Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Bridget Murphy and The Bible: The Old Testament

Letter to the JEP, From Bridget Murphy.

The Bible is an authoritative, historical account of people and events which addresses the spiritual dimensions of man and his universe.....

Of course we all know authoritative history when we see it - it is stories with talking serpents, or talking donkeys (Balaam's ass), sticks turning into snakes (Moses and Pharaoh's magicians), or the sun standing still (Joshua)- and somehow everyone not spinning off into space, or stalactites being fractured.

But, sarcasm apart, the Old Testament, if we are honest, is not "authoritative history". It is a mixture of poetry, proverbs or sayings, legends, folklore, which may in places - for instance the part known by Biblical critics as the "Court History of King David" - have a historical core. But most of it is not authoritative history. It is a collection of sources, which for religious and political reasons, have been edited and harmonised so that they appear on first reading to be one whole. In fact, when you look closely at the details, they differ. For example:

1.      In Genesis 1:1-26, God created plants on the third day and fish and birds on the fifth day. On the sixth day, He created animals and man.
2.      In Genesis 2:7-25, God created man first. Then He created plants. Then, for man to have company, God created animals and birds. And finally, God created woman.

The two stories have different sequences of steps of creation.  The first version always spoke of  "God" ("Elohim") . The second version always speaks of "Yahweh" eleven times. There is no mixing of the names of God, which leads to the supposition, usually referred to as the "documentary hypothesis", that together with the differences in sequence, and the differences in the kind of Hebrew used, what we have in fact are two different sources, two tales that have been welded together by a later editor. The two sources are usually referred to
here as the "Priestly Source" or P and the "Yahwist source" or J. Four main sources have been discerned in the first five books of the bible, in shorthand termed: J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly),  and D (Deuteronomic). In terms of the Hebrew used, the kind of Hebrew used is also related to source and age, which is lost in translation - but think of a book composed of bits of Chaucerian English, Shakespearian English, Victorian English and Modern English. Translated to French, these would be smoothed out, but in their own language, the differences would be quite clear: so it is with the Old Testament.

The same kind of contradictions occur with the flood story: P says that the flood lasted for almost one year (Genesis 7:11, 7:24, 8:3, and 8:13). J says that it lasted for forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:17).

When the sources are broken apart, the contradictions disappear because they are only an outcome of the editing together by a later redactor of the different sources, each of which was self-consistent in its own right.
Richard Elliott Friedman's "Who Wrote the Bible" is probably the best modern book which explains these sources and shows how the different communities used them.

Some of the natural history is as accurate as Pliny (who thought that garlic demagnetizes lodestones). For example, Leviticus says that hares and coneys are unclean because they "chew the cud" but do not part the hoof. But hares and coneys are not ruminants and they do not "chew the cud.". Likewise, bats are taken as birds. These errors are repeated in Deuteronomy. Not very authoritative as a work of natural history!

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