Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Bible

The Bible (from the Greek for ‘book’) is a canon of sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, a diverse anthology of Near Eastern literature with a geographical focus on the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Levant. It was the first book to be printed in the West, and according to Guinness World Records, it is the most widely-distributed piece of literature ever. Unfazed by its multitude of inconsistencies and historical errors, millions of people believe, with varying degrees of literalness, that it was inspired by a supernatural being who created the universe, and though rooted in the Bronze Age, the Bible texts continue to influence modern debates such as sexuality, women’s reproductive rights and human origins.

Bible from Malmesbury Abbey, England,
handwritten in Latin in 1407 CE.
In the West, even atheists have a knowledge of the Bible which they do not usually have of writings from other religious traditions, such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Quran. Its memorable stories and characters – Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, the Nativity, David and Goliath and so on – are familiar across the world, including in imperialist North America and Europe. Its influence upon art, both inside and outside Christian cultures and communities, is profound.

The Bible’s importance means it has been embellished and ideologically appropriated by all sorts of social groups and classes, from both the political left and the right. It has been used to justify war and oppression on one hand, and peace and liberation on the other. Though it is routinely believed to be the word of God, the Bible itself never makes that claim, and there are many Christian concepts – such as original sin, saints, the afterlife and the Devil – which appear either weakly or not at all. Complex doctrines such as the Holy Trinity were created by later scholars as they tried to clarify philosophical problems.

Biblical characters are fallible human beings struggling with themselves and society, not bland role models for bored children in Sunday school. The Bible is a book of selfishness, violence, sex, morality, even genocide, and it communicates in incredibly direct language.

Modern archaeology and other forms of study are helping us scrutinise the Bible from a scientific and historical standpoint. This approach is surprisingly recent, growing from the development of archaeology in the 19th century. Just two centuries ago, even such important ancient sites as Babylon and Nineveh were lost to history. Now, scholars are gradually piecing together the real history of the ancient Near East, and revealing the ancient Israelites as pioneers of monotheism, written history, and individual moral responsibility.

The temptation in the early days of Biblical research was to look at objects from the past as evidence of the verity of the Bible stories, and this tradition continues in the ‘Biblical Archaeology’ movement founded by William F. Albright. It is obvious that the Bible is full of material that cannot be literally true, calling into question its version of history. And if the Bible is unreliable as a source of historical information, its spiritual teachings may be also be unreliable. It is a lesson in the power of ideology and the human imagination that sometimes no abundance, or absence, of physical evidence is enough to dissuade people of their supernatural beliefs.

A text is only scripture for people who take it as scripture – for others, it is literature. For a Marxist, the supernatural content is nonsense, but if the Bible isn’t the ‘Word’ of a supernatural being, this is not necessarily a reason not to read it. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is set in a real place during a real war, but as readers we accept that the truths it offers are literary, imaginative, social truths. We don’t dismiss the book as a pack of lies because historians have failed to find the physical remains of Andrei and Natasha. Similarly, the Bible does report historical events, occasionally accurately, but from a literary point of view the goal of the Old Testament is to illustrate how a deity defined the history of the Israelites, and the goal of the New Testament is to relate what happened during and after the life of Jesus. Without religion we can still appreciate the Bible’s social, literary and existential content.

To clarify some definitions: the inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Israel were the Israelites. It is inaccurate to refer to ‘Jews’ until after the Persian occupation (7th century BCE), and there is a difference between the Israelites and the Israelis, who are citizens of the modern state of Israel from 1948 onwards. We shall use ‘Hebrew’ as a linguistic not an ethnic term, referring to the Biblical language.

When we refer to ‘scripture’ we mean a written text that a community believes is holy and authoritative. A ‘canon’ is a closed list telling which scripture is authoritative and which is not. It is much more fixed than when we refer, for example, to the ‘canon’ of English literature, which is open to challenge.

In the next few articles, we shall discuss topics such as how the Bible texts were compiled, the meaning of some of its key episodes, how the real history of the Israelites compares to the stories, and other fascinating things. Anyone interested in world culture past and present can enjoy exploring the background and content of this remarkable anthology.

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