Questions from the Discussion Forum

Translation and Revision

  • How was Naomi able to nurse Obed if she had not been pregnant for what we can assume to be many years? Is it possible that this is just a figure of speech and that she did not actually nurse the baby from her own breast?

    I love your question, and I’m not sure biologically whether a woman can nurse past the age of childbearing. (Since I posted this answer on the discussion board I looked it up. The answer was surprising: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/WomensHealth/story?id=6257976&page=1), It’s quite possible, too, that Naomi was not all that old. The typical age of marriage was probably puberty, at least for a woman, so Naomi could have been bewailing her old age at age 25. In Ezekiel, God compares Jerusalem to a female infant that he rescued and raised, then married when she went into puberty:

    “You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil.” (Despite God’s generous treatment of his “wife” Jerusalem, she cheats on him and then sacrifices his children on altars to foreign Gods. She is not the least bit grateful.)

    While the above analogy is creepy, in my opinion, it does tell us when and how women became wives.

    Yet another possibility is that the translation itself is misleading. I looked up the Hebrew word for nurse, ‘aman. It has a wide variety of translations. One word is foster parent, and that would make sense in this story, given the elaborate web of substitutions in this story, substitutions that go far beyond the typical “Levirate marriage” arrangement. For example, Boaz stands in for Elimelech, Ruth stands in for Naomi, the child is born to replace Mahlon and Chilion. In many cultures, a child had a biological parent and a foster parent. This happened in ancient Scotland, for example. Moses seems to have have had a biological mother and a foster mother but no father, and it’s interesting when the biological mother becomes the wet nurse (also translated “foster mother”) for him. So perhaps this story is telling us that Naomi becomes the child’s mother and Ruth becomes his “nurse.” Definitely confusing.

    If you’re looking for a goddess connection, remember that Ruth was written at a time when the goddess Asherah had recently been forceably removed from the canon and from temple worship, so some second-temple bible stories tried to relocate Asherah’s function in metaphor and story. Asherah was a mother goddess. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish women:

    On occasion in Ugaritic myth, Asherah performs the maternal role of wet nurse. Ugaritic and other Canaanite materials further associate Asherah with lions (indicating power), serpents (representing immortality or healing), and sacred trees (signifying fertility). Thus Asherah’s children at Ugarit can be called her “pride of lions”; the goddess is called “lady of the serpent” in second-millennium B.C.E. inscriptions from the Sinai; the late-thirteenth-century B.C.E. Lachish ewer dedicated to Asherah is decorated with images of sacred trees.

    ‘Aman also means “trust” or “trusted one.” In that sense, then, Naomi might have been a godmother or a guardian. In Esther, Esther’s uncle Mordecai takes her under his wing or adopts her because she is an orphan. He becomes her ‘aman. But their mortal enemy is Haman, which is the same exact word, here used as “faithful servant” to the king. So the story plays on the symmetry where two words are pronounced the same but used in opposite ways. In short, it’s like a pun. By the end, the ‘aman and Haman are fighting it out to either save or destroy the Hebrew people. Haman creates a gallows to hang ‘aman, but Haman ends up hanging on it. Twist!

    In Deuteronomy, ‘aman means to be faithful or believe. It is usually used in the negative there, as when Moses chides the descendants of the Israelites for being “unfaithful” to God. But it’s also related to the Hebrew word emunah or faith (sometimes “truth”). This word is mainly used in the psalms, where it refers to God’s faithfulness to us. 

    Another translation of the word ‘aman is “pillar.” In that sense it is related to “stand firm” or “be truthful.” (It is an ancestor to our word “amen.” ) There is a line in Revelation where the original Hebrew word is invoked (despite the fact that Revelation was written in Greek): “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation.” Generally–because they are Christian, not Jewish–translators associate the “Amen” with Jesus, which allows us to think what is implied in John–that Jesus was an aspect of God from the beginning but was “born from above” and then returned there. But when I read “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation,” I always think of the female Wisdom (Chokmah), who is described in Proverbs as helping God create the world. So the goddess Wisdom was the ‘aman or foster mother to the human race. 

