Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A short history of the Bible

We can now summarise the history of the Bible from its beginnings to the sealing of the canon. We can’t claim every detail is certain. It is merely a well-informed account, some of which is unavoidably speculative.

From around the 12th century BCE in the Egyptian-controlled Levant, a pastoralist culture came together in small highland settlements to step into history as a people we know today as the Israelites. Their name comes from the Hebrew ‘Yisrael’, the name given (in the Hebrew Bible) by Yahweh to Jacob whose descendants formed the twelve tribes of Israel. This pagan people helped to rebuild Canaan after the Bronze Age Collapse. At about 1000 BCE, there may have been a memorable early king named David, followed by another named Solomon, but the culture was still small, and Jerusalem a mere hill town.

In the 10th century, internal tensions led to the division of Israel into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south – the former was the more populous, fertile and wealthy. The division lasted about two hundred years.

Between 922-722, two religious narratives known to scholars as J and E were written in Judah and Israel respectively. This period of two kingdoms was brought to an end by a devastating Assyrian invasion that destroyed Israel in 722. Refugees from the north surged into Judah, which enjoyed a sudden growth in wealth, literacy and importance. This was probably the decisive period in the passage to monotheism. During the reign of Hezekiah, a religious reform was launched to promote Yahweh-only monotheism over polytheism, and to establish the Temple as the centre of Israelite religion. To try and unite the two communities, their respective histories J and E were combined into a joint narrative, JE.

The priesthood had long been divided into two factions. The northern Levites were supposedly descended from Moses; the southern Aaronites were supposedly descended from Moses’ brother Aaron. Hezekiah favoured the Aaronite priesthood, who ran the central altar. Between 722-609 BCE, someone in that circle wrote the source text known as P, as an alternative to JE with its Levite, pro-Moses elements. This was to become the single biggest section of the Hebrew Bible – contributing alternative versions of several stories including the opening account of the creation, parts of Exodus and Numbers, and all of Leviticus.

Assyria then attacked Judah, which between 700-640 BCE became its vassal. But during the reign of King Josiah, the Assyrian Empire was weakening as Babylon grew, creating a space for Josiah to dream of conquering the territory of the former kingdom of Israel and launching an Israelite empire. He renewed the religious reforms of Hezekiah (but favouring the Levite priesthood), and in 622 a book of the law was discovered in Jerusalem. Using the law code as a kernel, someone created the book of Deuteronomy, and drew upon a mixture of northern and southern texts, regional folk memories, archive histories and legends to add the Deuteronomistic History – Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. (This writer/editor was familiar with JE. He also knew P but, as a Levite, was sectarian towards it.) Thus Josiah’s faction created a narrative of conquest and empire common to both kingdoms, portraying Josiah as a new David. But then in 609 Josiah was killed by the Egyptian army, throwing the imperial project into disarray – Judah ended up as a Babylonian vassal state.

The year 587 or 586 brought catastrophe. In response to a rebellion the Babylonians smashed Judah, razing Jerusalem and stealing its treasures, and sending many of its people into exile in Babylonia. Many others fled to Egypt as refugees. The Temple and the Ark were lost, and the line of David was ended. Often in the ancient world a defeated small culture assimilated into the conquerors. The Judahite scribes, however, realising their culture was in danger of following the kingdom of Israel into oblivion, rewrote and reinterpreted the old stories to keep them alive. The grand vision of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History now looked a bit foolish, so they were edited, possibly by their original writer, to include warnings of exile and to stress the need to keep the covenant with God.

Persia soon replaced Babylon as the dominant regional power. About fifty years after the disaster, the exiled Israelites were allowed to return to what was now the Persian province of Yehud (origin of our term ‘Jew’). This is known as the Second Temple Period, after the rebuilding of the Temple from about 520 BCE. Some time during the exile or shortly afterwards, an editor from the Aaronite priesthood went to work on J, E, P and D to create the final form of the Torah. This may have been Ezra: a priest, scribe and lawgiver who returned from exile during the Second Temple period with, to paraphrase the Biblical book attributed to him, the law of God in his hand. The completion of the full Hebrew Bible, however, would take a little longer.

In Alexandria in Eygpt, between the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE, a Greek translation was made of the Hebrew scriptures, known as the ‘Septuagint’ after the 70 scholars who reputedly wrote it. It was aimed at the many Jews who now spoke Greek rather than Hebrew, and became the principal version of the texts for both Jews and Christians.

The Jews continued to live under foreign rule – the Persians, the empire of Alexander the Great, and the Seleucids. The Maccabean Revolt in 164 BCE brought independence under the Hasmonaean dynasty, but a hundred years later Judea was conquered by the Romans and governed either directly from Rome or by client kings.

In the early 1st century CE there were repeated uprisings against the occupiers and the collaborationist Jewish ruling class. A peasant labourer from Galilee called Jesus of Nazareth began to preach to his fellow Jews about the coming ‘kingdom of God’, a call that was considered treason by the Roman authorities. Like many other such leaders, he was captured and executed for sedition. Unusually, however, his followers insisted they had seen him alive after his death, and debated what this could mean. A sect emerged that would eventually become the new religion of Christianity.

In about 50 CE a convert to this group named Paul wrote a series of letters to local communities he was establishing around the Eastern Mediterranean. The Jews rose up against the Romans in 66 but by 70 their uprising had been smashed and the Second Temple destroyed. Between approximately 70-100 CE four writers, each working independently and within their own ideological framework, produced biographical interpretations of Jesus of Nazareth known as Gospels.

In the absence of the Temple, Judaism meanwhile entered its Rabbinic period. Following yet another Jewish uprising under Simon bar Kochba (c.132–136 CE), Judea was devastated and massively depopulated by the Romans, who banned Jews from Jerusalem. From now on, most Jews lived outside Judea and were a minority there until the establishment of modern Israel. Gradually the canon of Jewish scripture was sealed. Writings such as Proverbs, the Psalms, Daniel etc were debated and embraced as scripture. The exact dates of canonisation are not certain, but by the 4th century CE the contents of the Hebrew Bible – Torah, Prophets and Writings – were almost universally accepted.

As for Jesus’s movement: after a long debate, during which Christianity was assimilated as the dominant religion of the Roman empire, a set of scriptures was agreed which we now call the New Testament. This canon, which adopted the Jewish scriptures as its ‘Old Testament’, was sealed by the 6th century CE. However, there was never a consensus among all Christians about which books belonged in either volume, and differing canons exist to this day.

In the 380s, Saint Jerome began work on a translation of the Old and New Testaments into Latin, the common language of the Roman and post-Roman world, that would bring the Bible to an even wider audience. This book profoundly permeated Western European culture and became the definitive edition of the Bible for over a thousand years.

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