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Aug 26, 2004



(Old thread here.)

"Er, the Bible? Why should I care about the Bible?"

Good question! I think most of us here are skeptical about organised religion, but it cannot be denied that the Bible (for better or for worse) is the most important book in the history of Western Civilization. Unfortunately, due to its continuing place at the centre of two major faiths, the Bible is often considered by those outside the faiths to be little more than a collection of fanciful - perhaps harmful - lies and my main aim in creating this thread is to try to disabuse a few of you of this notion. We don't deride other ancient works of literature because they happen to contain archaic wisdom, and we shouldn't allow the obstinate idiocy of pockets of religious fundamentalists to distract from the literary acheivement that the Bible represents. Besides, once you decouple the Bible from those who insist that every passage should be interpreted as conveying the literal word of God (and atheists are as guilty of suffering from this over-simplification as the fundamentalist Christians) and treat it on its own merits, its study can be a very rich and rewarding pursuit.

"Yes, but it's mostly bullshit, isn't it?"

Well like any book, the Bible is the product of its times. Its authors were no more or less ignorant of the nature of the world than their contemporaries, and the many instances of scientific naivety or ethical atrocities between its pages are testament to that. However, we shouldn't rush to dismiss the book simply due to the anachronisms that have begun to pile up in its pages (understandably) over the past 3000 years, any more than we should dismiss any other ancient works that have suffered from the same problem. While it can be difficult to suppress the inclination to approach the Bible in an antagonistically skeptical way while there are still so many who insist upon its literal and timeless veracity, please keep in mind that the books themselves cannot be blamed for the dogmatic idiocyncracies of modern believers. The original authors of the Biblical material did not know that they were writing part of a future canon: they were writing for their contemporaries, addressing contemporary problems, in the language and theology of the day. If you want to view the Biblical texts in their appropriate light, try to view them in their historical context (something that I hope I can illuminate in this thread) rather than as some primitive, anachronistic collection of dogmas that have outlived their usefulness. Although much in the world has changed and the Biblical books could never carry the same "truth" for us as they did for their authors and their contemporaries, that's scarcely reason to dismiss them as "bullshit".

"So what do I need to know?"

Well, firstly, the Bible is not a book - it is a collection of books. Understanding the Bible means understanding that it is a compendium of works authored by (at the very least) many dozens of people, in different places, at different times, for different audiences and for different purposes over a stretch of time which likely exceeds a millenium. Although many skillful exegetes have attempted to reconcile these differences and depict the Bible as presenting a unified theology, the fact remains that different books in the Bible have different things to say, and so much of the study of the Bible (and the most interesting part, imho) centres around how these books were penned and why. Trying to find any kind of unified theology in the Bible is therefore a fool's errand on anything other than the most general of levels: religion is never entirely static, and old dogmas are liable to crumble in the face of new, often traumatic historical events. Religions have always been comprised of members who disagree with one another over one issue or another - there have always been those happy to prod or cajole, to criticise or repent - and the Bible represents just such a process, ossified over the span of a millenium, among the Hebrews of ancient Palestine. Understanding Biblical texts therefore requires some effort to understand the social and religious forces present in the society in which the text was written (the sitz im leben in the language of Biblical scholarship) and using this to better understand what the author might have been trying to communicate.

The Catholic and Protestant Bible as we have inherited it falls into two sections: The Old Testament - which contains (based on the modern Christian method of division) 39 books (24 according to the Jewish division) - and the New Testament, which contains 27 books. (Until the 19th century, the Catholic Church also considered the Apocrypha as canon.) I'll give you a quick overview of the contents of the Bible here, then follow it up with a summary of its historical background and finish with an FAQ. I apologise for the length of this post in advance: it was only meant to be a couple of thousand words but I kinda got into a "thing" here.

Anyway, let's start with the Old Testament.


The Old Testament:


The Christian "Old Testament" is the Hebrew Tanakh, a an acronym formed from the titles of its three sections: the Torah (the Law), the Nev'im (the Prophets) and the Ketuvim (the Writings).


The Torah is the first five books of the Bible (also known to scholars as "the Pentateuch": Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and has been central to the Jewish faith (in some form) since at least the 7th century BC. Originally assumed to have been authored by Moses, scholars now acknowledge that the Torah is a composite work that has been artfully stitched together - perhaps by a single "editor" - from a wide range of pre-existing sources. This is known as the Documentary Hypothesis and it is one of the most interesting (and controversial) areas of Old Testament study.

Although many scholars hold different opinions of the exact nature of the material used for the composition of the Torah, most now acknowledge four key sources: the Yawhist (or "J") source, the Elohist (or "E") source, the Priestly (or "P") source and the Deuteronomist (or "D") source (often divided further into "Dtr1" and "Dtr2"). These sources may have once stood as independent texts, but were later merged together into the unified work that we find today. Evidence for the DH can often rely on rather technical analyses of the original Hebrew texts (which are beyond my expertise to relay) but it includes things like the repetition of stories (sometimes with different theological emphases), narrative breaks (see Noah's Ark below), differences in language and terminology employed (such as the name of God - Yahweh in J, Elohim in E, hence the names) and other stylistic / theological discrepancies which are otherwise difficult to explain without assuming multiple authorship.

I think that the best and most striking example of DH analysis is the one performed by Richard Friedman on the Noah's ark story. At first glance, the story throws up some obvious inconsitencies: in some passages (Gen 7:4,12,27; 8:6 etc.) it is indicated that the flood lasted for 40 days and 40 nights, but in other passages (Gen 7:24; 8:3b,5,13,14 etc.) that it lasted for much longer. Genesis 7:2-3 indicates that 7 pairs of each clean animal and 1 pair of each unclean animal should be taken aboard the ark, but later it is indicated that it is to be only one pair of every kind of animal is to be taken (Gen 7:8-9,15). In Genesis 8:7 Noah releases a raven to "test the waters" so to speak, but in 8:8-12 he is depicted as releasing three doves: what gives?

Friedman's solution is that the present Biblical account is actually the conflation of two independant flood accounts, one penned by the J Source, the other by the P Source. He demostrates which passages belong to which source in this book, which I have included scans of below. Here, the J source is in green and the P source is in blue:



If you're at all skeptical about this theory, try going back and reading each source through independently. Note how each source can be read as a perfectly coherent, self-sufficient story on its own! There are other interesting applications of the DH theory here that I won't mention, but they may pop up throughout the rest of this thread.

Content-wise, the Torah contains a blend of literary styles. Most prominently we have the more ancient, heavily mythological material of the J source. This includes much of the material that is most familiar to us within the OT, including the (second) creation account, the stories of Lot, Babel and Noah, and the myths of the patriarchs. The prose of the J source is relatively simple, relying more on narrative for its poignancy rather than explicit theology, and shares much in common with other near-Eastern mythology. The E Source draws on a similar stock of mythology, but approaches it from the perspective of the Northern Kingdom. There is a heavier focus in the E Source on Moses than on the other patriarchs, and it can mostly only be distinguished from the J Source by its use of different names and titles throughout its text (Elohim vs YHWH, Mt. Sinai vs Mt. Horeb etc.).

The D Source is mostly confined to Deuteronomy and the so called Deuteronomic Histories (Judges - 2 Kings: see below). It appears to date to the time of King Josiah in the late 7th century BC, as the Deuteronomic History (at least originally) end with the reign of this king. The legal prescriptions also closely follow the kind of reforms Josiah undertook, and the text of 2 Kings mentions the "discovery" of a scroll in the Temple during his reconstruction of the complex (2 Kings 23:8-13) that has generally been identified by scholars as referring tothe Book of Deuteronomy. The P Source is later, likely composed during the exilic or post-exilic periods. As the name suggests, the text appears to have been written by priests and reflects the importance of the priestly caste in the post-monarchic Hebrew culture. The P text is rather dour in comparison with the other Pentateuchal sources, and is inordinately focussed on law and ritual (Leviticus, for example, is composed almost entirely of P) making it difficult reading for the casual reader. The theology is also more advanced than in the other sources, with God in the texts treated simultaneously as both more powerful and more distant, placing it more in line with modern theological expectations.

The Nev'im includes the historical books (Judges through 2 Kings) and the prophetic books proper, including the "Major Prophets" (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and - for Christians - Daniel) and the 12 "Minor Prophets" (these designations have nothing to do with importance, merely the size of the works involved).

The historical books trace the rise of the Israelites from their deliverence to the land of Canaan after 40 years of wandering the desert, to the (often violent) settlement of the area under the leadership of Joshua, to the establishment of a unified Davidic kingdom and - finally - the conquest of the Israelites at the hand of Babylon in 587 BC. As mentioned above, they were likely penned by the same author(s) as Deuteronomy (the D Source) at around this time. The texts appear to draw from a number of sources, and are unique amongst ancient Near-Eastern history for their capacity to weave historical events into an overarching theology. It is within these books that the Biblical accounts and the findings of archaeology begin to converge and find points of agreement, and most of what is called (somewhat anachronistically) "Biblical archaeology" concerns this often tumultuous period.

The prophets proper are often difficult to approach for those (including myself) who don't have a thorough grounding in ancient near-Eastern history (prophecy was a common phenomenon not only linked with ancient Israel), but I should attempt a comment or two. The first and most important thing to understand about OT prophecy is that - contrary to popular impression - these aren't really books that deal with supernatural predictions of future events (a la Nostredamous) but are rather reflections on events contemporaneous to the authors themselves. While its true that the books can often be forward-looking, the "predictions" - such that they are - are generally presented conditionally and often within the capacity of the powers-that-be to avert ("If you don't... then God will..."). A common formula is the "diatribe" (a list of grievences against the king or the people) followed by a warning of the divine justice to come (e.g. Isaiah 1:21-23; 24-27). It's better (and more accurate) to think of the prophets as royal advisors or as cultural critics than as some of kind of sooth-saying mystics. Concern for the plight of the poor (particularly their exploitation at the hands of the ruling classes) and fidelity towards YHWH are probably the most common themes to emerge from these texts.

The Ketuvim represent a diverse body of works (most prominently Psalms and Proverbs) that are difficult to do justice to here. The Psalms are notoriously difficult to date, but were likely composed over a period of hundreds of years. Their function seems to have been mixed: some approximate folk-songs, others poetry, others were likely used in a liturgical context. It was once assumed that they were penned by King David, but this seems unlikely given that Davidic authorship is only affixed to a few of the Psalmic collections, that these titles are only present in the LXX version of the text and that the Psalms exhibit vastly different uses of language which indicate multiple authorship over a long period of time. The Book of Proverbs is a collection of wisdom sayings that share much in common with other near-Eastern cultures (the Ancient Egyptian culture most prominently). For this reason, many of the sayings are comparitively secular in nature and this may indicate that many of the collections in this Book - like other wisdom literature within the Ketuvim, including Eccleciastes and Job - were penned by aristocratic members of the Hebrew community rather than the religious authorities. The Book of Proverbs was once attributed to the authorship of King Solomon, but this seems unlikely due to the fact that different styles are evident in the text and some sections are introduced as being authored by men other than Solomon.


The New Testament:


The New Testament is comprised of 27 books, 21 one of which are in letter (or "epistle") form. Broadly they can be divided into the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, the Catholic Epistles and Revelation (which kind of stands on its own).

The Gospels are a set of four books which trace the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazereth. Who the authors of these gospels may have been, we now do not know: the authorship traditionally attributed to these books emerged from speculation in the mid-2nd century, and there is nothing in any of the texts to give us any clues (though Luke - in the Book of Acts - seems to hint that he was an associate of Paul). Nonetheless, for the sake of convenience, we continue to use the traditional titles as the names of the authors when discussing the gospels. It is presently believed that Mark was written in about 70 AD, Matthew and Luke in perhaps 80-85 AD and John in around 90-100 AD though these dates are a little difficult to pin-down with any great confidence.

Matthew, Mark and Luke are classified as the "Synoptic" gospels because they share so much material in common (syn="same", optic="view"). The question of how these gospels came to be composed is known as "the Synoptic Problem" and it's something that I will spend most of this section trying to address.

Basically, it has been known since ancient times that the synoptic gospels share a great deal of material in common - not just in terms of relating similar events or narratives, but in terms of extended passages of almost word-for-word correspodence. Initially it was believed that Matthew wrote first, Luke borrowed from Matthew and then Mark wrote a kind of abridged conflation of the two later on. Now, however, most scholars reject this theory in favour of "Markan Priority" - the idea that Mark wrote first, and then Matthew and Luke used his gospel as a source for their own. This explains the "triple-tradition" material: that is, the material that is found in all three synoptic gospels. However, the question doesn't end there, for there is also an extensive double-tradition: material found in Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark.

Although there are various theories for these confluences, the most prominent and widely accepted is that there was once a now lost "Q" gospel (derived from the German word "Quelle", meaning source) which both Matthew and Luke used in the composition of their gospels in addition to Mark. In other words, Matthew and Luke (by some accounts independently, though others have Luke coming after Matthew) composed their gospel with Mark and Q in front of them, and borrowed extensively from each to create their own gospels. Although this is (to me at least) interesting in itself, one application of source-criticism is in applying it ascertain what each of the gospel authors may have added or subtracted from earlier accounts and using this to infer what kind of theological message they were attempting to construct and - perhaps - what the authentic words of Jesus may have been.

A good example is "the Beatitudes" (Lk. 6:20-25; Mt. 5:1-12). Although both Matthew and Luke plainly have some very similar source material, the accounts come across quite differently. The most prominent difference is the difference in lengths - Matthew's account is decidedly longer. Presuming that both accounts were derived from Q, how do we explain this? Is it more likely that Matthew added his own material to the Q account, or is it more likely that Luke subtracted from it? Is it more likely that Matthew has softened the first beatitude by adding "in spirit", or is it more likely that Luke radicialised it by subtracting that phrase? Most scholars lean to the former solution in both cases. Given that, scholars generally infer (here and elsewhere) that Luke preserves the Q material more accurately and with less embelishments than Matthew does (tellingly, the beatitudes in the Gospel of Thomas closely mirror those in Luke as well). The significance? If it's true that Q predates even Mark, then Q may be the most reliable insight we have into the authentic teachings of Jesus and - based on our inferences from Luke - he may have had a more radical, counter-intuitive message than a surface reading of the gospels might indicate. "Blessed are (sometimes translated as "congratulations to") the poor"? What are we to take from that?

As for the historical accuracy of the gospels, I address this issue briefly in the FAQ below but if you have any questions about specific historical events in the gospels then please ask.

The Pauline Epistles are a set of letters attributed to the Apostle Paul, the pre-eminent evangeliser of the 1st century. His first letter to the Thessalonians (circa 50 AD) is the earliest surviving work of Christian literature.

Presently, scholarly opinion accepts only seven of the Pauline Epistles as having indisputably been written by Paul (these are 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Romans, Philemon, Phillippians, 1 & 2 Corinthians). The authorship of three more (2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians) is currently under debate, and the remaining three (Titus, 1 & 2 Timothy - the "Pastoral" epistles) are now recognised as the work of a later, anonymous author who lived towards the end of the 1st century. These epistles (both authentic and pseudonymous) are of important historical value because they trace the progression of the earliest Christian community both in terms of theology and the emergence of the church structures that have survived for nearly 2000 years.