    At any rate, the word ‘aman has a wide web of associations, and those can vary by gender. It generally means “the one who is truthful [or who stands firm, or who believes, or  who is trusted, who is a pillar, or who fosters.”] Here is an article that goes into more detail: https://www.abarim-publications.com/Dictionary/a/a-m-nfin.html So if Naomi is an ‘aman to Ruth’s baby Obed, it means she is a support or comfort, just as Ruth is to her. A student once said that Ruth is about faith in God, and I pointed out that that word is not mentioned in the story. But the whole text creates an association between strength (chayil) and nurturing (‘aman) which is linguistically related to faith and belief (emumnah). So perhaps we show most faith in god when we nurture and believe in each other. 

    What makes Hebrew fun is that one word can mean so many things. Remember that Hebrew had many fewer words than English does.  I always wonder how translators make the decisions they do. One thing is certain, though; any  English translation greatly oversimplifies a word that had complex associations for the authors who used them. When we translate, we have to pick one English equivalent, but the truth is that translators understood ‘aman to mean all those things.

  • How did supercessionalism come to be?

    This is a great question, and I’m not sure I know the answer. I know that as early as the gospels, the authors (especially the author of the gospepl of Matthew) made a concerted effort to echo the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible to demonstrate that Jesus really was the Jewish messiah.  Here’s one example (posted above):

    With gospels like the gospel of Mark, we can see examples of events being narrated in a way that connects Jesus to earlier prophecy. For example, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. This appears to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9.9: ” Your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” There are three ways to understand the connection between the two texts. One is that Jesus really is the Jewish messiah predicted in Zechariah (that’s an idea Christians take for granted but Jews reject). The second is that Jesus, who is called “rabbi” or teacher in Mark and Matthew, deliberately rode the donkey to evoke Zechariah. The third is that the Jewish author of these gospels inserted the event to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy from the Hebrew bible.

    Here’s a Wikipedia page that shows New Testament references to Hebrew prophecies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Testament_messianic_prophecies_quoted_in_the_New_TestamentLinks to an external site.

    Another way Christians reinterpret the stories in the Hebrew bible is through “typology.” Paul came up with this term. He was already using typology in his letters; for example, he called Adam a type (“typos”) of Christ (who is the “antitype”). The word “typos” meant “stamp” or mold. Other examples of this way of reading the bible are seeing Jonah’s 3 days in the fish as a “type” of Jesus’s death and resurrection, which is the “antitype” or fulfillment of the original story. After Paul, this became a popular way of reading the bible in the early Christian church (and obviously, Christians still do it today).  Here’s a Wikipedia page on typology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typology_(theology)Links to an external site.

    Christians used typology to redefine their relationship to the Hebrew bible, which they believed the New Testament had “superceded” (which leads to the word “supercessionalism.”) Again, Paul does this quite early, explaining that Christians no longer had to follow the 613 laws in the Hebrew bible because they had been born again in faith. (The Greek word Paul used for law was nomos, which is often translated as “works.” This leads to a misunderstanding of Paul’s message as saying that Christians don’t need to do good works when they have faith.)

    In contrast, these laws remained sacred to Jews and Jewish Christians. In the gospel of Matthew (which was written by a Jewish follower of Jesus who saw Jesus as a messiah for Jews only), Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

  • Is "hell" in the bible a real place? I've read that it was a misunderstanding of the word "gehenna" by the editors of the KJV.

