Monday, March 26, 2012

New Religious Book Accepts that Bible is not History


It’s about time.

For the past 200 or so years – not more, although many people like to think so – evangelical Christians have insisted that the Bible is the literal word of God.  Early Church fathers didn’t think that.  Neither did Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Movement.  The Roman Catholic Church still doesn’t think that.  

While evangelicals have been memorizing every word of the sacred texts, archaeology and science have decimated the historical nature of the Bible with in depth research, dating of known relics and recovered documents.  “Literalists” have ignored the findings, but the evidence is solid and overwhelming.

Unfortunately, most of it has been hidden from the public in the sanctuary of biblical historians and scholars.  That is changing.  The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which has about 1.5 million members, has just published a new Torah – the first five books of the Bible – with an attached commentary.  The book minces no words, including many areas of modern research to demonstrate that the Bible is a “human rather than a divine document.”

This is not the work of wild-eyed fanatics out to trash the Bible.  Conservative Jews represent the middle area between the Reform Jews, who have done away with many of the religion’s traditions in an attempt to fit into society; and orthodox Jews, who cling to older, more religion-based ideas.  Conservative Jews wear yarmulkes (skull caps) and have traditional Sabbath services.  However, their new book fits nicely into the long tradition of Jewish biblical exegesis.

Talmud
Historians have debated when the first books of the Bible, known as the Torah (or the “law”) were first written.  It had to be no later than the 5th century B.C.E. because the texts were well enough known and accepted to be translated into Greek a century later.  By then, they were being discussed and analyzed by sages who devoted their lives to interpreting and understand the books.  Eventually, the sages' ideas and comments were written down in what today is known as the Talmud (“learning”).

The modern version of the Talmud underwent many transformations.  Initially, separate texts were written in Jerusalem and in Babylon anywhere from 1800 to 1500 years ago.  Scholarly Jews started the writing in Israel, but were forced to flee from Byzantine Christians and found a home in Babylon. They flourished on the banks of the Euphrates River, discussing the sacred books and collecting commentaries.  Their book is considered more authoritative, but is younger than the Jerusalem version.

Eventually, the two books were combined along with additional oral traditions that were memorized by generations of sages.  It has been edited multiple times to remove redundancies, outdated commentary and extraneous material.

From the first, the existence of the Talmudic teachings shows that Jews believed the holy texts represented God’s communication with His chosen people, but that the information had to be interpreted and, in some cases, edited by humans.  It was not the “word of God” encased in stone and unmalleable.

Christians felt the same way.  Comparisons of the earliest Gospel texts with later versions show hundreds of thousands of changes, reflecting new ideas that seeped into Christianity.  Humans made those changes.  No text was sacrosanct.  Both Matthew and Luke, for example, freely revised and amplified their main source, Mark.

The originally anonymous authors didn’t think they were misleading anyone.  They thought they were simply amending the texts to include information previous unknown, dropped out or otherwise forgotten.  In many cases, theology had changed.  So, the Gospels had to be altered to include the new ideas.  For example, the Virgin Birth is a later addition to the Gospels.  That caused some editing to be sure that idea was backed in writing.

Those who insist the Bible represent in inerrant word of God will not accept the new Jewish text.  However, they are missing the point of the Bible and its real value.  The Bible represents the moral and ethical teachings of generations of people.  Some of it is focused on Jesus; some on older patriarchs.  None of it has to be accurate historically to fulfill its primary function as a guide to living a good life.

In fact, history has no meaning in the Bible.  That’s what archaeology, anthropology, geology and other fields are for.

It’s nice that, finally, at least one religious organization recognizes that.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

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