As for Paul himself, he stands as probably the most important influence on the trajectory of Christian thought (with the possible exception of Jesus). His outreach to the Gentiles and his constant battles with those he derisively calls the "Super-Apostles" (James and Peter most prominently - some of these battles are recorded in his epistles) marked Christianity as the universal faith - with no impediments to membership - that it is today. Without Paul, Christianity would today look very different.

The Catholic Epistles have nothing to do with the church (catholic means something like "universal"), they are merely the name given to the non-Pauline epistles in the New Testament (namely 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, James and Jude). Scholarly opinion now considers most of these letters to have been penned pseuodonymously, but like the Pauline epistles they retain great value as - if nothing else - an insight into the beliefs and practices of some of the earliest Christians. Again, it's unlikely that any of these books were written by the authors whose names have been affixed to them.

Revelation is a very difficult book to understand, made even more obscure by the author's attrocious command of Greek grammar (leading some scholars to assume that he - i.e. John of Patmos - was a Hebrew in exile, escaping persecution, who spoke Greek only as a second language). It is drenched in angst and its obscure eschatological imagery borrows heavily from the inter-testamental Jewish apocolyptic literature that was popular at the time. Put in that particularly literary context makes it seem less bizarre and other-wordly, but the precise meaning or intention of much of the text is still often hotly debated.

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Aug 26, 2004



The Historical Background of the Bible

1500-1200 BC: Settlement

In the second half of the second millennium BC, the land of Canaan (a region comprising modern Israel, Palestine and parts of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan) was comprised of a series of loosely affiliated city states, distantly overseen by the Egyptian Empire. The culture was relatively homogeneous, and closely related culturally to other ancient near-Eastern polities. At some time in the 13th century BC, the entire region was thrown into chaos by a series of migratory movements originating (likely) somewhere to the north-west. Exactly what caused this upheaval of population is not known for certain, but we know from Egyptian records that a mass of immigrants (deemed "sea people" by the Egyptians) landed periodically all around the Mediterranean coast sometime in the 13th century BC, attacking many key Egyptian outposts - as well as key centres of other empires - in the process. The on-going battle between the Egyptians and the sea people needn't concern us further, but the importance for Israel and the subsequent Biblical narrative lies in what happened as a consequence on the modern day Gaza strip.

The "sea people" who landed here immediately embarked on a wave of destruction and displacement, a pattern attested to today by the archaeological record. This period marks a severe decline in the size and strength of the greater empires in the region (especially Mesopotamia and Egypt) and allowed for the emergence of smaller states. The sea people came to settle the Gaza strip (and became known to subsequent generations of Israelites as "Philistines") and the previous settlers were forced off this relatively fertile land by the coast into the more desolate, arid, mountainous region to the east. The land appears to have been largely uninhabited prior to this, so the new settlers - refugees from all over the Levant - were able to create settlements with relative ease. At this early stage we can't yet properly speak of an "Israel" (though we know from Egyptian records that there existed a people called "Israel" by around 1200) because the material culture of the region was still indistinguishable from the wider Canaanite material culture. Well, indistinguishable it so happens with one important difference: the almost total absence of pig bones in the proto-Israelite sites.

1200-1000 BC: Tribes and Judges

Little is known for sure about this part of the region's history. We know that the Egyptians were forced to withdraw their influence from the region due to their on-going battles with the "sea people", various states and other internecine conflicts, so we can imagine that the loose coalition of city states that existed in Canaan likely fragmented during this time. According to the Biblical accounts, this was a period of general lawlessness, violence, and competing tribal chiefs (or "judges" in the Biblical terminology). Although the historicity of most of the narratives in Judges have long been questioned by scholars, we can probably say that the Biblical account probably has more than an element of truth to it: as closely related as all the "tribes" in the region were (in terms of religion, language and culture) there can be little doubt that this was a period in which they jostled violently for land and power in the vacuum of Egyptian influence.

With respect to religion, we know that these proto-Israelites continued to believe in at least aspects of the Canaanite pantheon of gods: namely in El (the "head" god) and his 70 children. That El was integral to the religious culture of the proto-Israelites can be determined by his presence in theophoric titles (Isra-el, El-ijah etc.) and that it continued to be the name of "God" in the northern kingdom for centuries later. In the part of the Torah that is suspected to have been penned in the northern kingdom (that is, the E Source"), "Elohim" is the name used for God in the narrative until he reveals his name to be "YHWH" in Exodus (in truth, this appears to be a later attempt to conflate two different gods under the same name: even relatively late Biblical texts appear to suggest that YHWH was originally a member of a divine council of gods (elyon) - Dt. 32:8-9). In the south, however, the use of theophoric titles involving the name YHWH from a relatively early date suggests to us that YHWH was the patron god of Judah from the very beginning.

We are told that the land (or at least, it's northern part) was ruled by a man named "Saul" in the later part of this period, though exactly what territory he might have laid claim to is not clear. The Bible tells us of the continued presense of foreign tribes in the land nominally claimed by Saul, and we also know from Egyptian records that the land was terrorised during this period by large, well-organised groups of bandits known as "Hapiru". So, if the legitimacy of a state truly rests in its capacity to impose a monopoly of violence in the region under its control, we probably can't yet call the Israel of Saul a true state just yet. Scholars once tried to make a etymological link between the word "Hapiru" and the word "Hebrew" - which would raise the possibility that the Hebrews entered the land originally as marauding bandits - but this explanation seems to have fallen out of favour.

1000 BC - 930 BC: David and Solomon

Sometime in the late 11th century BC, it appears that a tribal chief named David achieved prominence in the southern regions, uniting enough of the population to take over Jerusalem and to establish a state there known as "Judah". According to the Biblical accounts, he was once in the employ of Saul, and after Saul's death found himself in control of a "united monarchy" - that is, both the northern and southern parts of the region (or Israel and Judah). Exactly how seriously we can take these Biblical accounts is unclear, and a matter of acrimonious debate among scholars. At one end there are those who suggest the Biblical account is almost entirely trustworthy, and the other end are those who would deny David ever existed (although the latter are now in shorter supply after the discovery of the Tel Dan Stele). I'm obviously not qualified to resolve this issue here, so I'll give you the facts as I see them and let you make your own mind up.

In the Biblical account, it has long been noted that David comes across as a very flawed and (consequently) a very human figure. Despite the reverence with which he was treated in later periods, the Biblical accounts are scarcely unequivocally positive in their descriptions of him. One potential explanation is that the material (in the Book of Samuel anyway) comes from two different sources: one from the north and one from the south, that were later redacted into a single narrative. The southern account is predictably more positive, because this is where David was based and where the majority of his support came from. The northern account is rather less effusive in its praise because there may have been a residual tendency to see David as something of a violent usurper: he did, after all, apparently murder Saul's son to end the northern monarchy and to stake his claim to the entire region. If this interpretation of the Biblical texts is correct, then it would seem to lend some support to the general historicity of the accounts because they have been preserved down two independent sources. That this is the case, though, is far from clear.

What we do know is that David was remembered for (firstly) siding with the Philistines against Saul and then fighting off and subduing the Philistines. Again, there is no inherent reason to suspect the truth of these accounts. Kings and states do not just appear from thin air: generally in history, the rallying of a people around a central leader - and their granting him the authority and resources to lead them - doesn't happen for no reason. Frequently, such centralising tendencies can occur in response to perceived threats, as happened in Greece, Rome, China and doubtless many other places. The emergence of David as the sole leader of once disparate groups of people may well have been a response to the perceived threat which emanated firstly from the northern kingdom of Saul and - subsequently - from the Philistines. That David switched allegiances should also not be a surprise: this was a frequent tactic employed by kings in the ancient world (to side with the more powerful force, regardless of past relationships with other powers) and it happened frequently in the subsequent history of Israel and Judah. The Biblical account has the benefit of explaining the emergence of a monarchy in the southern region and its subsequent history, so again, I see no reason to doubt it.

One question mark lies with just how "unified" the northern and southern parts of the kingdom were under King David. In fact, many scholars will deny (quite credibly) that there was ever a unified kingdom of Israel at all. They would argue that it was merely a work of theologically inspired propaganda created by later Judahites to justify their claims to the northern lands after the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. This might be taking it a little too far, but what can probably be said with confidence is that the south simply didn't have the resources to bring the north reliably under its control. Archaeologists put the population in Judah at the time of David at perhaps no more than a few thousand, and given the relatively poor agricultural conditions in the region it seems difficult to believe that Judah could have produced the economic surplus necessary to produce an army capable of subduing and occupying the much larger, much wealthier region to the north. In other words, whatever claims David might have had on the northern kingdom were surely somewhat tenuous, and the idea of a unified kingdom may well have been more an ideological claim than one realised in practice. That the unified kingdom lasted no longer than 70 years (according to the Biblical account) would surely be evidence of this.

Solomon is another enigmatic figure. In the Bible he was remembered for producing books of great wisdom (i.e. the Book of Proverbs) and incredible building feats, but it now seems likely that he produced neither. The Biblical wisdom literature probably dates (for the most part) to the post-exilic period (that is, four centuries after Solomon at the earliest) and the major building projects in the northern kingdom that the Bible attributes to Solomon were likely built during the time of the divided kingdom, when the the northern half was comparatively rich and powerful. The possibility remains that Solomon constructed the first Temple in Jerusalem (as tradition maintains), but the relevant archaeological site currently lies under the Al-Aqsa mosque so it is not possible to confirm for sure. What else we can say about Solomon with any certainty is unclear, but what is apparent is that after his death whatever fragile unity there was between the north and south fractured, and the next period of history is one that of the "divided monarchy".

930-734 BC: The Age of Israel

After the fracturing of the (potentially) once united kingdom of Israel, the two kingdoms went down quite separate paths. The northern kingdom (Israel) grew rapidly, developing a rich and relatively advanced material culture, as well as developing strong military and economic ties with neighbouring powers. Beginning perhaps with the great king Omri in the early 9th century BC (foreign powers referred to the northern kingdom as "the House of Omri"), the archaeological record tells us that this was a period of exorbitant building projects and extensive trade for Israel. We also know from the rather severe admonitions of the prophets active at the time - such as Isaiah, Hosea and Amos - that such plenitude also produced gross inequality and economic exploitation in the kingdom. The influence of foreign trade and diplomatic ties also brought the unwelcome (for these prophets) influence of foreign religious practices. The accounts of the northern kingdom in the Book of Kings (written by unsympathetic southern scribes some centuries later) paints a picture of abject moral depravity in the region at the time. Whatever the truth, the population in the north may have been as much as 8 times greater than that in the south, and the wealth of the regions are almost incomparable.

In the south at the time, this marks a period of almost total obscurity and lack of development. There is little evidence of literacy in the region (which would be a sign of economic development and a strong central state) and the land was likely populated almost exclusively by small, marginal agriculturalists and nomads. Although it seems that Judah was able to remain an independent state during this period - and there is no indication that they were required to pay tribute to their northern neighbours, despite the late attempt by the north to enforce one - there is simply no doubt that Judah was the little brother in this partnership. But for the intervention of foreign powers, it likely would have stayed this way, and Judaism, Christianity and the Bible - at least in any recognisable forms - would never have had to chance to emerge.

734 - 592 BC: Assyria and The Fall of Israel

At the peak of their strength, the Israelites made the ill-fated decision to stand with the city of Damascus against the now powerful Assyrian empire. The Assyrians - led by the infamous King Tiglath-Pileser III - reacted swiftly in anger, invading Israel, deposing the king and replacing him with a leader of their own choosing. After the death of King Tiglath-Pileser III, Israel again rebelled, hoping to use the resultant power vacuum as a chance to pursue their freedom from the empire. Again, though, the Assyrian response was swift and brutal. After a prolonged siege of the capital Samaria, Israel finally fell in 722 BC. The royal house of Omri was completely destroyed, and its population was either sent into exile or forced to flee for safer territory in the face of the advancing Assyrian army.

For many of those who took flight, Judah was the most logical destination. They shared nearly identical cultures, afterall, and Judah - under its king Ahaz - had signed a suzerain treaty with the Assyrians, sparing them from direct conquest in exchange for the provision of onerous tributes. (It's worth mentioning that in the decade or so before the fall of Israel, this technically made Judah and Israel enemies at war.) And the refugees did indeed flood into Judah in great numbers: the archaeological record suggests that the population of Jerusalem may have increased almost 12-fold in little less than a century. Quite apart from the population boom in Judah that this migratory influx obviously caused, there were a number of other important effects as well. Firstly, the religious traditions of Israel and Judah - which had been diverging for at least two centuries by this point - were brought back into contact. This may well have been when the J/E conflation took place (i.e. the penning of the majority of Genesis and Exodus) as religious scholars sought to reconcile the sometimes minor differences between the two mythical traditions.

Another important effect was the rise of literacy in Judah during this period, another fact attested by the archaeological record. Normally literacy only enters a society once a certain level of economic complexity has been reached, thus necessitating the creation of more complex forms of accounting and record keeping (it does appear that the majority of the earliest instances of written language performed exactly this function). Judah, prior to this point, was an almost entirely rural region, with very little (it seems) in terms of political centralisation or urbanisation, and literacy therefore was not a pressing need prior to the 8th century. Israel in the 8th century, by contrast, was a large, heavily urbanised society that engaged routinely in foreign trade, thus necessitating an institutionalised scribal culture to keep track of trades, contracts, inventory and so on. After the fall of Israel, these scribes - and other instruments of complex government - were brought south to Judah and would have made possible the creation of texts used in religion and government. In other words, it is probably at around this time that we can finally imagine that the material and intellectual resources necessary for the construction of complex texts finally arrived to Judah, and it is probably around this time that some of the Biblical texts we are familiar with today were first penned.

Perhaps the most important development during this period was the ascension of King Josiah, who - with the exception of King David - is probably the most important king in the history of Judah and the religious traditions it came to produce. He came to the throne as an 8 year old in 640 BC, and in approximately 622 BC introduced a serious of religious and social reforms that would forever shape the nature of the Hebrew religion. His most important move here was in the centralisation of the religious faith, so that all religious practice would now be centred on the Temple in Jerusalem, and all other outlets of religious expression - the so called "altars" and "high places" - would be destroyed, their priests slain and their practise forever suppressed. 2 Kings 23 gives us some great detail about just how thorough, violent and wide-spread the enforcement of this edict needed to be. The shear scale of the "abominable" religious practices present in Judah prior to Josiah's reforms should, however, give us a clear indication of just how pluralistic and variable Judahite religion was prior to Josiah, and puts lie to the fact that the Hebrew religion was ever an inherently monolithic / monotheistic one.

Another important move made by Josiah during his reign was the empowerment of the priestly caste (specifically the Levitical caste) and the reduction in the power of the King. Penned some 1800 years before the Magna Carta, the book of Deuteronomy represents an extraordinary concession of power on behalf of the King of Judah, including the promise to follow piously the "Laws" of scripture (i.e. the king was now a follower of law rather than a prescriber of it) and to not "exalt himself above other members of the community" (Dt. 17)! This diminishing of the power of the king and the strengthening of the power of the priests would have a number of important consequences in the post-exilic period and future of the Hebrew religion.

