The Bible in and as History: Reviewing the Old Testament

bet_she27an_theatre_stage_1230When I started this project my original intent was to finish reading and commenting on the Bible in one year.  That, for various personal reasons, obviously didn’t happen, but at long last, I’ve finished the larger part, the Old Testament.

It’s been quite a slog, and I know now why so many people simply don’t bother, even among the faithful.  While the interesting bits are there, most of it is repetitive, often droning.  Some of it is not intended really to be ‘read’, but rather as something to be recited.  While there are aspects that are coherent, there are also competing theologies, made all the more complex when one layers in the New Testament.

The over-reaching theme of the text, if there can be said to be one, is that obedience to God is good, and brings reward, while disobedience brings destruction.  God punishes those who fall away from him.  This is centrally against the Israelites, but also sometimes to a province, a city, a family or an individual.

The Books of the Old Testament have varied authorship.  For many of them, their origin remains unknown, and others we have to infer through complex textual analysis.  Speaking of the Bible in History, the actual physical objects themselves are important.  We have examples in Greek and Latin from the 4th Century CE, and fragments prior to that.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were so critical in that they provided a variety of textual examples dating from the 3rd to 1rst centuries BCE.  Transmission of works via copying, by hand copying, entails an increase in potential errors.  Errors that can then more complexly become disagreements of doctrine or understanding.  If my Holy book says “God is in the field” and yours says “God is on the field” we may develop essential doctrinal differences on the basis of a single letter, with no essential way of determining which of us is correct.

I, for example, am using a copy of the King James edition transcribed into Christianity.com.  That actual data probably only dates back to the mid 2000’s, most likely transcribed from a physical copy(though of course, it could be a copy of an earlier digital copy).  Most likely it was transcribed from one of the numerous physical copies made, and that have been remade over the centuries.  Our modern era presumes the power of making reliable copies; a property of the printing press, though even there the possibility of error is far from zero.  Once you go back before the invention of the printing press, every copy is made by one or more scribes, in handwriting.

So if we were to look at what I’m reading, I’m looking at a copy, of a copy, most likely of a copy, going back to some edition of the King James Bible in the 18th century.  Those made from compiled copies and editions going back to the ‘Standard’ Text of 1769.  That made to deal with the various discrepancies the editions produced since the 1539 ‘original’ produced.  Including my favourite, the ‘Wicked Bible’, an edition published in 1631 in which an error omitted the ‘not’ from “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.  This was reprinted and copied in a number of editions before being found.

What comes, in the end, is very fascinating; A modern Canadian Atheist, reading a copy of an English translation done by 16th century Englishmen in the wake of the Reformation.  A translation of works originally in Hebrew, but largely being translated into English from Greek and Latin sources, themselves copies of earlier Hebrew sources(or other now extinct languages).  Those Hebrew sources copies of other sources, or recordings of oral traditions, largely regarding the religious and political situations of several different ‘periods’ of history, from the earliest Isreali kingdoms to the Exile and Babylonian captivity to the creation of the second temple.

Imagine reading a cookbook that was an English translation of a Japanese translation from 200 years ago that itself was a translation of a Chinese work from 400 years ago, and just the beginnings of the problem come into focus.

This becomes all the more apparent as we move into the New Testament and a new generation, separated from the Old Testament as we are from the writers of the King James Bible, by centuries, utilise it and it’s religious traditions while describing their text.

We dive now into the Gospels, and confusing dating conventions, with Matthew.

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The Bible in and as History: Books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

malachiI end my long read of the Old Testament with the last three minor prophets.

Haggai is one of the shortest books of the bible, being only two chapters long.  It is set in 520 BCE, about 18 Years after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid empire.  Cyrus had pronounced a return of various displaced peoples and a  rebuilding of temples destroyed by the Babylonians.  This included the Temple of Jews.  Cyrus is sometimes seen as a broad reformer or humanitarian, though other historians see this as vested in old traditions; The New Monarch grants reforms and gifts upon achieving supremacy over the old.

So Haggai is set after the Captivity and is a prophecy in regards to the construction of a new temple.  It abjures the people to construct a new temple and then reports that having seen the anger of God, they do.  It has similar themes to other minor prophets; Following Gods will leads to good things, going against it to bad.  The nation has fallen and now risen, a prophecy of good things to come after they pass through destruction.  All in all there isn’t a lot to say about it.

