This is my very first blog post, so if you’re new to the blog, please see the About page for the Three Commandments of the Book of Amos.
1. The Bible
I’m sure nearly everyone reading this will know the Christian Bible pretty well. However, I wish the blog to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, so skip to section 2 if you feel you already know your Biblical ABCs.
If ever you hear any “Ignoramos” (!) refer to the Bible as “a 2000 year old book” or “the Good Book”, then please hit them over the head with the nearest heavy object for me. Alternatively, politely rebuke them. (Your call!) It is not a book; it is a library of texts written at different times, in different places, by different people. In fact, there were often different people writing portions of the same book; e.g. Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah.
Why do I spend hours endlessly fascinated by the Bible and scholarly books on it? For me, the Bible is a microcosm of human existence, since “the biblical texts were produced over a period in which the living conditions of the writers – political, cultural, economic, and ecological – varied enormously”.1 They are “the result of a creative dialogue between… different communities through the ages”.2 The oldest texts in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament” or “Tanakh”) come from different books and are typically dated to the 12th or 11th centuries BCE (e.g. the Song of Deborah), while the youngest texts from the New Testament are hotly debated, yet most likely come from some Epistles in the mid-2nd century CE.
Numerous genres are represented in the Bible: legal codes, history, prophecy, ethics, wisdom literature, fiction, “good news” (‘Gospels’), epics (‘Acts’) letters (‘Epistles’) and ecstatic visions (‘Apocalypses’). Each must be read with a different interpretive lens.
2. Proverbs 26:4-5 (a.k.a. Why the Bible Cannot be Taken “Literally”)
4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.
So, the wise thing to do here would be to simultaneously answer your fool and not answer your fool. Confused? Well, you should be if you were one of the 28% of Americans who answered that the Bible is “the actual word of God and is to be taken literally” in a 2014 poll by Gallup. There are two points to be made from this humorous example here: (i) the Bible cannot be interpreted “literally” without encountering a logical contradiction; and (ii) ancient authors were as sophisticated as modern day writers and could happily communicate complex concepts such as situation-based ethics. In other words, their works should not be interpreted at face value.
EDIT – There’s a brilliant video courtesy of Matt Dillahunty talking about the pitfalls of quickfire contradiction-hunting – even from his atheistic perspective – whilst also making an excellent point about the equally problematic ‘everything must harmonise’ approach.
3. Judges 1:18-19 (a.k.a. Scribes’ Lives Matter)
There have been possibly hundreds of scribes involved in the process of writing the original biblical manuscripts (which we no longer possess) and then transmitting them to you in a translation you are able to read. This process must be factored into how we read the Bible translation which may (read: should) be sitting on your bookshelf.
For example, the King James Version (KJV) is one of the best known and loved Bible translations around. Its translation of the Old Testament comes predominately from the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT), though in other places it borrows from the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Latin Vulgate. Here is Judges 1:18-19 from the KJV which has been translated via the MT.
18 Also Judah took Gaza with the coast thereof, and Askelon with the coast thereof, and Ekron with the coast thereof. 19 And the Lord was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.
Let’s compare this with Judges 1:18-19 in the New English Translation of the Septuagint:
18 And Ioudas did not inherit Gaza and its territory and Ascalon and its territory and Akkaron and its territory and Azotus with its surrounding lands. 19 And the Lord was with Ioudas, and he inherited the hill country, for he could not inherit the inhabitants of the valley, because Rechab commanded it.
Plausibly, feeling uneasy about verse 18’s claim that Judah captured four of the five major Philistine cities – despite verse 19’s assertion that iron chariots prevented dispossession of the peoples of the valley – the scribe(s) thought to change verse 18 to a negative and eliminate verse 19’s reference to iron chariots. Why would an omnipotent God fail to defeat such rudimentary technology? That may well have been the thought running through the mind of the copyist who made this change.
This technicality is worth noting, however, as the New Testament writers are almost always quoting from the Septuagint (or indicate that Jesus did so) to make their points, e.g. Isaiah 7:14, where Matthew 1:23 quotes the Septuagint describing a ‘virgin’ (parthenos), though earlier Hebrew texts all clearly indicate a ‘young woman’ (almah) of child-bearing age, who may or may not be a virgin. (Spoiler: the passage refers to Isaiah’s wife and her second son.)