592 BC - 539 BC: The Exile

After the fall of the Assyrian empire at the hand of the Babylonians in the late 7th century BC, Judah was faced with a problem. To the north they now had the Babylonian Empire, one that was probably more aggressive and expansionist than the Assyrian Empire they replaced. To the south they had the still large (though perhaps declining) Egyptian Empire. To make matters worse, the two empires were open enemies, leaving Judah in the middle and needing to choose one side to protect it from the other. For a period of two decades, it seems as though the kings of Judah vacillated almost capriciously from one side to the other, as the fortune of each empire grew and waned. Eventually, though, after abandoning a recently-penned treaty with Babylon to side with the Egyptians, the Judahites were left to face the full brunt of the Babylonian army. They expected the support of the Egyptians, but the Egyptians never arrived. In three successive waves of invasion, concluding in 582 BC, Judah was smashed by the Babylonians: its cities were destroyed, its population scattered and its elite members carried off into exile.

The human scale of this drama is preserved in unnerving detail in the Bible. The siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC was, like all other military sieges in history, a event which imposed almost imaginable strains on endurance and suffering. With access to outside food sources closed off by the Babylonian army, the people of Jerusalem were "pierced by hunger", the "women... boiled their own children":

Lamentations 4 posted:

Even the jackals offer the breast
and nurse their young,
but my people has become cruel,
like the ostriches in the wilderness.

The tongue of the infant sticks
to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
but no one gives them anything.

Those who feasted on delicacies
perish in the streets;
those who were brought up in purple
cling to ash heaps.

In truth, the aftermath was little better for those who stayed behind. Agricultural production ground to a halt, cities were abandoned and many fled the land permanently, Egypt becoming a particularly popular sanctuary. Those who were carried into exile (including the royal court, the priests and members of the aristocracy) bemoaned their fates in moving Psalmic elegies for their lost land, the most famous being that of Psalm 137 ("By the rivers of Babylon..."). In truth, the conditions faced by those exiled to Babylon (exact numbers are difficult to gauge by the way, but 10% of the Judahite population would be as good a guess as any) were perhaps not so bad: they were, after all, apparently free - at least in certain cases - to continue their religious practices, to perform trades and to marry into the local populations. In addition to certain Psalms, important prophetic works such as Ezekiel, Jeremiah and deutero-Isaiah were likely written (at least in part) during the exile, the first two notable for their almost complete lack of hostility towards the Babylonians, and their correlated disdain towards those Judahites who remained in Judah or (much worse) who had fled to Egypt.

Theologically this marks an important time for the Hebrews, so much so that many scholars use the terms "pre-exilic" and "post-exilic" theology to denote the significant changes the forced exile imposed. Firstly, the Jerusalem Temple - literally the dwelling place of their God - had been destroyed, leaving serious questions about their proper mode of worship and practice in its absence. Secondly, the unimaginable suffering heaped on the Judahites so soon after the enactment of the supposedly pious reforms of Josiah was difficult to explain: why was God so angry at us? The first problem likely contributed to the growth of belief in a universal deity (that is, a deity who could be with one even in a foreign land) and - eventually - unequivocal monotheism (the first unambiguously monotheistic Biblical passage was likely written during this time: Isa. 44:6). It also contributed to the centrality of the Law in the Hebrew religion, because it could still be followed even where the possibility of worship and sacrifices - the central praxes of the old religion - were no longer possible. The second problem was explained by the reality of deferred judgement - that present-day generations could be punished for the inequities of past generations. This was an important development in the conception of sin, and would eventually lead to the idea of "original sin" so important to later Christian theologians.

539 BC - 323 BC: The Persian Period

Following the over-running of the Babylonian Empire by the Persians, the Judahites in exile were finally free to return to their homeland. For his role in this - and his relatively tolerant and liberal attitude towards the expression of religion - Cyrus was deemed to be a "Messiah" by the author of deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 45:1). In truth the return to Judah was little more than a slow trickle initially: the archaeological record seems to indicate only a slow growth in population during the century or so after the fall of Babylon. In reality, it's not difficult to understand why: the majority of the Hebrews living in Babylon had never seen Judah, had their own families and trades in Babylon, and there was little to go back to in the now destitute and economically backward hinterlands of Judah. But they did make their way back slowly.

The first to come (including Zerubbabel, the governor and Haggai the prophet) were shocked by the conditions they found there. The so-called "people of the land" had fallen into a state of apparent moral degradation, abandoning the religious practices instituted by Josiah (and further refined by the Babylonian exiles), adopting gods and wives from neighbouring tribes. The land was destitute and unproductive, the cities lay in ruins, completely undeveloped from the time of the Babylonian invasion more than four decades prior. The first task involved the rebuilding of the Temple, a project that seems to have run into many difficulties along the way. (These interruptions are blamed partly on the Samaritans - refugees from the Assyrian invasion of the northern Kingdom who had returned along with the Judahites. This enmity between the Hebrews and the Samaritans would continue until the time of Jesus, hence the "Good Samaritan" story.) It was eventually built, though, and this period through to 70 AD is therefore referred to as the "Second Temple Period". Strangely, while many facets of pre-exilic life were resumed in Judah during this period, the re-establishment of the monarchy doesn't seem to have been one of them. While members of the royal court form part of the narrative in the earliest period of the return, they henceforth disappear without explanation, with royal titles, ceremonies and functions passed onto the high priest. The Davidic monarchy was never to be restored, the powers of government now resting for the majority of the Second Temple period with the priests and governors appointed by foreign powers.

It was during this period that the texts of the Hebrew Bible reached essentially their modern form - few of the major texts from the Tanakh can be dated reliably to after this period, though the texts themselves did continue to evolve. The Torah and the Deueronomic histories (that is, the first 9 books of the Bible) were likely edited / composed into their definitive form during the 5th century BC (perhaps by the prophet Ezra) and the theology of the time is perhaps best represented by the "Priestly (or "P") Source" within the Torah. The theology of this source evinces evidence of the universal god developed during the exile (in contrast with the more parochial god of earlier texts) and the centrality of assiduous priestly procedure to the religion, in keeping with the realities of post-monarchical Judah.

323 BC - 63 BC: The Hellenistic Period

This was an extremely complex time politically in the region, so it will be difficult to do justice to it in just a few paragraphs. It started with Alexander the Great's defeat of Persia, and the transfer of the lands of Palestine into the hands of his armies. With Alexander's death in 323 BC, however, the inheritance of his nascent empire was fought-over by his generals, a squabble which took a long time to reach a definitive conclusion. The land of Palestine was contested between Ptolemy I and his neighbouring rival Seleucus, with the former eventually laying definitive claim to the land in around 301 BC. Almost immediately he set about Hellenizing the region, introducing a complex governing bureaucracy and other cultural institutions in line with Alexander's earlier desire to introduce homonia (that is, a universal Hellenistic culture) to the lands he brought under his control.

As a consequence of Ptolemy's reforms (and those of his successors), the period marks one of relative peace and prosperity in the region, as evidenced by the growth in populations, agriculture and trade in the region. It wasn't however, a happy period for everyone. Those in the upper-classes tended to benefit more from Hellenism than the rural classes did, so they tended to adapt to Greek thought and institutions much more readily. As a consequence, an internal rupture emerged among the Jews (and it is here that the word Jew first came into use: it was a Greek title for the population of Judea) during the Greek and Roman period. Generally, we can now speak of the privilaged classes (merchants, priests, royalty etc.) supporting (or at least acquiescing to) the occupiers and patronising their institutions (including gymnasia and so on), with the less privileged classes rebelling against the imperial forces and holding zealously to their religious traditions. The latter would eventually become radicalised, and it is in such an environment that the ministry of Jesus - and subsequent developments in the history of Judaism must be understood.

The Ptolemies eventually lost control of the region to the Seleucids in 223 BC, and this marks the beginning of a period of great instability. The Seleucids were involved in ongoing conflicts with the growing Roman empire, and needed to extract higher and higher tributes to support their war efforts. This involved further exploitation of the already disenfranchised rural poor and the raiding of the sacrosanct Jerusalem Temple for its treasures. When the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (with the help of his lackey high-priest) established an "abomination" (namely Pagan worship) in the Jerusalem Temple in the year 167 BC, and outlawed certain other Jewish practices, the impoverished population revolted under a religious banner in an event known as the "Maccabean Revolt". After 3 years of often gruelling guerilla warfare, the Maccabeans emerged victorious and established an independent Jewish state for the first time in over four centuries, an event celebrated down to the modern day in the festival of Hannukah. This new Hasmonean dynasty struggled to definitively secure a grip on power, however, due predominantly to Roman influence and internecine conflicts, resulting in a century of further relative instability. The independence of the kingdom was officially ended when Pompey invaded in 63 BC and established the territory as a Roman client Kingdom.

The restlessness of this age gave rise to some relatively new ways of thinking within Jewish circles. For the impoverished and disenfranchised, the dismay they felt over their constant subjugation at the hands of foreign powers was channelled into eschatological thought: namely, the idea that God would shortly intervene to put an end to the evils of the present age. This is most prominently displayed in the Book of Daniel and the books of Enoch / Ezra. This is another important indication of the influence that historical events can have over the trajectory of theology. Many other people - particularly in the upper-classes - were heavily influenced by Greek thought during this period, as demonstrated in the Book of Ecclesiastes and other so-called "Wisdom" literature. This also marks the first point at which we can identify a belief in the afterlife (or resurrection, more specifically) amongst some of the Jewish population. It seems to have emerged in reaction to the perceived iniquity of the fact that those who died gloriously during the Maccabean revolt would not live to see its fruition. All of these new theological developments would be important in the development of early Christian thought.

63 BC - 70 AD: The Early Roman Period

The early periods of Roman rule were overshadowed by developments in Rome, including the battles waged between Pompey and Caesar, and later between Antony and Octavian. The Romans did stamp their authority on the region, however, with the installation of Herod the Great as a puppet king in 37 BC. Herod was a prolific builder - most prominently his massive additions to the Temple complex - and enjoyed a close relationship with the Romans, neither of which ingratiated him to the local population. He is remembered as a brutal and capricious ruler by later authors, though much of this reputation can probably be attributed to the politically motivated polemic of his later detractors. Matthew's claim that he killed every firstborn child in Judea (as the Romans called it) can be safely dismissed as theologically-driven fiction. Shortly after Herod's death, Judea went from being a client kingdom to being absorbed as a Roman province.

As in the earlier Greek period, the Jews of the Roman period found themselves split between those who acquiesced to the Roman occupation and those who actively opposed it. On the pro-Roman side, we have the Sadducees, those of the ruling priestly caste who ran the Temple and actively co-operated with their Roman overseers. On the other side we have the Pharisees, a distinct priestly caste who were legal traditionalists and enjoyed a much closer relationship with the Jewish people. Finally we have the Essenes, a shadowy group about whom little is known. It seems that they were originally a disaffected priestly caste, who left (or were excluded from) their regular priestly duties at some point in the Hellenistic period, perhaps due to disagreements with the occupying powers. It seems they produced strange, almost unclassifiable religious literature (including likely the Dead Sea Scrolls) and lived an ascetic lifestyle at the fringes of society.

Groups like the Essenes likely gave rise to movements such as those of John the Baptist in the Roman period, who preached an eschatological message and railed ceaselessly against the powers-that-be. Jesus, likely originally a disciple of John, can be placed in the same category. Although the Gospel authors tend to soften any potentially obvious anti-Roman sentiments in their texts, Jesus is best understood in the historical reality of Roman Judea: that is, one of imperialism and social disenfranchisement. The Romans (and their backers among the Jewish ruling classes) imposed often onerous taxes on the rural population of Judea, and many of the latter were left destitute as a consequence. Many could no longer turn to traditional religious sources for consolation, because those who represented such sources (namely the Sadducees) were seen as being complicit in the Roman occupation. Many therefore turned to more exuberant and rebellious religious alternatives, which generally promised liberation from the strife of the present period in the form of some future cataclysmic act of divine intervention, which would deliver the world from the hands of the powerful into the hands of the downtrodden. Such eschatological beliefs were the basis of Jesus' teachings.

Others had different solutions to the problems of Roman occupation, however, and organised themselves into militant groups. Most prominent among these were the "Zealots", who could apparently count one of their number among the disciples of Jesus. The Zealots aggressively targeted Greek and Roman interests in Judea, using tactics that would probably be described as "terrorism" in the modern parlance, including the targeting of otherwise innocent Greek and Roman civilians. Perhaps even more bold were the "Sicarii", named for the daggers they carried, who terrorised those Jews who dared to co-operate with the Romans. Such movements emerged, Josephus tells us, at least partly in response to the tax reforms enacted by the Romans at the beginning of the 1st century, though religious factors must surely have been a pertinent factor as well.

Such divisions were in some way mirrored in the early Christian sects. The only surviving Christian texts we have from this period are those of Paul, and much of his writing is devoted to attempting to bridge the gap between the Jews, Gentiles and their various subgroups in the nascent faith. The duties one faces to the empire, the concern for the poor and the eschatology of marginal Jewish groups are also major pre-occupations of Paul, which all serve to place early Christian theology firmly as a continuation of late-Second Temple Judaism. Until 70 AD, Christianity was just one of its many branches.

After 70 AD: The Late Roman Period and Diaspora

Eventually, the militant groups described in the previous section led a fateful revolt against the Romans in 66 AD. The violence was initially ad hoc and indiscriminate, before gradually escalating into a full-blown war against the Roman Empire. After 4 years of fighting - including another horrific siege of Jerusalem - the revolt was quashed and the Temple was destroyed, creating a crisis within the Jewish faith. The Temple had for so long stood at the centre of Jewish religious practice, and its absence created the need to innovate new theological solutions to keep the faith going. Essentially, from the first century onwards Judaism became a faith centred around the Torah (that is, "the Law") and its scholarly exegesis. With the Sadducees dislodged from power, the opportunity fell to Pharisees (or, at least, their successors) to lead this reinvigoration of the faith and they came to produce what is now known as Talmudic Judaism (derived from the name given to the body of scholarly interpretation produced by Rabbis), a critical step in the development of the Judaism with which we are familiar today.

Within Christianity, the fall of Jerusalem likely marked the first of its many significant fractures with Judaism. To begin with, the Jerusalem Church - hitherto probably the centre of the Christian missionary movement - simply disappears from history. The apostles at the head of this church - most notably James, "the brother of the Lord" - were extremely important in maintaining the Jewish influence within the early Christian movement, and insisted upon the continued observation of dietary laws and circumcision. For this position they ran into constant arguments with Paul and other early evangelists who insisted that gentiles should not be required to observe these central requirements of Judaism to be admitted into the faith. With the destruction of the Jerusalem Church (or at least its inability to retain its earlier influence) the gentile-friendly Christianity of Paul and his successors became dominant, and would remain normative for the rest of Christian history. While Jews previously tolerated the evangelising of proto-Christians in synagogues, the crisis caused by the destruction of the Temple created a rather less tolerant attitude and these proto-Christians now found themselves excluded from synagogue services. This situation is anachronistically depicted in the Gospel of John, which - together with the anti-Jewish polemic in other NT texts - suggests quite clearly that Judaism and Christianity were already starting to go their separate ways by the end of the first century.

