Sunday, February 10, 2013

Where Do Bibles Come From?

A collection from our bookshelves

  • The evolution of Yahweh-worship from polytheism. 
  • Worship of Yahweh and Asherah in ancient Palestine. 
  • The Samaritan Torah
  • The Masoretic text. 
  • Babylonian influence on Jewish theology and culture during the Captivity. 
  • The full emergence of monotheism and the philosophical difficulties it presented. 
  • The Septuagint. 
  • The development of Jewish tradition and scholarship following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
  • Rivalry between the early Christian and Pharisee sects. 
  • The size limitations of papyrus manuscripts.
  • The Council of Trent.

Each of these factors, and so many others, is bound up in the history of what we know as the Holy Bible

Children ask, "Where do babies come from?" and young Christians ask, "Where did the Bible come from?" Some teachers, and some parents, are more squeamish than others. But if one is to commit one's life to the words of the Bible, one may need more information than, "It came from God."

The books below are some that have helped me tease out the history of the Jewish/Christian scriptures. It became a sort of scavenger hunt, finding a piece here, matching it with a piece from there, until a clearer picture began to emerge. 


Most, if not all, of the authors referenced are Christian scholars. They handle the texts with respect without compromising their scholarship and I recommend them all to Christians and skeptics alike.


What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills

Wills is a historian, and a critical Catholic. In his quest to distill Jesus' meaning from the text, Wills treats each of the Gospels individually, commenting on its historical setting and intended audience chronologically, geographically, and politically. 

What Paul Meant by Garry Wills

This one gets intense. In a nutshell, Paul's letters are the oldest Christian documents, predating the organized "church", even predating the word "Christian". In his defense of Paul against charges of misogyny and anti-Semitism, Wills ends up telling us a lot about the controversial history of the New Testament, including  debate over the pseudo-Pauline epistles, later edits that changed the gender of Junia, and some interesting observations about Acts and Luke.

Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages by Jaroslav Pelikan

Pelikan was a professor, historian, author, and Lutheran pastor (who joined the Orthodox church late in life). His respect for the Bible and its Jewish heritage is evident throughout the work. Pelikan focuses mostly on the Old Testament here, and I found the parts about Genesis 1-3 especially illuminating. I only wished he had gone into even more detail.

The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil's Biblical Roots by T. J. Wray

Took this one along on a plane trip two years ago and couldn't put it down! Besides being chock full of interesting archaeological tidbits from the greater Palestine area, it made sense of several Old Testament passages that had puzzled me for years. The parts about King David and Job were of particular interest, and the bibliographical notes were very helpful.

From Brandon Withrow's excellent book review:
The rise of monotheism, which occurred between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C.E., presented a problem, according to Wray and Mobley. If God is good and the only real power, where do we lay the blame for evil? “Could it be that along with the development of monotheism is a growing existential frustration that makes it difficult for God’s people to accept a deity who is responsible for both good and evil?”
The solution to the problem of evil is Satan.
Initially, the word for Satan was “a function, rather than being a proper name,” argues Wray and Mobley. During the Diaspora, the Jews were exposed to other cultures, notably the dualism of the Persian religion. “Jewish communities were exposed to Ahriman [a Zoroastrian demon] during the Persian period, from 530 to 330 B.C.E.,” they write. “Satan as a divine opponent of the LORD and as author of evil does not appear until the second century B.C.E., by which time Jews in Babylon and Persia had been exposed to the dualism of Zoroastrianism and to its evil deity Ahriman for generations.”

The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong

Armstrong's weakness is detailing her sources; I had a lot more questions after reading this book. But it is a good place to start and full of information, especially about Judaic history.

Besides describing the sometimes surprising historical context of the various Biblical texts, Armstrong spends a lot of time explaining how the interpretation of and meaning ascribed to those texts changed throughout history. Bible study methods, for both Jews and Christians, have continually evolved to meet the needs of the time. Armstrong looks at how early rabbis and the Church fathers taught students to meditate on the text and draw multiple layers of meaning out: moral, metaphorical, literal, typological, mystical, and more.


The Book: A History of the Bible by Christopher De Hamel

De Hamel traces the physical history of the Bible, from individual manuscripts to multi-volume library, to single-bound volume. He writes as a historian, and this book is not quite as readable as the rest. I learned the most from the chapter about the St. Jerome's translation of the Vulgate and how he handled the Apocryphal books. 

Like biologists following DNA mutations, history scholars can trace the family tree of a particular manuscript Bible by noting minute errors made by scribes and faithfully transmitted by later copyists.


If the Bible is God's infallible gift to man containing all the answers we ever need to know, it will stand up to scrutiny. Don't be afraid to ask where your Bible came from. You may be as surprised and fascinated as when you discovered where you came from. 

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