Scribes copied things out by hand in the ancient world; unsurprisingly they made mistakes, as do we all. Sometimes a copyist realised that there had been an earlier error and accordingly tried to legitimately correct that error, resulting in a third iteration of the text which again wasn’t quite the text that the original author produced. However, not all scribal changes were of such a nature, as we have seen above. Occasionally, scribes saw it as their personal mission to alter the ideological message of the text.
This example causes more discomfort than other manuscript discrepancies because it is the earlier text which appears to have the incorrect theology, meaning that one cannot simply explain it away as a late scribal copying error. The more accurate rendering implies that God is not omnipotent enough to match the valley-dwellers’ iron chariots.
Scribes’ lives matter. The next time you read a biblical passage, give thought to how many poor scribes had to write out that text by hand before the invention of the Gutenburg printing press (15th century CE). Could the first copyist have misspelt a word? Could the second copyist have left out something he disagreed with? Could the third have made an intentional change? Rather than assume things, we must evidence them.
4. Genesis 6-9 (a.k.a. The Problems of Only Hearing One Voice in the Text)
Having reflected on differences between manuscripts, now I wish to make a point about discrepancies that occur within the same book. Our example will be a familiar story about a righteous man, a very rainy day and animals marching two-by-two. (Hurrah! Hurrah!) Read Genesis 6:19-22 (NRSV) closely.4
19 And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
So far, so good. Despite the word ‘two’ appearing twice and ‘every’ appearing five times above, it is clearly quite important to God that Noah gets everything right and so He repeats the instructions previously given in the next chapter (Genesis 7:1-5).5
Then the Lord said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.’ 5 And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.
In both passages, we are assured that Noah did all that the Lord commanded him. Okay, so he simultaneously brought two of every living thing (i.e. 2 animals per species) aboard and he brought seven pairs of all clean animals (i.e. 14 animals per species) and seven pairs of every bird (i.e. 14 animals per species) whilst only one pair (i.e. 2 animals per species) of the non-clean animals?
As would anyone faced with such conflicting instructions, Noah sensibly combines both sets of instructions and therefore, strictly speaking, he follows neither to the letter, despite both texts agreeing on the point that he “did all that God commanded him“!
7 And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9 two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah.
Right, so at least we have finally established that Noah brought two pairs (i.e. four animals) of every species aboard, whether clean, unclean, bird or creepy-crawly. It took a long time to get there – sorry folks! I hope you’ll agree the wait was worth it? Note that neither text mentions “two pairs” – so they would never have gone in “two by two” had God not changed his mind, which, according to some theologians anyway, he could never do and consequently never does. At least my old childhood bedroom wallpaper image of the animals going in two-by-two can be salvaged from the text as the set of instructions which Noah apparently followed! (Yes, I was so cool that I grew up in a Noah’s Ark themed bedroom until I was around 13.)
How do we cope with all this conflicting information? The first option would be to assume that the author was rather confused when putting pen to papyrus. More plausibly, our second option is to consider whether or not there may be multiple authors for this passage. Indeed, there were. Experts in the Hebrew Bible refer to these two differently-minded authors as the ‘Jahwist‘ (J) source and the ‘Priestly‘ (P) source.6 The most bizarre curiosity of all is that Genesis 7:1-5 and 7:7-9 are seemingly from the same source.7 Perhaps the Jahwist was an addled author after all!
Don’t believe me? The closer you read, the more you realise very odd chronology and a series of completely unnecessary doublets where the same information has been given twice-over: humanity’s corruption (6:5 [J]; 6:11-12 [P]), the decision to destroy all life (6:7 [J]; 6:13 [P]), the command to board the ark (7:1-3 [J]; 6:18-21 [P]), the entering the ark (7:7 [J]; 7:13 [P]), the flooding (7:10 [J]; 7:11 [P]), the death of all life (7:22-23 [J]; 7:20-21 [P]), the flood receding (8:2b-3a [J]; 8:3b-5 [P]), and the promise that there will never be another worldwide flood (8:21b-22 [J]; 9:1-17 [P]).8
I bet you’ve been wondering why the two sources have such weird names? Well, because the older Jahwist uses the personal name ‘Jahweh’ translated in most English Bibles as ‘LORD’, while the younger Priestly source uses the generic term ‘Elohim’ or ‘god’. That’s another way we can tease apart the separate authors. It just so happens that each time the text repeats itself, one of them is using ‘Jahweh’ and the other is using ‘Elohim’.