    The New Testament scholar who most recently covered this topic was Bart Ehrman: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07ZWFHY6K/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1. If you want a read his shorter blog about it, here’s a link. Most of his stuff is behind a firewall, but I think this one is free: https://ehrmanblog.org/heaven-and-hell-in-a-nutshell/. If you have trouble accessing it, I have a subscription. Ehrman enjoys a reputation as an iconoclast. Here’s a funny interview with him from the old Colbert show: https://www.cc.com/video/yji71b/the-colbert-report-bart-ehrman

    You are correct that Gehenna was a kind of suburb of Jerusalem where garbage burned. Jeremiah calls it “cursed” because it was the place where kings of Judah sacrificed their children (yes, that was a thing!) By the way, “cursed” is one of several Hebrew words designating bad behavior:

    Sin, Abomination, and Other Stuff

    Anyway, Gehenna is the word used in the New Testament for hell, as it was understood at that time.

    In the Hebrew Bible, the word for where the dead go is Sheol or “the pit,” which was a little different from Gehenna (see below). But the KJV of the bible translated both words as “hell,” a concept that was still evolving in the early Christian period. (The medieval Jewish Talmud had also equated them). Some texts just used “gathered to his ancestors” or “bosom of Abraham” to talk about death. Others were more familiar with debates in Daniel, in apocryphal texts like Enoch, and in classical literature about where the dead go. Enoch brought us the concept of the war in heaven and the place where the devils got thrown into after that war. But these ideas hadn’t yet coalesced into the hell we think of today.

    What did the ancient Jews mean by “Sheol”? The Hebrew sheol, in the sense of  a place where the dead go, is just a return to dirt, although the fact that witches could contact the dead suggested they maintained some kind of low-level existence. They certainly weren’t being tortured in the early references to it. They had other similar words, like Abaddon (“ruin”).  Here are some quotes that describe Sheol:

    “The eye that now sees me will see me no longer; you will look for me, but I will be no more. As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so one who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more.” – Job

    “I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.” – Psalm 88

    The Greeks translated sheol as their version of Hell, Hades. While Homeric poets absolutely did believe in an afterlife, it was just Hades, a place  Achilles told Odysseus to avoid if he could. Ancient Greeks didn’t believe in a heaven or in resurrection. Later Greeks adopted a Minoan concept called Elysium, which was the place where the war heroes went after dead, and Virgil added that the poets and statesmen to this place too (he also allowed that these people could be reincarnated.) Virgil’s Aeneid gave the place a couple of divisions and a geography.  If you’re wondering who Virgil is, he wrote an Eclogue in which he predicted “the birth of a boy, a supposed savior, who—once he is of age—will become divine and eventually rule over the world.”(1st c. BCE)–I’m quoting Wikipedia on Virgil.  Most thought he predicted the coming of Caesar, but Christians thought he was predicting the coming of Jesus, and for that reason plus his poetry cred, Dante chose him as guide in his epic about the Christian afterlife.

    Anyway, it’s pretty clear that the Christian idea of hell is a blend of a few ideas–Hades, Elysium, Daniel’s resurrected faithful, and a few other concepts. As I mentioned above, the KJV of the bible uses “hell” to translate both Gehenna and Sheol. “Hell” is an Anglo-Saxon word whose origin means “cover” or “hiding place.” Other related words (cognates) are helmet, cell, cellar, hall, hole, even the mythic Valhalla.

    Interesting enough, in the rabbinic tradition of the middle ages, Gehenna was more like purgatory. In the Kabbala, which is the medieval Jewish mystical tradition, Gehenna was like a holding place for all the dead before they moved on. (That’s according to the Wikipedia–I know little about the Kabbala)

    Elaine Pagels wrote a great book called the Origin of Satan; I talk about that later in the semester. Needless to say, Satan in ancient Hebrew texts is not the devil, as he is in the New Testament. The devil concept came from the Persians, and Satan gradually merged with that figure. For the ancient Jews, he was just another one of God’s “host” or “court,” as mentioned in Genesis and Job, among other places.

