Innocent Bystander March 2004

The Next Testament

If the Bible were being compiled for the first time right now, what would we put in it? Making the case for a NEW New Revised Standard Version

The facts of the case are familiar to almost everyone. A few months ago, as winter was setting in, Judge Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was removed from office for his refusal to heed a federal court order. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson had instructed Moore to clear the state judicial building's rotunda of a 2.6-ton granite monument to the Ten Commandments, arguing that the monument violated the constitutional principle of separation of Church and State. The monument had been placed in the rotunda by Moore in 2001, and he had ignored all entreaties to get rid of it.

The saga of "Roy's Rock" followed a predictable pattern. Liberal and secular groups railed against the intrusion of an overtly religious symbol into the highest state court in Alabama. Moore's supporters argued that the Ten Commandments broadly represent "the moral foundation of law." As the controversy raged, atheists asked to have a monument of their own placed in the court's rotunda: a statue of an atom. Judge Moore turned them down (though there would have been more than enough room for a life-size rendition).

Well, the battle is over now. What remains, as always, is the double life the Bible leads. On the one hand, it is obviously a religious document—for believers, either literally or "in some sense" (as a squirrelly Anglican might have it) the very word of God. On the other hand, it is a foundational text of our culture, an artifact that has shaped even secular aspects of Western civilization.

What pretty much everyone agrees on is that whatever its nature, the Bible is a collection of many bits of writing, representing many kinds of literature, and that its various pieces came into existence at different moments over more than a millennium. As the Ten Commandments case sputtered on, I began to indulge a fantasy. Suppose a committee were formed and given this charge: select a collection of texts in English, written over a period of centuries, that somehow fulfills the same functions as the books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—the Next Testament, it could be called. What would be in such a collection? To be clear: the charge would be not to compile some new "canon"—some kind of Great Books course—but, rather, to assemble the raw materials for something that would have the same cultural feel a few thousand years hence that the Bible has now.

Start with, say, the Book of Genesis—the classic creation story. Scholars explain that the book as we know it is probably an intertwining of work from three main ancient sources—one author designated J (the "Jahwist" or "Yahwist" source, because this writer refers to God as YHWH), the second designated E (because this writer refers to God as Elohim), and the third designated P (the priestly source). The creation story in our new, modern Bible might be woven from sources known as W, H, and D. W would refer to the physicist Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, an account of the Big Bang. H would refer to Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. W and H have plenty of the requisite awe, menace, and wonder, and although both eschew theology, they have things to say about meaning. (From W: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.")

The oldest of the sources for the new Genesis, D, would be Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. D is by far the most humane of the three writers—warm, observant, a superb anecdotalist, similar in some respects to the old Bible's J. And he would provide knotty issues for future scholars to argue over. For instance, which version of Origin's last sentence should be accepted as orthodox? Should it be the first edition's "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been Originally breathed into a few forms or into one ..."? Or the second edition's version, in which after the word "breathed" D inserted the words "by the Creator"?

The biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are largely collections of laws, rituals, and recommended practices—the ingredients of a coherent social order. The Next Testament version could be fashioned from several sources—Jane Brody's Good Food Book and The Joy of Sex, perhaps, but also the Internal Revenue Service's Form 1040 information booklet, The Rules, the U.S. Army's Ranger Handbook, the columns of Ann Landers, and the Mayflower Compact.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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