On Bibles and Manuscripts

A few days ago, I wrote a post on How To Dispose of Old Bibles. In that post I quoted the words of a Rabbi who wrote the following:

Old deteriorated Bibles still bear the word of God and the name of God in them. They are old and worn, but they are still vessels of the holy, and so they cannot be disposed of in the garbage with yesterday’s green bean casserole.

Because old Bibles “still bear the word of God and the name of God in them,” the Rabbi suggested that old Bibles should “be covered and buried respectfully though not necessarily in a cemetery. They should be covered and then buried. ‘Dust to dust’ refers to the disposal of all holy vessels.”

The act of giving a proper burial to sacred texts was an ancient practice of Judaism. Jewish synagogues had a store-room called “the genizah” where old and deteriorated sacred texts were kept for proper disposal. The role of the genizah in Judaism is explained in an article in the Wikipedia:

A genizah is the store-room or depository in a synagogue (or cemetery), usually specifically for worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics that were stored there before they could receive a proper cemetery burial, it being forbidden to throw away writings containing the name of God (even personal letters and legal contracts could open with an invocation of God).

The writing of Sacred Scriptures in Judaism was done with much reverence and care. Manuscripts were written by scribes trained for this special ministry. One article describing the making of a scroll of the Torah says that scribes must use sheets of parchment that come from a kosher animal and must use quills for writing the manuscripts and the quills must come from a kosher bird. The writing of the manuscript begins after the scribe “visits the mikveh in preparation for such holy work, and prays that the holy work about to be undertaken will be imbued with the sanctity in the scribe’s heart.”

A scroll of the Torah “may contain no errors whatsoever. While some mistakes may be corrected by scraping off the ink of a letter made in error and rewriting it, if a mistake is made in writing any of the names of God, no correction may be made because God’s name may not be erased. The entire sheet of parchment must be buried or placed in a genizah, and the scribe must begin that section of the Torah again.”

All this reverence and sacredness in Judaism for the written Word of God brings me back to my original question: how to dispose of old Bibles?

I have an old Bible that I have used for more than 25 years. It is my teaching Bible. The Bible has been rebound because its covers were falling apart. I have marked the Bible with red, blue, and black ink. I have underlined the text and written notes in the margins. This old Bible bears the word of God and carries the name of God in it. Is writing on and marking the Bible desecrating God’s Word? Is the printed Bible as sacred as the written manuscript? If old Bibles need to be disposed of, should these Bibles “be covered and buried respectfully”?

I have a copy of the Revised Standard Bible on cassettes. Is the Bible on cassettes still the Word of God? The magnetic tape in one of the cassettes is broken. Should I also bury the cassettes because they bear God’s Word?

The other day I bought a new Bible and inside the Bible there was a CD containing the Gospel of John. Since I did not want the CD, I threw the CD away in the trash can, not with “yesterday’s green bean casserole,” but in the garbage with other garbage. Is the Bible on CD still the Bible? Should I have buried the CD?

These questions are not meant to ridicule the Bible because I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. And I believe Christians should treat the Word of God with respect. However, when disposing of an old Bible, should I bury the book? Is the book holy because it is the Bible? Where should I bury old Bibles? In my backyard? Behind the church? In a cemetery?

This question became relevant a few days ago, when about 200 New Testaments were burned by some Jewish teenagers in Or-Yehuda, a city near Tel-Aviv. A news report circulated by CNN says that “News accounts in Israel have quoted Uzi Aharon, the deputy mayor of Or-Yehuda, as saying he organized students who burned several hundred copies of the New Testament.”

Burning New Testaments is not a demonstration of respect for books that bear the word of God. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League has issued a statement criticizing the burning of New Testaments. The statement reads: “We condemn this heinous act as a violation of the basic Jewish principles and values. It is essential that we respect the sacred texts of other faiths. The Jewish people can never forget the tragic burning of sacred Jewish volumes at many points in history.”

Aharon told CNN that he collected New Testaments in order to dispose of them. I wonder whether he was planning to give those New Testaments a decent and respectful burial.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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7 Responses to On Bibles and Manuscripts

  1. Chris Weimer says:

    >Claude,The burying of the Bible is actually not due to it merely being his word, but because it carries the divine name, which is not THE LORD or God, but instead the tetragrammaton. That’s why in genizot we see other non-canonical works, but buried because they have the divine name. The New Testament and any translation of the Old Testament do not have the name, therefore they are not required to be buried. But write the tetragrammaton on their pages, and bury they must.All the best,Chris Weimer

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  2. >Chris,Thank you for this clarification. I raised the issue in my post because the Rabbi was talking about old Bibles and not manuscripts with the tetragrammaton. It makes sense that the Jewish people would revere the tetragrammaton and treat the divine name with reverence. This, in turn, creates another intriguing problem. What do we do with all the books and theological journals where the tetragrammaton appears?Claude Mariottini

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  3. Chris Weimer says:

    >Claude,Unless I am mistaken, I believe the Rabbi must be referring to Bibles in Hebrew, all of which contain the divine name. And while I imagine that journal articles/books in which the tetragrammaton appears must be buried in genizot rather than destroyed, I can think of a much better place for them, chiefly a library!All the best,Chris Weimer

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  4. >The practice of Christians since late Antiquity has been to burn old Scriptures, vestments and icons that cannot be re-used or recycled into new ecclesiastical materials. Early canons follow the Scriptural principles that once an item is dedicated to God, it cannot be returned to secular use. They also specify that it cannot be placed where it might be consciously desecrated. For example, crosses in pavements was specified in a late-4th c. council and repeated by the Council in Trullo (692). Eastern Christians would dispose of Holy Scriptures only with a company that recycled texts into paper for new ecclesiastical texts, but I think this only happens in Russia today. Generally, a priest collects all such materials and burns them in an earthen pit, then buries the ashes and plants flowers over the pit, such as in a church cemetery. We place old icon cards on a table at our church so that others may enjoy them, or we burn them with palm crosses etc. in our fireplace and bury the ashes in our flower beds.

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  5. Tessa says:

    >I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.Ruthhttp://muffinsnow.com

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  6. Jo-Ann J says:

    >Thanks a bunch. I always felt bad disposing of bibles in the trash. It just didn’t feel right. I thought burning it would be better but I like the idea of burying it. I would like someone to start a petition to get the NKJV of the Old Testament bible back into schools. On the grounds that it’s multi-faith, it’s a classic, highly quoted from in books and movies old and new, it’s a best seller, it would bring some morality back into the school system. The version itself is a story and has history behind it. The generation of people who grew up never having that bible in school is now adults and their children now are showing the fruits of it.

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  7. >Jon-Ann,Thank you for you comment. I apologize for the delay in responding.The NKJV is a slight revision of the real King James Version. It is the old KJV that is the classical Bible. I believe that people who read the Bible have a better appreciation for life. However, in our multi-cultural society, it is doubtful that the Bible will ever go back to the classroom again.I agree with your sentiments. Maybe what needs to be done is for our churches in general and Christians like you and me to have a deeper impact in our society. If Christians fail to share their faith, it matters not whether the Bible is in the classroomClaude Mariottini

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