Reading Around the Bible, 1

I have never read any version of the Bible (or any other holy book), but over the years I’ve accumulated a couple versions of it, and several books about it. My parents were nominally Presbyterian, my mother sang in the church choir, and we kids (I was the eldest of four) attended Sunday school growing up. I decided I didn’t care to go any more at about age 15. But I still have the red-bound Bible, with fold-out genealogy pages in the center, given to me from the church in Reseda, California.

Recently, serendipitously, I noticed a glossy trade paperback in the gift shop at Andersen’s Pea Soup restaurant along Interstate 5, appearing to be a lavishly illustrated guide to the Bible. I glanced through it, noticing that it devoted several pages to each Biblical book, with summaries, sidebar discussions, and illustrations of art and photos of actual places, and lots of maps. (I love maps, and timelines.) It occurred to me that such a broad overview might be a way of easing into the Bible itself, at least of gathering an idea of its contents, before, or without, reading the ancient texts themselves. After all, the Bible is a foundational text of Western civilization and literature, aside from its roll as a religious text. So I tracked the book down on Amazon.

It’s The Complete Guide to the Bible, by Stephen M. Miller.

I bought the book and for the past month or so I’ve been working my way through it (I’m currently part way through the minor prophets) and several other books about the Bible already in my library. I have Isaac Asimov’s Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (in two volumes, one for each Testament); I have Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?; and since starting Miller I’ve acquired Bart D. Ehrman’s The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction and John Riches’ The Bible: A Very Short Introduction (one of Oxford series of little paperback introductions on hundreds of topics), and two physical Bibles: the New Oxford Annotated Bible (4th edition, with the Apocrypha, which my unadorned childhood volume did not include) and Steve Wells’ Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (using the King James Version, and which is entirely online here, along with his annotations of the Quran and the Book of Mormon, but it’s handy to have a physical volume to consult).

Initial comments on these books:

  • Asimov, though best known of course as a science fiction writer, was an autodidact with an interest in history and culture to the degree he could analyze it, and writes his guide as strictly secular commentaries on people and places mentioned in the Biblical texts and how they relate to what is known from secular history; at the same time, he freely draws conclusions from the texts, and what is known about history, to speculate on the actual authors of the texts, and the actual times they were written, despite the nominally assigned authors. (Asimov also wrote similar guides to all of Shakespeare’s plays, and to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.)
  • I read part of Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? years ago and was familiar with the basic idea: that (of course, one thinks), the Biblical texts that we know are amalgamations of many authors, passed along at first orally, over hundreds of years, and then edited into the versions we know today; Freidman describes the commonly known scheme of texts identified as J, E, D, and P. (This is why there are two origin stories in Genesis, one after the other; two accounts of Noah and his arc, stitched obviously together, and so on.) His book focuses on the Pentateuch, the first five books, traditionally attributed to Moses.
  • Friedman presents his thesis, though foreshadowed by a century or more by writers whose works were promptly put on the Catholic Church’s list of forbidden books, as still a tad controversial when he wrote in the late 1980s. But it turns out all the other books I have at hand, except Miller’s (whose point of view is that of a believer’s), acknowledge the same background, even Asimov, writing in the late ’60s.
  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which edition I selected to buy as the best current edition of the Bible, on the basis of the bibliography in Robert Wright’s 2009 book, has such extensive footnotes and annotations that it rivals the sums of Asimov’s texts, I suspect, albeit in much tinier print. It too is forthright about the multiple authors of the early books, later edited.
  • The Ehrman volume contrasts with Miller’s in that it discusses historical contexts, authorship, and why the early books of the Bible are best understood as myths and legends, not literal history. Ehrman is a prolific author of books that challenge simplistic readings of the Biblical texts, especially of the New Testament, exploring the political reasons why the gospels came together as they did, considering (as I’ve always known) how they weren’t written down until decades after the events they claim to document. At the same time, this Ehrman volume is a textbook, to the point of including topics for discussion at the end of each chapter, and so Ehrman seems to bend over backward to suggest [to believers who might be taking a class using this text], that it’s OK if the early Biblical books aren’t literal, that they are still meaningful.
  • And the Miller volume, to circle back around, is of course credulous, describing the events of each Biblical book with weary repetitions of how every misfortune that befalls the Jewish people is because God ‘allowed’ other peoples to invade them, etc. etc., or on the other hand renew promises of eventual redemption. The tone aside, it’s a surprisingly sloppy book — there are numerous captions in sidebar boxes that end mid-sentence, errors of layout and proofreading. And his chapter about Genesis doesn’t mention the Tower of Babel! (At the same time, I’m noticing, he dwells disproportionally on the minor prophets…) It’s fascinating to read various books *about* the Bible and see how differently they summarize and emphasize its content. A lesson in itself!

I’d intended a very brief first post about Bible reading, but let me close with a few initial reactions.

  • I’ve also browsed texts of ancient history, to understand how Israel and Judah fit into the scheme of things — to understand why, out of all the cultures that were present in the first millenium BCE, these texts that became our Bible survived while others did not. Surely the Assyrians and Babylonians and all the other enemies of “God’s chosen people” also discovered the technology of scrolls, around 600 or 500 BCE..? We have a scant few records of ancient texts, like Gilgamesh, but why no others? (Because the Library of Alexandria was burned down? Hmm.)
  • As a non-believer, with the just suggested perspective of historical context, nothing could be more obvious than that the early Biblical texts are creations myths and legends, often derived from those of other cultures and tribes, that were told and retold over centuries, orally, in ways that advance the ideals of the tribe. It’s all very interesting as self-serving history (there’s an angle here on how the current knowledge of psychological biases can inform all of this), but anyone who takes this literally is being, at best, naive.
  • And the incredible violence of the Old Testament. Why would anyone think this is any kind of guide to moral behavior? Even the heroes of Jewish history, David and Solomon, casually slaughtered enemies. I won’t attempt to draw any conclusions; this is an open question.

But on the last point, a couple quotes from Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, whose thesis is that violence has, in fact, greatly declined over recorded human history — and at my casual browsing of Biblical stories this past month, I can be persuaded by. His book opens with descriptions of violence in the earliest texts that survive– Homer’s epics, and the Bible. First about the authorship, p11.2:

Modern biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki. It was compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles, dialects, character names, and conceptions of God, and it was subjected to haphazard editing that left it with many contradictions, duplications, and non sequiturs.

And about the violence, p10:

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure. They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday-school children draw with crayons.

So why is the Bible upheld as a moral standard..?

I will have several more posts, I think, over the next few weeks, as I finish reading *around* the Bible, and then perhaps begin to read specific books.

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