History and the Bible’s Meaning

Before we look at history we need to know why we need to look at history.

In discussion, when I asked about students’ prior experience with the Bible, students said they became familiar with Bible stories through their upbringing. (A few said they were “Christians” and read the Bible every day.) Their interest in the class was to approach the Bible from a different angle and learn what it was all about. Here is my first stab at such an angle.

One of the things we do before we read any biblical texts is to look at the history and geography of the place from which the Bible emerged. Thinking about the relationship between the Bible and Ancient Near Eastern history may seem self-evident to someone trained in biblical studies, but this may not be so for a beginning student. While it is widely accepted that everything is in some sense “historical” and “contextual,” we must not think that history and context “explain” everything there is to know about a thing or a text. Texts are realities in their own right that respond to other texts. They are written by people who, while writing for a particular time, audience, and purpose, may not be in complete command of the material they put on paper. I am not thinking of divine revelation in the sense of prophets being the mere stylus or fountain pen for a divine author, passive recipients of visions or auditions that they merely repeat orally or in writing, without any input of their own minds and hearts. What I am thinking of is that, as some of the great Romantic savants have argued, language is always more than the person who speaks or writes. Speech, oral and in writing, has a life of its own. Through it we can glimpse the inventions, discoveries, customs, beliefs, affects and aspirations of generations of others than the speaker him- or herself. Where, as in the case of the Bible, most writing is transmitted anonymously, without ascription to an author, we are dealing with the product of layers of scribal communities in the service of purposes and interests we must guess at from the writing itself.

Where writing is the product of institutions, we must consider the political, sacerdotal, socio-cultural, economic, and other institutional contexts. To imagine these institutions responsible for the production of biblical texts requires knowledge, understanding of the methodology by which it is produced, as well as its limitations. In this class, because we can no more than get a very general idea of what biblical literature is about before we delve into the texts themselves, we will largely rely on very basic historical information: What do we know about the history and geography of the people whose history is told in the Bible? What are some of the assumptions shared by the nations of the Ancient Southern Levant about the causes of the historical fates of nations, including their own? What were their major institutions? What were the major historical events to which they responded both in real terms and in form of major bodies of text that accompanied and interpreted their historical experience?

In most basic terms, the Bible is a record of the responses of a nation to the historical experience of emergence, consolidation, growth, crisis and destruction. The force of the Bible rests on the fact that this ancient nation survived the destruction of its major institutions and went on to create a literature of response to destruction that has had a profound impact on the imagination not only of the descendants of that ancient Middle Eastern nation but on people across the globe. The histories that chronicle the rise and decline and destruction of ancient Israelite and Judahite kingdoms, the prophetic books that presaged that fate but also produced oracles of return and conciliation, the covenantal law that served as blueprint for reconstruction, the psalms, wisdom literature, and festal scrolls that lament destruction, celebrate survival, and mark the joyous occasions of harvest and ingathering are claimed not just by the Jews but also by the non-Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth they call “the Christ.”

The primary sacerdotal institution founded on these scriptures, the Jerusalem temple, was destroyed a second time (in 70 CE) when the Roman Empire brutally crushed the Jewish uprising that began under Emperor Nero and his inept procurators, and ended with the newly proclaimed Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus needing not just a victory but money to buy the support of the People and Senate of Rome. Proceeds from the destruction of the Jerusalem temple provided the burse for the building of the Colosseum and many other well-known Roman monuments. Jews and non-Jews refusing to bow to the Emperor drew the ire of provincial administrators. The early Christians were a mix of Jews and non-Jews who denied the emperor the title of “son of a divine one” by applying it to a Jewish messianic redeemer who was expected to return with clouds to judge the living and the dead. While Jews were exempted from Emperor worship, non-Jewish Christians were not. The reward for this defiance was martyrdom. Only later, in the 4th century BCE, did this church surface from the catacombs of Rome and hand the mantle of vicarious divine kingship on earth to the Emperor himself. The triumphant elevation of Christ, “ruler of everything,” conferred Christian sanction on the Emperor Constantine (d. 338) and it changed the Christian movement from a persecuted minority to the dominant political religion of the Roman Empire.

