Has God Said?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that question.  On a literary level it illustrates the subtlety of the serpent–not a direct attack, simply posing an innocent-seeming question, although with a minor distortion already present in the question.

Is there a difference between questioning the clear, direct command of God, and asking historical or literary questions about a narrative text in the Bible?

Jesus asked questions, for example, Who wouldn’t pull a lamb out of a ditch on the Sabbath?  Jesus appealed to logic or reason in interpreting the commandments so as to preserve life.

Throughout the Bible people question God in prayer.

In Judaism study is an act of devotion to God.  And study of the biblical text often consists of asking questions: Why does the text say this instead of that?

One of the themes in Jeremiah is that God is watching over his word.  Surely inspiration must include the whole process of God first speaking to Jeremiah, Jeremiah dictating the words to Baruch, and then others preserving the scrolls.  The narrative portions in the book come under God’s guidance, direction, and inspiration as well as the direct speech–but are the narrative passages the word of God in the same sense as the “thus saith the Lord” passages?  Do they have the force of commandments?

Should we all be Roman Catholics and never question the authority of the church?

I wrote about this a while back on my personal blog, in a post called “The Critical Spirit in the Bible.”

By the way, have any of you read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes?

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The Secular Study of the Bible

The Society of Biblical Literature exists to promote the historical-critical study of the text of the Bible and its historical context.  The SBL is for all scholars who have an academic and professional interest in the Bible, especially professors at university religious studies or humanities departments.

Recently a member of the SBL announced his resignation because the SBL has become too open to expressions of faith and also what he refers to as “proselyting activity” and anti-Jewish remarks.

Read professor Hendel’s remarks, then express your own opinion.  Should there be a society where all who have an academic interest in the Bible can come together and share the results of their research?  Should we at times separate faith from research?

The SBL published its own response to professor Hendel’s complaints.

Editions of Jeremiah

Jeremiah had told the residents of Judah to submit to the yoke of Babylon, to accept captivity as God’s will, to pack there bags and trust that the Lord will go with them to Babylon and bless them there.  After many exiles were taken, he even told some of the survivors they could stay in the land and he would protect them.  Instead they chose to flee to Egypt and forced Jeremiah and Baruch to go with them (Jeremiah 42-43).  Jeremiah did maintain some contact with the Jews in Babylon (Jeremiah 51:59-64).

Evidently the Jews in Babylon took with them an edition of the writings of Jeremiah, as did the Jews who went down to Egypt taking Jeremiah and Baruch with them.  Eventually in Egypt the Hebrew text of Jeremiah was translated into Greek (which had become the main language of the immigrants around Alexandria, which was where many Jews eventually settled.)

Meanwhile the scribes in Babylon continued to study and copy the writings of Jeremiah, along with the other books of the Bible.

Scholars who study the Septuagint (Greek) text of Jeremiah note that it is notably different from the Hebrew text.  In particular, whole chapters (especially the “foreign oracles in chapters  ) are in a different order.  In addition, the Hebrew text has additional words–and the words seem to be glosses, scholarly explanations and definitions.

We can speak of a Septuagint text-type and a Babylonian text type.  It gets more complicated here: some Hebrew fragments of Jeremiah found at Qumran (home of the Dead Sea Scrolls) agree with the Septuagint text-type and some agree with the Babylonian text type.

So we have to assume that there were eventually two distinct editions of Jeremiah: an Egyptian edition and a Babylonian edition.

We have already seen that there were at least three editions of Jeremiah; now we have to allow for four.

Again, these are not scholarly conjectures or hypotheses.  The existence of three editions is based on the words that can be plainly found in our English versions of the Bible.  It is not a dark secret, it is clearly indicated in the Bible we read.  To learn about the distinct Babylonian and Egyptian editions requires some reading beyond our English Bibles–but it is based on facts on the ground–manuscripts that can be examined–not on abstract speculation.

This is the way God chose to reveal and preserve the message he gave through Jeremiah–first to the people of his lifetime, then to us also.