The book is interesting in that it’s set after the end of the Exile.  The Exile obviously holds a central place in Judaism, especially after the destruction of the second temple.  The recurrence; the temple destroyed, being dispersed into foreign lands beneath ‘strangers’ has a central resonance.  Haggai is a prophet speaking in the end of the first exile, unaware of the second.

Zachariah was a contemporary of Haggai, writing in the period of Darius the Great.  Darius was the ruler of the Academician Empire starting in 522 BCE, and it achieved it’s greatest extent during his rule.  These are the persons which would challenge and invade Greek lands, and of them we have accounts not merely from the bible, but also from Greek and Persian sources.

Zachariah is concerned with the history of the Jewish people and in particular the end of the Exile.  It presents first an allegorical history, leading towards the end of the Exile as both a promise of hope and a warning.  “God…” it seems to say “… has warned us before and made good on his threats but look, he also keeps to his promises, so lets not forget that this time alright?”  In this it conforms to other works in the bible but in a more particular way.  Like Haggai, Zachariah is writing from a period in which the temple is being reconstructed and prophecies of previous era’s seem, on some level, to be coming true.  Perhaps not precisely in the way those prophets would imagine, as the Jewish people still did not govern themselves, and the reconstruction was at the will of an Empire that wished obedient Satraps, but still.

The later portions of Zachariah thus reflect a prophecy more optimistic than some; speaking of a bright future for Israel in which it will be a leader among nations.

It should be noted that while a good portion of scholars accept a single authorship for the book in the 6th century, not all do.  Because the later portion of the text has no historical referents and seems to jive with themes from later works, some believe it was authored a century or more later and appended to Zachariah.

We end the old testament with Malachi, which is short and sweet and a bit of an anti-climax I am afraid.  It is only four chapters long, and contains virtually no historical information.  Because it uses a Persian term, most scholars place it after the rebuilding of the temple and the end of the Exile, so after 515 BCE.  This seems logical as a more ancient source would refer to a king rather than a governor, and might use a Babylonian term during the majority of the exile.

Malachi is largely an admonition to the priests to be more faithful.  A list of grievances, and a sort of nag against those who should hold God most high not performing their duties.  Surely not the first or the last polemic against a corrupt priest class.

One historical note is important however.  Malachi makes several Messianic promises, and these show up in Christianity and the New Testament, as obviously Christians hold that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies.  For Jews they stand as things to look for in the coming Messiah.

Alright, so over the course of what is three years, rather than the one I set out for, I have finally finished the Old Testament and am ready to begin the New.  I haven’t quite decided how I will tackle the four gospels, but I might try a different format so as to not get repetitive.  I might also do a post on my thoughts on the entirety of the Old Testament.

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The Bible in and as History: The Book of Habakkuk and the Book of Zephaniah

icon_of_zephaniah_2817th_c-2c_north_russia2c_priv-_coll-29A review of the Historical aspect of the Book of Habakkuk will be short and sweet because there just isn’t much.  We have no idea who Habakkuk was, and there isn’t any agreement on his identity.  Placing the work historically is difficult; we know it’s been canonical for a long time as there are examples as part of the Dead sea scrolls, but other than that only vague guesses serve us.  A mention of the Chaldean’s suggests something near the end of the 7th century, but no more helps us.

The theme and tenor of this book are again, similar to what has come before.  Habakkuk begs god for answers, specifically to the question of how he can permit the Chaldean’s(the Babylonians) to attack his chosen people.  The answer is one we have heard before; the Chaldeans’ are an instrument of gods Justice for the iniquity of the Israelites.  This does have another interesting theme, however; unlike some of the other works, in which the foreign invaders are merely an instrument of Gods will, a tool like a Sword or Hammer, in Habakkuk, they are identified as people who will themselves be judged.  The Chaldeans are themselves subject to Gods judgement, and more the harshly.  This itself is a paradox similar to the one in Exodus wherein God ‘hardens Pharaoh’s heart’.  One can see in it future theological disputations.  Do the Chaldeans have free will?  Is this merely an example of Gods perfect knowledge of the Future?  What does it mean to be punished for something that is apparently Gods will?

The book ends with Habakkuk coming to accept God’s divine will.  The text is an exhortation towards faith.  This is probably why it is quoted later by early Church fathers.  It will appear again in the Epistles apparently, but that gets way ahead of ourselves.  One can readily see how this text would be useful for both Christianity in broad terms and Protestantism in particular.  There is a long history of the idea of enduring through prosecution for your faith in Christianity.  First beneath the Romans, and later in regards to various other authorities.  Be it in the ‘Holy Wars’ of the 16th and 17th Centuries or other persecutions that arose even after the peace of Wallphalia.

