RationalWiki's Q4 2016 Fundraiser
We are 100% user-supported!
Without you, there is no RationalWiki!
Goal: $5000 Donations so far: $3075

Fighting pseudoscience isn't free.
Help and donate today!

Old Testament

From RationalWiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Light iron-age reading

The Bible

Icon bible.svg
Gabbin' with God
One could go through the Old Testament book by book, here pausing to notice a lapidary phrase ("Man is born to trouble," as the book of Job says, "as the sparks fly upward") and there a fine verse, but always encountering the same difficulties. People attain impossible ages and yet conceive children. Mediocre individuals engage in single combat or one-on-one argument with God or his emissaries, raising afresh the whole question of divine omnipotence or even divine common sense, and the ground is forever soaked with the blood of the innocent. Moreover, the context is oppressively confined and local. None of these provincials, or their deity, seems to have any idea of a world beyond the desert, the flocks and herds, and the imperatives of nomadic subsistence. This is forgivable on the part of the provincial yokels, obviously, but then what of their supreme guide and wrathful tyrant? Perhaps he was made in their image, even if not graven?
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything[1]

The Old Testament (also called OT) is the Christian term for the collection of Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanakh) that was followed by the Jewish people prior to the birth of the "New guy," Jesus, who ushers in the New Testament, which they still consider their own set of Holy Books. The Old Testament is not and should not be considered the same as the "Hebrew Bible", as it was edited, translated, and redacted by early Christians in order to align it with the "proof" that Jesus is the Messiah.[2]

The Old Testament contains 39 books for Protestants, 46 for Catholics, and upwards of 52 if you are Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, or Georgian - all depending on how your Church dealt with the many Greek translations of the Hebrew which became part of the Hellenistic Jewish tradition, but not the more traditional and conservative Palestinian tradition.

Typically, the Old Testament is divided into four sections:[3] The Pentateuch (which is, in effect, the Torah for the Jews), the Histories, the Prophets, and the Wisdom. In the Orthodox and Catholic Canons, there is also the deuterocanon, the books of which are apportioned among the non-Pentateuch sections, or isolated on their own (sometimes called the Apocrypha).

At the time the canon of the Christian Bible was addressed, in the 300 years following the missionary efforts of Paul of Tarsus, there were two versions of most of the books that would make up the Old Testament: a Greek translation (the Septuagint, which includes 18 extra books), and the original Hebrew. Today, scholars tend to think that most of the writers of the New Testament would have been using the Koine Greek translations found in the Septuagint. But, religion being what it is, theological, philosophical, ethnic and political war broke out until "the" Church split in two: the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Old Testament is typical of that division: the Catholic Church chose to use new Latin translation (the Vulgate), while the Orthodox chose to use the Septuagint or the ancient Syriac translation (the Peshitta).


[edit] History

In contrast to what we might have thought until recently, in antiquity a book was not necessarily a single product of a single author but was often more like a hypertext, which several, even many, writers might expand, edit, and otherwise modify. In this process, which went on for many generations, a variety of perspectives - or as the Documentary Hypothesis proposes for the Pentateuch, a variety of sources or traditions - were preserved. For its final editors, as for those of the entire Bible, preserving different sources was more important than superficial consistency of detail.
Michael Coogan[wp], The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction[4]

When they were originally written, the Hebrew Scriptures were all individual documents or scrolls. Other than the Torah proper, they were not understood as a single collection of works, and any given priest may or may not choose to use them as part of his theology – if he even had access to them. The first attempt at a formal canon for the Hebrew Bible was after the Exile, in the 6th Century BCE. The oldest scrolls of the Hebrew Bible were songs/poetry and the myths of the Patriarchs. The oral traditions themselves probably date back even as far as 4,000 years ago, but scholars suggest that the earliest written documents would have been no earlier than 1,200 BCE.

The full Hebrew canon (Tanakh) was likely finalized between 200 and 100 BCE.

