The Bible in and as History: Proverbs

Like the last entry, the Book of Proverbs is interesting historically not for it’s content, but mainly for how it’s content fits into our understanding of the societies that constructed ‘the canon’, and how it influenced those that followed.

Proverbs is a collection not just of sayings, in the English sense of the word, but of more of the ‘Wisdom Tradition’ I spoke of in my post on The Book of Job.  The Book provides a framework to discuss such broad questions as the meaning of life, the purpose of life, and how to actualize that purpose.  As perceived, of course, by it’s authors.  Who were most likely eclectic groups of priests living both pre and post exile.  The Compilation of Proverbs is almost impossible to date, though references within the text lead scholars to think at least part of the collection dates from the 8th Century BCE.  The formalization of this Canon is likely of a much later date, but again, we can’t be sure.

As a sort of ‘collection of collections’ there is some inconsistency into the message of the work.  It’s earlier sections all hold a similar ‘Obeying God Good, Disobeying God Bad!’ message now well familiar, but the later sections have much more practical advice, or at least more direct advise to human affairs.  This might not seem an initial disconnect, but the definite themes do contrast.  Is Wisdom something humans can cultivate?  A skill like math or planting?  Or is it something one gets only from God?  A sort of direct revelation that can only come through that will?  Is it better to try and spread your wisdom, or to cultivate silence?  Does the wise man promote charity to others, or avoid do so publicly to cultivate humility and avoid pride?  Some of these are answered definitively, others aren’t, and the conflict between the two is something that continues into the present day as debates or discussions between priests, Rabbi’s, and theologians.

What can be said about the society espoused within Proverbs is shaped by it’s times; Obviously agrarian, yet centered around trade with central cities, it’s authors view operating within the public sphere as not just important, but inevitable.  It is patriachal, suggesting the supremacy of the ‘head of the household’ over Family, Animals and Slaves or free Servants.  It is a society of deep social obligations, and one ultimately of limited individual travel.  You are likely to know the majority of people you ever interact with for life, with only the occasional ‘stranger’ among you.  A time when the word ‘stranger’ had a much more intense meaning, the traveler a figure of fear and interest.

The Further question of course is though I can say a little about the society that likely shaped the initial proverbs, how did they impact future societies, such as 17th century England?  I think one of the ‘strengths’ of Proverbs is that because it is fragmented, a ‘collection of collections’ as I said, it can serve many purposes.  Within it can be selected necessary bits of wisdom for a variety of societies.  Proverbs 28:1 “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.” may have had a similar meaning to both societies, though granted one would have much more essential knowledge of what it meant to be ‘bold as a lion’ than the other.  Are there sections each would have understood in entirely different ways though?

As mentioned in my last post King James I of England(the VI of Scotland), ascended the throne in the aftermath of a period of brutal history and religious wars.  His reign occurred in a period when religious persecution and violence were still endemic both in Britain and the Continent.  In 1604 he called the Bishops of the Church of England together in the Hamptom Court conference.  It’s purpose was to deal with Ecclesiastic issues brought forth by the ‘Puritan’ section of the Church, to promote further religious harmony.  The conference determined a number of things, some on the side of the puritans, some on the side of other factions.  For example, Baptist was to be limited to the ordained and the authority of Churchmen was continued(as opposed to the radical changes in such authority with the Protestant and Reform churches).  The Bible was in some way a sop to the puritan interests, because with an English translation, any literate man could now read and interpret the bible, places forth a belief that Man didn’t require a priest to intercede with God. That he could understand Gods word on his own.

The ‘Old Testament’ was translated from the Hebrew, the New Testament from the Greek.  There were instructions in order to try both to prevent an overtly puritan working of the document, but also to address some of the puritans concerns with previous translations.  No ‘margin comments’ for example, which had in other versions sometimes extolled anti-authority messages.  This was to be a bible for an established State church after-all.  Authorized by a monarch who presumably didn’t want a religious work produced that might seem to advocate his over-through.  So we must remember the political considerations of the time along-side the religious ones, because at heart, in the period in question, they were inseparable.  The very act of translation was a political and religious act, rejecting notions of ‘Roman Catholic’ authority.  Indeed, establishing in a way the notion of the ‘Roman Catholic’ Church, as a separate institution, rather than simply ‘The Church’, though one grants that there had been divisions and separations in the church and authority for some centuries at this point.

This is an important part of this project that I try not to over-look.  I am reading the words of ancient peoples as filtered through several translations, by people in vastly different times, with perhaps vastly different cultural expectations, and than of course, reading my own cultural expectations into it.

Next I take a look at Koheleth and all those writings of Ecclesiastics as I try and rush through writing about the remaining books of the ‘Old Testament’ on my way to the ‘new’.


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