  • Who first translated the bible into English?
    • During the middle ages and the Reformation, several people tried to translate the bible from Latin into English. You can find medieval translations of individual texts. Furthermore, some medieval illuminated gospels have Anglo-Saxon notations and translations on them.
    • The first person credited with translating the whole bible from Latin into English was John Wycliffe. This bible was hand-written and seems to have jump-started the Lollard movement. Wycliffe was declared a heretic and died of a stroke. The reason Wycliffe just used Latin is because in Wycliffe’s time, knowledge of classical Greek and Hebrew was hard to come by. Most of those ancient texts were in countries dominated by Islam, and the tensions caused by the Crusades meant Christians did not have access to them.
    • However, later scholars would try to go to the original source.  The Hebrew bible was written not in Latin but in Hebrew, with a little Aramaic throne in. The Apocrypha and the New Testament were written in Greek. The Latin translation attributed to Jeremiah, which Christians read until the early modern period, was a translation of the Greek Old and New Testament (The Greek Old Testament came from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, which was the text read by authors of the New Testament gospels). So Jeremiah’s Latin translation was two removes from the Hebrew source, and that let to misunderstandings. Here are two of my favorites:
      • Matthew 1.23 quotes the Greek translation of Isaiah: “The virgin will conceive.” But the Hebrew text said, “the woman will conceive.” The Greeks were much more concerned about female virginity than the Jews were, and that concern was passed from Jeremiah to the entire Christian religion and many Christian households to this day.
      • A passage in Isaiah referred to the Babylonian king as Helel Ben Shachar or “shining one, son of the Canaanite god of the dawn.” Somewhere between the Greek and the Latin translations, that got rendered as “light-bearer,” which Jeremiah translated as Lucifer, thinking it was an early reference to the devil. In fact, ancient Jews didn’t believe in a devil or hell, and there is no character named Lucifer in the Hebrew bible.
    • The first person to translate the Hebrew and Greek bible directly into English, bypassing the Latin, was William Tyndale in 1535. The Geneva bible and the King James bible followed suit. While Shakespeare and Milton were probably raised on the Geneva bible, King James, the first English monarch to claim absolute power, commissioned the KJV to counter what he thought were subversive, anti-monarchical elements in the Geneva bible.
    • Tyndale and KJV scholars did their best, but they knew less about biblical Hebrew that scholars do today. It was pretty easy to make a mistake because the Masoretic texts they had did not transcribe vowels, only consonants. They didn’t have access to Jewish people with knowledge of Hebrew because England, like so many European countries, had pushed all the Jewish people out. Until the time of Ferdinand and Isabella and, later, the inquisition, both Muslims and Jews coexisted with Christians in Spain. By pushing them out, Christians missed out on lot of new thinking about the classics, science, navigation, mathematics–you name it.
    • Like Tyndale, several precursors who translated the bible from Latin into English were executed as heretics. You might say that the church did not want ordinary people reading the bible.
  • Why do we have so many English translations of the bible?

    The best answer I have to why there are so many i that each translation has different goals and is directed at different audiences. This Wikipedia article talks about the schools of translating; you can then click on a particular translation name to read more about it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_translations. You could break down the reason for the differences into several categories:

    1. Schools of translation (dynamic vs. formal equivalence)
    2. Doctrinal differences (for example, Jehovah’s witnesses have their own translation called the New World Translation), and there are literal translations designed for Jews and Catholics.
    3. Politics: I think I’ve mentioned that King James, an absolutist  monarch, thought that the Geneva bible was too radical.
    4. Accessibility: We now have several “basic English” translations such as the Good News and The Message. These are paraphrases that target children, but they are often very far from the original meaning.
    5. Style. Lately, scholars have created their own translations that better reflect the word order and poetic style of the original Hebrew. (Most translations we have online were created by Christians). Friedman has a Torah translation that goes from right to left and from back to front.
    6. Currency: Some translations update old translations (example, the New King James Version).

    I wish we had an interactive text with a new glossary. The Strong’s Hebrew and Greek lexicons, for example, are very dated (pre-Dead Sea scrolls). By way of illustration, if you look up Yahweh’s name, you’ll see Jehovah. We’re going to be using it in our translation essay assignment, because it’s available and free, but it’s wrong sometimes.