The Septuagint had the final translation completed in 132 BCE.

Despite New Testament (and later apologetic) claims to the contrary, Jesus would likely only have considered the Torah to be truly relevant to his teaching and may or may not have had access to any given set of the rest of the Tanakh or the Septuagint.

[edit] The need for damage control

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud made the obvious point that religion suffered from one incurable deficiency: it was too clearly derived from our own desire to escape from or survive death. This critique of wish-thinking is strong and unanswerable, but it does not really deal with the horrors and cruelties and madnesses of the Old Testament. Who — except for an ancient priest seeking to exert power by the tried and tested means of fear — could possibly wish that this hopelessly knotted skein of fable had any veracity?
—Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

The Old Testament is a problematic set of books for many modern Christians and Jews. Either because the earliest of the oral traditions and laws were written nearly 4,000 years ago, the first books (Genesis in part, Leviticus in parts) completed 3,200 years ago with the rest written over the next 1,200 years (or because Yaweh exists and did write them; he's just an asshole) the Old Testament contains some troubling aspects for those raised to think the Rights of Man[5] are important.

  • God is portrayed as mean, cranky, egotistical, and petty.
    • He destroys cute kittens, new-born babies, and kiwi birds (death by drowning is, by the way, apparently extremely traumatic) just because his humans started acting, well, human.
    • He sends a bear to maul 40 kids because they taunted his prophet.
    • He tells a dude that he must kill his own son, proving that He, God, is more loved by this dude than the kid.
    • He demands that only the pure and healthy can come worship him. Even those who were scarred in battle for God are not worthy of God's presence.
  • The morality of the people of the time is quite different from our own.
    • Women and children were seen as property to be disposed of as necessary – under proper religious guidance, of course.
    • Rape was a sexual crime committed by both people. Women could be stoned to death unless the rapist wanted to marry them.
    • Slavery was, if not common, quite accepted. Even God himself tells his people to go to war for him, and take the women as slaves.
  • The laws in place are troubling for modern Christians and religious Jews, beyond those mentioned above.
    • Divorce was unacceptable in most cases.
    • Eating shellfish was not allowed.
    • In fact there are a whole host of foods that cannot be eaten, clothing that must or must not be worn, prayers that must be said... Those "strange" rites (or at least this is how most Christians see the rites) of Jews like keeping Kosher and not working on the Sabbath are "Old Testament" laws, which really never were rewritten.
  • Violence in the name of God and Truth is not only possible, it's morally required. (Kill the infidels started not with Islam and the Qur'an, but the Hebrews, a thousand years earlier).

[edit] Coping with loss

See the main article on this topic: But that was the Old Testament

How to get around all that Leviticus stuff, and the "Mean old god" stuff, and the calls for war, and killing off those who do not agree with your views.

  • Just ignore it, and it will go away.
  • Jesus changed all that when he said "It does not matter what goes into your mouth but what comes out."
    • Of course, he also said "I come not to change the Law, but to fulfill it." But clearly that's just "details."
  • We do not read the Old Testament, because God gave us a New One.
    • Unless of course we want to bash gays, but that's covered later.
  • The "Law" was really three different sets of laws: Ceremonial, moral, and legal. Only the moral law still applies to Christians.
    • Of course, such a distinction is not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament, nor is this explanation universally accepted. Some Christians believe no laws apply to them, because their insanity faith will guide them to the right actions.
  • That's not in my bible.
  • You are reading it wrong, you have to understand the context.
    • I thought I was addressing the context?
  • Look, over there, a shiny thing!

[edit] Oddities in the narrative

See the main articles on this topic: Biblical contradictions and Biblical scientific errors

Whatever the specific reason for that might be, the Old Testament contains a great number of oddities.