Zephaniah we have a better time placing in history.  We only have his own avowed text, but that text informs us that Zephaniah was a Great-Great Grandson of King Hezekiah of Judah, the 13th king of Judah according to the bible.  We know he prophecized during the era of King Josiah of Judah, placing him between 641 and 610 BCE, and also making him contemporary with Jeremiah.

Zephaniah as a prophet continues similar themes we have seen before; God will visit destruction upon Judah in general and Jerusalem in particular.  Like Habakkuk, it places judgement over others besides the Israelites, inferring a world-wide judgement by God.  There is a bit of a focus on idolatry and degeneracy in religious life, but otherwise, it’s something we’ve seen time and again.  The prophecies also foretell of a union of the world beneath a Messianic kingdom, a restoration.  Thus again the theme; Punishment for failure to hold to God, followed by a promise of redemption.

So of the Minor prophets, we have Hagai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  I may try and do all three in one post, though it will probably make for a bit of a long one, just to finally finish off the Tanakh/Old Testament.  I may then do a bit of a looking back before going right into the Gospels.  Till then.

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The Bible in and as History: Book of Micah and Book of Nahum

I’m going to continue my doubling up of the minor prophets for a bit, and see how that goes, especially as the pace is going to slamicah_2cken when I hit the New Testament and get to go through the Gospels.

So the Book of Micah identifies itself as being the collection of the sayings of Micah, a Prophet living under the reign of Yehotam, Ahaz, and Heziak, kings of Judah is the period of 700-750 BCE.  This was a period of Assyrian ascendancy and aggression against the Semitic kingdoms and during the middle part of this period, Judah had been reduced to series of vassalized city-states.  Israel eventually rebelled and its capital of Samaria was destroyed as a result.

Micah has a potentially interesting compositional history.  Without further evidence, most accept that the first several chapters are either written by the prophet or transcription of generally accepted sayings and prophecies.  It is also held by scholars that the later portions are additions; reworkings of a prior set of prophecies in the post-exilic period.  The prophet foretells of the destruction of the temple, though the wording of the prophecies seems to indicate soon, rather than in the centuries to come, as one example.

Thematically the book has similarities to other prophets; disobey God bad, Samaria was destroyed for its sins and failures to honour god, etc.  Foretelling the rise of Israel and a return to glory once the people return to God.  While hardly unique with regards the prophets, it does show us how the act of taking historical works and repurposing them to later function has an ancient pedigree.  Just as Christians would later take various elements of the Hebrew bible and see in them evidence for their saviour, post-exilic priests could look to past prophecies for evidence both of divine power(i.e. Look, the prophet foretold this would happen!  God is great!) and as apparatus for political control or motivation(i.e. Don’t turn away from God and the Priesthood!  If you stay with us the Prophets say we will return to Glory!).

The book of Nahum has a less certain providence and authorship.  From the text, we can date it to after the destruction of Themes in 663 BCE.  It mentions the event and it seems unlikely the work could be written either.  It draws on the destruction of Themes to talk of a more present act; the destruction of Nineveh, Capital of the Assyrian empire by the Babylonians.  These place it at the end of the 7th century BCE.

Nahum is poetic about the coming destruction of the city and has a sort of schadenfreude with regards the Israelites enemies and conquerors impending destruction. The comparison with Themes is at once historical; so fall all tyrants and all great cities not beholden to God it seems to say.  Those that brought us low are now brought low.  Otherwise, there isn’t much to say about it.  It’s poetic and draws strange metaphors and symbols.  The author is at one point a seeming participant in a battle to defend the city for example.

Only five more minor prophets to go; Next up are Habakkuk and Zephaniah.

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The Bible in and as History: Obadiah and Jonah

6979159895_8a8f4be133_bThese two minor prophets were quite short, so I figured I’d put them together as I race for the end of the old testament.  In truth, I finished reading it a little while ago, but in a bit of irony, it’s a bit harder to write about the shorter books than the longer.  Less material I suppose.

So Obadiah is a simple 21 verses, short, sweet and to the point.  The shortest book in the Bible.  Its historical authorship is in question and even its date is unknown for certain.

