A Question Asked

What Does “Persistently Pluriform and Polyphonic Nature of the Biblica Texts” Mean?

A recent reader of at least some of my FB posts asked: “Persistently pluriform and polyphonic nature of the Biblical Texts. Care to say what that means?” I appreciate the question and I would be glad to briefly explain. Basically, pluriform means ‘having many forms.” Polyphonic means “producing many sounds simultaneously; many-voiced.”

Persistently Pluriform

When I write that the biblical texts are persistently pluriform in nature, I mean that all the manuscript evidence establishes that the individual texts have always existed in many forms, some more similar but others more radically different than others. No two ancient manuscripts of any biblical text are in perfect agreement. Some of the differences can be easily explained by small scribal changes, both unintentional and intentional. However, there are many differences that are significant and consistent enough to provide reasons to conclude that the texts that later would be complied in the book we call “the Bible” circulated, often simultaneously, in differing forms.

Even the Bible today exists in pluriformity. If you read ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and/or Greek, you will know there are various forms of Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek reconstituted texts, which are not identical to one another. Even in each of our own native languages, “the Bible” exists in many different forms (versions or translations). In the world of Christendom, various major sects/denominations each have their own sacred book they call “the Bible” which differ in content and order from each other and from the earliest biblical codices[1] we have—which also differ from each other. From the earliest manuscripts we possess to the latest versions we have the nature of the Bible is “persistently pluriform.”

The evidence for persistent pluriformity of the biblical texts can be found in: (1) ancient Hebrew manuscripts; (2) ancient translations; (3) the New Testament books; and (4) modern texts and translations. The reality of this persistent pluriformity has significant implications for: (1) textual criticism’s search the elusive “original,” “autograph,” or “urtext;” (2) conservative claims and/or definitions of biblical inerrancy and/or inspiration; (3) the much used “canonical hermeneutic” and its Christian cousin, the “Christological hermeneutic;” and (4) the nature or possibility of a univocal “Biblical Theology.”

Persistently Polyphonic

When I write that the biblical texts are persistently polyphonic in nature, I mean that not only the anthology we call “the Bible,”[2] but its individual texts (or books), often clearly contain various voices expressing various and, at times, contradictory viewpoints. This is true no matter which Bible you favour. It is my conviction that the polyphony that is demonstrated in the biblical texts, both individually and collectively, is intentional. Biblical polyphony is completely consistent with the nature of both Jewish Second Temple period literature and later Rabbinic literature. The result of biblical polyphony is an anthology that is intentionally dialogical in character. Numerous well-known and highly respected Old Testament and Hebrew Bible scholars agree that clearly divergent ancient voices speak from the pages of the biblical texts. To name a few, these include Walter Brueggemann, Terrence Fretheim, Marc Zvi Brettler, Amy-Jill Levine, Marvin Sweeney, Clark Pinnock, Rachel Held-Evans, Peter Enns, Thomas Jay Oord, John Sanders, Molly M. Zhan, etc.

As many have noted, there is no overarching theme, no paradigm, no hermeneutical key, no matter how well-meaning, that can account for or explain away the multivocality of the biblical texts. As Christian Smith states, “[T]here is always a significant set of texts that do not make sense, do not seem relevant, and do not harmonize or fit with the given larger thematic paradigm” being imposed upon the entirety of Scripture.[3] Why? Because “the Bible consists of irreducibly multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent texts (polysemy means ‘multiple meanings’ and multivalence means ‘many appeals or values’). This means that the Bible often confronts the reader with ‘semantic indeterminacy.’”[4]

Paradigm Shift

As Thomas Khun notes in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, resistance is inevitable when new information cannot simply be added to a previous paradigm but threatens it. Kuhn states, “The source of resistance is the assurance that the older paradigm will ultimately solve all its problems … Though a generation is sometimes required to effect the change, scientific communities have again and again been converted to new paradigms.”[5] Kuhn notes that when new evidence challenges the predominant paradigm a crisis arises that takes time to resolve.[6] It often takes a generation for a paradigm shift to occur, as efforts are first made to incorporate the new information into the old paradigm by means of more and more complicated and often convoluted theories. But the good news is that these artificial constructs are simply signs that the old paradigm is experiencing a slow death.[7] Eventually, the new paradigm will take precedence and replace the old, even if some of the initial opponents must die, and a new generation take their place.[8] Make no mistake about it, the discovery of the scroll remnants in the Judaean desert instigated a crisis where the new paradigm of textual pluriformity challenged the old paradigm of textual consistency and uniformity. Timothy Michael Law states, “The discoveries in the Judean Desert in the middle of the twentieth century revolutionized our understanding of the Bible’s history or, better, its prehistory.”[9]

