Sunday, May 18, 2014

The First Bible

The Babylonian Captivity—that long biblical pogrom and Holocaust—had a result that is seldom discussed popularly, even though it affected the Judeo-Christian tradition decisively. Upon returning to Judah, the rabbis began to edit and set down in writing what they believed were the essentials of their faith.

Cyrus the Great of Persia, whose face was for a time on many a modern postal stamp of Iran, the modern Persia, came to power and seized Babylon in 538 BCE, allowing the exiled Jews to begin a return to their homeland. It was at that time that the first five books of the Bible, known scholarly as the Pentateuch, were composed and redacted by the rabbis of the post-exilic era.

You didn’t think that Moses actually wrote the five books “of Moses,” did you? In ancient times, authorship and attribution were not what they are today, after two centuries of copyright law and newspapering.

The development of ancient literature followed a familiar pattern. Someone spoke or enunciated some great thought, story, idea or law. Hammurabi, Socrates, Moses, for example. Collections of their sayings were usually written down by scribes as “the book (or law) of” whoever was the person who had inspired the work.

Hammurabi is not the likely literal author of the famous law code that bears his name, which—incidentally—inspired much of the Mosaic law in the Bible. There is no extant work written by Socrates. The same is true of Moses.

Moreover, because biblical material contained divine ordinances, there was a potent rabbinical revulsion to the idea of setting down the biblical tradition in writing. Deuteronomy puts in God’s mouth the following remonstrance to Moses: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” (4:2)

Keep in mind, of course, that the vast majority of people in biblical times—including prophets, kings and other greats—were illiterate. The biblical texts were told and retold orally for centuries before anyone dared put quill to parchment to leave a written record of such holy things.

It was only in dire straits, such as upon returning to the Promised Land laid waste, with a people who had been forbidden in exile to worship their God, that rabbis dared take up the task of collecting various versions of the same stories and putting them all together, organizing them into books that became known simply as The Books.

That same imperative against adding or subtracting led to the other commonly misunderstood curiosity of the Bible: multiple and sometimes contradictory accounts.

Again, let’s imagine how the biblical writings were told and retold. Let’s, for the sake of imagination, first imagine the first campfires in the long wandering through the Sinai Peninsula.

“Look at all those stars! I wonder how all those stars come to be ...” says one Hebrew man.

“God created them,” says someone, a proto-rabbi, who is respected as knowing things.

“How was that?” a third asks.

Our would-be rabbi sits up and summons a collection of things he has heard and starts the story, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth ...”

You think every biblical storyteller in every campfire of the people leaving Egypt on the way to their Promised land remembered the creation story in exactly the same words or in exactly the same sequence? You think no storyteller borrowed something that came from neighboring cultures, things passed on, like gossip, at a time there was no radio, no newspapers, no Internet?

Imagine, then after the Babylonian Exile, the various yeshivas, or rabbinical schools, with young and old students of the Torah who are trying to put together scrolls containing all the great stories, so no one should ever forget the Covenant and the many miracles that had happened.

They stumble across two or three versions of the story of Noah. Which one is the true and holy one? “I know,” says one young buck, “let’s weave them all in together, that way we preserve everything the spirit of the Lord has conveyed to us.”

That, told roughly and without eyewitness accounts, summarizing the views of many scholars, is how the first biblical books were compiled, written down and edited.

Moreover, they did not instantly have the entire collection of books we know today. There was a fluid collection of byblos (Greek for “books”) regarded as important, including books excluded from some modern Bibles. Nor did they come in numbered chapters and verses. Nor, importantly, did they include vowels, as in ancient Hebrew only the consonant sounds were written.

The canons, or official lists, of books deemed “holy” (or set apart) as divine revelation came centuries later for the Hebrew Bible and more than a millennium later for Christian Bibles.

Only the later texts, from Isaiah onward, came with Hebrew markings for paragraphs and in some cases chapters (these are not always identical to our modern verses and chapters); the Greek Christian manuscripts often lack either one. The Hebrew text was given vowels by the Masoretes, members of the rabbinical medieval school in Spain founded by the great rabbi Moses Maimonides; Greek, of course, always had vowels.

All this work began at a crucial historical moment, when those who revered the ancient traditions of faith feared that unless it was set down, it would be forgotten.

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