Friday, July 4, 2008
Is That All It's About, Part 5
Oh, so many road signs we ignored So many sermons we deplored We got obnoxious, lazy, unruly and crazy Just to keep from gettin' bored You know the Rebel Soul is its own reward --Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, "Junebug in July" I limped in to my final semester out at Western with a faith that I was barely holding together and not entirely sure I wanted any more. The problem was that I was invested. I wasn't sure what I'd do with a B.A. in history if I didn't stick with my plan to go to Seminary. I knew I would lose friends, some of whom mattered dearly to me. And, of course, there was a girl (there's always one of those, isn't there?). Even though it would still take me nearly a year and a couple more iterations of Christianity to admit it to myself and another few months after that to "go public," I was at the end. And I know exactly what the final straw was. I started looking at the Bible and the Christian story through the eyes of a historian. Christianity in most of its traditional forms is built on a certain shared set of assumptions. True, you might have the more liberal Presbyterian or UCC churches saying that homosexuality is okay and women can be head while the conservative fundamentalists will say no such thing, but they'll probably agree on a lot more than they disagree. Those agreements, in turn, are founded on the central assumption that the Bible is at its core an accurate historical text. This has to be a core assumption, because the entire faith is rooted in the story of god's hand guiding the Jewish people and leading to the moment of Christ's ministry and sacrifice. The problem is that the Bible's claim to historical accuracy is problematic at best, mostly because it's based on Biblical claims to the Bible's own accuracy. The, "Because I said so," argument may work when disciplining a small child, but it doesn't hold up in research. However, for those within the Christian tradition, these Biblical claims create a set of shared assumptions that are rarely, if ever, questioned. The three main ones are, "The Bible is god's word," "God doesn't change," and, "The Bible doesn't contradict itself." The third one is the more frustrating, because it's generally used as a conversation ender in those cases where the Bible very obviously does contradict itself. The second is more subtle and requires a bit of Biblical scholarship to get around, but it's totally untrue. In the Torah and the histories, god is an often cruel and capricious anthropomorphic tribal deity primarily concerned with flexing his muscles to show his strength by slaughter. The prophets mark a shift to an ineffable deity more concerned with social justice than slaughter (compare, for instance, the treatmnt of Egypt in Exodus to the treatment of Assyria in Jonah. God slaughters the innocent firstborn of Egypt just to prove he can while using Jonah's hatred of Assyria to amplify his own compassion). The New Testament then marks a shift to the incarnational, suffering deity, before shifting back at the tail end to the bloodthirsty conqueror motif. The first assumption, meanwhile, serves as an all-purpose answer to any questions. This doesn't make sense? Well, it's god's word and god's smarter than you. These three main assumptions are then surrounded by a cloud of smaller assumptions that I gave the shorthand descriptor of, "The Bible says..." to. See, at some point during an interaction about Christian living with a Christian, they'll probably say, "Well I know the Bible says to [insert activity here], but/so..." A lot of these things are stuff that the Bible says, like, "Love your neighbors," or something. But I've been in a lot of conversations involving what the Bible says where I ended up thinking, "Really? I don't recall the Bible saying that." But it's taken as a given by the speaker and often the listener with absolutely no citation. It's actually kind of fun to respond to someone who says, "The Bible says..." with, "Really? Where does it say that?" Try it some time. You'll find out a lot about the person depending on how they answer. Either way, the basic assumptions at the core of Christianity don't really jibe with reality.* I take any discussion this from four basic points: the Documentary Hypothesis of the origins of the Torah, the similar haphazard construction of the New Testament, the nature of apocalyptic writing, and the myth surrounding Constantine's conversion to Christianity. The first three directly question core Christian assumptions about the Bible itself while the fourth hits the core myth of Christianity as an inevitable foundational part of Western civilization. The Documentary Hypothesis is a deconstruction of the Torah according to hypothesized original sources. It looks at linguistic and thematic composition as well as the use of the name of the deity and posits four different sources for the origin of the first five books of the Bible. The sources are the "E" source, so called because of the name Elohim for god, the "J" source for the use of Jehovah (which is itself a German mistranslation of Yahweh), the Rabbinical source, so given for the redactions which probably came from the later Rabbinical