The Bible is the foundational library of several distinct communities. Over the course of the centuries following the second destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE) and the banishment of the Jews from Jerusalem by the Romans, the Jewish tradition divided into two major strands that both affirmed the authority of the ancient scriptures but interpreted them differently, namely, the Karaites and the Rabbanites. Jews lived in the Land of Israel that the Romans renamed “Palestine” to erase the memory of the Jews, but they also lived in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where Jewish communities had resided since before the first destruction of Jerusalem in 586BCE. In addition, there was a sizable Samaritan community around the ancient Israelite sanctuary of Mt. Garizim (near modern-day Nablus). The Samaritans held on to the Pentateuch, the laws of Moses, and to this day celebrate the Passover, as commanded in the Torah.

The Arab Conquest of Syria (635 CE) brought an end to Christian rule in the Holy Land and saw the eventual return of Jews to Jerusalem and even a kind of rebuilding of the Solomonic temple, in form of the Dome of the Rock that graces Jerusalem’s temple mount to this day. The early Islamic tradition saw itself as restoring the religion of Abraham, or Nebi Ibrahim, which Muslims saw as the first and most simple universally valid belief in one God, Creator of all. With this creed they hoped to settle the perennial quibbles between Christians who asserted that God was three in one, and Jews, who believed that YHWH, the God of Israel, was One, and they alone were the chosen people. The Qur’an, the holy book of Muslims, draws on shared antecedents: the story of Moses and the Israelites, the long line of prophets and messengers from the beginning down to the Prophet Muhammad, the Virgin Mary and even Alexander the Great. Christians, a movement that began with a failed Jewish messiah who was condemned by a Jewish court as a rabble rouser and executed by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate around 30 CE, adopted the ancient Jewish scriptures as their own, as from its prophecies, rightly understood, they could derive that Jesus of Nazareth was not just “son of (the) divine” but also son of David and hence called upon to rule and judge the living and the dead. Their claim to the providential suffering, death, and resurrection of the Messiah/Christ Jesus was justified from Scriptures that were beyond reproof: scriptures that were all the more reliable because the Christians had no hand in producing them. It was from Jewish and Roman sources that they could argue that Christ was the child, the son of man, presaged from the beginning to put an end to sin, death, and the rule of darkness over the lives of men.

When we think about biblical texts and their contexts, it is therefore not enough to consider origins: when, under what circumstances, by and for whom were the traditions formed that crystallized into the bodies of written text that have come down to us? We must also ask, how were these texts received, transformed, combined, rewritten, and interpreted so as to become constitutive for the beliefs and practices of Jews, Christians, and Muslims? We will attend to both of these considerations, the origin and reception of texts, over the course of the entire semester and for each text we will read.

As we think about history and context, and before we delve into further details of ancient history as we now understand it on the basis of centuries of discovery and study of the Ancient Near East through archaeology, epigraphy (inscriptions), and historiography, we should clarify – or at least state – a fundamental issue. Why does history matter? Is it only an “auxiliary” science that adds to our understanding of where texts originate? Or is there something more essential here to the character of the texts and their implicit and explicit claims to truth?

We can read the Homeric epics without recourse to history. In order to get a sense of the literary character of the Iliad we don’t need to know whether Troy existed. We take it for granted that Agamemnon, Menelaos, Helen, Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus are characters in an epic poem. It matters little whether they really existed because they are present to our imagination through the art of Homeric storytelling. Roman imagination inscribed itself into that ancient story by making Aeneas, prince of Troy, the founder of Latium and hence Romans the descendants of that ancient and noble people, forced to abandon their home and to migrate to a new, and now once again glorious, home and called upon to rule the world. While the Rome of Virgil and Augustus is real, it matters little whether Troy is more than a myth invoked to glorify the Romans. Not so with the Bible.

