6. Old Testament

The Broader Testament

Moving beyond the early primordial and prehistory, the dubious portrait of Israel’s credibility declined in proportion with further reading. Candid discussions were forthcoming from both evangelical and adversarial sources, striking me flush and repeatedly [11, 17, 14, 15, 20, 22]. The actual origins of the Jewish scriptures stood at such variance with church tradition, I scarcely knew how to assimilate the new information. And it became clear that the early books proved not to be the aberration but the rule: despite their passion, the messengers were alternately misguided and misleading.

Selected Samples

The origins of Deuteronomy prove nothing short of disturbing. Its authors appear to have adopted the template of an Assyrian vassal treaty, with its listed duties, blessings and curses [17]. Problematically, the Assyrian format did not exist until some centuries after Moses’ time. It contains still other thematic and narrative markers that also indicate a late and non-Mosaic authorship. Understandably, scholars have since concluded that Deuteronomy was late in the making, though it remains unblinking in conscience about claiming Moses’ authority for its message.  Its ostensible discovery as the lost Book of the Law came at a ripe historical moment and catalyzed a widespread religious reform. As fate, or perhaps design, would have it, the reform also happened to centralize national worship and concentrate new levels of power in the hands of the priesthood [11, 17]. Conspiracy may prove a better explanation than coincidence, since the book was actually found by the high priest [2 Chronicles 34], at a time when its format and content would suggest that it’s ink was newly dry [11].

Isaiah, like the Pentateuch, appears to have had more than one author spanning several centuries of history [14]. And like the Pentateuch, the authors and redactor remain unidentified. It would seem that either the Jewish scholars did not believe authorship was important enough to document, or else they had a sort of moral flexibility regarding an ascription-of-convenience approach. It begins to appear that big name authorities were sometimes (or often) namesaked as credibility currency, thereby underwriting the works of lesser authors.

Chronicles undertakes a rewrite of the earlier history of Samuel-Kings, recasting and modifying its content to both foreshadow and excuse the later collapse of the kingdom [14, 17]. The perpetuity of the Davidic monarchy had been promised without caveats, but history had disconfirmed those unambiguous and unconditional guarantees (2 Samuel 7:16). Chronicles changes the tenor and emphasis, moving the promise from the perpetuity of David’s throne to that of God’s throne, thereby preserving Israel’s self-belief and confidence (I Chronicles 17:14). The dilemma was simply repaired in the redraft, such that it lifted the reader’s eyes from the disappointed earthly kingdom to a previously unmentioned ethereal one [14].

It is a scholarly consensus that the author of Chronicles was working from the text of Samuel–Kings… That means that he changed the wording of this older text in order to communicate the theological convictions of his postexilic community. The author of Chronicles changed a dashed promise into a messianic hope.

~ Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam

One could be forgiven for inferring that perhaps the Chroniclers did not regard Samuel-Kings as unalterable divine scripture. Or perhaps they did not consider their own writings in Chronicles as holy scripture. Perhaps they considered both texts as merely histories, without our present notion of divine sourcing. Indeed, perhaps we as well should consider them as malleable and general sketches instead of as God’s Word; there is an oddly Biblical precedent for doing so. In any case, this left the later Jewish and Christian authorities standing on one foot, since they have maintained that both collections were unalterable and divine. And further, it is fairly undeniable that the ancient scribes happily recast history when things did not work out. (Incidentally, repetitions of this same type of recasting may be found later with regard to a suffering Messiah and the postponed return of Christ).

Some of the Jewish people’s most renowned apocalyptic content was ascribed to Daniel during the Babylonian captivity, an undercutting tactic since the Babylonian period of Daniel’s life fell some hundreds of years before the apocalyptic literary genre first originated [11, 14]. In the process, Daniel also introduces content pertaining to afterlife expectations that appear largely absent from the older Jewish texts [11, 53].

…there was no such belief in Israel in biblical times, only some dim notion of Sheol. The doctrine of the “immortality of the soul” is the direct result of Greek influence and appears in the Hebrew Bible only perhaps in the book of Daniel, one of the latest books and probably Hellenistic in date.

~ William G. Dever. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel

Hellenism, here as elsewhere, appears to have nudged Jewish thought more than somewhat.

Fast and Loose

The list of books and issues extends a great deal further, but again, the summary must here move on to some top-level observations. The origins of these texts are very far from what I, at least, was told about the Bible. In my primitive understanding, it went something like this: great prophets, often performing miracles or signs of power to corroborate their prophetic status, left written prophetic works behind. Those texts were immediately recognized as being from God. They were cherished in the traditions of Judaism and then the Church, and these were our biblical texts.

Sadly, I have found that this view sketches not the slightest approximation of reality. The authors are largely unknown [11, 14, 17], but the names of heavyweights became affixed. Some texts appear to have deliberately coopted big-name prophets to validate their content. Others appear to have been written for reasons of increasing priestly power and providing divine warrant over proposed reforms. Historical content appears to have been malleably recast as required to salvage disconfirmed prophecies. And throughout, the vagaries of ill-turned events and the influences of peer cultures provided the thrust and the steerage for what moderns now happily term the progressive revelation of scripture. But as in the case of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, God’s words from the past have been altered retroactively; this is not the same as progressive revelation. Today’s modern efforts at scriptural rehabilitation appear to be more of the same type of Jewish behavior, for it is not the first time things have been repaired after the fact. Creative engagement and reinterpretation is precisely what the scribes of Israel appear to have been doing throughout the formation of the Jewish Bible [14, 15]. And the scriptures themselves contain fossilized fingerprints of a number of such tamperings.

In sum, I have been forced to confront the substantial quality issues facing the Jewish scriptures. Though debate will continue for as long as these texts are considered holy scripture, I have had to resolve at a minimum that the Jewish sacred texts fall well short of manifesting unimpeachable character. They appear to have played fast and loose when it came to recording what happened, when, and why.

The more of their history and practices I have read [14, 15, 52, 53], the less the people of Israel appear to have been guided by divine insight. They were very creative, deeply insecure about political setbacks and their suffering, and highly adaptive in their theological viewpoints. They seem now to have been fairly rudderless, knocked about by various events and heavily influenced by the philosophies of their oppressors. In response to these pressures and for a variety of motives, they seem largely to have been making it up as they went along. This could be wish-thought as progressive revelation, but that does not sum well upon consideration nor seem to have an over-watching architect. It seems more honest to concede it as simply human and fairly blind gyration.

Reliability Rescinded

None of this was welcome news regarding the people who ostensibly functioned as God’s particular messengers to the world. Israel needed not to have been great, mighty, or important in any temporal sense. But they did need to be sturdily reliable when it came to authoring and preserving God’s revealed Word. They were credited with being so for a very long time. But they were not.

No matter how often I go back and try to wish the data away, the final status remains the same: the texts are not what we thought, were not written when we thought, or why we thought. To that it must regrettably be added that the messengers were also not trustworthy as we thought.

Next: [7] New Testament >>

4/9/2013

© Copyright 2013

Comments

  1. No matter how often I go back and try to wish the data away, the final status remains the same: the texts are not what we thought, were not written when we thought, or why we thought. To that it must regrettably be added that the messengers were also not trustworthy as we thought.

    Yes, this was a crushing blow to me as well. When I read The Age of Reason, I really felt like an idiot for having grown up in the church my whole life but never seeing all the glaring problems.

    Like

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Michael Seidel, writer

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