Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Hebrew Bible

The Bible is not one book. Indeed, the Greek word byblos, from which we get Bible, means simply “books.” The Christian collection of books is divided into the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is roughly what Judaism today calls the Tanak, also often called the Hebrew Bible.

Jews and Christians disagree on the number and order of the books that belong in the Hebrew Bible, as do Christians among themselves. The differences affect only small portions of the collection, which as a whole can be broken up into three groups.

One way to remember the groups is using the word Hebrew word Tanak, which is an acrostic of three groups of books in the Hebrew Bible. Since ancient Hebrew had no written vowels, the word is TNK, from Torah (the law), Nevyim (prophets) and Ketuvim (“writings”). In the Christian usage, which draws the names of the books from the Greek translation known as the Septuagint, the groups are commonly referred to as the Pentateuch (literally, “five books“), the histories and the third group, composed of wisdom books and the prophets.

The Pentateuch is the foundational collection, offering in narrative form answers to how everything we know came to be, the origins and basic bond of the Chosen People with God, and sprinkled throughout with what rabbis count as 613 divine laws, ordinances or commands.

The histories at some points retell some of the earlier story, then proceed with the long tale of the Hebrew people, from their return to the Promised Land led by Moses to their rebellion against Greek conquerors just a few centuries before Jesus.

The wisdom books include collections of wise sayings, a long romantic poem, a collection of 150 hymns called psalms and little treatises about essentials, marriage and other topics.

Finally, come the stories and preaching of certain men called prophets. Prophecy in biblical terms does not mean fortune telling, but rather a way of telling forth, retrospectively as well as prospectively, key events in the history of the Chosen People as seen from the divine perspective, but revealed by the prophets. They interpret history, if you will.

Anyone new to the Hebrew Bible needs to know at least two basic things about the Bible, before cracking the spine of a modern book-form edition.

First, the books of the Hebrew Bible were not written as we compose books today.

Almost all the contents composed from about 1800 BCE (before the common era) to about 1000 BCE were either in the oral tradition of the Hebrew people or in the oral and written traditions of neighbors who lived between the Asian Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) or in the Nile River basin in Egypt. Between 1000 BCE and about the 5th century BCE, the oral traditions began to be written down. At that point, upon returning from the Babylonian exile, rabbis and scribes began to assemble most of the books much as we know them today.

These texts were written in various forms of ancient Hebrew, on papyrus scrolls. In the absence printing and word-processing technology, they were copied repeatedly over and over and over, for  many years, by hand.

We do not have any likely original text written in the hand of the original human author; although, as just noted, most of the books were not originally written but transmitted orally. Thus, ancient copying errors explain some, but not all, problems of consistency that arise in reading the Bible.

It was not until well after the expulsion of the Jews from Roman Palestine in 70 CE that anyone thought to put together a precise list and order of the books that belonged in the collection—known as a canon. This process yielded the rabbinical, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant canons.

The earliest texts that survive today are mostly in Greek or Hebrew. The organization of the books into chapters and verses did not occur until the Middle Ages, which is when the Masoretes, or rabbinical school of Moses Maimonides in Spain, inserted vowels into the Hebrew text.

Second, the modern understanding of authorship and fact were unknown to the people who composed, transmitted and wrote down the books of the Hebrew Bible.

Most books are known as linked to a particular human being. The Pentateuch, for example, are given as books “of Moses.”

That does not mean that Moses sat down and wrote them in the evenings of wandering through the desert. Rather, it means that the people who repeated, wrote down and copied the books, as well as the people who edited and collected them, thought that they represented the teachings and stories that represented Moses’ school of thought, so to speak.

To confuse the modern reader even more, much of the Hebrew Bible contains narration about events that occurred long before even the storytellers and writers of the texts. The editors, most of them around the fifth century before our era, held a rabbinical understanding that each version of the same event that had survived represented a received truth that had something important to teach. They refrained from eliminating versions, but rather melded them and sometimes the results were awkward or confusing (why two creation and flood stories, for example?).

The modern idea of fact comes from a scientific understanding of the Latin term factum, meaning roughly something that has been done or has occurred. Scientific facts are verifiable, conform to experience and can be reproduced in demonstration.

Modern science was completely unknown to the ancients associated with the Hebrew Bible. Instead, they knew of truth, which was shown to them by direct experience, perception or imagination. Lacking a scientific explanation for rain, for example, they thought some unseen living force decided to make it rain from time to time.

They treated all stories, factually true or not, much the way we treat novels, not the way we treat newspapers or news bulletins. Whoever wrote the creation story obviously was not there, for example; no one believed this came from an eyewitness, much less that the detail was accurate to a microscopic or astronomic level.

Although I will attempt to provide an overview of the contents of the Hebrew Bible, anyone wishing to go into more detail could start with the Wikipedia's article on the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps the best contemporary scholarly introduction by a Christian (a Methodist in this case) is Understanding the Old Testament by Bernhard Anderson, long used in many seminaries, divinity schools and the best universities.

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