Friday, March 13, 2015

In the beginning … ?

Where does the history of the bible in Australia begin? And what is at stake in the question? 

One of the many things I learned as an arts undergraduate (way back then!) was to be wary of origins - of essentialist quests for pure and exact beginnings - and of the teleological narratives implied and assumed by them. As such, I’m painfully aware that the whole idea of sketching a ‘history of the bible in Australia’ is plagued with difficulties (impossibilities?) from the get-go.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to slug anyone with a theoretical sledgehammer. (If you’d like to be on the receiving end of a distinctly Marxist kind of slug, though, try Roland Boer’s impressive Last Stop Before Antarctica: The Bible and Postcolonialism in Australia!) But it’s equally true that I’m not setting out to smooth out an endlessly messy and fragmented past. My goal is not to forge a crisp, clean, triumphant narrative!

And so: I’ve decided not to start my book with the arrival of the English fleet in 1788, with the disembarking of the first minister, Richard Johnson, or the unloading of the many bibles and other religious publications he brought with him. I think I'll start with some mistaken ideas and near misses – with some stories about how the bible nearly but didn’t get introduced to Australia.

Image: First page of Genesis from the bible of James Cook, 1765. Note the margin notes, which date the creation of the world at 4004 BC according to the chronology developed by the seventeenth century Archbishop Ussher. Such notes were commonly included in bibles printed by Oxford Unviersity at this time.
Source: Cook bible @ Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Photo by ML.

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