Class Info: What the Bible Really Says

Summary: Wednesday, 17 January, 2013

Last night’s class was really enjoyable. But, let’s remind ourselves that the highest purpose of the class is to instill in us a sense of humility when engaging God’s inspired and holy words.  My goal is manifestly not to persuade that my view is mainstream. However, I want to convince you that there is so much more to learn and that some of it can be shocking. This is especially true of those of us who are hobbled with an understanding of the Bible rooted in the childish depictions of Christian faith taught in Sunday school.

O.K., now for the summary.

The idea that time is not a factor (or is not in view) in the Genesis 1 creation story was (as I expected) surprising to most of the class. I argued that this was evident when the text of Genesis 1:1-5 was closely examined with an eye toward the literary forms and symbols manifest in the text (summarized below). At the end of the class I mentioned in closing another approach called the Framework Hypothesis. The Framework Hypothesis arrives at the same conclusion (time is irrelevant) by considering the structure of the whole of Genesis 1. Here is a good place to start if you want to learn more. I especially call your attention to the references and bibliography at the end of the article. I have several of these books and references so if you’d like to really dig in, I’d be happy to lend them to you.

Just in the last 60 years scholars have made enormous advances enabled largely by modern science (tomography, image processing), linguistics and cultural anthropology, archeology and so forth. When the King James Bible was written its translators had at their disposal seven scroll and codex fragments the constituted the whole of the New Testament. Scholars today have over 5000 fragments from which to piece together the texts of the Bible.

In this session, I called to your attention three claims, two of which were only accepted by the scholarly community only in the last 50 years. And one claim, God’s absolute omnipotence and omniscient continues to reign among the faithful even though the Church, since Augustine has always believed that God’s power and knowledge is limited.

In essence, we find in Genesis 1 that:

  1. God created the universe from a pre-existent, primordial substrate.
  2. God is neither omnipotent nor omniscient.
  3. Time, as we understand it is linear[1].

What is significant about each of these claims?

I find little theological significance to the first and second claims. In the case of the first claim, creation from nothing, belief in a pre-existent primordial substrate returns us to the belief of the earliest Christian fathers (e.g., Origen) and Jewish theologians (e.g., Philo). With respect to the second claim dealing with God’s omnipotence, many Christians — but not Church doctrine — believe that omnipotence and omniscience have no limits. The Church has never held this view.

Finally, the divine author reveals in Genesis 1 that, unlike the view of time in the pagan creation myths, time is linear, not cyclic. In other words, Genesis 1 unlinks time from the cycles of nature (e.g., the seasons, the motion of the moon and stars, and so forth). To accomplish this, he uses the Hebrew words ‘yom‘ and ‘layla‘ in an unexpected way: he shows God as calling the light (just created in the previous verse) ‘yom‘ and the night ‘layla‘. More concretely, in Genesis 1 ‘yom‘ and ‘layla‘ denote the presence or absence of light (respectively), not the passage of time.

Commentators from E. O. James to Bruce Waltke point out that by reimagining time as linear and never repeating, “… history has no meaning[2].” moreover, in the pagan cultures of the Ancient Near East (ANE) personal failures were seen as the arbitrary and capricious vengeance of the gods upon the world and mankind[3]. Thus, because the renewal of the cycle lacked any personal application of judgment, it also constituted a new start for its subjects — not unlike Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day”. Once in the time-loop, Murray’s character descended into hedonism, the inevitable fate of those for whom moral accountability is absent.

Summary: Wednesday, 9 January, 2013

First, an important clarification concerning the differences between abstract languages like Greek and English and concrete languages like the more ancient Semitic languages of Hebrew and its close relatives. The difference is essentially this:

The nouns of a concrete language like Hebrew represent names of things that can be physically sensed (e.g., touched, tasted, heard, smelled, and seen). Such languages are, by necessity, replete with idioms and other figurative language constructs. Because of this, a Hebrew word seldom can be translated with one English word. This means that most English translations of the Hebrew Bible can vary rather widely.

Second, I recommended a couple of on-line resources and while the on-line resources for Bible study are practically limitless, I have found myself using these two quite a bit.

Another useful resource is the online parallel Bible, here (which includes a concordance and a number of other tools).

On a personal note, when I first engage a topic to be studied, I look first to Wikipedia — not necessarily for its content but for the list of references at the bottom of every page. It’s great place to start if you’re wondering how to begin.

Third, we had an informative discussion about the histories of the Judaism and Christianity. I made the point that in discussions about faith and their cultural influences, we really need to distinguish between Jews and Judaism. Prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the people that today we call Christians practiced and believed in the Yawhist tradition (what we loosely, and inaccurately call Judaism today).  Not only did
Rabbinic Judaism not exist, but Christianity as we know it did not exist. For example, there was no trinity and there were no written Gospels. These “Christians”, known among themselves and others as “The Way”, centered their religious practice in the home and synagogue and, until the destruction of the Temple, there as well. In every sense of the word, they were religious Jews.

To put meat behind this claim, I cite  two major works: The first is  Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins. The author, George W.E. Nickelsburg lives  in Issaquah and is a well-known [Lutheran] Scholar. The second is Judaism in the New Testament: Practices and Beliefs, by Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner.

In a less academic, but no less informative vein, the last episode of the PBS Documentary, The Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites, is very powerful.  In fact, as you learn more about our religious roots, you’ll quickly learn that Christianity, as we know it today, looks and feels more like the Judaism of Jesus’s day that does Rabbinic Judaism today. Christianity incorporated (and still retains) many of the religious practices of those ancient days — practices that were later rejected by the early Rabbis who sought to reinvent Judaism after the disasterous Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132 CE.

See you next week,

Now, go and study

  1. [1]In modern western thought, time is thought to be always moving in one direction – it never repeats or loops back. In the pagan cultures of the Ancient Near East, time was thought to be cyclic.
  2. [2]Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
  3. [3]James, E. O., Myth and ritual in the Ancient Near East: An Archeological and Documentary Study. New Your: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958.
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