Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Origin of The Bible

I am talking principally of the first four books of Moses Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. These are one of the oldest surviving documents in History. The original document is not with us today but we do know that it was faithfully copied by the ancient scribes and we know that no changes --even as minute as typographical corrections-- have been made within the last 1,000 years. Thus we can assume that this is what the books looked like to the original authors. We still need to investigate the nuances of ancient Hebrew to understand what the author meant but luckily this is not very hard to do on a basic level, for the ancient Hebrew language had few roots and roots are bound to repeat themselves in the course of the Bible allowing us to deduce the meaning of unknown words through the context and sometimes through careful study of history as provided by archeological evidence and other ancient writings.

Once we verify the content and meaning of the ancient writer, we now must ask ourselves the following questions:

What were his sources for the information reported?

Did the writer believe that his account of events is authentic or was he purposely spreading propaganda?

What were his motives and constrictions i.e. what would he be encouraged to report and what would he be discouraged or not allowed to report?

Did he write with the intention of creating an ever-lasting historical and religious document or was he just taking notes for his own convenience, like a student takes notes of a teacher's lecture.

And finally, can we trust those accounts in light of modern science and if so to what extent?

The book I have recently read "who wrote the bible" attempts to answer mostly the question of who wrote it and that brings him to explain the social context and motives of the author. I was very fascinated by the book and I do accept the key ideas of the book, namely that there are four sources (J-Judah, E-Elohim, P-priestly, D-deutoronomy) for the Pentateuch (Toras Moshe or simply Torah) and that J was motivated by Judean interests and E by Israelite interests. However, he hardly touches on the question of the validity of those accounts and this is what I want to discuss here.

First off, I want to point out several factual anecdotes:

1. The Hebrew Alphabet could not have existed at the time of Moses, Joshua or even the Judges. These people all lived prior to about 1000 BC which is when the newly invented Phoenician alphabet spread to the neighboring nations through trade. Thus, not only is it impossible for the present day bible to have been written in these days but even anything remotely resembling the current bible could not have been written. The implements for writing just did't exist yet.

2. There were no audio recorders, camcorders, or cameras either; nor was there any educational system. This means that whatever stories were preserved were told from father to son or by an orator on periodic gatherings in city squares and temples.

3. Ancient Near East societies did not make an effort to preserve current events or legends in writing. This is evident from the fact that the Hebrew Bible is almost one of its kind even though the alphabet spread all over the Near East soon after it was introduced by the Phoenicians. True, most writings not carved in stone would likely not have survived to this day but it is inevitable that some of them survive IF they had ever been produced.

4. It is highly unlikely that the ancient societies made any significant effort to preserve their history even orally. The bible is full of pedantic measurements and dates but there is no way these ancient people would find time and resources to preserve such info over several generations. A special class or family would have to be designated the task of studiously reviewing events along with all the mundane dates and numbers. These people would have to be fed, clothed and defended by the rest of the nation without it seeing any tangible benefit whatsoever. There is no evidence that such a group existed and even to this day there are very few things governments would be willing to invest money on that do not somehow provide a benefit to the people who pay the taxes.

Accordingly, here is the logical chain of events assuming that the days of the Hebrew Judges was generally as depicted in the Bible or close to it.

A prosperous Hebraic (descendant from "Aver" who is in turn descendant from "Shem" -Semite) nomad fathers a large family which branches off into twelve tribes. These tribes worship a God called Yehovah or Elohim in Shiloh and they share a common language, blood and tradition. "Tradition" provides numerous stories explaining various phenomena in the universe and they all are told through the prism of their god Yehovah. When something bad happens to them or their ancestors it is god's punishment for some bad deed and when something good happens it is a reward for good deeds. At this stage of historical awareness no conscious attempt is made to preserve or elaborate on existing legends. They are simply passed on orally to future generations without much scrutiny.

The next stage is where some details are added to the legends so as to make them more complete and imaginable. It is one thing to report that hurricant Katrina occurred and it is another to say that it occurred on Aug 28 2005 in New Orleans and 5 people died from it. Obviously, the first statement is more true than the second one but it is also much simpler and less vivid. Imagine that your next door neighbor, John is handuffed one day and taken away by police. You little boy asks you "Daddy, what did John he do? You have no clue but you've got to give him some answer and so you say "he stole something" and the boy asks "what did he steal?" and you say "maybe a money, a toy, a bike" and the boy says "but which one was it?" and so you are pressed to the corner and you have to choose amongst these and you say "he stole a bike". After some more questioning the ful story emerges "Yesterday afternoon while playing with another neighbor named Joe, John got into a fight and stole an 18" bike". As you can see, the core of this story is true; however, the details -while plausible- are not based on fact. They are designed to give a better understanding to your little boy. Psychologists would say that he is developing a "schema" and thus forming certain concepts. We all have that "little boy" deep inside of us. We don't want a true but simple answer; we are more interested in a good explanation even if it's more complex and not so true. We are looking to establish order and avoid chaos; that's how the concept of god was developed in the first place and this how dates and measurements are inserted into the legends.

The final stage is where the information is recorded in writing. Obviously, some of the details are developed during this stage but that basic outline of the story is already firmly established at this point and most of the details are in place as well even though the writer doesn't really care what the actual value is. Following our previous example, the little boy doesn't care whether it's an 18" bike or a 20" bike or whether the other guy's name is Joe or Shmoe. What matters to him is the vivification of the event through details and this is why when the Bible writer finally gets to record the legend in writing he is liable to make changes as necessary to make the account more consistent and credible.

For example, the story of the flood and noah's Ark develops in the following stages:

1. There is a legend about a great hurricane that swept through the land and destroyed everyone but our ancestor who survived.

2. The other people were wicked but our ancestor was righteous and that is why he survived and the others did not. He didn't just get lucky to survive; rather there is a reason for his survival and god planned it and prepared him for it.

3. Noah is 600 years old when it happens. The Ark is 30 cubits long and 20 cubits wide. the flood lasts for forty days. Noah sends out a dove three times in seven-day intervals etc... In short, there is great concern about precise measurements.

Note that noah is not 586 years old and there isn't a six day interval between the three incidents of sending the dove or a variable-day interval and the flood does not last for 42 and a half days. In all of these measurements, the writer is attempting to keep it simple and in line with contemporary culture while providing as much detail as possible. The "seven" theme is thematic throughout the bible and I do not even have to give examples of it. 40 is the number of days Moses was on the Sinai Mountain, it is the number of days they the Israelite spies toured the land of canaan and it is the number of days Joseph's death was mourned as was customary in Egypt (Genesis 50:3) and 600 is a nice even number that depicts noah as being two thirds into his life.