  • Which English bible translation is the best and contains the fewest errors?

    In the following response, I’m going to distinguish between errors in translation, dated language, and divergence of interpretation. All these contribute to differences in English translation.

    • In terms of errors, modern translations are better, especially those created or revised after the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in the 20th century. These first-century texts are the earliest Hebrew biblical texts that we have, and they’ve taught scholars a great deal about biblical Hebrew that they didn’t know when King James commissioned his bible in the 17th century. For example, scholars now believe God’s name is Yahweh, not Jehovah. The error came from a limited knowledge of the ancient Hebrew language: The Masoretes (a Jewish monastic group) who gave us the only Hebrew texts available before the Dead Sea scrolls wrote only vowels, only consonants. They did not believe in rendering God’s sacred name on the page, and the Greek and Latin translators that followed them followed suit (which is why we get “Adonai” instead of Yahweh in some versions). But studying the ancient  Hebrew of the Dead Sea scrolls helped scholars understand how names like Yahweh should be pronounced.
    • Another problem with older translations is that English itself has changed. Older translations like KJV are misleading because most of us don’t speak Shakespearean English.
      • 1 Corinthians, for example, contains a passage about seeing the world “through a glass darkly.” In Shakespeare’s time, “glass” meant mirror and “darkly” meant “dimly.” Even though I love “through a glass darkly,” it’s easy to misunderstand today.
      • One of my pet peeves is the KJV’s influential translation of the first word in Ecclesiastes, “Hebel,” into “Vanity.” For Shakespeareans, “vanity” meant “emptiness,” not “self-love.” Hebel means “Breath,” and while I think “emptiness” is misleading, “vanity” misleads modern readers. The English word’s meaning has changed.
    • A third problem arises because ancient Hebrew words can’t always be translated in English easily. Although having a scholarly edition of the bible is important, the issue we have with translation stems less from  “errors” than from big disagreements about what the Hebrew words mean. I mentioned three schools of interpretation:
      • Formal equivalence translators try to stick close to the literal meaning, even if that doesn’t make much sense in translation. Take for example the passage in Mark about Jesus’s’ family coming to see him and asking him to stop prophesying. This literally says something like “They were saying he was standing out from himself.” (My Greek isn’t good; I’m taking this from Ehrman’s discussion in https://ehrmanblog.org/does-marks-gospel-actually-deny-the-virgin-birth/). The formal equivalent people would leave it like that.
      • The “Balanced” translators try to clarify passages without changing the passage’s basic meaning–the nearest noun to “they” is the family, so by the rules of Greek: “The family is saying he has gone out of his mind.” (Out of his mind is a pretty good English rendering of  “standing out from himself.” )
      • A Dynamic Equivalence translation such as the RSV clarifies but also changes the text to reflect the editor’s beliefs. So the RSV’s version of this passage says, “People are saying he has gone crazy.” According to Bart Ehrman, RSV’s editors changed “the family” to “people” to correct what they see as a faulty assumption–that Jesus had a mother, brothers, and sisters who didn’t know he was the messiah and wanted him to stop making a spectacle of himself.
    • Your philosophy of translation can make a huge difference in what you believe about the bible.
      • For example, let’s take the opening passage of the bible. Most English translations say “In the beginning, God created…” But Hebrew scholars will tell you that the Hebrew really means  “When God began to create the sky and the earth …”–in other words, it doesn’t say the creation happened before anything else, “in the beginning.” Instead, at some point, El and his “host” of other deities were hanging around and decided to make the earth by defeating the watery chaos that was already there.
      • Does it matter if the world’s creation was the first thing God did or if it was just one of many things that God did? Yes, if you’re trying to figure out how old the universe is or what it’s made of. For centuries, theologians  argued whether God made the world “out of nothing” or “out of himself.” People have been excommunicated for taking the wrong side–and for things that might seem a lot more trivial.