tradition, and, finally, the book of Deuteronomy, which I think is given the term the Deuteronomical Source, but I don't remember. Now, this is a very quick and dirty overview, so I'm not going to go in to tremendous detail, but if anyone out there is interested I can offer greater explanation of things at a later point in time. For the moment, though, I want to make two points. First, the primary difference between the J source and the E source is an issue of refinement. Historical scholarship widely holds that the separate sources are an attempt to integrate two systems and it represents a shift from an older tradition of worship of El to Yahweh. In this, it's roughly analogous to the stories of the wars between the Olympians and the Titans in Greek mythology, which were likely an attempt to explain a paradigm shift between an old and a new tradition. The Titans, in turn, supplanted the primal gods, which probably represents an even earlier shift. Either way, the use of El is all over Jewish tradition, right down to the name of their state (Isra-El, anybody?). El was, himself, an ancient Mesopotamian/Mediterranean deity who probably made it in to Jewish tradition as Elohim and was also the mythological father of Baal. This probably explains a thing or two about why Baal was the standard Biblical whipping boy... Second, the story of Deuteronomy is interesting in and of itself. According to the histories, King Josiah, one of the later kings of Judah and one of the ones who was regarded as pious, ordered the Temple cleaned and rededicated. The scribes miraculously managed to find a lost book and Josiah ordered it read to the people so they could be properly instructed or something. This miraculously discovered book is widely believed (or, possibly, canonically said, I honestly don't remember at the moment) to be Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy occupies a weird niche in the Torah, meanwhile, and shares far more in common with the book of Isaiah than it does with the rest of the books with which it is grouped. Isaiah, or, more accurately, the people who wrote under the name Isaiah, were contemporaries of Josiah. It's a head scratcher, don'tcha think? Isaiah, meanwhile, is as good a point to get in to the nature of apocalyptic and prophetic writings as any. It, along with Daniel and maybe Jeremiah does not seem to be written by a single author. Historians (of faith traditions as well as non-faith) sometimes divide Isaiah into two and explicitly call them First and Second Isaiah. Daniel, meanwhile, has a drastic shift in the middle. The first few chapters are the familiar stories of the Fiery Furnace and the Lion's Den. Then it switches over to a collection of stories about dreams and dream interpretation, including one dream in which Daniel predicts the rise of Alexander the Great, his campaign, and the breakdown of his empire in to the successor kingdoms. This would have been a great accomplishment of prognostication from someone who probably lived during the consolidation of the Persian Empire long before the Battle of Marathon. It wasn't so great, however, for, say, a subject of the Seleucids (one of the primary successor kingdoms) writing under Daniel's name, as was probably the case. Ancient writers, you see, didn't so much have the same concept of intellectual property we do and would often write under an assumed name or take the name of a previous writer in order to give their own work greater prestige. This has the effect, however, of wildly distorting our concept of the Bible's predictive abilities, which is something we shouldn't overestimate, since the book of Daniel offers a stunning example of the Bible's capacity to be a completely inaccurate historical document. See, Daniel records the switchover to Persian rule of Babylon. It says that he hung out with Nebuchadnezzar and then Belshazzar in the final days of the Chaldean (Babylonian) Empire, then Belshazzar was assassinated and Darius the Mede took over. Following Darius's takeover, Daniel got to have the fun of the lion's den, then became a favored officer of the king. The book of Ezra then claims that in the "first year" of the reign of Cyrus of Persia (which the Bible I'm currently looking at hilariously footnotes as 538 BCE), Cyrus decided to allow the Jews to return home and rebuild their Temple and gave them a bunch of stuff to do it to boot. This is a completely, totally, and utterly impossible time line. Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BCE. The king was Cyrus the Great, and he was many, many years in to a reign in which he had elevated his kingdom from a minor power with great potential to one which would span from Afghanistan to the borders of Egypt. He lived many years after the conquest of Babylon before dying, at which point his son took over and shortly thereafter died in battle. After a brief period of upheaval, the empire fell under the command of Darius I. Darius consolidated control of Egypt, conquered Turkey, and pushed in to Europe proper, but for all his skill he is mostly known as the king who presided over the Persian loss to an outnumbered force of Athenian and Platean hoplites at the Plains of Marathon. He did actually put in to place the system of satraps over which Daniel