On the most basic level, the Bible claims and wants its readers to believe, that YHWH, the God of Israel, is real, that the covenanted children of Israel, the sons of Jacob, the original twelve tribes, or the sacred remnant that survives the destruction of Israel, or those who returned from the Babylonian exile and rebuilt Jerusalem, or another, more narrowly defined group of saints and martyrs, will be the seed from which the God of Israel will rebuild the nation and establish the kingship of God on earth. While not entirely dissimilar to Virgil’s appeal to the noble origins of Rome, biblical history makes the claim that everything depends on worshiping YHWH alone, on worshiping Him the right way, and not the wrong way. Homer is about nobility of character. Virgil is about nobility of descent. The Bible is about the will of a mysterious God whose name translates as “I will (cause to) be what I will (cause to) be.” As the Qur’an emphasizes recollection of the many times God, in his inscrutable mercy, called upon humans to convey his will and intention for them, the Bible as well insists that God not only created the world for humans (and all creatures) to thrive in harmony but, following man’s falling out with his God through disobedience (or some other typically human behavior), that God (the only real one) did not remain aloof but passionately engaged with the human family through the particular calling of a single individual, Abraham, and his descendants. The Israelites, enslaved in Egypt, were called to freedom through Moses who was called by YHWH who heard the cry of the Israelites and recalled his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. YHWH prevents Moses from entering the promised land, but he empowers his successor, Joshua, to lead the Israelites in conquest. After these stories, the deity recedes and only interacts with Israelites through their leaders, the judges, the kings, and most importantly through generations of prophets. After the demise of the kingdom, prophets, too, begin to disappear and are replaced by texts: the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings. It is through the voice of those texts, and through the voices in those texts, that the deity remains present and his demands urgent. The promises remain in force and the fate of the nation remains dependent on people hearkening to the voice that speaks through those texts.

History is relevant because of the claims to historical causality made in the biblical texts themselves. The texts proclaim that the God who created heaven and earth made a covenant with Israel. Therefore Israel’s fate is an indicator of God’s presence in history. This claim did not fail to impress those Christians who believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the real intention behind that ancient covenant, that in Christ a new covenant was made. The claim to Israel signifying God’s presence in history, the presence of the only God who is living, real, who hears, rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, also impressed itself on the Arabian prophet who was approached by the biblical angel Gabriel, or Jibril, and told to “recite,” launching the movement of Islam (literally “submission”).

What distinguishes Homeric epic and biblical telling is the biblical claim to reality, authority, and truth of its proclamation. We will see how this plays out. But it also makes testing biblical claims against what we know from other, independent sources of history all the more important. By necessity, this historicizing approach will relativize biblical claims in many ways. What appears as prophetic speech that seems to speak across times will appear as topical advice to an ancient king in a particular situation of threat where the king’s behavior will determine the immediate outcome in military, political, and economic terms. What appears as a timeless command to honor the seventh day may show traces of Babylonian influence and hence allow us to speculate on the cultural origins of a divine commandment. What appears as a story reflecting Bronze Age history may inadvertently point to the Iron Age, centuries later, as the true setting of the narration. What seems a divine premonition of a future age may turn out to be a vaticinium ex eventu, a prophecy in hindsight, told to show that a king’s revolutionary reforms were not innovations but divinely intended acts, commanded and prophesied generations earlier.

This approach will at first be confusing as it runs counter to pious and naïve assumptions we may bring to the text. Once we become habituated to thinking in these terms, however, we will develop a new respect for the texts and their authors who did not write to deceive but to educate and to build up their community, to instill norms of righteousness, justice, purity, and a fear of God they regard as “the beginning of wisdom.” In other words, the texts were meant to build up the hope, confidence, faith, and devotion of a nation that looked back at its own humble origins, the rise and fall of its institutions of independence, and forged a way of life that preserved them under ever new and changing circumstances.

Ultimately, the question I will ask is not, is the Bible “believable,” but is the Bible “meaningful.”


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History and the Bible’s Meaning | Michael Zank1661494061

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