Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Where Did the Bible Come From? Part II

           After the attacks of September 11, 2001, something changed in the United States. I distinctly remember watching a commercial on television that showed a row of houses with a voice-over that said something to the effect of "On September 11, terrorists tried to change America forever." Then it faded to a image of those same houses sometime after 9/11 with U.S. flags waving in the wind on each one of them. The voice-over then said, "Well, they succeeded." (You can click here to see the ad on Youtube.)

            However you may feel about said commercial, I bring it up for purely anthropological reasons... not political ones. To me, the ad illustrates something about the effects of trauma on a nation, a group of people, or even an individual. For better or for worse, each of these in some way will change as a result. After a devastating event, their attitudes, outlooks, and values change – or at least become stronger. Last week, I mentioned how the Israelites didn't have a pressing need to preserve their religious tradition until they were faced with the threat of losing it altogether. Although parts of it had been written, the Torah was not compiled and consolidated until after the traumatic experiences of the Temple's destruction (586 BCE) and the Babylonian exile. But fear of their tradition's disappearance was not the only motivation behind its preservation. National trauma has a way of strengthening people's convictions about identity, religion, and culture. The increase in patriotism that took hold after the events of 9/11/2001 is one example I can think of in our own time of this sort of phenomenon. This apparent effect due to devastating circumstances seems to play out as the Bible begins to take shape in the centuries after the exile.

"The Flight of the Prisoners" James Tissot (1836-1902)
Google Images

Image from www.newtestamentchristians.com/bible-land-maps/

            Last week we looked at some of the sources that contributed to the formation of the Torah. The developers and authors of the Priestly source were the ones mostly responsible for its final form (post exile), and by about the 5th or 4th century BCE those first five books of the Bible were more or less considered authoritative. Thanks to the Deuteronomists' fine work, we also have a sense that a fair few of the "historical books" were composed and collected by that time as well. But what of the other books of the Old Testament? How did those get lumped among the Scriptures?

            The Jewish canon of Scripture (the Tanak) is divided into the Torah, followed by the Prophets, which begins with the Deuteronomic History (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), and finally everything else (the Writings). I rather prefer the Jewish arrangement of the Hebrew Scriptures because the categories of books are organized somewhat more closely according to chronology and importance than the Christian canon. But then, as anyone who knows me would tell you, I love all things Jewish anyway. So given the placement of the prophets in the Tanak, it's fitting to talk about them next.

            Like the Torah, the prophetic works were edited (redacted) over time, especially the pre-exilic prophets, such as Amos. Some prophetic texts, like Isaiah or Zechariah, are even compilations of separate works written at different periods in history. However, much of the prophetic material derives from the oral sayings of a prophet during his ministry. What we have in written form was probably composed either by the prophet's disciples or those within the prophet's school of thought (like the so-called "school of Isaiah"), by the prophet himself, or by a combination of both. We know from Scripture that Jeremiah used a scribe named Baruch, for example. Most, if not all of the books, faced some degree of redaction. Some of the biographical material in the prophets, for example, was surely written by redactors some time later than when the prophet lived. For more about prophets, see my post, "The Bible Library: The Prophets," and check out the table of dates for an idea of when the prophets were active. I know how people feel about dating prophetic activity, so if you want to print the table out and put it on your fridge or bedroom wall, I totally understand. I found this one below on Google Images and loved it so much I posted it on Facebook.

Google Images. Thank you Dr. Bandstra and this webpage: http://barrybandstra.com/rtot4/rtot4-09-pt2.html

            Although they were not apparently always well heeded, The pre-exilic prophets were influential enough for their works to be copied and preserved through the traumatic events of the 6th century. As Marc Zvi Brettler writes, "The complex activity of preserving and developing the prophetic oracle collections reflects a conviction that a prophet's words were not only significant for the circumstances in which they were originally pronounced but potentially relevant for later ones as well."[1] In other words, those preserving the prophetic material saw something of universal value in it. At this point, however, there wasn't a fixed canon of Scripture; works were still being redacted, especially in ways that reflected the social and religious needs of the time. It's unclear as to when the prophetic works actually became fixed and scribal editing began to cease – perhaps sometime before the end of the 3rd century BCE. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were long enough to each have their own scroll. The twelve minor prophets, however, were small enough to fit on just one – thus, the "Book of the Twelve." Coincidence that there were twelve like the twelve tribes of Israel? Probably not. I'm sure the scribes intended it that way, even if it meant putting separate material under one name.

            This now leaves us with the Writings – basically everything else. More than any other collection of books that reflects post-exilic, national/religious attitudes are the books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. Having lost both Temple and homeland, the Judahites in captivity reflected on their experience. What went wrong? The answer, they felt, was that they had been unfaithful to the covenant. So after the exile, in the period known as the Restoration, the religious beliefs of the Jewish people began to become more concretized, and cultural/national identity likewise intensified. (I can't help but think back to that aforementioned commercial.) Ezra, a priest and scribe, was a religious reformer. Nehemiah was an administrative reformer and governor of the province of Judah now under Persian domain. These books, once considered a unit, reflect an urge to rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. They are also not a little xenophobic. Both have very harsh  stances with regard to marriages with foreigners.

