The nature of the “Old” Testament

The nature of the “Old” Testament

“Biblical authors invented speeches for their human participants, as did Herodotus”.  (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

Since much of the Old Testament tells and ostensibly historical story, questions of historical accuracy must be addressed.  In part, this is a matter of correlating the biblical account with evidence derived from archaeology and other historical sources.  But it also leads to a discussion of the genre of the biblical text.  The history-like appearance of biblical narrative should not be confused with historiography in the modern sense.  (John J. Collins – Professor Yale)

“Among the Jews, the biblical authors inherited old and anonymous books about very remote times, but their existence was a barrier to critical method and doubt;  they wrote unreservedly about events where there was no primary knowledge.”  (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

Critical scholarship has come to question the traditional religious view of the bible as the word of God, seeing its content as akin to the literatures of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, and thus open to challenge and critical examination like any other humanly authored text.  (Steven Weitzman – Professor Stanford)

Whatever eternal truths the Bible might convey have been filtered through the minds of fallible human authors like Solomon – authors who might be pious and wise but who were prone to mistakes and misjudgements because they understood the world from within the constraints of the human mind.  It is for the same basic reason that Spinoza challenged the traditional religious understanding of the Bible, however authoritative it might seem.  No interpreter can know more than what the senses and reasoned inference can reveal, and since so much of the Bible is simply unknowable – the grammar of biblical Hebrew is only partially understood, the biblical text is imperfectly preserved, and the circumstances of the Bible’s composition are completely unknown – no mere human being can credibly claim to fully understand the Bible, to know what truths like concealed between its lines.  (Steven Weitzman – Professor Stanford)

On the one hand, the texts of the Old Testament have their roots in the wider world of the Ancient Near East; on the other, Christianity rapidly expanded into the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean outside Roman Palestine.  (John Riches – Professor Glasgow)

One thing that scholars have learned about the Bible, for example, is that we don’t really know what it consisted of in ancient times.  The Hebrew Bible read by Jews today… is only one of several ancient versions of the biblical text.  One of the goals of secular biblical scholarship, a project known as –text-criticism, is to try to reconstruct from these different versions the content of the original biblical text before it was altered by changes introduced over the course of its transmission.  That goal has proven elusive, however, and what text-critics have found instead is that there is no such thing as an original biblical text.  It is fluid as far back as we can trace it.  (Steven Weitzman – Professor Stanford)

Contents of the Old Testament  

“The Bible begins with two distinct stories of Creation. From Genesis 1 to 2:4, God creates the world in six days and rests on the seventh… from the second part of 2:4 the author gives a second account of Creation which goes on to tell us about Adam and Eve… this stretch of narrative flatly contradicts the first”.  … …from Genesis to the end of Numbers… these five books rest on earlier written sources which have been woven into our present texts…four earlier sources were combined by a fifth person…Its chances of being historically true were minimal because none of those sources was written from primary evidence or within centuries, perhaps a millennium, of what they tried to describe”.  (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

His first decision was what to do with two creation stories.  He chose to keep them both, back to back… He had two flood stories.  They were both complete.  They had definite similarities and blatant differences.  The J flood story was about forty days of rain.  The P flood story was about a year-long cosmic crisis.  The J story had fourteen of the clean animals and two of the unclean. The P story had two of each.  The J story had Noah sending out three doves (or one dove three times) at the end.  The P story had one raven.  There was no way that the redactor could place these two back to back as he had done with the creation stories…. He cut the two stories up and wove the corresponding pieces together perfectly. (Richard Elliott Friedman – Professor Georgia, previously visiting Professor Oxford and Cambridge)

Conservative Christians often affirm that the bible is historically accurate, internally consistent, and morally edifying.  Anyone who has had a good introductory course on the Bible at college level knows that it is not necessarily any of the above… Thom Stark’s book, The Human Faces of God… presents many of the obviously problematic aspects of the Bible – polytheism, human sacrifice, genocide, mistaken eschatological expectations… as Stark realises, it is only by confronting these problems honestly that we can find a firm basis for a constructive biblical theology… As he states at the beginning of the book, the Bible does not have a single viewpoint, and one of its great strengths is its inbuilt tradition of self-criticism.  No modern critic comes as close to being as critical of the biblical tradition as were Amos and Ezekiel, or, for that matter, Jesus.  (John J. Collins – Professor Yale)

The patriarchs and prophets of Israel, Jesus and the early Christians, and Mohammed and his followers, all regarded their times as profoundly significant as periods of descent, ascent or transformation.  (John Haldane – Professor St Andrews, previously Oxford)