The Judean province remained a politically restive region, however, and after several periodic skirmishes the situation again boiled over into full-blown war in 132 AD with the famous Bar Kokhba revolt. Under the leadership of Simon bar Kokhba - a self-proclaimed Messiah - the Jewish population rebelled against the Roman Empire and for a short period were seemingly successful in establishing Israel as an independent state. The Roman response was typically ruthless, however, and the revolt was quashed in an orgy of violence by the year 135 AD. The majority of Jews in the region were likely to have been killed, sold into slavery, or - if they were lucky - sent into exile. Hadrian forbade them from entering Jerusalem (except for specially sanctioned ceremonies) and this marks a critical stage in the Jewish diaspora. The Jews would from this point have no homeland until the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1947.

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Aug 26, 2004



FAQs:


"I want to read the Bible: what's the best way to go about it?"

Okay, the first thing you'll need to do is choose a translation. The question most people have is, "which translation is the most accurate?", but that's not such a straight-forward question to answer. The most scholarly - at least in the narrow sense that it is the one favoured by the majority of scholars - is the "New Revised Standard Version" or NRSV. It draws on modern scholarly insight and consensus in a way that many others don't, and to this extent - if you twisted my arm - I'd say that it's the "best" to use, but ultimately it depends on what you wish to get from the experience. As anyone who has ever studied another language knows, all languages are full of colloquial and idiomatic expressions that don't lend themselves easily to translation, and Biblical Hebrew and Greek are no different. When you encounter an expression that is pregnant with spiritual meaning, do you translate it word-for-word and lose the impact of the original expression, or do you look for an English expression that is perhaps a less literal translation but which conveys a similar weight of meaning to the original? There's a page here that gives you an insight into the methodology behind certain translations, but given that I am unfamiliar with the overwhelming majority of them I can't give you any hint as to how trustworthy its analysis is.

Beyond that, I'd recommend getting yourself an "annotated" or "study" Bible - which should come with introductory essays and footnotes for difficult passages - and a Biblical commentary if you really want to splash out. Here I can only speak to my own experiences, but I use the Oxford Annotated Bible (it's possible to download an older version for free here) in conjunction with the Oxford Bible Commentary and they work pretty well for me. It is of course possible to read the Bible without such aids, but there are parts of the text that you're simply not going to be able to understand or appreciate without the kind of background these aids can give you. Whatever text(s) you decide to use, I would at least recommend researching the background of each Biblical book before you decide to tackle it - that is, who wrote it, where and why. Without this information you're likely to get very lost and very bored very quickly. This is why the introductory essays and footnotes in the scholarly Bibles are so valuable.

As for how to read the Bible, I'd recommend against reading it from cover to cover. I tried this about 10 years ago, and apart from being a very difficult and time-consuming experience, I have to say that I got very little out of it. There are various Bible study plans out there that can help you to break the experience up into manageable chunks, but I'd ultimately just start with the parts of the Bible that you find to be potentially the most interesting and to not be afraid to skip around a lot. There are parts of the Bible that are almost never discussed in modern Jewish or Christian discourse, and there's a pretty good reason for that: they're turgid (by modern standards), difficult to understand and address issues or problems that are largely confined to a very specific time or place. They can be illuminating in their own rights, but I have to recognise that they're not going to be of much interest to those who are relatively new to the Bible. More accessible Biblical texts to begin with will include the first 9 books of the OT (which largely form a continuous narrative if you can manage all the genealogies and legal codes), the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job and maybe Isaiah (you will need help for this one, but it's an important prophetic work). In the NT you can obviously try the gospels (start with Mark), then maybe move onto Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, James and 1 Peter. This should give you a pretty good balance of viewpoints and genres, but again, this is only my recommendation.


"And how should I interpret the Bible?"

Again, there is no easy answer to this: it ultimately depends on what you want to get from the text.

The Catholic church, for example, commends four different approaches to Biblical hermeneutics in its catechism (par. 115-117):

quote:

According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. the profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

  • The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.

  • The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs:
    • 1. the allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.84
    • 2. the moral sense. the events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".
    • 3. the anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.

(I'm certain that there is a similar four-fold approach to Biblical hermeneutics in early Talmudic Judaism, but I can't find anything through google. Do any Jewish goons know what I'm talking about?)

There is nothing inherently unique about Catholic hermeneutics, and I didn't choose to cite the Catholic catechism for any especial reason other than to introduce a few general observations about Biblical hermeneutics. I think for many Christians and Jews, such approaches to the Biblical text will look familiar and few would have any real objections to what the Catholic church prescribes here. Even secular readers of the Bible will do well to keep such approaches in mind, since it is beyond doubt that many Biblical passages were intended to be interpreted, variously, in a "literal", "allegorical", "moral" or "anagogical" sense. However, I'll also use these instructions as a springboard to discuss some general warnings about Biblical hermeneutics, and the overwhelming need not to try and force the Biblical texts to conform to our preconceptions.

When it comes to interpreting the Bible "literally", I shouldn't need to point out that there is a significant minority of Christians out there who insist upon this method and this method alone. Apart from the fact that such an approach necessitates the belief in patent absurdities (such as the "literal" existence of Adam and Eve or Noah's flood, for example) it's also ultimately a self-defeating approach and one that is practically impossible to abide by. All language contains within it ambiguities, and these ambiguities are all the more pronounced when speaking of "ineffable" subjects like God or heaven. Without wishing to get all post-modern on your asses, sometimes it's nearly impossible to draw a direct path between the "signifier" (that is, the word used) and the "signified" (that is, the reality to which it points) because the "signifier" is either ambiguous, metaphorical (and much of language is metaphorical in nature) or pointing to something entirely absent. For example, how should we interpret Mark 13:24-27 "literally"?

Mark 13:24-27 posted:

‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.'

It's simply impossible to make any sense of this passage without recognising the deeper subtext that Jesus was invoking. Namely, he was talking about (without ever "literally" mentioning) the coming eschaton ("end of times"), he was making use of an enigmatic "son of man" figure that had long been associated with apocalyptic imagery in Jewish thought, he was using metaphorical language ("four winds", "ends of the earth") and he framed it all in a homiletic imperative (the need to be part of the "elect"). None of this would be apparent on a "literal" reading (taking the words at face value, ignoring the deeper context in which the passage was spoken / written) and the passage would simply devolve on such a reading into a meaningless slurry of empty imagery. Of course, Biblical literalists would interpret this passage no more literally than the rest of us (see also their contorted reading of the Book of Revelation) but that's just further proof that such a methodology is at best meaningless, at worst completely misleading. What we take to be "literally" true in a text can often be a matter of subjective preference, and the only anchor we have to prevent us from slipping into a post-modern malaise of believing there to be "nothing external to the text" (to paraphrase Derrida) is to recognise that these words were penned in a very specific historical, cultural and religious context. Understanding this context is the key to understanding passages like this and this is why I favour the historical-critical approach to Biblical hermeneutics, for whatever it's worth.

Anyway, next we have the "allegorical" sense. Again, while it is undoubtedly true that many Biblical passages were intended to be read "allegorically", we have to exercise a certain degree of caution and to not use this method promiscuously to deal with potentially troubling passages. For example, some liberal theologians today will assert that the creation myths at the beginning of Genesis were intended "allegorically" and that the authors weren't attempting to "literally" describe how the world was created in these passages. While there are some plainly mythological / aetiological features to note (namely that the first man is literally called "man" and that the name Eve is close to the word for "rib" in ancient Hebrew) is there any indication from the text - or from its subsequent exegesis - that the early Hebrews didn't believe the world to have been created in just the manner described in the Biblical texts? Did they really mean for a "day" to represent billions of years, or did they really not believe that human beings were formed by YHWH from clay (in keeping with other ancient near-Eastern creation myths)? Is there any evidence from the text that they ever could have believed otherwise? The authors of the Bible were not omniscient, and they could only come to understand their world through the very narrow confines of the culture into which they were born. It cheapens the text when we approach it with the attitude that they should have known what we know, and to opt for an allegorical reading every time their world-view appears to come into conflict with our own. They believed very different things to us, and it's a little bit condescending to try to rationalise these differences away by refusing to accept their beliefs in the very terms in which they were expressed.

For the last two, it is again true to suggest that many Biblical passages were constructed with an anagogical or moral message in mind. Sometimes these messages could be padded into entire books (the Book of Job, for example). Again, to this extent, attempting to find moral or anagogical meaning in the Bible is fine, but it's problematic if one approaches the Bible as little more than an extended homily, or - in the modern parlance - as a kind of self-help book. There are passages in the Bible that are brutal and insensible, particularly by modern liberal standards. Again, I must emphasise that such passages are the product of a very different world, and it's a little unfair to try to rationalise them to conform to the standards of 21st century morality. Take for example the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. From our modern vantage point it is a horrific story, from which no character emerges unscathed with a clean moral slate. For modern liberal theologians, discerning an acceptable moral message from this story is difficult, but it hasn't stopped them from trying. Perhaps it is a homily on God's mercy and grace? See how willing he was, after all, to spare the cities for want of 10 "righteous" men. Perhaps it is a homily on the dangers of sexual impropriety and licentiousness? It doesn't explain Lot's actions or the fact that no sexual impropriety actually takes place in the story, but it's possible. Perhaps it is, as I once heard, a homily on the dangers of divorce? I'm not sure how, but again, possible enough.

What makes the story much easier to understand, though, is the recognition that its author(s) didn't share the same moral matrix that we did. There is no sense in trying to rescue the narrative to make it morally sensible to modern readers, because it simply can't be done. For the author(s) believed in a God who is as wrathful as he is merciful. The wanton destruction of God's enemies wasn't viewed as morally suspicious, it was viewed as an act of moral propriety. The destruction of one's enemies was viewed as the actions of a loving and attentive God rather than the actions of a moral monster. There is little way to make sense of Lot's actions in this story if we don't recognise that children were viewed as little more than the property of the father in the ancient near-East, and that there were very strict codes of hospitality that were viewed as sacrosanct (i.e. by offering his dauthers here, Lot was simply trying to defend his guests). The razing of the cities may simply be an aetiological tale explaining the presence of ruins in the area, which modern archaeology tells us had long since been abandoned when these passages were written. As for the transformation of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, it probably wasn't because she refused to "turn away" from a life of sin (as modern hermeneutics might inform us), but rather because the cities were located near the Dead Sea, where salt-encrusted rock structures begged for an aetiological explanation. Can I assert with any confidence that this was what the original author(s) had in mind here? Perhaps not, but at least my explanation has the benefit of approaching the text on it's own terms, within the specific cultural context in which it was penned. I don't need to fumble around at the boundaries of the text for some timeless moral message.

So, to sum up, don't approach the Bible with any preconceived notions about what you should expect to find there. If you approach the Bible with the belief that it must be attempting to communicate literal history or some timeless moral messages (and this goes for atheists as much as it does for believers) you will only be disappointed and frustrated. Ask yourself first, "what kind of world did the authors live in"? And, given that, "what could they have been trying to tell the people they shared this world with"? If you can decouple the Bible from the pretences of modern theological discourse (and its anti-theistic corollary), I think you'll learn to appreciate it - on it's own terms - in a much deeper way. Or, at least, that's how it worked for me.


"How were the books of the Bible chosen?"

An important thing to note when reading the Bible is that virtually none of its authors could have had any idea that their writings would one day come to form part of a religious canon. While all of them wrote in a religious context that would come to venerate certain older scriptures, most (if not all) wrote in a context where the concept of a literary canon in the more modern sense did not yet exist.

With regards to the Christian canon, we can be relatively sure that Paul's epistles were collected assiduously from an early date, since most of the earliest extra-Biblical Christian writers (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp etc.) seemed to have been familiar with them. The author of the Book of 2 Peter seems to suggest that Paul's writings were already considered on par with scripture at the time he wrote (2 Pet 3:16). There are also signs that these earliest authors were familiar with some of the gospel traditions - if not the gospels themselves - but the evidence here is a little bit murky. The first clear attempt at a canon was that of the "heretic" gnostic Marcion, who in around 140 AD was carrying around the 10 Pauline Epistles (that is, excluding the Pastorals - Titus, 1 & 2 Timothy) and an apparently truncated version of the Gospel of Luke. As the number of Christian texts began to swell and the church sought to crack-down on heterodoxy, Irenaeus in around 180 AD proclaimed that only four of the potentially dozens of existent gospels were to be accepted as orthodox ("right-thinking") - namely, those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Although his reasoning behind the admission of only the four gospels may seem a little flimsy, it is true that these four seemed to have achieved the widest circulation by his time, and they also seem to be the oldest of those that have survived down to us today. Debates about the status of some of the more peripheral books continued to rage, but the majority of the 27 books of the NT seem to have been accepted as orthodox scripture in the church by the 4th century at the latest, though some lists continued to exclude works such as Revelation, 3 John and Jude, whereas others included now non-canonical works such as the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The canon was not actually fixed by the church until the Council of Trent in the 16th century (partially in reaction to Martin Luther's disputation of the status of certain books), though the content of the Bible had long been fixed before then.

With regards to the Hebrew canon, the process is a little more difficult to trace with any certainty. We know that certain writings had already achieved a venerated status in the Hebrew culture by the late 7th century BC, and that the Torah would come to occupy a position of unparalleled importance during the post-Exilic period by as early as the 5th century BC. Over the next few hundred years the content of the Neviim and the Ketuvim also came to be fixed and regarded as sacred, such that by the 1st century AD at the latest the 24 books of the current Tanakh had already become exhaustively normative within Judaism.


"Did [event x] really happen?"

It is simply beyond question that the "historical" events narrated in the Bible have been distorted by the particular theology of the authors who penned them. When we read the account of some event in the Bible, we must keep in mind that the authors were not - and could not have been - attempting to produce an account which would conform to the standards of modern history writing. Even where the Biblical authors describe contemporaneous events - events that we know from independent sources actually happened - their accounts cannot be naively trusted: there is always a deeper theological concern which shapes how the events are presented.

As mentioned below, in the case of the gospels there are undoubtedly nuggets of genuine history there, but they need to be mined from the theology which surrounds them. The gospel authors were not eyewitnesses to the events they describe (writing at least four decades after the death of Jesus), so the historicity of their accounts is dependant on the recounting of second-hand testimony (at best), which should immediately make us cautious about approaching the texts credulously. Additionally, the gospel authors frequently use Old Testament allusions to guide and inform their narratives, and many of the situating details (where and when something was said or done) appear to be mere literary contrivances to properly order earlier source material, rather than genuine historical memories. In the case of gJohn especially, chronology is ignored for theological or thematic reasons, and all the gospel authors introduce material that is characteristically their own (i.e. not derived from some independent eyewitness). Finally, events are related in the gospels that no-one could have had access to, for example the description of Jesus' activities where no-one else was present. It is the parts of the gospels where such concerns are not present that we can begin to approach seriously as potentially containing genuine history.