  • Adam and someone — All of the other animals go boy, girl, boy, girl. Why does Adam get jerked around? And, all of the other animals were POOFed into existence by God, why does Adam have to go through an invasive body-cavity search?[6]
  • Cain and Abel — God shows a remarkable lack of omniscience when he asks Cain for directions. Notably the whereabouts of Cain's brother Abel. This is all the more odd considering that there are apparently only four humans on Earth to keep track of.[7]
  • Moses the lawgiver stage magician — God commands Moses to go see the Pharaoh and demand that he let His people go. Moses being a poor public speaker and a generally unpersuasive fellow, God decides to spice up Moses' act by teaching him some magic tricks. Such crowd-pleasers as the old "stick-to-snake-and-back-again", the "My hand has leprosy, and now it doesn't!", along with the family favorite "water-to-blood" trick. After hearing of the plan Moses said "Please send someone else." Exodus 4:13
  • Abraham and Isaac — Nevermind the whole rigmarole about Abraham being told to sacrifice one of his sons, only to (attempt to) do so with a shrug and a nod. It never once occurred to Isaac that something was amiss when he was led to the sacrifice (read: be sacrificed) by his own father? Wouldn't the first thing Isaac asked after being tapped to go with his father to perform the sacrifice be something along the lines of, "What shall we take for the sacrifice?" If Abraham had told him right then and there, Isaac wouldn't have agreed to it, not by a long shot (no matter how retrospectively honest Abraham was about it). Isaac comes off as absurdly naive and gullible to just allow himself to be prepared for the sacrifice--especially when many contemporary works depict Isaac bound on the altar. Given the ages and physiology of the two, Isaac would clearly be stronger than his father; how would he be overpowered by him in the first place? Or did he just have no willpower or critical thinking skills of his own and just allow himself to be tied down and nearly disembowled?
  • God having control issues with Israelites all the time in Judges and needs prophets to turn them back towards him — The Israelites are always turning away from God in Judges. You'd think that an omnipotent god could do a better job of making people stick to him. He, for some reason, punishes them violently when they stray away from him in other chapters, which could have been easily avoided by giving them the Judges treatment. Also, if he is omnipotent and can do pretty much anything, including performing miracles in front of non-believers, why does he need prophets in the first place?
  • Job — The whole thing seems like a pretty sick joke with God and Satan in cahoots for a few lulz, ending with god getting angry at Job for questioning why god was punishing him and admonishing him for not being God. Also, Job's old sons and servants are all killed and are replaced. This is pretty traumatic to anyone who's ever lost a child, because you can't just simply replace a person you've lost.
  • The plague of the firstborn — Another lack of omniscience. God needs a reminder as to which firstborn children are Hebrew and which are not. A slap of lamb's blood on the front door does the trick.[8]
  • Mt. Sinai — Moses turns his back for two seconds and the Hebrews devolve into crazy pagan idol-worshipers. These are people who have quite likely personally witnessed at least eleven miracles, some with significant SFX (Special effects). Particularly, the supposed descending of their god down upon the mountain and speaking to them so that they will "always trust in Moses" just prior to his ascent. Kind of surprising that their god's almighty power was unable to convince them to wait around a bit. And er, Moses sees this and slaughters nearly 3,000 of them, even though the commandments, which he had just brought down from the mountain, say, "Thou shalt not kill". Possibly, he hadn't gotten around to reading them yet.
  • An eye for an eye — Grammy Flash always used to say that "the trouble with an eye for an eye is that everyone ends up blind."[9] One would think that a sacred religious text would have more wisdom than the grandmother of a fictional comic book superhero. Go figure.
  • YHWH - the Chatty Cathy of the ancient Middle East: Long ago, God would seemingly talk to anyone who would listen. You couldn't shut the guy up. He doesn't seem to do that too much anymore, nor for a long time. Many would say that he does indeed speak to a great many people. It is fairly certain that those people did hear him. This is called mental illness or drug abuse nowadays though. However, the Old Testament's implication is the very deep, very "James Earl Jones" bellowing associated with speaking out loud.