Therefore we have another good reason not to jump to quick interpretative conclusions based on any preconceived ideas we may have about how “Noah’s flood must have happened exactly as the Bible says because the Bible says so”. I haven’t even had time to touch on the long history of the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) flood story. There’s another blog post in waiting!9
5. Matthew 23:24 (a.k.a. A Joke We Can Be Confident that Jesus Told)
Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, was frequently scathing toward some of the leading religious figures in his time, the Pharisees. In Matthew 23, he calls them ‘hypocrites’ and rebukes them saying, ‘you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves’. Ouch! However, the worst accusation of all is yet to come…
24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
A strange image indeed. As you read it, what do you make of it? Well, context is everything; this witty remark works on so many levels!10
- Gnats were thought to be the smallest creature on the planet in the ancient world, while camels were the largest animal in Palestine.
- Old Testament law does not mention gnats, yet it specifically forbade eating camels, since they were unclean (Leviticus 11:4). Not only is it hilarious to imagine a Pharisee swallowing a camel, it also pokes fun brilliantly at the Pharisees in their own language, that of the Mosaic law which they were supposed to know intimately.
- Camel (gamla) sounds extremely similar to gnat (kamla) in Aramaic, so not only is this saying a pun, it’s also pretty strong evidence that the Canonical Gospels faithfully record some of Jesus’s words. The pun simply does not work in Greek.
6. John 3 (a.k.a. Why Evangelicals Should be ‘Born from Above’ Christians)
I’m sure many of you reading this will have had someone proclaim to you that they are “a born-again Christian”. This expression comes from John 3 where Jesus has a secretive nighttime discussion about the ‘Kingdom of God’ with a leading Pharisee called Nicodemus, which also features some interesting imagery! (NRSV)
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3 Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”
The point Jesus is trying to get across here is that one must be ‘born from above’, i.e. consider one’s true citizenship to lie in the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of Israel. However, quite understandably, Nicodemus gets the wrong end of the stick because there is a double-meaning here. The phrases ‘born anew’ and ‘born from above’ in the Koine Greek of the New Testament are identical (ἄνωθεν). So this amusing dialogue makes perfect sense in Greek. It makes far less sense in the English above and likewise there is no way to express this double-entendre in either Aramaic or Hebrew, so context not only illuminates this passage but gives us a good reason to doubt this dialogue actually occurred, at least in the format it is written.11
7. Jeremiah 39 (a.k.a. I do Believe in Eunuchs)
Scepticism is going to be a key theme of this blog, but only being reasonably sceptical. We should only believe things for which there exists good evidence and doubt the assumptions we have been brought up with or come later in life to hold. We must continually re-evaluate what we think we know. Anyway, there are a few lovely but unnecessarily sceptical friends of mine who refer to the Bible as “a book of fairy tales” or some such. This is mistaken, for there are all sorts of weird parts of biblical history which can be and have been verified. For one recent example I read about – and there are many others – in July 2007, a small cuneiform tablet (5.5 cm!) from c. 595 BCE finally evidenced the existence of a rather overlooked figure in the royal court of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon who had been briefly mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah:12
In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it. 2 And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city wall was broken through.3 Then all the officials of the king of Babylon came and took seats in the Middle Gate: Nergal-Sharezer of Samgar, Nebo-Sarsekim a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official and all the other officials of the king of Babylon.
The tablet read:
[Regarding] 1.5 minas (0.75 kg) of gold, the property of Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, the chief eunuch, which he sent via Arad-Banitu the eunuch to [the temple] Esangila: Arad-Banitu has delivered [it] to Esangila. In the presence of Bel-usat, son of Alpaya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nadin, son of Marduk-zer-ibni. Month XI, day 18, year 10 [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.
For those who don’t know what eunuchs are – umm, Wikipedia. Sure, scribes had dictionaries in the ancient world,13 but not for names, especially foreign ones! The reconciliation is made easier by the titles used: Chief Eunuch (rab sa-resi) was a unique position in Babylon, which Hebrew writers referred to as ‘Chief Officer’ (rab-saris).