With regard to the Old Testament, we can say that the findings of archaeology and literary criticism have generally not been kind to the historicity of the events it narrates. In some cases, the archaeological evidence is unequivocal enough to say that certain major events both did not happen and could not have happened - for example, the Exodus and Joshua's violent invasion of Canaan, neither of which are considered to be open questions among serious archaeologists today. When it comes to the accounts of the earlier patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac etc.) archaeology is of less use, but the stories of such figures do appear to display the literary hallmarks of mythology. That is, they incorporate mythological topoi (i.e. themes and motifs) common to the ancient near-East, they frequently exhibit the "perfectionist" tendencies of mythological narrative (that is, divorced from any integral historical or geographical contexts) and many of them appear to serve an entirely aetiological function. That's not to say that such accounts don't contain any historical memories at all, only that whatever history that may have once have inspired them has become so buried by layers of myth that it is now almost completely irrecoverable.

On a more positive note, the narrative in Kings appears to have a very solid basis in history, as do some of the historical details in some of the prophetic books. If you want details on anything more specific, please ask.


"Did Jesus really exist?"

Short answer: most probably.

The problem with studying ancient history is that the sources we have for any given individual or event are invariably fragmentary, late (that is, penned many years after the fact) and ideologically compromised. This problem even exists in the ancient cultures that were relatively meticulous record-keepers, including those of ancient Egypt and Rome. The problem is even more exaggerated for the most part when studying the events of Roman Palestine, since almost everything we know about it comes from a single historian, Josephus, whose major works date to the latter part of the first century. Although Josephus does mention Jesus twice in passing (one of these passages is contested in terms of its authenticity), this leaves us with very little external, objective evidence with which to appraise the origins of Christianity.

As the "Jesus mythicists" will happily tell you (and I should emphasise that such individuals lie very much outside the boundaries of mainstream scholarship) this leaves us with only the gospels and other early Christian writings to work with. Because such works are the products of a particular theological mindset and for the most part lack even the pretence of historical objectivity, this leaves us with virtually no incontestable evidence for Jesus Christ or the early years of the movement which bore his name. For the mythicists, this lack of evidence proves decisive: if there is no unambiguous evidence for Jesus, then epistemological prudence must push us to the position that either Jesus did not exist, or - at best - that we cannot say he existed with any confidence at all. While those claiming such a position are undoubtedly correct about the paucity of quality evidence available to us (and you would do well to keep this in mind every time Jesus is discussed in this thread), I think the conclusion they have reached is a little extreme and ultimately ends up raising more problems than it solves.

In the first place, our demands for hard, incontrovertible evidence cannot be as strict in the study of ancient history as they are in the study of modern history. The reason, simply, is that - barring the occasional chance archaeological find - hard evidence for the events of the ancient world usually haven't been preserved down to the modern day. Even events that have been meticulously documented by quality historians - the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, for example - must be treated with a skeptical eye, leaving us with comparatively little that can be said with absolute certainty about events of even this magnitude. The reason such accounts must be treated skeptically is because the standards of modern historiography - with the need for meticulous sourcing and the drive for objectivity - just weren't an active concern for ancient historiographers. Thucydides, for example, would invent speeches out of whole cloth for dramatic effect (we know this because he tells us). Herodotus - the father of history - believed strongly in the influence of the divine over the progress of history, and would attribute the incidence of many events to the intervention of the gods. In the Roman world, Tacitus was as much a moralist as a historian, happy to engage in rumour and innuendo if it would better serve his ends. And so on and so forth: no matter where you look, no matter how important an ancient event was, we usually only know about it today through the lens of an ideologically compromised ancient historian or two... and that's if we're lucky. If paucity of evidence were enough to make dubious the people and events of ancient history, we could probably compress everything we know with absolute certainty about the ancient world into a single book. If we can dismiss the existence of Jesus on such grounds - a figure whose public life played out in perhaps the space of a year or less, in an obscure, undocumented part of the world in front of perhaps a few dozen followers - we should probably dismiss the existence of Pythagoras, Socrates, Hannibal and whole host of other ancient figures as well.

With respect to Jesus, it is clear that virtually everything we know about his life is to be found in the gospels. These books obviously cannot be read with naive credulity, as though they were written with the aim of faithfully transcribing actual historical events, but that is not to say that they do not contain nuggets of reliable history that can be mined from the text if we would only use the appropriate methodological tools. Just as we can't dismiss everything Herodotus has to say because he believes in divine intervention, or everything Thucydides has to say because he has a penchant for making things up, we shouldn't dismiss everything the gospels have to say simply because their construction was heavily influenced by the theology of their authors. I won't go into detail about the kind of historical-critical tools we can use to distinguish fact from fiction in the gospels (here is something I wrote earlier if you want such detail), but it can be admitted that we aren't left with much we can say about the historical Jesus with any certainty once these methods have been applied. In my opinion, we can say that Jesus was an itinerant prophet, preaching an eschatological message in Palestine in the first century. He was likely born in Galilee, was likely a disciple of John the Baptist, and he likely ended his ministry in Jerusalem. Here he attracted notoriety (perhaps due to his sacking of the Temple), was apprehended by the Romans (possibly with the assistance of the Jewish authorities) and sentenced to crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. For me, that is about all that I would assert about the life of Jesus with any confidence: everything else I have to say about the man comes with a big asterisk next to it.

On the other hand, it's still something. These facts go a long way to explaining the shape and nature of early Christianity as preserved in the writings of Paul and others. And this is the important fact I want to emphasise to the mythicists, or those who find their arguments compelling: it's all very well and good to assert that there is no direct evidence for Jesus, but it cannot be denied that there was a movement which existed in his name barely two decades after the putative date of his death. If you wish to deny the existence of Jesus, then it is surely incumbent upon you offer some coherent explanation for how this body of belief and literature could have possibly grown up in his name in such a short space of time. This is not an easy prospect, and I'm yet to encounter any compelling alternative theories to the one that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a flesh-and-blood human being.

Now, at this point most mythicists will play the usual denialist game of throwing up their hands and saying "hey man, just asking questions!", but I think this tactic is a little intellecually dishonest. It's easy to attack, with simply untethered skepticism, a historical theory that is working with necessarily fragmentary evidence, but it's much more difficult to posit alternative theories for the evidence available that are more probable and less convoluted than the original theory. The parallels here between Jesus mythicism and other denialist movements like those of the "climate change skepticism" or 9/11 truthers are pretty easy to identify, much as it may gall the mythicists. All denialist movements are ultimately ideologically motivated, and all involve the highly selective use (and criticism) of the available evidence. More importantly, as valid as denialist criticisms of the prevailing theory may occasionally be, their ability to present an alternative theory - which better explains the evidence, with a minimum of superfluous pluralities - is generally laughable. The mythicist case is no different.

Basically, regardless of the details, the rejection of a historical Jesus necessitates the positing of some other historical origin for the early Christian movement. This, for most mythicists, necessitates the claim that Christianity was actually created by Paul, who by this logic believed in a purely heavenly Jesus, and that the flesh-and-blood Jesus of history was a mere literary contrivance of the four subsequent gospel authors. Now I can't detail all the problems with this assumption, because we'd be here all day, but a few difficulties off the top of my head would include:

  • What was Paul's motivation for creating these beliefs? Where did he get the idea of a heavenly messiah, beaten and crucified in heaven to atone for our sins, when such beliefs had no precendents in either Jewish or Hellenic thought?
  • Why does the most natural reading of Paul appear to strongly suggest that Jesus was someone who walked on the face of the Earth, with not a single unambiguous indication anywhere in his letters of a belief a pre-resurrection heavenly Jesus?
  • What happened to such beliefs as time passed? Why does not a single Christian in the first two centuries of Christianity - or any time since then - profess belief in a Jesus who never walked the face of the Earth? How did Paul's theology get so thoroughly garbled and misunderstood so quickly?
  • Where did the gospel authors get their historical details concerning the life of Jesus from? Why would they have been motivated to situate a heavenly redeemer on the Earth if they didn't believe that to be the case? More to the point, if the gospel authors were merely inventing historical details to furnish the theology started by Paul, why (with the possible exception of Luke) do they show so little awareness of Pauline thought?
  • Why did none of the early critics of Christianity - who left almost no area of the faith immune from criticism - make no mention of the idea that Jesus never existed? Surely this would have been a useful polemic for them to use if it had ever existed in the cultural millieu of the time?

Now note that these are entirely contrived problems, unique to the theory of Jesus mythicism. The only inherent difficulty with the historical Jesus theory I can find concerns the lack of solid evidence, but the mythicist theory also has this problem (as I said, not a shred of incontestible evidence that a single Christian ever believed in the purely heavenly Jesus of the mythicist theory!) in addition to the problems listed above. So really, I can only ask which seems more plausible: the idea that there was an itinerant prophet called Jesus - the man that the early Christians wrote about - or the contrived and convoluted jumble of illogic found above? Even if we presume that the evidence for both claims is equal (something that I would dispute), which explanation is the most parsimonious, requiring the smallest number of pluralities and presumptions to explain the data? Without pre-empting your answer, I think it's telling that the mythicist explanation requires so many more leaps in logic or unfounded presumptions than the supposedly tenuous theory it seeks to replace. So, when someone asks me why I believe that there was a historical Jesus, this is the answer I give them: it's simply by far the most probable explanation for the available evidence that we have. Perhaps the day will come when a better alternative explanation offers itself, but until then the "Jesus as historical figure" theory is the only one to explain the data without resorting to fantastic assumptions or contorted chains of logic.


"And was he a Democrat or a Republican?"

In my experience, there are few debates more acrimonious in Biblical scholarship than those which concern the kind of ethical instructions that Jesus was likely to have given in his lifetime. The acrimony here I think stems from the almost universal belief - regardless of culture or creed - that Jesus was a "good guy" and that as a "good guy" he surely couldn't have preached any of the things that those awful people on the other side of the political aisle believe he did. The problems ultimately begin when people try to explain or understand Jesus' teachings in the context of modern political or ethical debates, rather than attempting to understand him in the very specific historical and theological context in which he taught. It's a bit like arguments about the Founding Fathers in American political discourse: both sides venerate them, both sides believe themselves to be clearly in the moral right, so both sides just naturally assume that the Founding Fathers would have supported their politics. Similar projections can be found with other "good guys" like MLK, Gandhi and - of course - Jesus. The problem is the original messages of these men are therefore lost or misunderstood, as everyone with a political interest scrambles to impute their personal system of ethics onto them as though they were mere blank canvases. My advice is to let these figures speak for themselves without any preconceptions: they probably taught something very different from what you have been led to believe.

With Jesus specifically, I often read well-meaning liberal types (on this forum and elsewhere) sum up Jesus' fundamental ethical philosophy as something like "don't be dicks to each other". While I doubt Jesus would have disagreed with such a sentiment, it doesn't really come close to adequately describing the kind of ethics he likely taught. To begin with, this vision of Jesus as an irenic, tolerant, sagacious kind of proto-hippie figure (increasingly popular in so-called "liberal" Biblical scholarship) doesn't really square with the grizzly fate we know Jesus to have met at the hands of the Romans. We know that the Romans were ruthless bastards who weren't terribly fond of loving around, but they also weren't in the business of executing people (and risking civil unrest in an already febrile region) for going around and telling everyone to be nice to each other. There was almost certainly a sharper political edge to Jesus' ministry than we are used to hearing about, and that political edge can almost certainly be extended to include his system of ethics.

Basically, Jesus believed the world was about to end - to be displaced by the coming "Kingdom of God" - and that people would be judged in accordance with their past actions once that day came. As such, he advocated an extremely strict form of moralism. For Jesus, abstaining from adultery isn't enough, one must abstain from even thinking about adultery. Giving charitably to the poor isn't enough, one must give away everything one owns. Being peaceful isn't enough, one must actively aid one's persecutors. To follow Jesus meant becoming (literally) a servant to all, to abandon one's family and to happily embrace the possibility of death. Those who failed to meet these standards would (deservedly) be cast into the eternal fire. Basically, he advocated an almost impossibly strict set of moral standards, some of which are liable to make the more progressive among us cringe. The injunction to be "nice" doesn't come close to capturing what Jesus was likely all about.

From the other side, conservatives might be liable to miss the radically inclusive nature of Jesus' ministry (where social ostracism was a cause for acceptance into the movement rather than exclusion), his disdain for the powers that be, authority and existing social structures (including the family), his unambiguous disapproval of ostentatious displays of religiosity and petty moralising, and his simply unequivocal denunciation of wealth of any kind (again - it's not simply bad to not give money to the poor, it's bad to have wealth tout court). The poor and the downtrodden will inherit the Earth when God comes, and the rich and powerful will be made to suffer, regardless of how righteous they believe themselves to have been. Quite how modern conservatives reconcile all this with their politics, I'm not quite sure.

But again, the point is that Jesus isn't just a blank canvas onto which you are free to paint your own ideology. He had a very particular set of moral beliefs that cannot be properly understood outside of the specific historical and theological context in which he enunciated them. His morality was almost certainly in conflict with your own in places, and he probably wouldn't have been shy telling you about it either.


"Does God exist? Was Jesus really resurrected from the dead?"

I'd prefer to avoid direct theological questions like these in this thread. If you can rephrase the question into something like "what does the Bible say about the nature of God?" or "what did the early Christians believe about the resurrection of Jesus?" then I'm happy to answer, but I won't be much use when it comes to answering questions about contemporary theology. Besides which, such issues have a habit of dominating and derailing a thread like this, so please try to keep theological debate out of it.

(For the record I'm an atheist, so my personal response to the above would be "no" and "no", but that's neither here nor there.)

lllllllllllllllllll
Feb 28, 2010

Now the scene's lighting is perfect!


Let me be the first to congratulate on a fantastic OP.

My questions are vague, sorry for that:

There is an ancient Egyptian text that deals with morals and the right way to life (can't recall or find the name, sorry). It is also found "copied" in the old testament (OT), even to a degree where the Egyptian text makes sense (something about the number of proverbs) while the OT just copies the number mentioned. Some people argue that the Egyptian text can't be the original source and claim there must be a lost Semitic source. Could you tell me the name of that text and your opinion on that matter?

Somewhere somehow I read there was a "Godmother" of some kind in the OT, which was eventually written out, while there are still traces to be found. Could you expand no that?

QCIC
Feb 10, 2011

die Stimme der Energie


Can you talk about what the gently caress λόγος means in the context of John 1:1 etc? When and why did everyone agree that it just means "word" and not "doctrine, faith, teaching?"

I'm also obliged to post the best version of the Bible, The Brick Testament.

Blurred
Aug 26, 2004



lllllllllllllllllll posted:

There is an ancient Egyptian text that deals with morals and the right way to life (can't recall or find the name, sorry). It is also found "copied" in the old testament (OT), even to a degree where the Egyptian text makes sense (something about the number of proverbs) while the OT just copies the number mentioned. Some people argue that the Egyptian text can't be the original source and claim there must be a lost Semitic source. Could you tell me the name of that text and your opinion on that matter?

Like I said in the OP, it's long been known that there are some similarities between the Wisdom sayings in the Book of Proverbs and other ancient near-Eastern Wisdom literature, including that of Ancient Egypt. A quick search reveals that there are close parallels between the proverbs from 22:17-23:11 and certain proverbs from an Egyptian text called the Instructions of Amenemope - is that the one you're thinking of?