[edit] Evidence for the Old Testament

Within this narrative framework is a veritable jumble of material, full of inconsistencies and a bewildering variety of sources and genres.
Michael Coogan[wp], The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction[10]

Eminent biblical scholar Michael Coogan[wp] and author of The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (published by Oxford University Press) summarizes the scholarly consensus regarding the evidence for the Old Testament.

[edit] What about literary sources?

Regarding the state of the written evidence, he writes;[11]

Among the nonbiblical sources are ancient inscriptions from Israel and Judah. Hundreds of them dating to the first half of the first millennium BCE have been excavated by archaeologists since the mid-nineteenth century. In recent decades, there has also been a flood of inscriptions purchased on the antiquities market, many of which are modern forgeries. Of the inscriptions that come from actual excavations, most are written on fragments of pottery, or potshards. Their content, however, is often as fragmentary as the medium on which they are written.

In addition, there is a handful of monumental inscriptions datable to the same period, and a similarly small number of papyri and writings in other media. There must have been many more texts that have not survived, probably because they were written on perishable organic materials such as papyrus. These inscriptions have some importance for understanding ancient Hebrew, but they rarely mention any individual or event known from the Bible, and so they are difficult both to date and to interpret.

The same is true of inscriptions from Israel's neighbors. From the first half of the first millennium BCE there are many texts from Aram (modern Syria), Phoenicia (modern Lebanon), and the kingdoms east of the Jordan Valley, Ammon, Moab and Edom; again these rarely refer to important individuals or events known from other sources, including the Bible.

[edit] What about archaeological sources?

On the state of the archaeological evidence, he continues;[12]

Since the latter part of the nineteenth century archaeologists have excavated hundreds of ancient Israelie sites, many of which can be indentified as places named in the Bible, including not only Jerusalem but also Megiddo, Jericho, Hazor, Lachish and many others. As is the case with the Mesha Stela, however, the information unearthed at such sites is often difficult to synthesize with the biblical record, for two reasons.

First, the biblical record itself is inconsistent, and also selective and ideological, not giving a comprehensive history of any single site but mentioning it when it suits the messages that the biblical writers are communicating. The second reason is the nature of archaeological evidence itself: material culture is mute.

In only a handful of cases can we make a direct and unambiguous link between a person or event from the Bible and, say, a layer of ashes or the foundation of a city's wall. In the abscence of anything like a "Kilroy [or Joshua, or David, or Omri] was here[wp]", dating the many aspects of material culture that have been excavated depends on a chain of inferences rather than on direct links and is frequently debated by specialists.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Page 107.
  2. The distinction is a subtle one: when talking about the Old Testament from a Christian perspective, it is important to emphasize that the OT is not the same as the writings of the Tanakh. When talking about the source works that are shared by both traditions, "Hebrew Bible" or "Hebrew Scripture" is often used in discussions.
  3. And it is here, in how the books are organized and what associations the authors are given, that one of the most significant edits from "Hebrew scripture" to "Old Testament" occurs.
  4. The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (2008), ISBN 978-0195305050, page 20.
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen..
  6. This oddly inspired people to think that men have one less rib than women, even until the modern day. Despite over 400 years of medical evidence pointing to a wealth of dead-bodies showing otherwise. To be fair though, back then the laws of Biology could be modified to allow it to be grown back. Or, He could have just created Adam with one more rib than what we have today.
  7. Unless you count the ones which do not have names, like Cain's wife, then you may come up with a lot more, but then they can as well be made up on the way, since they don't have a name as the unique identifier.
  8. That, and the Egyptians are stupid enough not to learn something or notice the oddity when hundreds of thousands of doors are slapped with lamb's blood, not to mention the increased mortality rate of lambs.
  9. This is, more-or-less, a quote from an episode of the first season (series) of Justice League Unlimited.
  10. The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (2008), ISBN 978-0195305050, page 43.
  11. The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (2008), ISBN 978-0195305050, page 26.
  12. The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (2008), ISBN 978-0195305050, page 29.

Personal tools