BY Chris - Dec 28, 2016
I find quite a lot of the debate surrounding the Bible a bit sterile. What it generally consists of is atheists pointing out the impossibility of literal interpretations of famous stories, or snarkily quoting passages from Leviticus or Deuteronomy while, on the other side, pie-eyed and frankly insane fundamentalists point to the handful of textual and archaeological attestations of which they’re aware, whilst simultaneously threatening the atheists with a hell in which they presumably don’t believe.
This strikes me as being about as productive as dry humping a telegraph pole. All the appearances of the thing are there, but it’s a very, very long way from the thing itself. The idea that a text can survive in oral tradition for five or six hundred years, and then roughly two and a half thousand in written form without undergoing major revisions, redactions and distortions is just laughable. Anyone capable of believing in something like this simply isn’t worth arguing with, as they’re clearly not at home to Mr Rational Thought.
What I hope to demonstrate over the next few posts is that the argument about literal truth is moot (in the American sense of the word), and that there’s quite a lot of very interesting information in the Bible, none of which has to do with God, but rather with literary truth, mnemo-narrative, and the real relationship between Christianity and the roots of Western law and culture.
I should point out at the very top that I am not a Biblical scholar, and that this is not a scholarly series of articles. This means I’m not going to bother with footnotes and references as I shamelessly steal the work of the following professors: William Propp, Richard Friedman, Aren Maeir, Eric Cline and Israel Finkelstein. To a much lesser extent I shall also be drawing on the minimalist/revisionist work of Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou. I’ve linked to some of their major works so that you can check them out for yourself, if you’re so inclined.
GENESIS – GENEALOGIES
There’s a general consensus that Paradise is somewhere in the vicinity of the ancient city of Uruk. Or somewhere in Ethiopia. Or possibly Greece, Israel or, most nuttily of all, England. It doesn’t really matter all that much, but for what it’s worth, Uruk makes sense to me. The mythologised patriarch Abraham is said to have come from Ur, which isn’t that far away, and Uruk is generally thought of as the first proper city (that’s a little bit controversial, but let’s just go with it). The reason this makes sense is because of the clear and overt purposes of Genesis. These are the recording of creation myth and the validation of a set of kings and priests via a genealogical line from the ‘first man’ through to the first patriarch (Abraham).
As a hard historical source, I don’t think there’s any real dispute that Genesis is garbage. The genealogies and timelines of Genesis form the basis for the laughably incorrect chronology of Baeda and, by extension, the Young Earth nutters. But it’s not what we’d call egregious. When compared to roughly contemporaneous documents and stories of a similar nature, it becomes clear that Genesis isn’t really much better or worse than anyone else’s account. Sumerian and Egyptian king lists contain a hodge podge of gods and people mixed together with wild abandon and, in comparison with the tens of thousands of years of life claimed for the first seven Sumerian kings, some of the biblical claims are actually quite modest.
For the purposes of a broad (rather than a minute and scholarly) understanding, we can go with the breathtaking over-simplification that the whole thing is an exercise in legitimacy – political, cultural, territorial and spiritual. Basically, tracing through to Abraham is a way of claiming legitimate ownership of Yahweh, Israel, the Torah and authority over the Jewish peoples, by the authors of the version which has come down to us today. There are a great many debates raging, far above my head, about the historicity of Abraham and whether or not he ever existed, but I’m not really sure how important this is for understanding what all this begetting/begatting nonsense is about. It’s basically the same thing as Princess Diana’s family tracing their lineage back to the mythical version of King Arthur, or the Romans claiming the equally mythical Trojan War survivor Aeneas as the founder of their culture. It’s a mixture of the political and the etiological – we come from a line of god-like heroes, therefore what we have and what we are both have absolute legitimacy.
In the next post, I intend to have a crack at the creation myth and the story of Adam and Eve, hopefully demonstrating that their dismissal as ‘Bronze Age fairy tales’, or their veneration as ‘literal truth’ are both somewhat wide of the point.