Basically, the ancient Israelites and Judahites existed for a millennium at the nexus of the world's most major empires, spending most of this period under the yoke of one or another of them. For this reason it's not difficult to imagine that many of its religious traditions - including some of its texts - must have been inspired by its interaction with such cultures. In the Hellenistic age especially, Wisdom literature - due to its relatively universal messages and the ease with which it could be transmitted between different peoples in the lingua franca of Greek - became widespread in the region, and it seems likely that it existed in a kind of shared "common pool" of literature in the region rather than simply being co-opted from one culture into another. So, to make a long story short, yes it seems more than likely that certain passages in the Book of Proverbs were influenced by earlier Egyptian texts, whether directly or indirectly via the Persians or Greeks.

If the dating of the Instructions of Amenemope is accurate (1300-1075 BC) then it may have originated with a Semitic source (the wikipedia article mentions the possibility, and the Egyptians did have extensive links with Canaan at this time) but it's too early a date to suggest that the Hebrews might have had anything to do with it.

quote:

Somewhere somehow I read there was a "Godmother" of some kind in the OT, which was eventually written out, while there are still traces to be found. Could you expand no that?

Perhaps you're talking about Asherah? The evidence is a little bit murky, but there are signs of goddess worship in ancient Judah right up until the 7th century BC based on the archaeological findings of feminine figurines. One inscription found refers to "Yahweh and his Asherah", raising the possibility that at least some Judahites at this time believed that God had a consort in heaven (remember that the "official" religion of the Biblical authors probably wasn't representative of the folk-religious beliefs of the wider population at the time, hence the need for the violent suppression of such folk-practices during the reign of Josiah). Whether this was actually the case is little difficult to say with any certainty, though, because Asherah in the Biblical texts refer to relatively generic places of cultic worship that needn't have necessarily been associated with any specific god or goddess by the late First-temple period. This may just be later theological whitewashing by the Biblical authors, of course, but the evidence is hardly unequivocal.

Try this book if you're interested in reading (a lot) more on this subject.

Blurred
Aug 26, 2004



QCIC posted:

Can you talk about what the gently caress λόγος means in the context of John 1:1 etc? When and why did everyone agree that it just means "word" and not "doctrine, faith, teaching?"

I'm also obliged to post the best version of the Bible, The Brick Testament.

I don't think there's any simple answer to that, sorry. "Word" is probably the most literal translation of the word "logos", but you're right in suggesting that it loses a lot of its rhetorical punch when we translate it that way in English. After Plato it became used in a more metaphysical sense in Greek philosophy, referring to something like the underlying order or rationale of the universe, and we know that it was used in a similar way in at least some Jewish thought of the time by its use in Philo's writings. John - who was also likely a Hellenised Jew - identifies it explicitly with the Jewish God (and later with Jesus) in his gospel.

Without knowing anything more about Platonic philosophy, I don't think I can help you much beyond that sorry.

Numerical Anxiety
Sep 2, 2011

Hello.


Great OP - If I can ask, how did Job get folded into the tradition? I know that there's a Babylonian precursor to the text, though not much about it. But even the Biblical version seems so drat counter to just about everything else in the OT (to say nothing of the new).

Smoking Crow
Feb 13, 2012

*Laughs at you*


I was wondering where the books accepted by different Eastern Orthodox denominations, Tobit, Jubilees, Maccabees, and Enoch fit into this history. What can you tell me about them?

tonberrytoby
Feb 29, 2012



How much works from the same culture and time as the bible do actually still exist?
Are there a few or dozens of other books from roman Judea or are there none?

Also, how strictly is the bible in the Judean literary tradition? And how strong are the Roman literary and mythological influences?

Canine Blues Arooo
Jan 7, 2008

when you think about it...i'm the first girl you ever spent the night with


This is one of my favorite threads on the forum. I really found the first one insightful and will most certainly be following this one. It's really hard to get some objective and learned analysis on something as polarizing as the Bible so I consider this a rare treat.

House Louse
Oct 21, 2010


That's a great OP.

How old are the earliest known manuscripts of the Gospels, and how complete are they? It's easy to find dates for when they were written, but this is harder to find information on.

Mortanis
Dec 28, 2005

It's your father's lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight.

A drat beautiful thread. I grew up in a "pentecostal" church that believed all manner of stuff, and spent countless hours with a Strongs Exhaustive Concordance and a Diaglott before I got out of the whole deal, so the actual rationale and history behind things is of great interest to me. It's wonderful to see an actual educated thought-process on everything after having grown up in a pseudo-intellectual church that prided itself on being "more aware" of the underlying meaning of the bible, and seeing how that contrasts.

Do you have thoughts on the non-canonical Gospels and the information they tell us about Jesus and the early church (beyond the Q Source anyway, which is fascinating)? Some seem clearly useful, but at what point do they just become sorta early-church fan-fic? The Gospel of Thomas seems pretty significant - it's missing a lot of the stuff that points to Jesus as the Son of God stuff; The Gospel of Judas is super interesting to me, since in the narrative of Jesus' death, helping him achieve death and resurrection seems like you're helping your bud the Son of God save the world, yet the canonical Gospels pretty much revile Judas while the Gospel of Judas has a totally unique take. The Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Peter... do you have thoughts on these dropped texts and how they portray and conflict with the established canon?

Hot Dog Day #89
Mar 17, 2004


This is more a question about Christianity than the bible, but what would you say are the biggest differences between early Christians and modern ones when it comes to understanding and interpreting the bible?

Blurred
Aug 26, 2004



Numerical Anxiety posted:

Great OP - If I can ask, how did Job get folded into the tradition? I know that there's a Babylonian precursor to the text, though not much about it. But even the Biblical version seems so drat counter to just about everything else in the OT (to say nothing of the new).

Yep, like most other examples in the Wisdom genre, Job has plenty of parallels in ancient near-Eastern literature. The motif of a suffering man rebuking the gods for their iniquity was apparently a common one in this genre (Ecclesiastes would be another Biblical example), and there are parallels to the Book of Job from Babylon, Egypt and elsewhere.

As for why it was included in the canon given how different it is to many of the other texts in the OT, that's a good question. As I mentioned earlier, the Wisdom literature is unique among most of the OT texts in its likely not having been written by a member of some religious authority. Hence, despite the obvious themes of theodicy in the book, the Book of Job is relatively secular in nature: that is, there is little in there that appears to be drawn from exclusively Jewish theology of the time, and much that appears to run against it. We know that many Rabbinic sources questioned the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the canon on similar grounds, so its not immediately clear why the Book of Job should have passed into the canon so quietly.

One potentially important reason is that Job - during the Persian period at least - was considered to be an important and revered figure, on par with Noah and Daniel as one capable of saving himself "by [his] righteousness" (Ezekiel 14:14). There was also a tradition of Moses having penned the book, so we can say that it must have been viewed as a work of legitimate authority by the time these things were definitively decided. Beyond that, for all the potentially subversive material contained within the speech cycles, by the conclusion of the book there is little that could have offended the sensibilities of the religious authorities so much as to see the work proscribed. God angrily rebukes those who questioned him, and Job is blessed for his unwavering faith. It is easy enough to read the text merely as a simple homily about the need to have faith in God, and although that requires overlooking the subversive and ironic elements in the text, it was apparently enough to guarantee it a place in the Jewish and Christian canons.

Smoking Crow posted:

I was wondering where the books accepted by different Eastern Orthodox denominations, Tobit, Jubilees, Maccabees, and Enoch fit into this history. What can you tell me about them?

It's a broad area, is there anything specific you would like to know? I'm not too sure about the relationship of these works to the Orthodox Church, but they have had a fairly contentious history within the history of the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches, the early Christian communities and within Judaism.

Basically, these texts (with the exception of Jubilees, which I don't know much about) currently form part of the "Apocrypha" and are currently considered "deutero-canonical" by the Catholic Church (though they were canonical until, I think, the 19th century). The works in this corpus are a diverse bunch, and really the only thing they share in common is their date of authorship. All of them are currently thought to have been composed in the "inter-testamental period", roughly the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Due to their late authorship - and the fact that most of them appear to have been composed in Greek originally, rather than Hebrew - they were never really accepted as sacred scripture in the same way that other OT books were. Many of them continued to be used in study and were widely disseminated, but their status as sacred scripture was a source of constant contention within both Jewish and Christian scholarship. They were excluded from the Jewish canon when it was laid down in perhaps the 1st or 2nd centuries AD, and they were regarded at the fringes of the Christian canon even where they were included in Bibles. They were declared canonical by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent, but this was in part a reaction to Martin Luther's decision to demote them within the Protestant canon. How or why they retained their place within the Eastern Orthodox canon I'm not sure, but the fact they were composed in Greek likely didn't count against them.

tonberrytoby posted:

How much works from the same culture and time as the bible do actually still exist?
Are there a few or dozens of other books from roman Judea or are there none?

There aren't many surviving works that I'm familiar with. The most prominent are the works written by Josephus Flavius detailing the history of the Jews (both recent and ancient) but most of the other Jewish and early Christian works from the same period (for instance those of Philo, or the NT corpus) were composed outside of the region. For Gentile authors the region just simply wasn't interesting enough to comment on (Josephus bemoans the lack of sources available for him to draw on) and we can presume that much of whatever literature was composed there was lost or destroyed as a consequence of Roman military action. This makes our understanding of Roman Judea rather cloudy, and we are almost entirely dependant on Josephus (who himself is not an entirely trustworthy source in places) for what we know about the region at the time.

quote:

Also, how strictly is the bible in the Judean literary tradition? And how strong are the Roman literary and mythological influences?

If understand you correctly, there doesn't seem to be much Roman influence in any of the NT texts. Rome obviously loomed large as the imperial force which forms a constant subtext in the NT texts, and most of the NT authors had at best an ambivalent view of the Romans (including Paul, himself a Roman citizen), but there don't seem to be many signs of influence in the texts from Roman literature or religion. Although they lived within the Roman empire, all the NT authors were Greek speakers first and foremost, and where there are signs of non-Jewish influence they come predominantly from the Hellenic culture. This is an indication of the complexities of culture and ethnicity in Roman Judea, where we have Hellenised Jews and Judaised Hellenes - some with Roman citizenship - living alongside Jews, Greeks and Romans who would prefer to have nothing to do with any of the other groups. This makes drawing firm, solid divisions between - for example - Jews and Gentiles (and their various traditions) at the time extremely difficult: there was a lot of cross-cultural influence. As for direct "Roman literary and mythological influences" on the Biblical texts, I'm unfamiliar with any particularly strong examples.

The Bible
May 8, 2010



I'd like to know more about the use of the word "Gentile" in the time of Jesus. I've read in several places that it was commonly used as a racial slur, but I haven't been able to confirm that with any reliable source.

Konstantin
Jun 20, 2005


If you're familiar with it, could you go over the main differences between Christian and Jewish scholarship of the Old Testament/Tanakh? Is there any sort of collaboration between the two traditions on scholarship, or are they completely separate? Are there any major disagreements about the meaning of the text itself that don't relate to Jesus?

Blurred
Aug 26, 2004



House Louse posted:

That's a great OP.

How old are the earliest known manuscripts of the Gospels, and how complete are they? It's easy to find dates for when they were written, but this is harder to find information on.

For fragments of the gospels, we don't have anything dating to before the mid-2nd century AD. Wikipedia has a useful table for the earliest known fragments of each NT book:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dating...e_New_Testament

For more complete surviving gospel manuscripts, we have to wait until the 3rd or 4th centuries.

Mortanis posted:

Do you have thoughts on the non-canonical Gospels and the information they tell us about Jesus and the early church (beyond the Q Source anyway, which is fascinating)? Some seem clearly useful, but at what point do they just become sorta early-church fan-fic? The Gospel of Thomas seems pretty significant - it's missing a lot of the stuff that points to Jesus as the Son of God stuff; The Gospel of Judas is super interesting to me, since in the narrative of Jesus' death, helping him achieve death and resurrection seems like you're helping your bud the Son of God save the world, yet the canonical Gospels pretty much revile Judas while the Gospel of Judas has a totally unique take. The Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Peter... do you have thoughts on these dropped texts and how they portray and conflict with the established canon?

I'll start with a quick overview of why such gospels were written, because I think it's important in understanding how to approach the non-canonical gospels.

There is an assumption in much of Biblical scholarship that the gospels were written as an "evengelical" tool - that is, as a means of spreading information about the miraculous life of Jesus. I won't go into great detail here about why I reject this view (I wrote a longer post about it here if you are interested) but basically it's difficult to accept that they might have been used this way given the fact that they were not in wide circulation until at least 100 years after they were written, they existed in parts of the world with vanishingly small literacy rates and the often secretive (Mark) or abstruse (John) nature of the gospels just simply don't look like the kind of literature one would necessarily produce if one wanted to convince a lot of people about the truth of a certain proposition (compare, for example, the format used by the early Christian apologists). In my opinion (and I want to stress that this isn't necessarily the opinion of scholarship) the gospels were written by a member of a specific Christian community, exclusively for use within that community, perhaps in a liturgical context. They were never intended to achieve wide distribution or to reach people outside of a particular segment of the faith.

Basically, the early Christian community was quite fractured. The idea of a single, Christian Orthodoxy was something artificially imposed later, often with the threat of ostracism or force. We know that even in the time of Paul's epistles (so 20-30 years after the death of Jesus) various "apostles" were travelling from community to community, teaching apparently different and contradictory gospels (see e.g. Gal 1:8; 2 Cor 11:4 also 1 Cor 1:10-17). Paul goes to great lengths to assert that his gospel is his own, and was not learnt from any other man (Gal 1:12) a sign of how competitive the early missionary business was. Each church was established perhaps by a single founder, and the beliefs of that community were largely shaped by the specific theology of that founder: Paul, for example, was loathe to step on any of their toes by evangelising to a church established by another. We don't know how much contact these early churches had between each other, but we at least know from the Johannine epistles that the community which produced these letters (and the gospel of John) enjoyed an uneasy relationship with competing Christian sects (3 John 9-10) and imposed fairly strict conditions of membership within the community (1 John 2:19; 2 John 10). Presuming this example is relatively typical, we can assume that each early Christian community may have believed different things and produced their own literature accordingly.

We know that wider, more formal church structures started emerging in perhaps the early second century and by the middle of the second century there was a concerted push to impose an orthodoxy upon all believers. Nonetheless, "heresies" persisted for many hundreds of years later. The most prominent (certainly the most talked about) was probably that of the gnostics. Now gnosticism is a rather broad term, and I think that too many texts that are difficult to interpret just get carelessly lumped together under this title, but generally we can say that the gnostics believed in a dualistic world (light / dark, good / evil etc.), a creator god (or demiurge) that was distinct from the more powerful God at the centre of existence and that the individualistic pursuit of knowledge was the means of attaining salvation. These gnostic communities produced literature that departed radically from those of the (earlier) "orthodox" literature, and great effort was made to suppress it as a result. The majority of the extra-biblical gospels are assumed to have been written by gnostic communities and - as with the canonical gospels - I don't believe they were written for a general audience. This explains much of the strange, idiosyncratic material we find within them, which would have only been apprehensible to those already initiated into the sect.

