Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Little Essays on the Rules (2) Bibles and Testaments

Philip Harvey

Torah Scroll
Vellum scroll of the Pentateuch
Acquired by the Duke University Libraries in 1942

The division of Bible into Old and New Testaments is a Christian construct, as we know. Its purpose was to express the overwhelming revelation of Jesus Christ in time. ‘Old’ has always seemed an unfortunate adjective to describe the wisdom of God brought to Israel. Even words like Former or First do not do much justice to a set of books that Jews themselves treat as orthodox and, in fact, the Bible, or Tanakh. Jews sometimes use the word Mikra, “that which is read”, for the same writings. Jesus and his followers would not have thought of the Jewish Scripture as Old, though many of his followers came to see that scripture as coming from former times and former ways, in the light of Christ. ‘New’ has to do with Jesus himself, his followers seeing in him the fulfilment and example of that revealed in the ‘Old’. Any truthful and real understanding of the ‘New’ necessarily relates to the ‘Old’ in Christian tradition, which is why the Bible is two large literatures bound in one. The Bible itself is an enormous cross-reference service, with our understanding of things said in the ‘New’ being enlarged by words, passages and whole books in the ‘Old’. History and tradition are fixed with this canonical concept of the early church. Efforts to call the ‘Old’ the Hebrew Bible go some way towards clarifying the distinction and respecting the differences, but within Christianity there is always a before and after the Epiphany of Christ.

The abbreviations ‘O.T.’ and ‘N.T.’ were convenient means of demarcation in card catalogues. Arrangement of print versions of individual books by uniform title and subject access to the Bible by the same meant it was (and still is in some libraries) easy to find the original books and the critical biblical works. On a computer no one searches for these works by entering ‘O.T.’ and ‘N.T.’ because they are abbreviations and not keywords that any one searches by. This, I would suggest, rather than any purported Christian bias with the headings, is the main reason why Resource Description & Access (RDA) has done away with ‘O.T.’ and ‘N.T.’.  Changes to Bible uniform and subject headings are just one of the momentous alterations to decades of practice, practice that has been custom for cataloguers. Books of the Bible as uniform titles or subjects will not include ‘O.T.’ or ‘N.T.’.  So after Sunday we will have this:

Bible – O.T. – Genesis – Commentaries. 
will become
Bible – Genesis – Commentaries. 

And that’s only the beginning. For books about the entire Old Testament or New Testament, the abbreviation will be spelled out.  For example:

Bible – O.T. – Theology.
will become
Bible – Old Testament – Theology.

While changes to the old card arrangement style, like this one, do away with abbreviations that no one uses in a search, as well as correcting what some like to call the Christian bias of the division of the Bible into Old and New Testaments, the changes themselves have many implications for cataloguing. Catalogues may now have two styles of presentation until such time as the cataloguer will, or can, change them. The altered forms will enter into our catalogues slowly, we are advised, as new records are created that follow the new rules. Little is being said about how to manage these changes to the Bible uniform and subject headings on our catalogues, but knowing that teams of cataloguers have been busy at Library of Congress making these changes in recent times, it seems obvious that this is the model for the rest of us. Global changes and an infinite attention to detail in Bible headings could be absorbing much of our time in the next few years.

What is the Bible? One of the fascinating interests of religious history is that period of the two or three centuries of the Common Era during which the Christians and the Jews, simultaneously but separately, finalized their canons. The Jewish rabbis divided their Bible into three large sections: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim (i.e. what Christians  would roughly call Pentateuch, Prophets, and Hagiographa or Writings). The order of the actual books was arranged into these three large entities. The Christian bishops arranged the canon of the Hebrew Bible differently, but it was all still kosher, very precisely canonical. How could it be otherwise? Their Testament was the less, and even incomprehensible in parts, without the Jewish Scripture. Both major religious traditions treat their canonical writings as Mikra, by which I mean simply that these are the Writings that are central, indispensable. Both traditions have a wealth of other literature, which we as theological librarians are responsible for collecting and protecting and making available and loaning, but there is not an expectation that we must read all of that literature. The Writings are central because they are “that which is read”. They are the words we must read. Hence the inescapable fact that catalogues treat the Writings as Bible in headings. This is straightforward enough. But we wait to see, after Easter, how RDA and the LC authorities decide to treat the divisions, whether of the Hebrew or the Christian Bible. Is a book on Torah the same as a book on Pentateuch?

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