Monday, 20 October 2008

The Bible That Doesn't Exist Part 1


People have lived for it, died for it & killed for it, Judaism, Christianity & to a lesser degree Islam, base their beliefs on its contents, it has influenced politics, art, culture & ethics, like it or loath it the Bible is a hugely influential work. So how can it be that the Bible doesn't exist? As you may already know rather then being a single volume, the Bible is an anthology of ancient religious texts. Generally speaking Christians regard the 39 books of the Old Testament & the 24 books of the New Testament to be sacred scripture, most Christians believe the books of the bible were divinely co-authored, protected & catalogued together, this is the definition of the Bible I want to address; the Bible that doesn't exist. To the reader I ask not to jump to conclusions regarding the angle I'm coming from but to read the article in its entirety before judging. Before we tackle the topic at hand I think it's important to define the meaning of the Christian idea of Biblical Inspiration, then take a look at the scriptural proofs often cited by proponents of this concept.

"With regard to the Bible, inspiration denotes the doctrine that the human authors and editors of canonical scripture were led or influenced by the Deity with the result that their writings many be designated in some sense the word of God."

The Oxford Companion to the Bible

So it follows that if God did indeed transmit his thoughts into the minds of the writers & editors of the Bible then what is contained in it would always be truth. This leads us to the concept of Biblical inerrancy:

"None of these [canonical] authors has erred in any respect of writing." "Therefore, since they wrote the things which He [God] showed and uttered to them, it cannot be pretended that He is not the writer; for his members executed what their head dictated."

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E)

The main scriptural proofs that subscribers to Biblical Inspiration & Biblical inerrancy cite are 2 Timothy 3:16-17 & 2 Peter 1:20-21:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV)

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

2 Peter 1:20-21 (NIV)

A problem in using 2 Timothy 3:16 to justify the Bible canon as we have it today is that the author doesn't define a canon here, he merely claims that there is such a spirit inspired canon & then goes onto describe characteristics of it, another explanation is that Paul is claiming all sacred texts are spirit inspired which would seem like a very odd thing for the apostle to say..

2 Peter 1:20 says that no prophēteia or prophecy of scripture has its origin in human will, so here we again must make a distinction between what is to the author sacred scripture & that which is considered scripture today. No Bible book presents any list of texts that would constitute a Bible as we have it today; so the question of which books should constitute the Bible (& indeed why) depends, really on which religious authority you ask, biblical canonization is purely a religious concept it is neither historical nor scriptural as I shall try to demonstrate.

The Koine Greek noun graphe is translated as scripture in both 2 Timothy 3:16-17 & 2 Peter 1:20, in the New Testament Jesus often used graphe in reference to books we today consider part of the Old Testament (Matthew 21:42, John 5:39). So does Jesus quotations of these texts mean they are spirit inspired? Does it make them part of a sacred scriptural canon? Well yes & no, allow me to explain; Jesus explicitly quotes Old Testament books 33 times in the Gospels I feel its important to examine these references on their own merits, of these 33 references Jesus introduces 11 of them with the expression "It is written", 5 are introduced with the words: "You have heard that it was said" (or something similar), 2 are introduced "Is it not written in your law?", & the remainder do not feature introductions. What's interesting is that Jesus only uses the expression "You have heard it was said" when quoting the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Old Testament) specifically Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy, Jesus never uses this expression in conjunction with any of his 20 quotes of the Prophets or Psalms. Could it be that Jesus was making a distinction between inspired scripture & Jewish oral traditions?

Can Christians, honestly claim we are comfortable with the God sanctioned genocide in the Old Testament? I'm not talking about just any Biblical depiction of violence, much of the violence in the Old Testament is reported without adding a value judgment, neither am I referring to violence as a literary/figurative device (as is used in the Prophets & Psalms for example), I'm talking about instances when the text has God explicitly approve or command cruelty or genocide.

Let's take a look at one of these first instances of cruelty as it exhibits a number of rather peculiar features. In the book of Exodus after the Israelites start worshiping a golden calf at the foot of mount Sinai Moses asks YHWH to forgive his people:

But Moses sought the favour of the LORD his God. O LORD, he said, why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance for ever.' Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

Exodus 32:11-14 (NIV)

So at the behest of Mosses YHWH relents from bringing disaster on the people, but then something odd happens..