            1 & 2 Chronicles fall under a similar school of thought as Ezra and Nehemiah. Chronicles retells Israel's history and is rather nostalgic for what it believes were the nation's glory days: the reigns of David and Solomon. It's attitude: We were once a great nation, so let's write our history to highlight the greatness of David and Solomon (as we gloss over their faults), as well as those kings who were faithful to the covenant. And let's just not talk about the northern Kingdom. They were unfaithful and didn't worship in Jerusalem, and it muddles our ideal of a unified Israel. And we can blame our past problems on the infidelity of the kings who did not follow the covenant. That's our version of history.

            As far as the rest of the Writings go, each has its own tradition and are hardly, if even at all, connected to one another. Proverbs and Psalms have long oral traditions, and since they are collections of assorted sayings and songs, the dating of each one varies. Some were surely written before the exile, but some prove to be post-exilic. A fixed composition of Psalms and Proverbs did not exist until after the exile, maybe during the 4th century.

            Much of the wisdom/poetical writings (Job, Lamentations, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes) can be dated between the 6th century (the traumatic one) and the 4th century (the one that transitioned from the Persian period to the Greek period). Lamentations was written shortly after Jerusalem's destruction. Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and perhaps Ruth seemed to have been written after the exile. The latest books in the Jewish canon were Daniel, which takes place during the Babylonian exile but is secretly concerned with life under Greek domination (sneaky, sneaky), and Esther, which is set in Persia but was likewise written later during the Greek period.

            As I mentioned earlier, there is something about the experience of trauma that incites a desire to preserve and strengthen former ideals. This is perhaps why Ezra-Nehemiah are so religiously rigorous, and Chronicles so idealistic about history. And this is my guess as to why much of the Torah, the Prophets, and some of the Writings, were edited and compiled after the exile. Imagine what would happen if your house caught on fire. Say, your dog died, and a lot of your antiques and mementos perished in the tragedy. You have to find some other place to live. You're utterly crushed and devastated. Somehow or other though, a great deal of photographs and letters from deceased loved ones survived. What would you do with those things? Would you value them differently than before. Make copies of them? Keep them in a safe place?

            It seems that in the centuries after the exile, certain writings took on a significant meaning, and the Jewish people wanted to maintain them. Obviously some were considered authoritative more readily, namely the books of the Torah. The Prophets also would become especially meaningful and their words considered timeless. In time, so would the Writings. Interestingly enough, a lot of this biblical material has a wide range of perspectives and ideals. We've already seen how disparate sources are put side by side in the Torah. The anti-foreigner attitude of Ezra-Nehemiah contrasts significantly with the favorable attitude toward a foreign woman in the book of Ruth (A Moabite becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Shocking!) And the wisdom of Proverbs, which suggests that the good are blessed and the wicked are punished, is turned on its head with Job's bad-things-happen-to-everyone ideology. It doesn't seem like this bothered them that much, though. The compilers of the Hebrew Scriptures were literary hoarders. They didn't throw anything out.

            However, not everything made it into the Jewish canon of Scripture either, but that canon did not become fixed until sometime after the Christ event. There were many Jewish writings circulating in the centuries before the time of Jesus. Some of them never made it into any canon of Scripture. Some made it into the Christian canon but not the Jewish one. Later, several of those books would be omitted from some Christian canons after the Reformation. I hope to go over these sorts of things in the following posts of this "Where Did the Bible Come From" series. For now, I'll just wrap up today's post. (I hear a sigh of relief.) Today's topic was a little heavier, having a lot to do with trauma, bringing up painful memories from history, and even asking you to imagine your dog dying in a house fire. Who knew writing about the compilation of Scripture would get so dark?

            For that reason, I recommend for this week reading Nehemiah 8:1-12. It takes place during the Restoration after the exile. The book of the Law is read to the assembly of the people, and they are told to rejoice and not weep. This is a community that has been through hell and back. They're survivors, and now they are being consoled and strengthened by God's law and a possibly hopeful future. As you read this passage, consider a time in your life after you had experienced a tragedy. Who or what was your consolation? Did you experience God at all in the midst of your suffering and/or recovery? Does God's word give you comfort or joy? Which passages are particularly meaningful to you?

            By the way, the season of Lent is rapidly approaching (Yay!). If you're thinking about something you might like to do to deepen your spiritual life during this special time of year, here is a suggestion. Start a small, Scripture based faith-sharing group with your friends. You can use the Gospel reading from Sunday's liturgy, a suggested reading from this blog, or go through a particular portion of the Bible that interests you. Make an evening of it. Have some wine, cheese, crackers, Lit'l Smokies Sausages (unless it's Friday). Enjoy an evening with your friends, some food, and Scripture. You don't have to be a Bible scholar to share with your friends how the Scriptures are touching your life. You can use Pope Francis' advice on scriptural meditation as a guideline: "In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: 'Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?'" – Evangelii gaudium (Joy of the Gospel).

            As always, questions and comments are most welcome via e-mail, Facebook, this blog site, or now Twitter. I'm still getting used to that last one. Any tips on how to use it more effectively would be most appreciated. Until next time...

Peace and all good![2]

[1] Marc Zvi Brettler, "Nevi'im: Introduction," in The Jewish Study Bible," ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 457.

[2] This post could not have been possible without these other sources:
Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Gabel John B. and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Gottwald, Norman K. The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985. (Particularly the chart on pages 104-105.)

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