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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
A while back I decided to read the Old Testament. I think the last time I read the Bible from cover to cover was way back around age 18-20 when I was in the early stages of what turned out to be the loss of my faith in the conservative Christian beliefs with which I had grown up. I don’t recall a lot about it except that I found things, some outright shocking, that didn’t quite fit with those beliefs. That was a long time ago. A few years ago I started to read the OT and got as far as Ezekiel before getting bogged down in that very strange book. So this is another attempt. It took me three tries to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses. Maybe two times will do it for the Old Testament!
For the Old Testament itself I have the Oxford Annotated Bible RSV with its extensive footnotes to explain things, indicate when there’s more than one understanding of the Hebrew text, textual variants or when no one knows what the original Hebrew means as well as just add interest. I bought the Oxford Bible for the First Century Christianity class I took as a religious studies major at UC Santa Barbara many years ago. It was taught by Marvin Meyer, a well-known scholar of early Christianity and gnosticism. Going book by book through the New Testament in that class introduced me to the idea that the Bible, like everything else, has a history that can be objectively examined.
In addition to my Oxford Bible, I have The Hebrew Scriptures: An Introduction to Their Literature and Religious Ideas by Samuel Sandmel, a Reform rabbi and biblical scholar, along with The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction by Richard S. Hess who is a minister as well as OT scholar. The Sandmel book is excellent, well written and straightforward in its approach. I don’t like the Hess book as well. He’s not all that great a writer and his conservative theological bias is too often apparent.
The Old Testament is a somewhat bewildering collection of prose and poetry, myth and legend, folk tale and history, sacred hymns, oracles, epic poems, an erotic love song, religious and secular laws, proverbs, laments, parables, and allegories written over a period of about one thousand years. At the time of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity the OT canon (books considered authoritative scripture) had not yet been established. While the history is somewhat unclear the books now regarded as canonical for both Judaism and Protestant Christianity seem to have been officially declared acceptable scripture sometime around 90-100 CE by an early rabbinical council. Before that there were a variety of other books in collections of Hebrew scripture. Some of them were included in the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scripture into Greek made between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE from which they found their way into what we know as the Apocrypha which is included in Roman Catholic Bibles. In addition some Eastern Christian churches include still more books in their OT canon.
The Jewish Bible or Tanak contains the same material as the Protestant Old Testament but arranged differently in three sections of Torah, Prophets, and Writings. Some books that are broken into two volumes in the Christian OT are one volume in the Tanak and the twelve minor prophets are counted as one book so that the number of books differs although the material is the same. The number and order of the Christian version of Hebrew scriptures is based on the Septuagint rather than the later arrangement of rabbinical Judaism.
With a few exceptions where the text is Aramaic, the common language of the ancient Near East, all of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Translation of an ancient language can be difficult. In addition there are variant manuscripts from which translators have to make a choice, apparent copyists errors, marginal notes that were included in the text by later copyists, additions by later editors, and some ancient Hebrew words for which the meaning is unknown.
Almost all modern translations of the Hebrew scriptures are based on a single manuscript, the Leningrad Codex, which was copied in 1008 CE and is the earliest extant complete copy of the Masoretic or Rabbinic Text. “Masoretic Text” actually refers to a group of texts dating from roughly 600-1000 CE named after the group of Jewish scholars who standardized methods for copying the scriptures. Ancient Hebrew was written using only consonants, which could be confusing if a reader didn’t know which vowels should be inserted where to make a particular word. Not until the Masoretic Text were vowel indications added to aid reading.
The 1947-1956 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from approximately 250 BCE to 68 CE, which include fragments from every book in the OT as well as near complete texts for a few books provided biblical scholars with OT texts much older than any previously available. In addition to differences in the material included, there are textural differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint. Although not completely identical the Dead Sea Scrolls diverge less from the Masoretic Text, indicating a high degree of copyist accuracy over the centuries between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Leningrad Codex. In addition, ancient texts of portions of the Hebrew scriptures have been found at archaeological sites in Israel and Egypt.
All of which means that in some places the original text and meaning are anything but clear. My Oxford Annotated Bible indicates those places in footnotes. The Bibles I read in church school had no such footnotes, nothing that would contradict what I was told about the Bible being the inerrant Word of God which had not changed at all since the words were first written down by its divinely inspired authors. Some people still believe that the King James Version is the Bible as originally written.
Another thing that I didn’t know about both the Old and New Testaments is that the chapters and verses every Bible student learns are a relatively recent addition. Chapter divisions were introduced in the 13th century. The current system of verses date to the mid-16th century.
I should say a word about how I view the Bible. I long ago gave up the belief that it is the inspired word of God, a divine revelation of absolute truth. I am not interested in debates about that. I see no evidence of it being anything other than a product of the attempt of ancient people in a relatively small area of the world to understand the meaning of their existence. That does not mean that it “isn’t true” or that it represents some kind of attempt to control people who are so credulous as to believe what the religious establishment claims the Bible to be (although it has of course often been used that way). It is sometimes the case that things which aren’t literally true do in fact contain much truth. I think that is especially the case when it comes to ultimate concerns like the nature of human existence, moral right and wrong, human suffering and death, etc. It is there that the Bible is, I think, still relevant.
I should also add a disclaimer that, while I may also incorporate what I learn from Sandmel, Hess, and the editors of the Oxford Bible, what follows represents my personal view, my response to the OT material and in no way can make a claim to being a definitive commentary on either the Old Testament or biblical scholarship. And, once again, to note that I am not interested in arguing about whether the Bible is the infallible and literal Word of God. I am just trying to share my experience of something that was once very important to me, and still is although now in a quite different way.
© 2021 James Moyers