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughing-stock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, Whoever is for the LORD, come to me. And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbour.' The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.

Exodus 32:25-29 (NIV)

In verses 11-14 Moses petitions God not to destroy the Israelites, but then in the verses quoted above he appears to have a change of heart & as a result the Levites kill "about three thousand people" with Moses praising them for killing their own "sons and brothers", moreover here Moses quotes YHWH as giving the command to "Go... Killing his brother and friend and neighbour", yet we don't read of YHWH giving any such command to Moses or the Levites in the previous dialog of verses 11-14.

The next day Moses said to the people, You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin. So Moses went back to the LORD and said, Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin— but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written. The LORD replied to Moses, Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin. And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.

Exodus 32:30-35 (NIV)

In the above verses we see Moses again asking YHWH to forgive the idolaters, God then decides to punish the Israelites with a plague, so, just how many idolaters were left for YHWH to forgive or punish after 3000 of them had already been killed? If verses 25 - 29 are removed, a clear logical transition emerges between verses 24 & 30 that sees Moses petitioning YHWH to not destroy the Israelites & God reiterating his promise the following day to not destroy them, punishing them with plague instead. Here we have an instance of mass slaughter in the Bible that appears to be an interpolation (a foreign addition to the text), in my opinion Exodus 32:25-39 presents the possibility that much of the genocide & cruelty depicted in the Old Testament could very well denote additions to the Bible text, to those who doubt the possibility of interpolations in the Old Testament look no further then the Septuagint (early Greek translation of the Old Testament) with its sometimes lengthy interpolations not found in other manuscript traditions such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or Masoretic Text. Many Christians may baulk at the idea that the Old Testament is littered with interpolations, the idea that God allowed the contents of the Bible to be corrupted stands contra to the very entrenched religious tradition that it wasn't, but to those who doubt I ask you what is easier to say; that God allowed the scriptures to be corrupted? Or that YHWH commanded:

However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.?

Deuteronomy 20:16 (NIV)

So, we are led to the inevitable questions of who would have hijacked the scriptures, when & for what purpose? It's interesting to note that in Exodus 32:25-29 the Levites take centre stage, prior to this incident the Levites are depicted as little more then descendants of Levi (such as Moses, Aaron & Miriam), but here we see the Levites depicted as bloodthirsty zealots who become "set apart to YHWH" & "blessed this day", so were the Levitical priests, who in later years, held so much influence over the kings of Israel & Judah, responsible for such a corruption? If this is so we might expect to see more clues within the Bible text itself, & we do.

Josiah was king of Judah sometime during the seventh century B.C.E. The books of 2 Kings & 2 Chronicles report that Josiah initiated many religious reforms during his rule including the removal of idols from the temple & the destruction of Judah's pagan shrines. It is during this time that the high priest Hilkiah "finds" a scroll in the temple, Hilkiah calls this book "the book of the law", this book is then presented to Josiah:

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD." He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: "Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the LORD and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple." Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, "Hilkiah the priest has given me a book." And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

2 Kings 22:8-10 (NIV)

So just what was this scroll? Deuteronomy? Leviticus? The entire Pentateuch? The answer is we don't know, neither 2 Kings nor 2 Chronicles describe this text in any detail only describing the text as "the book of the law of YHWH, by the hand of Moses". Its interesting to note that the title of Deuteronomy in the Greek of the Septuagint is Deuteronomion meaning "second law" or "copy of the law", this to me is very curious; after all why would the Israelites need a "second law" anyway? What happened to the first one?

The prophet Jeremiah makes some very bold statements that seem connected to the contents of a book of the law:

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you.

Jeremiah 7:21-23 (NIV)

How can you say, "We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD," when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?

Jeremiah 8:8 9 (NIV)

Apologists claim that both of these scriptures are meant to be taken metaphorically, this interpretation seems like a stretch of logic based purely on the assumption that it's impossible for YHWH to have allowed the Pentateuch to be corrupted. Even when scripture makes it quite clear that the Israelites corrupted the Pentateuch, most Christians would rather hold to the religious dogma that the Bible is incorruptible.

