Or we can keep Bible Sunday. Since I’m a great believer in encouraging regular reading of the Scriptures, on the grounds that God’s Word is supremely important since it’s one of the key ways in which he speaks to us and instructs us, I chose to keep Bible Sunday. Here’s what I said.
When was the last time you read your Bible?
I have a reason for asking, and it’s not what you think! Of course, I hope you’re reading it regularly and frequently, but let me explain my real reason for asking!
This week it was reported in the press that Bonhams the auctioneers would be selling a very old edition of the King James Bible at auction on the 11th of November. Printed in 1631 it is expected to sell for at least £15,000. Part of a print run of about 1,000, only about 9 are known still to exist. So what’s so special about this particular Bible? Well, it’s a copy of what came to be known as The Sinner’s Bible because of a printing error. The King’s printers, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, who were responsible for the printing of the Bible failed to notice that they had left out a very important word – the word not. Unfortunately they left it out of the seventh commandment – which meant that anyone reading the ten commandments would have read Thou shalt commit adultery.
Once the mistake was spotted the two printers were summoned to appear before the King, Charles I. They were found guilty, fined £300 – a pretty hefty sum in those days – and deprived of their printing license. Other than a few copies, including the one to go on auction shortly – most of the Bibles were impounded and burnt. It’s now thought that the omission of the word not was not a simple mistake but an act of sabotage by a rival printer. Well, whatever the cause, it put Baker and Lucas out of business.
So why did I ask my original question – when was the last time you read your Bible? Well, the thing is, in spite of such a major error appearing in one of the most important passages in the Bible, it was about a year after the printing before the mistake was spotted. You would have thought that someone might have noticed fairly quickly that one of the ten commandments now instructed people that they should commit adultery. But no – it took a year until someone noticed. I sincerely hope that you all read the Bible somewhat more frequently.
To be fair, and since those 1,000 copies of the Bible containing the unfortunate error were probably in libraries or churches, it might not have been spotted until the ten commandments came up in the table of readings in the Book of Common Prayer. And since most ordinary people couldn’t read anyway, and even if they could they wouldn’t have owned their own copy of the Bible, there was no way they were going to spot the error. So – if your answer to my original question when did you last read your Bible is longer ago than you want to admit take some comfort in the knowledge that you’re only doing what the majority of Christians for the majority of the Church’s history have not read the Bible either. They’ve only heard it read to them.
Think about it. In the Early Church Christians didn’t have Bibles at home for a very good reason – for the very earliest Christians the Bible as we know it didn’t even exist, and didn’t until the end of the fourth century, when the Church formally declared the definitive list of books that made up the Bible. In the early years of the Church people accepted the Jewish writings we now call the Old Testament as part of Scripture though even those didn’t reach their current form till after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD, but there was of course no New Testament. In time the letters and then the gospels of various writers came to be accepted as Scripture. Some of those were in the end rejected and we ended up with the 27 books of the New Testament that we now know.
But there was no way of putting everything together into one book and producing it cheaply so that everyone could have a copy at home. It would be centuries before the printing press was invented and even then books remained the preserve of the wealthy for some time. And most people couldn’t read anyway. For most of the history of the Church, the Bible has simply not been a book that people have at home to read when they want – it has been something that people heard read to them in Church. And that was the only way they experienced it.
And that is actually quite important. Because a key aspect of Scripture is that it is through Scripture that God speaks to us. This is a concept that was quite familiar to early Christians. When they heard the Scriptures being read they believed, just as the Jews believed when the scriptures were read to them in the synagogue, that God was speaking directly to them.
And it was this belief that God spoke to them that led to the formation of the New Testament. The Church didn’t just sit down one day and think up a list of books that would make up a good follow-up to the Old Testament. What happened was that as Paul’s letters, and letters from others, began to find their way around the churches; as people started to write accounts of the life of Jesus; these writings were read during public worship. And people started to feel that certain of these writings were being used by God to speak to them and teach them – they were, they believed, inspired. Worship, remember, was the only time you encountered the Scriptures. And listening to them was exciting – what was God going to say today? And when the Church finally drew up the official list – what we call the Canon of Scripture – it was, in effect, ratifying what had already been decided by experience.
Imagine what it must have been like hearing these writings read out to you for the very first time. Imagine hearing, for example, the wonderful prologue to John’s gospel. And having heard it, you couldn’t just go home and read it again – you had to wait until it was read again in worship. Nowadays we have heard it so often that perhaps its impact is lost, and we don’t hear the wonderful things God is saying through it to us.
Today, we are used to being able to have our own copies of the Bible. We can read them at home. We can study them together in groups. Hearing the Bible read during our worship no longer, on the whole, gives people the thrill that it did before the advent of printing and mass education. Don’t get me wrong – having access to the Scriptures is a wonderful thing, and it is so important that our Bibles don’t just sit on our shelves. We can read for ourselves the Word of God. But a by-product of that has surely been that because of over-familiarity we no longer find ourselves excited by the prospect of hearing the Bible read aloud in our worship. We hear the words read aloud but on the whole we no longer hear the voice of God coming through them.
The Bible was never meant to be kept on a shelf at home, to be taken down and read if and when we wanted. It was meant to be read aloud in our worship so that God could speak to us as the community gathered in his name. And for me, this is supremely important.
Think back to how eager the crowds were to hear Jesus speak. They wanted to hear what he had to say to them. They wanted to hear him speak the truths about God and about himself.
Today Jesus isn’t physically here with us to preach to us. Today he shows himself to us, and speaks to us, through Word and Sacrament. Are we as eager to hear him speak to us the truths about God and about himself? Too often we see the first part of our communion service as a preparation for the second part where we recall the Last Supper and receive bread and wine. Hearing, listening to, the Bible readings doesn’t seem anywhere near as important as receiving the sacrament of the body and blood of Jesus.
That’s not how it is, for Jesus gives himself to us equally in Word and Sacrament. And we need to rediscover within ourselves the eagerness of those heard Jesus speak when he walked the earth, and the eagerness of those early Christians who gathered to hear the Scriptures read to them, anxious to hear Jesus, the Word of God, speak through the Scriptures.
I began by talking about the forthcoming sale of the Sinner’s Bible and how its rather key mistake was only spotted after a year. May our own Bible not be like the Sinner’s Bible – sitting on a shelf somewhere unread for a year but really be Holy Bibles where we discover God’s Word to us day by day, and Sunday by Sunday, as we gather for worship.