So, to this extent, the extra-biblical gospels can tell us much about the tremendous varieties of Christianity that existed within the first 200-300 years of the faith, but I'd be careful about using them to infer too much about the historical verities of Jesus' life. It's not simply that they were penned in a sectarian environment and that the authors had a theological axe to grind (the same charge, I think, can be levelled against the canonical gospels) it's that they were penned late (none of them can be dated prior to the middle of the second century at the earliest) and whatever genuine historical memories they contain appear to have just been cannibalised from earlier, more reliable traditions (either the canonical gospels or church kerygma). We can credibly raise the charge that the canonical gospel authors were more interested in theology than in history, but the charge can be raised even more forcefully against the authors of the gnostic gospels, who are plainly more interested in theological symbolism than in historical facts. That the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were selected to be in the canon to the exclusion of all others is not a conspiracy or an accident of history: they were genuinely just the earliest, most widely circulated gospels at the time, both pre-dating and contributing to the emergence of orthodoxy, something which cannot be said for the extra-biblical gospels.

The two interesting potential exceptions are the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas. Peter is only known from its passion sequence, describing the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. There is little in the text that appears offensive to second century orthodoxy (with the possible exception of the talking cross!), and it may have independently drawn from early historical traditions because it doesn't seem to share much of a textual relationship with the canonical gospels. It also seems to have been relatively popular, better attested amongst ancient fragments than the gospel of Mark. So why wasn't it admitted into the canon? Difficult to say for sure, but probably because it was recognised by the church authorities from an early as being a much later text and therefore had to be dismissed as apocryphal. It's a shame it wasn't allowed to survive down to the present day intact, because it would be interesting to compare the entire text to that of the canonical gospels to see what differences or similarities may have existed between them.

The Gospel of Thomas is another interesting one, which over the past few decades has caused quite a stir amongst Biblical scholarship. We have it in its complete form, 114 sayings attributed to Jesus without any of the unifying narrative of the canonical gospels. About half the sayings have some parallel within the canonical gospel tradition, the other half are (so far as I'm aware) entirely unique to the Gospel of Thomas, most of them displaying a distinctly gnostic slant. For many scholars, Thomas may represent a kind of gospel archetype, a collection of sayings similar to the hypothetical "Q" gospel, that may have been used by the canonical gospel authors in the construction of their gospels. If this were true, it would indeed be very exciting: it would potentially make Thomas the earliest of the gospels and the sayings of Jesus contained in it (or, at least, the non-gnostic core) may therefore be the best insight we have into what the historical Jesus actually said. I used to be on the fence on this issue, but recently I've been pretty thoroughly convinced that the gospel of Thomas was penned relatively late (perhaps late 2nd or 3rd century) and that where it shares material in common with the canonical gospels, Thomas was borrowing from the canonical gospels rather than the other way around and therefore can't really be trusted as an independent witness to the sayings of Jesus. I would love for the scholars who date Thomas to 40 AD to be right, but I think the evidence against it is just too strong.

Smoking Crow
Feb 13, 2012

*Laughs at you*


I was wondering about how the Dueterocanon fits theologically into the Bible. Why did Martin Luther throw them out?

Also, have any Gnostic ideas survived in modern Christianity?

Smoking Crow fucked around with this message at Jun 27, 2013 around 18:24

Mortanis
Dec 28, 2005

It's your father's lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight.

I find that whole concept to be the most fascinating part of the New Testament - that you've basically got all these people writing their own commentary on what happened or letters designed to give validation to their opinions by putting a spin in their direction, and what wound up in the NT is just a sample of what's out there. The Christian faith could have looked vastly different if only a few different texts had been included.

Things like the Apocrypha and the Muratorian fragment fascinate me to no end, seeing how a different collection could have been assembled if not for chance.

Obdicut
May 15, 2012

I'm Obdicut! You'll go where I go, defile what I defile, eat who I eat!

Have you read Robert Alter's translation with commentary of various poetic books of the tanakh?

ComposerGuy
Jul 28, 2007

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.


This is the best thread in Ask/Tell right now.

OP, where would you suggest one go to read more about the history of the bible? Are there any definitive works on the subject that might be good reading for the average layperson?

het
Nov 14, 2002

AMERICA'S RUNNING BACK




Blurred posted:

I'll start with a quick overview of why such gospels were written, because I think it's important in understanding how to approach the non-canonical gospels.

There is an assumption in much of Biblical scholarship that the gospels were written as an "evengelical" tool - that is, as a means of spreading information about the miraculous life of Jesus. I won't go into great detail here about why I reject this view (I wrote a longer post about it here if you are interested)
BTW, I'm loving your blog, these entries are really fascinating. I'm especially liking the socio-historical background of the bible ones, there's so much stuff I hadn't really thought about.

edit: argh, I don't see part 4 of the socio-historical background series though, am I overlooking it? I'm really curious to read what you have to say about Josiah's reign.

het fucked around with this message at Jun 29, 2013 around 03:45

immortalyawn
May 28, 2013

by T. Finninho


Great thread OP, you really know your stuff.

Question...

Judas was a traitor and used guile and cunning and so forth...BUT!...

If he went toe to toe with Jesus in a fist fight who would have won?

Axiem
Oct 19, 2005

I want to leave my mind blank, but I'm terrified of what will happen if I do


Fascinating writeup.

One thing that I'd like more clarification on, though, is the dating of the OT books (or parts-of-books). You reference when they were thought to be written, but how do scholars figure that out? It sounds kind of like they judge based on what they know of history, but if the history is from the books, then we kind of have a circle. Can you shed more light on this?

Part of this, I think, is my uncertainty from your write up of what parts of history we get from other sources, and what parts we get from the OT--and what are those other sources?

My last question (for now) is: in what way are you qualified to talk about this? I.e. what are your credentials? Why should we trust that you're telling us any more truth about history than the Creationists (aside from the fact that they're insane and you don't sound like you are)?

potidaean
Nov 22, 2005



Excellent OP. Could you go a little more detail into the evidence against the Exodus having happened? I've read a little here and there, but nothing solidly scholarly. What would be the response to a believer who says something like, "well of course there's no record of it by the Egyptians, history is written by the winners"?

It's a really fascinating topic for me, because having grown up going to church, I always just assumed it was true, even for almost a decade after I became an atheist. It just never occured to me to look it up until I read an article about it last year.

Aggressive pricing
Feb 25, 2008


Fantastic OP, you really know your stuff, I don't have any questions at the moment but I'm looking forward to the thread.

the yeti
Mar 29, 2008

I FUCKING LOVE COCAINE


ComposerGuy posted:

OP, where would you suggest one go to read more about the history of the bible? Are there any definitive works on the subject that might be good reading for the average layperson?

The last thread had a whole ton of works noted but slogging through to get them all would be a chore, so yeah a reading list would be excellent.

For my part I'd be particularly interested in works dealing further with the concept of multiple sources for the gospels/parts of the OT if there's anything out there a layman could get through.

ComposerGuy
Jul 28, 2007

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.


the yeti posted:

The last thread had a whole ton of works noted but slogging through to get them all would be a chore, so yeah a reading list would be excellent.

For my part I'd be particularly interested in works dealing further with the concept of multiple sources for the gospels/parts of the OT if there's anything out there a layman could get through.

Mostly it just seems like its hard to find works on Christian and/or biblical history that don't have an apologetics agenda. I want something academic.

ZoneManagement
Sep 25, 2005
Forgive me father for I have sinned

ComposerGuy posted:

Mostly it just seems like its hard to find works on Christian and/or biblical history that don't have an apologetics agenda. I want something academic.

This. I enjoy people have passion for the subject and the fascinating historicity of it all, without any motives.

Mescal
Jul 23, 2005



When and where was literalism first popularized? Is 'literal' interpretation more common now than it's ever been?

Is End Times doctrine made up? As far as I can tell, it's just... not there. In the Bible, I mean.

This might be outside of your historical expertise, but what can you tell me about Gehenna, Sheol, Hades, and the Bosom of Abraham?

Devour
Dec 18, 2009

by angerbeet


Serious question. Did Jesus die a virgin? Having never read the bible in full, only bits here and there, are there any texts indicating he ever slept with a woman? Something I've been curious about whenever the bible comes up for the past couple of weeks.

Blurred
Aug 26, 2004



Hot Dog Day #89 posted:

This is more a question about Christianity than the bible, but what would you say are the biggest differences between early Christians and modern ones when it comes to understanding and interpreting the bible?

Well it's not easy to say, because it depends more than anything else on who specifically is doing the understanding and interpreting. Our ability to understand or interpret any text depends on our preconceptions towards it and what kind of meaning we wish to read from it, and the situation is no different in Biblical hermeneutics. Our understanding of the Bible is not merely shaped by exegesis (the extraction of meaning from a text) but also by eisegesis (the reading of meaning into a text) and we have to be honest about that from the beginning. As I've been trying to stress already, I include myself in this disclaimer: I use the hermeneutic of historical-criticism to understand the Biblical texts, and as such I have to expect that I'll reach a different understanding of the text from someone using a different hermeneutic. No hermeneutic is inherently superior to another, but I do believe that the historical-critical method (that is, trying to critically understand the social and historical circumstances in which the texts were written to get a better understanding of what the authors may have originally meant) is best method available to us if we want to avoid slipping into a completely subjective, post-modern, "anything-goes" approach to understanding the Bible.

So, the differences between our approach to the Bible today and those in the past? Well, with deference to the above, the first difference will be the amount of hermeneutics available to us today. We can read the Bible with a post-modern or post-structuralist approach, a feminist approach, a political approach, a liberation theology approach, a literary or poetical approach and so on, and all of these methods will yield new understanding of the Biblical texts that simply weren't available to the early Christians. Similarly, we live at the end of about 200 years of quality historical-critical scholarship, so we probably know more about the context in which the Biblical literature was created than the early Christians possibly could have. When the earliest Christians used the Psalms, Torah or the Prophetic literature, for example, to furnish their understanding of the resurrection of Jesus, they couldn't have known that David didn't author the Psalms, Moses didn't author the Torah and that Isaiah wasn't the author of most of the material attributed to him. This needn't have fatally compromised their understanding of the text, of course, but it does mean that the early Christians must have had a different understanding of the text (shaped by their experiences of the ministry and resurrection of Jesus) than the earlier Hebrews had or that we have today. Modern Christians are sometimes criticised for "cherry-picking" scripture while ignoring its wider context, but in reality this has been the method of Christian exegetes from the very beginning: finding passages that seem to presage the ministry of Jesus and wielding them in an apologetic context in their early literature. The difference is that the ignorance of the earliest Christians concerning the wider context of scripture was beyond their control.

Another major (and fairly obvious) difference was that - for the earliest Christians at least - there was no Bible to interpret. We know by the first century at the latest (based on the writings of Josephus) that the Jews already had a concept of an exhaustive list of holy scripture, though we can't call it a "canon" proper until perhaps the next century. The earliest Christians accepted these works (that would eventually become the Tanakh / OT) and for the first century or so of Christianity, when the word "scripture" was used, this was what the authors had in mind. We know that by the very end of the NT era that Paul's letters were starting to be considered as holy and authoritative based on 2 Pet 3:16 and the early canon of the gnostic Marcion (which may represent the first "canon" in Christian history - 10 of Paul's letters and a truncated version of the Gospel of Luke), but for Christianity's first 100 years at least, "scripture" referred exclusively to the OT corpus. The "Bible" as we know it today doesn't really emerge until (perhaps) the 4th century.

It's difficult to make any general comparisons between modern and ancient exegesis because, as I said above, it depends mostly on which specific group is / was doing the interpreting.

The Bible posted:

I'd like to know more about the use of the word "Gentile" in the time of Jesus. I've read in several places that it was commonly used as a racial slur, but I haven't been able to confirm that with any reliable source.

Well "gentile" has a Latin etymology, so it wouldn't have meant much to the (predominantly) Greek and Aramaic speakers of Roman Judea during the time of Jesus. It was used in the Latin Vulgate as a translation of the Hebrew word goyim ("nations") and the Greek word hellen ("Greek"). Now as for whether either of these words were used in a pejorative sense during the time of Jesus, I find it unlikely. The Jews of course represent an exclusivist faith which attempted to maintain fairly strict demarcations separating those inside and outside the group, but that isn't to say they were so inherently hostile to outsiders that generic labels like "nations" or "Greek" must have always carried a negative connotation.

In the Biblical context, the OT word goyim simply refers to those nations that didn't have a covenant with YHWH. The Judahites and Israelites, of course, had often strained relationships with these outside nations, but I don't get the sense from the Biblical texts that it was used aggressively or as a "racial slur". I suppose it could have been on occasion (much as an anti-semite today might be able to misappropriate the word "Jew" as a slur) but the text doesn't demand such a reading. In the NT, the word hellen is used much in the same way - a general description of one who isn't Jewish. Again, there doesn't seem to be anything inherently pejorative about the way it is used, but here it is often used by these early Christians in a rather sectarian way, to represent the debates between the "Jewish" faction of early Christians (those who insisted on the necessity of dietary laws, circumcision and so on) represented by Peter and James, and the "Greek" faction of early Christians (who maintained that such requirements needn't be imposed on new converts) represented by Paul and Barnabus. Paul obviously takes a more accommodating view of the relationship between Greeks and Jews (maintaining that "there is neither Greek nor Jew" in Christ- Gal 3:28; Rom 10:12) but the early polemic between the two factions still makes its way into other parts of the text. Even Paul, for example, states that salvation comes "first to the Jew, then to the Gentile" (Rom 1:16) and that the gentile believers represent a "wild olive shoot... grafted... to share the rich root" of Judaism, forever dependent on this root to support them (Rom 11:17-18). The Gospel of Mark contains a similar sentiment, describing an episode in which Jesus compares the salvation of the gentiles to "the children's crumbs" which have fallen from the table (of Judaism presumably) and in which he refers to gentiles as "dogs" (Mark 7:24-30). The historicity of this event is dubious at best, but it does show quite clearly that early Christianity was a predominantly Jewish movement, and there were apparently many in this early movement eager to make it clear to the gentiles that they were very much the second to arrive to this party. If the word hellen ever carried a pejorative meaning during Jesus' time, this was probably it.

Smoking Crow posted:

I was wondering about how the Dueterocanon fits theologically into the Bible. Why did Martin Luther throw them out?

Also, have any Gnostic ideas survived in modern Christianity?

I'm not as well-read as I'd like to be on the reformation so I can't comment too expansively, but I think it has to do with the marginal place the deutero-canon had always had in the biblical corpus. It was rejected by the Jews in the formation of the Tanakh and had been excluded (or placed as a kind of appendix) in many versions of the Christian Bible as well. It should also be pointed out that the deutero-canonical material wasn't officially part of the Catholic canon at the time of Luther either, as such a canon did not yet exist. The apocrypha was only granted canonical status at the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. From Luther's perspective these works (due to being written late and composed in Greek rather than the OT language of Hebrew) didn't deserve to be admitted into the Protestant canon, though it should be pointed out that he also tried to exclude other books from this canon (for example Revelation and Jude) but wasn't successful to this end. I'm not entirely sure what his logic here was, but he obviously had some doctrinal issues with all these texts.

And so far as I'm aware, there are no uniquely gnostic ideas that have persisted to the current day. The orthodox faction of the early Catholic Church were evidently pretty effective at snuffing them out.

Obdicut posted:

Have you read Robert Alter's translation with commentary of various poetic books of the tanakh?

Nope, but I've long been planning to read this as soon as I get around to ordering it. Do you recommend his translations / commentaries?