was apparently appointed to preside, but this one bit of historical accuracy really doesn't make up for the many, many problems with the rest of the setup. But I digress... Anyway, the propensity of later writers to place their work under the names of earlier authors has given us an overinflated sense of the Bible's predictive ability. This, when combined with a largely misunderstood or misrepresented trend has created one of the greatest difficulties in properly placing the Bible in context. I speak here of apocalyptic writings. Apocalyptic books were the sci-fi of their day. They attempted to confront issues or address grievances that would get the reader angry or the writer in trouble if they were taken head on by switching context. In this they often functioned as political screed, too, attacking rulers and powerful administrators obliquely and in code. The best known of all apocalyptic writings closes out the Christian Bible and is known to all as the Book of Revelation. The imagery in Revelation is so powerfully misunderstood that nearly two thousand years after the writing of the book we've got Jack Van Impe on TV telling us that the European Union is the ten-headed beast from the sea (or, at least, he was saying that when there were 10 nations in the EU. I don't know what he's saying now). We've got books like Hal Lindsay's Late Great Planet Earth confidently proclaiming the coming apocalypse (in, like, 1992) and LaHaye & Jenkins selling millions of copies of the Left Behind books while at least some of their readers claim that the books are accurate representations of how the world will end (I shit you not. I could tell you a specific situation in which an otherwise intelligent person made that claim directly and I probably have a lot of stories where it's between the lines). And while these latter day Daniels attempt to discern exactly what collection of evil nations comprise the seven heads and ten horns (and why god didn't see fit to mention his own country, the New Israel, the great, god-fearing land of 'Merica while he was making everything else so damn clear), they totally ignore the most likely possibility. Let's say, for a moment, that you're a Jewish-minded ancient Roman. You write a book and include in it a prostitute named Babylon, a great capitol that proclaimed its might and then fell, and put her on top of a seven-headed beast which is covered with blasphemies against god and from which many waters flow. Let's say you're trying to do it to make a point. Which is more likely, that you're trying to warn people a couple millennia in the future to watch out for the European Union, or that you're making a not so veiled attack against a certain imperial capitol that's famously built on seven hills and to which it is said that all roads lead? Just for giggles, let's break down the image presented. Rome's pantheon of gods was an affront to the one true god of Judaism and Christianity. Romans, meanwhile, called Jews and, later, Christians atheists due to their determined non-acceptance of Roman gods. There wasn't quite the widespread persecution we've been told about (Christians being eaten by lions happened, but [insert powerless people group] v. wild, exotic animals was a popular spectacle at the games and should in no way be construed as a systematic attempt to wipe out Christians), but there was plenty of animosity and a bit of open conflict, but most of that was Jews v. Romans (Masada, the Bar Kochba Revolt, the destruction of the Temple and subsequent diaspora, the Sicarii as an organized group of assassins whose aim was to kill enough Romans so they'd leave, etc.). Still, plenty of early Christians were, themselves, Jews or tried to append Jewish law to the new faith. Rome was built on seven hills and for the Jewish people would have been the spiritual successor to Babylon, so evoking the image of Rome as Babylon would have functioned as powerful propaganda. Roads and rivers, meanwhile, are interchangeable images of commerce and the trade of ideas. Rome was the crossroads of the ancient European and Mediterranean world and built a network of roads that still impacts the world today. It wasn't a great port city, but a city that sat "on many waters" would have been one with a great deal of maritime commerce and strength, exactly the image evoked by the phrase "all roads lead to Rome." To make a short summation of an overly long point, it's probably safe to say that we can ignore Van Impe and Hal Lindsay. I'm pretty sure the apocalypse happened right about the time Attila the Hun sacked Rome... And, on that note, I'll have to cut this disgustingly long post off. I'll leave the composition of the New Testament and the tale of Constantine's conversion for a future post... *This should not be construed as an attack on faith. Just as historical record cannot prove Christianity, it cannot and should not negate faith. The very gaps through which I exited can be used as an entry for another. What I do believe the nature of historical speculation of Scripture should do is remove the smug self-certainty of those who equate faith with certainty and believe it's possible to empirically prove the existence of god and the primacy of their religion just because it's in the Bible.