It must strike even desultory readers of the Old Testament that the god it depicts – a tribal deity – is a bully and a tyrant of the first water.  The contrast with the New Testament’s avuncular deity is striking.  But what readers might not know is that some biblical texts have a decidedly questionable history.  Consider Deuteronomy, which in the midst of yet another doctrinal quarrel with Israel, was suddenly and conveniently “found” by workmen refurbishing the Temple; and of course it gave unequivocal support to one side of the argument.  Yahweh often entered on cue like this, apparently unable to resist politics, and invariably on the winning side.  Jesus’s divinity affords another example.  In Mark’s Gospel he is a man; in the theology of St Paul he is the medium of the New Covenant; in the fourth century AD, after a massive controversy over the Arian “heresy” – Arius of Alexandra had argued that Jesus must be less divine than the Father – he became a god in human form.  (A. C. Grayling – Professor Birkbeck, Oxford)

The most important thing is to disabuse oneself to the idea that the primary role of the prophets was ever seen to be that of predicting the future.  The term they would have used of themselves was the Hebrew word nabi, which refers either to their “call” by God or to the fact that it is their task to issue a “call” or summons to other on his behalf.  Our own word is based on the Greek translation, but even in Greek “prophet” originally meant an interpreter of the divine and only came to mean a predicter because part of that interpretation may of course involve some reference to the future.  Thus it is only once we see them in their own terms that we shall properly understand them.  Any reference to the future always remains subordinate to their primary intention, which is their desire to address God’s call for repentance and justice to their own contemporaries.  … Once, then, we have jettisoned any notion of prediction constituting a major element in the prophetic role, their real concerns can at last begin to emerge in their proper light.  They have a vision of individual and nation responding to the divine covenant in such a way that none is marginalised by all can find their proper place.  Hence a recurring theme is the call for social justice, particularly for those least able to care for themselves – “the stranger, the fatherless and the widow” (e.g.  Jer 7:6).  That the message of the prophets cannot be narrowly confined to purely individualistic notions of salvation is thus one lesson that modern study of the text has forced upon us. Another is that the traditional Protestant contrast of the prophet of the word standing against the ritualistic priest cannot be allowed to continue, except at any rate in a very modified form… it now appears that there was a much closer relationship between prophet and priest than was once thought.  (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

In biblical times, and for a long period afterwards, “prophecy” meant interpreting the will of God.  A prophet was a teacher, a moralist, as well as a forecaster.  All religions and traditions have their seers.  (A. C. Grayling – Professor Birkbeck, Oxford)

“But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive.  You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded”.  (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

For the earlier materials from the primeval history (the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah) and the narratives of the ancestors from Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to Joseph, we have no clear external markers to confirm the biblical account.  Nor have we corroborating historical evidence of the exodus from Egypt or the people’s trek through the wilderness.  Traceable origins of the biblical narrative begin with the Israelite settlement of the land of Canaan.  From this point forward we can begin to correlate what the biblical text says with what can be determined from external sources, including archaeological evidence.  (Amy-Jill Levine Douglas A. Knight – Professors Vanderbilt)

Israel’s history lies in the distant past, but our knowledge of it grows continually.  In comparison with what we knew just two hundred years ago, our understanding of the culture has advanced to an unprecedented extent.  Most of this new knowledge stems from the work of archaeology, which has literally laid bare evidence concealed for the past two millennia… especially significant for historians is the discovery of hundreds of thousands of tablets and documents…(Amy-Jill Levine Douglas A. Knight – Professors Vanderbilt)

Once we have delineated the nature and scope of the project, we must determine the extent to which the Hebrew Bible itself should serve as a source of history.  The Bible is not a neutral or objective text – if there even is such a thing.  It is a religious text that promotes a point of view, and this perspective affects the ways in which it relates history.  (Amy-Jill Levine Douglas A. Knight – Professors Vanderbilt)

Archaeology has not been able to confirm the illustrious story of Joshua’s conquest of the land or turn up any unequivocal trace of David and Solomon and their magnificent constructions in Jerusalem.  This absence of material evidence where we might expect it raises new questions about the significance of these texts.  … whether or not they actually existed as portrayed, or existed at all, the figures of David and Solomon have commanded an astounding role in the history of art, literature, thought, politics, justice, warfare, wisdom and poetry during the past two millennia.  … Historians do not now claim absolutely that these two figures did not exist, but only that considerable archaeological effort has not found solid evidence for them.  From this example we should learn to be cautious about grand assertions extrapolated from the biblical texts, for the “history” we thought we knew may have changed. (Amy-Jill Levine Douglas A. Knight – Professors Vanderbilt)

It was around 1000 BCE that Saul established a united kingdom over Israel, with David later establishing Jerusalem as its capital.  It seems that it was at this point that the people started to refer to god as “the Lord of hosts”.  This title is especially popular in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.  God is here imagined as a king surrounded by his heavenly armies, “his hosts”.  (David A. Jones – Professor Twickenham, Oxford)

