To say you’ve read the whole Bible can raise the question of whether you’re including the New Testament, in contrast to the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) alone.
But the Hebrew canon itself lists just 24 books, seven of them encompassing 20 books listed in the Christian Bibles, and Chronicles moves to the end of the Jewish collection, where it serves as a reprise to the forgoing stories rather than having the events fade out as they otherwise do.
In contrast, the Old Testament in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, based on the Septuagint collection translation from Hebrew into Greek and completed by 132 BCE, presents 45 books, which adds seven (sometimes known as the Apocrypha) not included in either the Jewish or Protestant versions.
So what initially appears a clearly understood matter has its complications from the outset. I can’t even say “Hebrew Bible” in discussing the books it omits before getting to the obvious exclusion of the New Testament itself; for those seven, I’ll try to use Septuagint.
Since my straight-through reading was intended as an overview of the entirety, I chose to include those books of the Apocrypha, some of them altogether new to me.
My decisions on which translations to use for my straight-through reading fell into place rather easily. One goal in this project revolves around the question, “How do we hear this for the first time again?” (It’s a common approach to classical music, too.) I’d been waiting for the right time to tackle The Five Books of Moses straight-through in Everett Fox’s astonishing translation — an elegant edition with refreshing introductions, commentary, and notes (Shocken Books, 1995). So that would take care of the start.
Fox set out to cast the text as close as he could to the Hebrew original, and that meant recognizing that it was intended as an oral document rather than one to be read privately on a page. As a result, the reader is freed from any impression that these books were written in King James English. This rendering is gritty, for one thing, and more muscular and tactile than the other translations at our fingertips.
We have, for example, fresh implications in his choice of “God-oracles” rather than “judges.” Or “hemorrhoids” instead of “boils.” The details, I find, a more vivid.
Also of value are Fox’s footnotes and side panels, which often draw on rabbinic lore few Christians are familiar with. As I moved on, these cast the translations into a fresh perspective, by default. I soon wished he had translated more of the Hebrew canon.
This points to another consideration. I wanted scholarly translations that stuck close to the original text, and wherever possible I wanted to hear these from a fresh perspective, free of the familiar phrases of the King James (or, more formally, the Authorized Version) and its more modern parallels, including my fallback New International Version.
For the other end of the read-through project, I chose to survey the New Testament through a translation from Aramaic, which was the native language of Jesus, rather than those based on the more common Greek and Latin texts. Here I relied on Glenn David Bauscher’s The Original Aramaic New Testament in Plain English With Psalms & Proverbs, 8th edition with notes, Lulu Publishing, New South Wales, Australia, 2013. I’ll ignore the arguments of whether Aramaic is the more “original” or “authentic” source to draw from, but will say rather I find its alternatives delightfully stimulating. In it, for instance, in the first chapter of Matthew, the New Jerusalem couches Joseph’s relationship with Mary as “before they came to live together she was found to be with child” and, later, when “he took his wife to his home, he had not had intercourse with her,” while Bauscher more directly has “when Maryam his mother was engaged to Yoseph before they would have conjugal relation she was found pregnant” and “he did not know her sexually until she had delivered her firstborn son.” (“Firstborn” in itself is telling.)
I was hoping Bauscher would hold to George M. Lamsa’s alternative reading of Matthew 19:24 and Mark 10:25 by having Jesus say it’s harder for a rope (gamla) to go through the eye of a needle, rather than having a camel (gamala) try to do that, but somehow in Bauscher’s translation the camel becomes even more striking an image. Nor does Bauscher use Allah for God, unlike earlier Aramaic translations. In this decision, we lose a connection with Islamic sensibility, I think.
In addition, the Aramaic original is missing 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation, which Bauscher translates from other sources.
For most of the rest of the Biblical canon, I used the 1985 New Jerusalem Bible, a Roman Catholic rendering I’ve heard praised for its accuracy and, from my perspective, freed from many of the familiar phrases I treasure in practice. Yes, in some celebrated passages I did miss the accompanying music by Handel — I’ll revisit other translations to rejuvenate that awareness — but what I gained in exchange was a better understanding of the broader structure and its impact. The New Jerusalem, of course, also includes the Apocrypha that were to be part of my overall reading.
Now, where did I get the idea that what we’re looking at is a history of God? Or at least, an overview of an evolving understanding of the Holy One?