Embracing the perspective that the biblical texts—from their prebiblical existence to all modern Bible versions—have always existed in pluriformity and are characterized by multivocality, requires us to experience and embrace a paradigm shift in how many of us think about, and thus how we read, the biblical texts. I know it has meant that for me, and it has not been an easy shift; I spent many years “kicking and screaming” against such a shift, but have found peace and renewed excitement now that I’ve shifted away from the old paradigm and embraced the new.

Recommended Readings

Because the persistently pluriform and polyphonic nature of the biblical texts might be, for some as it was for me, a paradigm shifting struggle, I’ve included a few of the most helpful books, chapters, and articles. I’ll have many more when my monograph on the topic is completed.

Brettler, Marc Zvi. “Jewish Theology of the Psalms.” In The Oxford Handbook of The Psalms, edited by William P. Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Carasik, Michael. The Bible’s Many Voices. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. (Kindle edition).

Coleridge, Mark. “Life in the Crypt or Why Bother with Biblical Studies,” Biblical Interpretation 2 (July 1994), 139-151.

Fretheim, Terence E. and Karlfried Froehlich. The Bible as The Word of God in a Postmodern Age. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.

Gillingham, S. E. One Bible, Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), 1998.

Handaric, Mihai. “Polyphony in the Biblical Text from a Postmodern Perspective.” Journal of Humanistic and Social Studies, Vol. 10, Issue 2, (2019): 123-134.

Knohl, Israel. The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 20003. (Kindle edition)

Law, Timothy Michael. When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 (Kindle Edition).

Newsom, Carol A. “There Was Never One Version of the Bible,” posted as https://www.thetorah.com/article/there-was-never-one-version-of-the-bible, Aug. 18, 2022.

Smith, Christian. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012. (Kindle edition)

Thompson, Richard P. and Thomas Jay Oord, eds. Rethinking the Bible: Inerrancy, Preaching, Inspiration, Authority, Formation, Archaeology, Postmodernism and More. Grasmere, ID: SacraSage Press, 2018. (Kindle edition).

Ulrich, Eugene. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum: the Text of the Bible at Qumran. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

[1] Codex B (Vaticanus, fourth century CE), Codex A (Alexandrinus, fifth century CE), and Codex S (Sinaiticus, mid-fourth century CE), all differ in both form and content from each other. No, the earliest codices did not have the 66-books of the Protestant Bible. Such a Bible was only produced after the publication of the King James Bible in the mid-17th century CE.

[2] “The Bible” comes from the Greek τἀ βίβλια (ta biblia) which translated means “the books” not “the book.” It is plural in nature to acknowledge that the collection these books created an anthology. I would prefer if we stuck with a true translation of ta biblia and simply title our collections of scripture as “The Books”.

[3] Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, 44.

[4] Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, 47.

[5] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 163-164.

[6] Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 164.

[7] In my opinion, authors, such as Gabriel Gordon in God Speaks, Matthew Korpman in Saying No to God, and Gregory Boyd in Imperfect Inspiration and Crucifixion of the Warrior God, demonstrate this process of how old paradigms experience a slow death via desperate attempts to incorporate new data into an old paradigm.

[8] Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 163.

[9] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 2, 21. See also, Hans Debel, “Rewritten Bible, Variant Literary Editions and Original Text(s): Exploring the Implications of Pluriform Outlook on the Scriptural Tradition,” in Changes in Scripture: Rewriting and Interpreting Authoritative Traditions in the Second Temple Period, Hanne van Weissenberg, Juha Pakkala and Mark Marttila, eds., (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011), 65; Allen, “Textual Pluriformity,” 103; Ulrich, “Our Sharper Focus,” 2.

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