28 August, 2013

The Bible is not a single book.

The Bible is not a single book.

(Found on the web the other day. For the life of me, I can't find the source... I copy / pasted the article {in to Sticky Notes} so I could read it later because my PC needed to reboot... Lost the page I found it on)

There is no "Biblical view" of anything, because there is no single hand behind the Bible. There are dozens, hundreds of views, and they are arguing with each other. Of course the book is full of contradictions; it was never meant to represent a consensus!

In short, there is not, nor has there ever been, a way to think of the Bible as a single book with a single, consistent story or a single, consistent view. Rather, the Bible is the record of a centuries-long argument over the nature of the divine and the nature of humanity, mixed in with all sorts of other things: folk tales from Sumer (most of Genesis up to and including the Flood, except for the family history bits, is lifted straight from Sumerian texts, and you can find their cousins in the library at Nineveh), family history, political arguments including praise and criticism of the people who were in power at the time that the various books were being written, etc.

Take the Torah, for example, the first five volumes of the Hebrew Bible, and the oldest layer of the text. It started out as two separate texts, known as "J" and "E," written in the southern area of Judah and the northern area of Israel respectively, ca 950BCE and 850BCE. (They get their names from the different names used for God in them: J uses YHWH ("Jehovah" in German, thus J) and E uses Elohim. This has deep roots in the fact that the two regions historically had different religions, and Judaism emerged in part from their fusion) These two texts were merged into a single text by an editor who made various changes in both to merge them, a few hundred years later; then further texts were added by a priestly author (P) in a very different context of having serious political authority, and more editing happened, etc. (If you want to see a good snapshot of this, I recommend The Bible With Sources Revealed, which is a Torah highlighted and color-coded by our best estimate of who wrote each line)

Later additions get even more interesting. Job was written by three different people, who proceeded to have an argument over how to interpret the existence of evil by means of injecting their own bits into the same book. (If you want to read this book, I suggest The Wisdom Books, below, for its introductions that give you a good map of what's going on; the mutually contradictory opinions jammed in there by force make it really hard to follow otherwise)

The Christian texts have an even more varied history. To date, we know of 27 different Gospels, and more epistles and apocalypses than I can easily count. The decision of which of these books would be made "canonical" was an intensely political one, made over several centuries, driven primarily by the needs of bishops and emperors. The choice of the four canonical gospels, for example, was very specific: these were the gospels which gave the strongest support to the significance of the priesthood, to the orthodox view that the Son and the Father are "of the same substance," and therefore that the appointment of Peter and his successors as priests was divinely ordained, etc. Entire categories of texts, such as "wisdom gospels" (basically, collections of Jesus sayings, like the Gospel of Thomas), or mystical gospels (ones which focus more on personal holiness and the powers which derive from it, like Valentinus or Mary Magdalene) were excluded. The Revelation of St. John was put in because there was a huge fashion for apocalypses at the time, and there was a decision to pick one as canonical to end the fight over dueling revelations.

If you try to read the Bible as a single consistent thread, you either have to ignore half of what you read, twist yourself into knots to claim logic, or have your head explode. But if you read this book as a slice through a long and complex history, you'll start to see the tremendous richness of centuries of human life.

Consider it this way: the Hebrew texts were edited in a few major layers, during the first Monarchy, during the periods of civil war which followed the first Monarchy, and with many addenda written in the Babylonian and post-Babylonian periods. The parts about the Monarchy itself -- about David and Solomon and so on -- were written in the immediate aftermath of their lives, with the country in the midst of perpetual civil war between their various successors. Yet people were writing about the "founders of their country" -- and said founders do not always come off particularly well in the story. (cf: pretty much anything involving Saul or Batsheba)

The infinite chains of begats and the stories of Abraham and so on are raw family history: it's literally a family's logbook of important events as they went from living in Ur to making a play for nationhood. And the family is sometimes sane, sometimes crazy. (I'm related to these people. Believe me, the family is sometimes crazy.)

The "wisdom literature" -- the proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs -- is a bunch of text added on later, by people who were trying to understand the true meaning and nature of life. They did not have a perspective anything like most preachers you will encounter today; how many churches are going to tell you that life happens for reasons we can never really fathom, that sometimes evil wins over good, that everything we do is probably ultimately futile anyway, and so the best we can do is live fully but humbly, and enjoy the day?

Open up the Christian texts; better yet, go beyond the canonical ones and pick up Thomas. Look at the older gospels, at Mark and Matthew, before Paul showed up and started to turn this into a new religion. Read Jesus' words in the context of his own life: a radical reformer within Judaism, preaching against the formalism and the dedication to ritual and the deep integration with political power which had come to define the world around him, preaching instead that the path to the kingdom of heaven is through feeding the hungry and dedicating yourself to a life of service to others. Then read Paul's letters, watch him trying to apply his life of organization to building a whole new society, trying to express to nascent churches how they can form a community and make it work even as things change. (But read carefully! Some of Paul's letters are actually later forgeries, inserted by others. Ehrman's book is a good summary of where to be careful)

Other references:

Further reading:
The Bible With Sources Revealed: 
The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary
Ehrman on forgery and injection of texts into the Christian works:
http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Christianities-Battles-Scripture-Faiths/dp/0195182499/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1377282384&sr=1-7http://www.amazon.com/Misquoting-Jesus-Story-Behind-Changed/dp/0060859512/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1377282383&sr=1-1 .