Thought Question

How is the Bible different from the Koran?

Or, more specifically, how is what Christians believe about the Bible different from what Muslims believe about the Koran?

You can read my thoughts about it here (with a link to another good essay by Mark Roberts).  You should read the essay by Mark Roberts, including his quote from the pope.

But I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject.

More Dates

Here is an updated list of dates for biblical history:

  • 1850 or 1650 God calls Abraham out of Iraq

  • 1445 or 1290 God brings Israel out of Egypt

  • 1000 BC  David was king

    • 930 BC Divided Kingdom Israel and Judah

  • 722  BC    Destruction of Samaria, end of northern Kingdom of Israel, exile of 10 northern tribes

    • 609 BC   Death of King Josiah

    • 605 BC   Babylon Rules the World, first wave of captivity

    • 597 BC    Second wave of captivity

  • 586 BC     Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple; Babylonian exile of Judah.

    • 538 BC    Decree of Cyrus officially ending the captivity

Date of the Exodus

It is not as easy to determine the date of the event that began Israel’s national history as the event that ended it.  There are two conflicting dates available for the Exodus from Egypt: Approximately 1445 BC and approximately 1290 BC.

The College Press textbook discusses the issues on pp. 127-131.  The author says, “Traditionally the thirteenth-century date fits better with the archaeological record than the biblical record.”

The date of Abraham would depend on the date of the Exodus.  You could use 1850 or 1650 as a round number for the migration of Abraham from Iraq to Canaan.  This could be the beginning point of the Hebrews’ national journey; the end point–at least temporarily–would be the exile back to Iraq in 587 BC.

Of course there are biblical events before the call of Abraham and after the Babylonian captivity; but the two events: the call of Abraham and the exile to Babylon are certainly critical points on a timeline of biblical history.

History of Religion and Progressive Revelation

Die Religionsgeschichtliche Schule

(From Gerd Lüdemann’s Archives)

There are two ways of dealing with historical issues in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.  One is the concept of progressive revelation, and goes back to the New Testament (Hebrews 1:1-4) and early Christian leaders such as Irenaeus.  The other is more modern and is associated with the “History of Religions School,” some of the chief practitioners of which are pictured above.

Both approaches recognize development or “progress” over time in the Old Testament.   Both approaches recognize the importance of the ancient world as the context for understanding the text of the Bible.

The difference is this: Progressive Revelation understands God as taking the initiative in revealing himself and his will. God chooses and calls a people, speaks to them, and prepares them for hearing more of his word through experiences in history.  God condescends to meet his people where they are, and he leads them to where he wants them to be.

The History of Religions approach examines the religion of ancient Israel in the context of world religions. It sees Israel’s religion (and therefore the writings of the OT) as the product of social and anthropological evolution.  Religion developed in Israel in the same ways and under the same sociological laws as it developed in Egypt, Canaan, Babylon, China, India, and Africa.

Scholars in the History of Religions School may have been believers–most considered themselves Christians; but they kept their academic work in the University separate from the prayers they said in church.   In the case of the Old Testament, this was not especially difficult, since there was a long tradition (especially in Germany) of disparaging or neglecting the Old Testament.

Many, such as Wellhausen, believed they were being faithful to the example of Luther and Paul when they criticized the religion of the Old Testament, or spoke of its inferiority to the New Testament.  So they did not believe they were dishonoring God if the treated the faith of the Old Testament as arriving the evolution of primitive religious practices into somewhat less primitive practices and concepts.

If you read the first few pages of Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (15-17), you will find a description of Friedrich Delitzsch, an extreme case of the application of the history of religions approach.

John Walton, Peter Enns, and others are scholars who take the historical context of the Bible just as seriously as Delitzsch did, but they also take the theological nature of the Bible seriously: they understand that they are studying the Word of God.  Unfortunately, they are sometimes misunderstood and have been criticized for taking historical parallels and backgrounds seriously.  (More here and here.)