The book is about the Divine Judgement against Edom and the restoration of Israel.  Edom was a small Semitic state located south of the Kingdom of Judah, in what would be modern Jordan.  The prophet speaks of Edom having abandoned Israel, of not having come to its aid.  This leads to two potential periodizations; Either 853-851 BCE, when Jerusalem was attacked by a combined force of Arabs and Philistines, or 607-585 BCE, when Babylon invaded under Nebuchadrezzar II.  The historical consensus seems to favour the more recent date.  The book itself is simple enough; Edom failed to come to Israel’s aid, God will bring down a horrible judgement, Edom will no longer exist.  Thematically it bears some resemblance to other prophets we have seen, with their judgement of foreign nations.  A recurring theme of the old testament appears to be the use of foreign states to illustrate points for a domestic audience.  “Look out at what happened to those guys!” or “Those people are like this, and they will be destroyed!”

The Book of Jonah is very different.  Famed as the source of the ‘Jonah and the Whale’ story, and countless ‘Guy swallowed and surviving inside big Fish’ stories that have followed, the text itself is an actual story.  Jonah is called by God to be a prophet and to convert the people of the city of Nineveh to the lord.  Nineveh is, of course, a city of iniquity in which the people don’t know how far they have deviated from Gods will.

Jonah refuses the call and seeks to flee.  Getting on a  boat God creates a storm and Jonah gets the sailors to throw him overboard to appease Gods wrath.  Here is the famous consumption by a ‘Whale’ or ‘Big Fish'(a sea monster of some sort). Inside the belly of this creature he repents and prays and after three days he is thrown out of the whale at Gods will.

So Jonah goes to the city and becomes a most successful prophet, turning the whole city to repent.  The city is spared destruction and starts a sort of altercation between Jonah and God, a sort of ‘Well here is the lesson fo the story Jonah’ sort of situation in which God explains his mercy.

This work has obvious implications in Judaism and Christianity.  In the later there is a parallel in some levels with Jesus; Three days in Darkness(the Whales Belly for Jonah, the Tomb for Jesus), the demonstratable mercy of God.  Jonah has, in a way, a typical Hero’s Journey.  Leaving his home, refusing the call, a confrontation with a number of trials, the acceptance of the Quest, etc.

Dating this work is also a bit difficult; It is ‘set’ in the 8th century BCE, given its nature it’s hard to accept as a simple historical account.  It has a more directly mythical character and many scholars consider it allegorical.  Those that do tend to date it to the post-Exilic period, perhaps the 3rd or 4th centuries BCE.

Well, two short books, and more short ones as we push through the minor Prophets; Next up Micah and Nahum!

 

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The Bible in and as History: Book of Amos

russian_icon_xviii_century_-_amos_and_obadiah

Unlike some of the Minor prophets, so called because they are a lot shorter in length than the Major prophets, Amos can be placed in a very narrow place in history.

 

 

 

 

The words of Amos, who was among the herdmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

This is how Amos opens, and it presents us with things we can use to ‘hang’ an identification on.  Obviously, we can’t be absolutely sure, but barring counter-evidence we know that Amos must have operated during the rule of Jeroboam II, between 788 and 747 BCE.  The earthquake turns out to be a historical event we can narrow down even further, with some verifiable evidence, to somewhere between 765 and 760 BCE.

So Amos is prophecizing during the period of Judah and Israel as two separate kingdoms.  prior to the Babylonian captivity, or the fall of Judah.  This puts him a bit distinct from most of the other prophets we have dealt with.

Amos’ themes start out similar in some respects; a look at Israel and the surrounding nations, then details of the sins of Israel.  We then get visions God sends the prophet, which include visions of retribution and punishment.  God’s chosen people must be moral and are not exempt from Gods judgement but a focus of it.  We see here an example of God as the god of all people, wich is an interesting juxtaposition from the usual structure of most old testament books which seem interested in other peoples only as instruments of gods justice.

Another theme that is highlighted in Amos that isn’t in all other prophets is the centrality of the responsibility of the wealthy to the poor.  The sins of Israel include the wealthy exploiting the poor, and has similar themes to popular works from other era’s and times; poor people turning away from the honest work because they are exploited and going into corrupt work, in this case growing oil and grapes for export rather than local foods.  While there have been shades of this elsewhere, this is the clearest example I think I have seen in the Old testament of a duty to the poor, though also, one must not, an expectation of social hierarchy.  I do wonder if the poor farmers growing grapes really did think their lives better growing food for subsistence living?

Because Amos is possibly the oldest of the minor Prophets, some of his wording and elements have already shown up in previous works and will again.  References to national sins, comparison with other states, and of course, an angry God who meets out judgement which is only averted by returning to grace.

Well try to keep rolling right along and go into Obadiah, possibly do that with Jonah, as they are both really short.

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