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ABOUT THE BIBLE
For the contents herein, I relied on several essays found in the “The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible, fourth edition” copyrighted in 2010 by Oxford University Press. I think these essays summarize the current state of our Biblical knowledge quite well. To understand and properly read the Bible, I think it is important to first understand how the Bible came into existence and the history which it purports to tell. Having read the Bible myself before studying theology in Education for Ministry, I am convinced that we cannot fully understand the Bible unless we study it in a more structured manner. I wish this were not the case, but it is. This is not to say that I think people should not attempt to read the scriptures themselves because I think all people are naturally faced with this challenge when figuring out what they will or will not believe. However if the Bible is the only material we study, it turns out that we miss out on all the past scholarship that has been done regarding its historicity (i.e., accuracy/reliability) and historiography (i.e., process of writing). To arrive at my current understanding, I read textbooks by experts in Old Testament Studies (AKA Hebrew Bible Studies), New Testament Studies, Church History, and theology.
The books that comprise the Bible were written over a little more than 1000-year period of time. With regard to the Pentateuch (i.e., first five books) of the Old Testament, scholars have been able to trace earlier sources of these stories and laws which must have been orally transmitted initially, then written, collected, combined, and edited into the books we have today. These earlier sources are known as J, E, P, and D. These initials stand for Jahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomistic sources. However they, themselves, did not survive and are only hypothesized to have existed since they are the best explanation for contradictions and duplications found in the Pentateuch. The books of the Pentateuch were canonized sometime between 586 and 333 BCE (after the Jews who had been taken into exile in Babylon returned to Judah and rejoined the population that had not been exiled). To piece together the history of the Near East to the time of ancient Israel, Christ, and beyond, professional historians make use of materials from archeological explorations and materials that were written – some in ancient languages. Examples of such materials are Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi (Gnostic) Texts, the first century history by Josephus, Rabbinic manuscripts, the Mesoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, the Q Source, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the Septuagint, the Vulgate and others. They then try to confirm the Biblical record with extra-biblical materials some of which were just listed.
It turns out that the major stories in the Pentateuch are not corroborated by historical evidence. Thus the stories of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, and Moses are best explained as myths or legends for the founding of ancient Israel. By myth, I do not mean a lie or falsehood as the word myth has more than one meaning. In today’s usage, if we say someone has told a myth, we often mean that they have lied. However a myth has traditionally meant a story that relays some important truths that could not be relayed in any other way at the time of writing. For example, creation myths are stories found in many ancient cultures that attempt to explain how the cosmos or any particular group of people originated. Moreover the founding myths of Israel are bound to contain elements of truth. However history did not unfold quite the way the myths say it did. To properly interpret such myths we have to first recognize that they represent a different genre of literature. They are not to be taken literally. Their meaning might be metaphorical, allegorical, or figurative. In all of these types of writing, the point is that the meaning is hidden in some way and not literal.
Nonetheless, the Bible does contain two histories – if we can call them that. I say this because these books are not historical in the modern sense of the word and because they also contain some writings that are not in a historical genre (such as Esther which is really a work of fiction set in a historical period). Anyway, what is known as the Deuteronomistic history is Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Then we see a rewriting of the history of Israel in the books Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ruth, and Esther.
“… Israel as we know it emerged in the land of Canaan and was made up of diverse groups. One of these was the Exodus group, whose allegiance to the God who brought them out of Egypt, Yahweh, would become the central religious tenet of the confederation. They were joined by others, some who were apparently their kin who had never gone down to Egypt, and some who may have been Canaanites disaffected from the(ir) centers of power.” These people existed within several tribes; and they joined together to form a confederation (something like a primative state) for the purpose of assisting one another militarily and worshipping Yahweh. The tribes were however independent (i.e., had no central authority). They were joined only by the above two agreements.
Around the same time that the Israelite tribes emerged in Canaan, another group emerged there as well. This group was known as the “Sea Peoples.” The Israelites called them the “Philistines.” They formed five cities in an area adjacent to the Israelites: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. These two groups of people would eventually come into conflict with one another for dominance of the same land. Other surrounding ethnic groups included the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Arameans, and Phoenicians. Around the late 11th century in 1025 BCE, Israel became a nation structured as a Kingdom. This Monarchy only lasted about 100 years. Upon the death of King Solomon, it was divided in two, a Northern Kingdom of Israel and a Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom of Israel lasted an additional two hundred years from 928 to 722 BCE when it’s capital Samaria was captured by the Neo-Assyrians. The Kingdom of Judah lasted an additional 350 years from 928 to 586 when Jerusalem was captured by Babylonia whose capital was Babylon. At this time, the first temple was destroyed. After Persia’s King Cyrus II captured Babylonia, the Jews who were in exile in Babylon were allowed to return to Judah. It was during this post-exilic period that the Pentateuch was canonized and the second temple was built. Then the Prophets were written and canonized in the late Persian or early Hellenistic period (circa 333 BCE). Finally, the part of the Old Testament known as the Writings were written. However they were not canonized until after the second temple was destroyed around 70 CE.
In this essay, I attempted to trace how the Old Testament was written, and I reviewed the major historical events which the Old Testament purports to tell. The process of writing the Pentateuch’s five books was one affected by the way the texts were transmitted and then edited over many centuries. We saw that the material in the Pentateuch did not stand up to modern historical study and is best interpreted as the founding myth of ancient Israel. The books that are historical, if we can use that term, are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. This history was rewritten later in the books of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Ruth. Ester is included in this second history, but it is really a work of historical fiction. Having studied the Bible with enthusiasm prior to beginning Education for Ministry, I attested that it is impossible to understand the Bible without studying the enormous amount of Biblical scholarship that has been accomplished to date. In part two of this essay, I will discuss how the New Testament was written and attempt a review of its respective Biblical scholarship.