ComposerGuy posted:

This is the best thread in Ask/Tell right now.

OP, where would you suggest one go to read more about the history of the bible? Are there any definitive works on the subject that might be good reading for the average layperson?

Sure, I meant to include something like this in the OP actually. I'll recommend a few of the more accessible things I've come across.

Books:

  • How to Read the Bible by James Kugel - Goes into a lot of detail about the history of the OT texts, how they were written, what their original meaning and purpose was and how exegesis of these texts has changed over the years. Very interesting, thorough and easy to read.
  • Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman - A good introduction to the Documentary Hypothesis and the history of the Torah. Draws some controversial conclusions in this book, but the history and analysis of the texts are very good and accessible to the average reader.
  • Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond Brown - Simply the best introduction to the NT that there is. I've read it through twice, and if I can get all my books shipped over from Australia then I dare say I'll read it again.
  • The Canon of Scripture by F.F. Bruce - Describes the history of how the Bible was shaped as canon.
  • Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman - I've read about half a dozen of Ehrman's books, and I'd recommend this one as being the most worthwhile. It traces some of the forms of early Christianity (and the literature they produced) that never quite made it. I think all of his books are worth reading, especially for someone new to the area, but his best stuff is on the textual-critical side (where he is undoubtedly among the world's foremost authorities) and he's prone to oversimplification and overconfidence when he strays into other areas of Biblical scholarship, but this may simply be a consequence of writing for a general audience.
  • The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein - Probably the most popular book there is on the field of Biblical archaeology. Finkelstein is a controversial figure in this field, and not everyone agrees with his conclusions, but if you can keep this in the back of your mind this is a good, accessible introduction to what we've learnt about the archaeology of ancient Israel in recent years.

Audio / Video:


These are just the more general and accessible things I can think of off the top of my head, but if you're after something more specific or technical just ask.

het posted:

edit: argh, I don't see part 4 of the socio-historical background series though, am I overlooking it? I'm really curious to read what you have to say about Josiah's reign.

Oops, I started to edit it and then forget to re-post it.

Let me clean it up and I'll try to repost it soon.

immortalyawn posted:

Great thread OP, you really know your stuff.

Question...

Judas was a traitor and used guile and cunning and so forth...BUT!...

If he went toe to toe with Jesus in a fist fight who would have won?

Judas, obviously. It's pretty hard to win a fist fight if you're always turning the other cheek.

zmcnulty
Jul 26, 2003



Feel free to ignore if this question is too personal or too incendiary for this thread -- were you an atheist before, or you became an atheist after studying so extensively?

edit: And a followup... are many other Bible historians atheist?

zmcnulty fucked around with this message at Jul 1, 2013 around 10:05

Obdicut
May 15, 2012

I'm Obdicut! You'll go where I go, defile what I defile, eat who I eat!

Blurred posted:



Nope, but I've long been planning to read this as soon as I get around to ordering it. Do you recommend his translations / commentaries?


I absolutely think his translations are both wonderful in language, and the way that he explains the narrative construction and authorship of the Bible is great. The way he translates and explains Job in the context of it being a very old frame story containing another story that's mostly written by one brilliant poet but then interjected by a rather boring poet makes it make far more 'sense'.

He's a family friend, so I'm biased, but I think his approach is brilliant. He's also a wonderful public speaker if you get a chance to see him talk at any point, and he's quite responsive via his UC Berkeley email, as well.

Braking Gnus
Oct 13, 2012


I read a book a while back, A History of God, by Karen Armstrong. I thought it was really good, but now I would like some outside confirmation that it wasn't full of poo poo.

Also, I am slowly making my way through the Roman/Greek history thread, and someone made a throwaway comment about Revelation being a really long anti-Roman metaphor. Anything to that in your opinion?

Genpei Turtle
Jul 20, 2007



Great OP. I'd actually be interested in hearing more about Exodus myself too, mainly the purpose it served when it was written. Which source(s) is it thought to come from? I remember reading somewhere that it was an allegorical god-fight between YHWH and the Egyptian pantheon, with each plague out-godding an Egyptian god, culminating in Ra (god of the sun and darkness) and Osiris, (god of the dead and the killing of the firstborn) but it wasn't in a scholarly source that I saw it if I remember correctly. Is there any truth to this or not? And if not, what purpose does it serve and how does it fit within the rest of the OT?

Also I've heard it argued (actually it might have been in these forums) that Exodus was historical because Moses is an Egyptian name. I always thought that point seemed a little flimsy in the face of the archaeological evidence to the contrary, but is that a legitimate point of contention?

Blurred
Aug 26, 2004



Axiem posted:

One thing that I'd like more clarification on, though, is the dating of the OT books (or parts-of-books). You reference when they were thought to be written, but how do scholars figure that out? It sounds kind of like they judge based on what they know of history, but if the history is from the books, then we kind of have a circle. Can you shed more light on this?

Part of this, I think, is my uncertainty from your write up of what parts of history we get from other sources, and what parts we get from the OT--and what are those other sources?

Yep, good question. The way that the Biblical texts are dated varies on a case by case basis and they come with varying degrees of confidence attached. Where I give the date for a certain text here I'm pretty confident that I'm giving something like the date accepted by scholarship, but there is almost no date that hasn't been credibly contested by one scholar or another. There is also the problem of whether we're dating the text in its final form or whether we're trying to date the sources that were used in the construction of that text. The Torah, for example, likely didn't achieve its final redaction until the 5th century BC at the earliest, but there is little doubt that it uses written sources (especially the J and E sources) that are much earlier. In this case and others where earlier traditions appear to have been employed, are we trying to date the original traditions or the text in its final form? What about where the original texts appear to have been added to by later scribes: which layer should we be dating and how can we differentiate between them? Such concerns make absolute dating of any given book rather difficult, but that's not to say that we can't give educated estimates in most cases. I'll give you some specific examples as to how certain dates have been arrived at for certain books, but - like I said - the method used (and the confidence we have in this method) really does vary from text to text. Sometimes the texts do give us concrete, independently attested historical milestones like this which can assist us in our dating, but unfortunately they're not entirely common.

In the case of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic History (Judges - 2 Kings) our dating is guided by a few clues. The first is that the language in each of these books are very similar, so we can presume they had the same author. As I said in the OP, 2 Kings 22:8 mentions that a legal scroll was "discovered" during the reconstruction of the Temple during Josiah's reign, and that the young king used this law as the basis of his religious reform. Based on the congruence between the text of Deuteronomy and Josiah's reform, it's long been assumed that this scroll was none other than the Book of Deuteronomy. In the narrative of the Book of Kings, moreover, it's fairly obvious that the entire text seems to build to Josiah's reign, where previous kings are compared (usually unfavourably) to him and the text at 2 Kings 23:25 seems like a reasonable place for the narrative to have ended. This makes it likely that this text was written in the time of King Josiah. The tone changes immediately in the next section and Josiah's death is almost skimmed over, leading many scholars to propose it was a later addition (deemed "Dtr2"). In any case, all these signs and others (for example the sometimes anachronistic geography throughout the Deuteronomic narrative) point towards a late 7th century construction.

In a different case, scholars think they have a pretty good grasp of the dating of deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40-55) based on the prophecies it makes. Here the author "prophesies" that Jerusalem would be overrun by the Babylonians, but plainly this is something that Isaiah could not have predicted with such historical detail from nearly two centuries earlier. One curious thing about these prophecies is that they seem to be relatively accurate for the most part, but the prophecies dealing with the immediate aftermath of the Babylonian exile (for example, the destruction of Babylon at the hands of the Persians or the imminence of an ethnically pure Jerusalem) never really came to pass. This makes scholars think that deutero-Isaiah was likely written right at the end of the Babylonian exile (or immediately after it) in around 539 BC. In other OT texts as well, we can find anachronistic mention of people, events or cities which give us - presuming we reject the possibility of supernatural clairvoyance - a terminus post quem, or earliest possible date for when the text can have been written.

A similar method can be applied in the dating of NT texts. The Gospel of Mark, for example, has Jesus foresee the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:1-2), an event which took place in 70 AD. Again, if we discount the possibility of soothsaying in our historical analysis, this places a terminus post quem for Mark at 70 AD. (However some scholars have noted that Jesus prediction of "not one stone will be left here upon another" actually didn't turn out to be literally true, as any modern visitor to the Western Wall in Jerusalem can attest. This leads some to believe that Mark was written in the build-up to the Roman invasion or during the siege, when it was apparent that Jerusalem would suffer calamity but not possible to give a precise prediction of the level of destruction. If this is correct, we can give a possible date of authorship perhaps somewhere between 65-70 AD.) The dating of the Pastoral Epistles, on the other hand, can be made based on the kind of church structures they describe, which simply didn't exist prior to the late 1st / early 2nd centuries, making Pauline authorship impossible. As for the authentic epistles of Paul, dating is based on rather more relative method. We know roughly when Paul must have lived and we know more or less in which order his epistles must have been written. We can take information from Acts and biographical details in his letters and try to reconstruct his movements, which gives us a better idea of when the individual epistles must have been written during his life. There is an element of circularity in this case (dating an epistle by cross-referencing it with Acts and his other epistles), but all the dates seem to hang together pretty comfortably and major errors seem pretty unlikely. If we are radically wrong about the dating of Paul's epistles then nothing in NT scholarship makes much sense, and we might as well just give up now.

This is just a brief overview, though, if you have questions about the dating for any specific text then please ask away.

quote:

My last question (for now) is: in what way are you qualified to talk about this? I.e. what are your credentials? Why should we trust that you're telling us any more truth about history than the Creationists (aside from the fact that they're insane and you don't sound like you are)?

Well, good question. The simple answer is that you shouldn't trust me (blindly at least): I don't have any qualifications in the field, and everything I know is just the result of being very interested in the subject for the last 10 or so years. In my defence, though, I'm saying very little that would be completely at odds with the opinions of genuine Biblical scholars and I'm trying to make it clear when I'm citing my own opinion rather than that of scholarship. Also, if you (or anyone else) would like some sources or directions for further reading on any of these topics then I'd be happy to try and help.

potidaean posted:

Excellent OP. Could you go a little more detail into the evidence against the Exodus having happened? I've read a little here and there, but nothing solidly scholarly. What would be the response to a believer who says something like, "well of course there's no record of it by the Egyptians, history is written by the winners"?

It's a really fascinating topic for me, because having grown up going to church, I always just assumed it was true, even for almost a decade after I became an atheist. It just never occured to me to look it up until I read an article about it last year.

The most fundamental problem is the complete lack of material evidence. The Bible says that the entire Hebrew nation was enslaved by the Egyptians (600,000 adult men, to say nothing of the women and children), yet they apparently left no material trace from their time in Egypt, from their 40 year sojourn in the Sinai desert or from their violent settlement in Canaan. Given that the hot, dry conditions there are able to preserve evidence of campsites dating to thousands of years in the past, there is simply no way to explain this complete absence of evidence, even if we presume the numbers cited in the Exodus account are wild exaggerations. There are other, more trivial problems (such as the fact that there could not have been a distinct Israelite culture at the putative date of the Exodus) but the absence of even the slightest shred of evidence has killed the issue among serious archaeologists.

Now some scholars have attempted to rescue the historicity of the Exodus by presuming that beneath the heavily mythologised veneer of the Exodus account lies a solid kernel of historical truth, but these attempts generally end up advocating theories that are simply too different to the Exodus story to really redeem anything. Some scholars, for example, have tried to argue that the myth is derived from the experience of the Hyskos people in Northern Egypt or the capturing of relatively small numbers of Canaanite soldiers during a campaign led by Thutmose III in the 15th century, but neither of these historical events share anything much in common with the Exodus myth. It's a bit like trying to salvage the historicity of King Arthur by saying "well, he never lived at Camelot, he never married Guinevere, he wasn't really a king and he actually lived in 17th century Spain, but...".

Now this isn't to say that there wasn't necessarily any historical inspiration for the Exodus myth, just there is little prospect of it ever being recovered. There were, for example, countless interactions between the Israelites and the Egyptians throughout history, and the Exodus myth could have emerged from any of them. Egypt, for example, controlled the land of Canaan shortly before the emergence of Israel in the 13-12th centuries BC. It allied itself with Assyria when the Assyrian army laid waste to Israel and conquered Judah. It reneged on a military treaty which allowed Babylon to conquer Judah. It became a safehaven for dissenting Judahites in exile, who were denounced by the prophets of the Persian period, and so on. It's not difficult to see why Egypt would loom large in the imagination of those who were attempting to write the history of Israel, so it might not be necessary to find another explanation. If it is necessary to continue looking for an alternative explanation, however, there is only one I'm familiar with that would hold any water.

As the above poster mentioned, the name "Moses" has an Egyptian etymology (from the same root which gives us "Ramesses") which seems a strange thing to do if the Biblical authors were truly inventing a national hero out of whole cloth, especially since the authors themselves seem ignorant of this etymology and try to offer a Hebrew alternative (see Ex 2:10). Two other telling facts are the fact that Moses was said to have fled Egypt for committing murder (Ex 2:11-15) and that he settled in a place called "Midian", a region to the immediate north-east of Egypt, neither of which would be the kind of details you'd expect a pious, nationalistic priest of a later period to invent unnecessarily. Given the possibility that YHWH worship likely started somewhere near here (that is, to the south of Canaan) in around the 13th century BC, we can put together a plausible story that Moses was a political activist who escaped the bondage of Egypt, established (or joined) a tradition which grew to revere him as a prophetic leader and whose followers in the coming centuries would take the story north - to Israel - in an already embellished form. There is little concrete evidence for this theory, mind, but it at least has the benefit of being more plausible (and at least partially compatible with the Exodus myth) than anything else I've come across.

Blurred fucked around with this message at Jul 2, 2013 around 19:43

Mortanis
Dec 28, 2005

It's your father's lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight.

I'm somewhat relieved to hear there's nothing at all concrete out there with regards to the Exodus. Back when I was in that church environment, I heard quite a bit of "evidence" being passed around that was pro-Exodus. It always seemed to come up, no matter where you went, which made it exceptionally reinforcing - you heard about some evidence from one group at a gathering in Washington, then heard about the same thing across the US a year later. Back before the proliferation of the internet, we just took that as truth and ate that up. It was pretty disillusioning to learn that pretty much every single bit of biblical archaeology that was passed around was either completely inaccurate and taking giant leaps with the actual data, or entirely made up - so it's actually rather nice to know that it's all still pretty much incorrect.

Things I'd seen passed around many, many times: whole cities constructed of bricks without straw, evidence that Imhotep was actually Joseph, Egyptian chariots found at the bottom of the Red Sea (I might even still have a book with this one printed in it), and on and on.

Thank you for clearing that up.

To get back on topic - with your studying, what is your personal favorite part of all of this? The Bible/Tanakh/teachings are an important thing for a lot of people because of their belief in a higher power. Your delving into the actual history and literal construction seems to be borne of a passion of a different persuasion, so what's been the best or most fulfilling aspect of it all for you?

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Smoking Crow
Feb 13, 2012

*Laughs at you*


Who's your favorite Judge?

Who would win in a fistfight, Joshua or David?

Who had the better beard, Jesus or Moses?

What's the best martyrdom in the Bible?

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