The priest & scribe Ezra was the great grandson of Hilkiah, he is mentioned in the Old Testament books Ezra & Nehemiah:

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.

Ezra 7:8-10 (NIV)

The book of Nehemiah states that after returning from the exile Ezra brought the book of the law & read it aloud to the people. It is interesting to note that the apocryphal works The Wisdom of Ben Sira & 2 Maccabees celebrate Nehemiah & other figures from the post-exilic period, but make no mention of Ezra. What do non-biblical Ezra traditions say about the scribe? In 2 Esdras (c 100 C.E) God commissions Ezra to restore the law:

Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people.

2 Esdras 14:45-46

This Ezra tradition is echoed by medieval Islamic scholars notably Al-Tabari (838 - 923). In his work Annales he claims the law had been destroyed but was later rewritten by Ezra:

"When [the Israelites] returned to Palestine, they had no divine scripture, for the Torah had been seized and burned, and it perished. Ezra, one of the captives in Babylon who returned to Palestine, spent day and night grieving over it, in solitude. While he was in waterless valleys and in the wilderness, grieving over the Torah and weeping, lo and behold, a man approached him as he sat, and [the man] said, "O Ezra, what grieves you?" Ezra said, "I grieve over God’s scripture and covenant which was among us, but our transgressions and the Lord’s wrath against us came to such a pass that He made our enemy prevail. They slew our men, and destroyed our country and burned our divine book, without which our worldly existence and our life to come has no meaning. What shall I weep over if not this?" The man said, "Would you like it to be returned to you?" Ezra asked, "Is that possible?" "Yes," the man replied. "Go back, fast, cleanse yourself, and cleanse you garments. Then be at this place tomorrow." Ezra went back, cleansed himself and his garments, and went to the appointed place. He sat there, and the man came carrying a vessel filled with water - he was an angel sent by God - and gave Ezra to drink from that vessel. The Torah then presented itself in Ezra’s consciousness. Ezra returned to the Children of Israel and set down the Torah for them, so that they might know what it permits and what it prohibits, its patterns, precepts and statutes. They loved it as they had never loved anything before. The Torah was established among them, and with it their cause fared well. Then he died. In the course of time, the Israelites considered Ezra to be the son of God. God again sent them a prophet, as He did in the past, to direct and teach them, and to command them to follow the Torah." (pp. 230-231)

That isn't necessarily to say these traditions are true, but if they fit into a greater body of seemingly unconnected traditions then we can't simply dismiss them outright. The other traditions which I am referring to are the theories that propose that the Pentateuch didn't reach completion until the 6th century B.C.E, towards the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews. With the exception of minuscule fragments the oldest textual witness to the Old Testament is the Dead Sea Scrolls dated to the 2nd century B.C.E. Surely it cannot be mere coincidence that there are no extant manuscripts of the Pentateuch from before the exile?

"In their astonishing range of textual variants, the Qumran biblical discoveries [Dead Sea Scrolls] have prompted scholars to reconsider the once-accepted theories of the development of the modern biblical text from only three manuscript families: of the Masoretic text, of the Hebrew original of the Septuagint, and of the Samaritan Pentateuch. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the Old Testament scripture was extremely fluid until its canonization around A.D. 100."

The Oxford Companion to Archaeology

It is at this point that the idea of the Bible as an immaculate collection of inspired sayings falls apart & what we are left with is inspired fragments embellished by bloodthirsty Jewish zealots for their own ends, or to put it another way; the Bible that doesn't exist. Such tampering with the scriptures makes them no less valuable, if anything their value is increased by the fact that embedded amongst its sayings, we are able to make out the narrative of conspiratorial propaganda that is witness to its very corruption. What I am asking Christians is wherever they want to worship the God of love, mercy & compassion or a god fashioned in man's own bloodthirsty image. My intentions with this article were to give hope to Christians out there who struggle to reconcile scriptures such as Exodus 32:25-29 & Deuteronomy 20-16 to have faith, not in any religious tradition of man but faith in the mercy of God.

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness

Exodus 34:6 (NIV)


To be concluded..