From the time that Israel became a kingdom, the angels of God were imagined as a heavenly army, but there was not at first any clear idea of different ranks of angels.  However, there was already in the earliest tradition reference to one very distinct kind of angelic being: the cherubim.  These are given the task of guarding paradise to prevent the first human beings from returning there (Genesis 3:24)… Later, in the book of Isaiah, reference is made to another distinct kind of angel, the six-winged seraphim (Isaiah 6:2)… The book of Daniel marks an important stage in the development of ideas about angels.  It has a concept of different ranks of angels appointed to watch over different cities and nations.  (David A. Jones – Professor Twickenham, Oxford)

… the first five books of the Bible… Moses is the major figure through most of these books, and early Jewish and Christian tradition held that Moses himself wrote them, though nowhere in the Five Books of Moses themselves does the text say that he was the author.  But the tradition that one person, Moses, alone wrote these books presented problems.  People observed contradictions in the text.  It would report events in a particular order , and later It would say that those same events happened in a different order.  It would say that there were two of something, and elsewhere it would say that there were fourteen of that same thing.  It would say that the Moabites did something, and later I t would say that it was the Midianites who did it.  It would describe Moses as going to a Tabernacle in a chapter before Moses builds the Tabernacle.  People also noticed that the Five Books of Moses included things that Moses could not have known or was not likely to have said. The text, after all, gave an account of Moses’ death.  (Richard Elliott Friedman – Professor Georgia, previously visiting Professor Oxford and Cambridge)

“as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive”.  (Deuteronomy 20:16)

Altogether, Methuselah lived a total of 969 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:26)

After the flood Noah lived 350 years.  Noah lived a total of 950 years, and then he died.  (Genesis 9:28-29)

In contrast to what we might have thought until recently, in antiquity a book was not necessarily a single product of a single author but was often more like a hypertext, which several, even many,, writers might expand, edit and otherwise modify.  In this process, which went on for many generations, a variety of perspectives – or as the Documentary Hypothesis proposes for the Pentateuch, a variety of sources or traditions – were preserved.  For tis final editors, as for those of the entire Bible, preserving different sources was more important than superficial consistency of detail.  (Michael Coogan – Harvard)

The Bible also reports frequently that the Israelites worshipped the same gods that their neighbours did… King Solomon reported worshipped Astarte, Milcom, and Chemosh (1 Kings 11:5-7_… Like a human king, and like other ancient Near Eastern gods, Yahweh presided over a kind of royal court, with minsters and attendants. The ministers of this heavenly court included a large number of deities, who were Yahweh’s heavenly army or “host” – he is the “god of hosts”.  Among them were cherubim (sphinx-like composites) and seraphim (probably winged serpents, as in Egyptian religion); messengers, later identified as angels…; and the heavenly bodies.  Collectively, this pantheon was known as the “sons of God”, and they functioned as Yahweh’s council, advising him and also singing his praises.  So Yahweh is the “most high” but he is not alone;  rather he is the head of an assembly of gods, who are his “holy ones”. (Michael Coogan – Harvard)

This concern to vindicate the predictions of the authors of the prophetic books can also be seen in a few passages where the prophets or their followers have reinterpreted passages to explain their apparent non-fulfilment.  A clear case of such reinterpretation is Ezekiel’s prediction in 587 BC that the Babylonian King Nebuchadrezzar would lay siege to the Phoenician city of Tyre and would eventually destroy it completely (Ezekiel 26:7-14).  In fact, the Babylonians were unsuccessful in capturing Tyre and ended their siege against it sometime around 573 BC.  This unsuccessful outcome caused Ezekiel or his followers to revise the earlier prophecy, and in the latest stated oracle in the book (571 BC) it is explained that God has substituted Egypt for Tyre as a reward for the Babylonians’ hard work during the siege (Ezekiel 29:17-20).  In a similar vein Isaiah’s oracles against Moab (Isaiah 15:16) conclude with an acknowledgment that most of the predictions have not come to pass (16:13) and that god is now issuing a new word calling for the destruction of Moab within three years (16:14).  (Robert R. Wilson – Professor Yale)

Scholars have become more interested in the structure of whole books, although this interest is not usually accompanied by the claim that the structure is the work of the prophet.  In recent years much attention has been given to the book of Isaiah, and there is growing agreement that its structure is intentional, and not simply the result of random growth over a long period of time.  However there is to date no agreement either on the significance of the final shape, or on the process that led to it.  (Robert R. Wilson – Professor Yale)

It is not unusual to find authors writing with the specific objective of challenging a received view that has already gained credence within the scriptural canon.  Thus the Book of Job is intended to cast doubt on the connection commonly made until then between prosperity and moral goodness, and suffering and evil, as reflected in the Garden of Eden myth ( Gen 3:14-19).  Job is portrayed as the wholly righteous man who none the less suffers terribly.  (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

are hints of child sacrifice in Genesis and Exodus, including Abraham’s
willingness to sacrifice Isaac.  Human
sacrifice was long associated with Canaanite and Phoenician ritual.   (Simon
Sebag Montefiore – Professor University of Buckingham)


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