So there you have it – one rather insignificant detail verified in our own lifetime! I hope, in time, to cover many of these discoveries. Some are more interesting than others, as you’d expect! I apologise if this example is not as riveting as you had hoped, but every example I’ve used here is illustrative of a point I’d like to make.
8. A Recap of Our Journey
Hopefully, you (my treasured reader) have learnt something out of this higgledy-piggledy mess of a first post: (i) genre is important; (ii) scribes weren’t perfect; (iii) there are numerous contradictory voices even within the same book; (iv) Jesus loved puns; (v) context is everything; (vi) lots of historical bits from the Bible are sound (though not all of them).
Sure, I haven’t established any of the claims I wished to make to the level of detail I would ordinarily like to. However, if I had done so, you may have been bored stiff! Why not ask a question in the comments? I love comments! (I also love people who like The Book of Amos Facebook page!) However, please do bear in mind the sacred Three Commandments and the Golden Rule! In the words of Hillel the Elder:14
“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
- Riches, John (2000). The Bible: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 9. ↩
- Ibid. p. 83. ↩
- The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is a great translation typically used on undergraduate level courses on the New Testament. It’s generally the best version for having in-depth discussions if you can’t read Hebrew or Greek. (Like me!) ↩
- Emphasis added. ↩
- Emphasis added. ↩
- There are actually two further voices which comprise the famous Documentary Hypothesis: the ‘Elohist‘ (E) source and the ‘Deuteronomist‘ (D) source. While the finer details of the hypothesis are furiously debated among scholars, the fact that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (‘Pentateuch‘) were edited together from numerous sources written at different times has been beyond a shadow of a doubt since the 18th century CE. ↩
- Finkel, Irving (2014). The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. London: Hodder & Stoughton. pp. 192-197. ↩
- Campbell, Anthony F. & O’Brien, Mark A. (1993). Sources of the Pentateuch: Texts, Introductions, Annotations. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress. p. 214. This is also covered in detail on thetorah.com and other places. Feel at liberty to Google! ↩
- The best book on this I have encountered is Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah, referenced above in footnote 7, which I have recently finished reading. However, there is a huge literature on this topic, covering numerous Ancient Near Eastern flood stories older than the biblical account by sometimes over a thousand years with different flood heroes but extremely similar story outlines and motifs, e.g. Ziusudra, Utnapishtim, Atra-Hasis. ↩
- Keener, Craig S. (2009). The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans. p. 233.
- Ehrman, Bart D. (2009). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperOne. p. 155. I am fully aware of two rebuttals, neither of which are convincing: (A) men derish is an Aramaic word in the Syriac Peshitta which could mean ‘born again’ and ‘born from above’; and (B) Jesus could have spoken Greek. Argument (A) is not convincing. Firstly, the Syriac Peshitta was written after the Gospel of John and our earliest manuscripts for the Peshitta go back only as far as the 7th century CE at best. Secondly, I could not find any authority citing references where men derish means ‘a second time’ and other references where it definitely means ‘from above’, as Ehrman has pointed out on his blog. In contrast, there is a vast sum of evidence confirming the double-entendre in Greek. Argument (B) fares no better. Greek was rarely spoken in Ancient Palestine, as is inferred from the wealthy contemporary Jewish historian Josephus: ‘I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness; for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations, and so adorn their discourses with the smoothness of their periods; because they look upon this sort of accomplishment as common, not only to all sorts of free-men, but to as many of the servants as please to learn them.’ (Antiquities of the Jews XX, XI) ↩
- Finkel, Irving (2014). The Ark Before Noah. pp. 226-232. Also covered online in a variety of places, e.g. by John F. Hobbins on Ancient Hebrew Poetry. ↩
- Contrary to what some people say, one of the most useful things in studying ancient languages is the fact that some scribes did have ‘dictionaries’, though they, like us, didn’t always use them, resulting in various different spellings. ↩
- Hillel the Elder, a teacher contemporary with Jesus of Nazareth, giving his summary of the Torah in the Talmud, Shabbat 31a. See also Leviticus 19:18, Tobit 4:15 and Sirach 31:15 for other interesting earlier incarnations of what Jesus gives us in the Gospels. ↩