    That’s why, if you don’t know Greek and Hebrew, comparing many translations and reading many scholarly discussions is pretty helpful. You can look at annotated texts, but again, annotations are made by people with opinions, so they vary widely, too.

  • Why do the Bible and the different books have so many revisions?

    I think the simplest answer to your question about bible revision is that the priests did not regard bible texts as sacrosanct and unchangeable the way we do today. We tend to impose modern ideas about texts on the past–for instance, we want to know who authored a text. But for the ancients an individual author  had no authority. That’s why some texts were attributed to famous people like Moses. 

    You’re learning about bible revision of the Torah now, but we will talk less about Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history books (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). Scholars think Deuteronomy contains multiple layers, including:

    1. A large diverse group of commandments
    2. The literary frame  of Moses speaking to his people on Mount Nebo 
    3. Revisions in exile, including a long and very specific list of curses that describe the exile and frame it, retrospectively, as punishment for disobedience
    4. Some harmonization of Deuteronomy’s laws with those in later law books such as Leviticus

    Moreover, the histories themselves were revised to frame all bad things as punishments for disobedience. That revision probably happened during Josiah’s period or during exile. For example, 2 Kings includes the story of Josiah’s reforms to worship after he discovered Deuteronomy. 2 Kings seems to have originally ended triumphantly, suggesting that the reform worked because Josiah did what the Israelites failed to do. But after Judah fell and Josiah was publicly executed, the story had to be revised to explain why God allowed Judah’s fall despite all its reforms. The answer, as always, was about foreign Gods. 

    The fact that scholars detect these multiple layers in these key books shows that they saw the bible as a living document. Though the Hebrew and Christian canons are now closed, we still see people trying to apply predictions from Revelation, which clearly referred to Roman times, to the modern age. Ministers today frequently interpret disasters as punishment for something biblical. For example, I remember when Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans was attributed to the gay people who lived there. Some people today see Trump as equivalent to the Persian King Cyrus, who Ezra and Nehemiah thought was God’s anointed. If the canon weren’t closed, I’m sure some believers would add these ideas to it, while others would argue vehemently against it. I guess I’m saying that we all want to revise and update the bible and make it more relevant to us. We just don’t all have that ability. 

Names, Terms, and Biblical Hebrew

  • In the midrash, each letter of the Hebrew asks God to create the world through it. Where else do Jews show interest in the language and the alphabet?

    You’re referring to the wonderful midrash called “The Alphabet” about how the world was created in Legends of the Jews. The previous story, “First Things Created,” talks about how God consults the Torah for advice. That evokes Proverbs 8, in which Wisdom says God created the world through her.

    One cool thing about biblical Hebrew that you may or may not know is that each letter is also a number. And the numbers also have their own inherent symbolic significance.

    For example, the word “shabbat” means rest but is also related to the word “seven” and “week” (maybe–see this discussion, which goes into a lot of detail about the origin of the Lunar week and the how the word “sabbath” orignated (The Babylonians were the astronomers, so some speculate that the Jews picked up this idea of the lunar week in exile. The Greeks and the Persians did not have a word for “week.”) And the numerological equivalent of “shabbat” is 702, which is the inverse of the equivalent for the word “light.” More on this here.

    The kabbalists believe that the the letters of the Torah are like a giant equation that reveals the secrets of God, the universe, and everything (kind of an oversimplication). The kabbalist art of numeralia is called Gematria. Here’s a long video about it (you can find shorter ones). Here’s a cool discussion of the 39 things you shouldn’t do on the sabbath: https://quantumtorah.com/shabbat-in-numbers/. (Quantum Torah is a great site for geeks like myself).

  • When all of the others gods from the Canaanites/Israelites got taken out, if they're mentioned in the bible a lot where did they go? Did people just believe they had it wrong the whole time? Are there still some branches of Judaism that practice polytheism?

    Great question. I will start by saying I don’t believe any branches of Judaism still practice polytheism, though some believe the Christians do (the Christian trinity confuses a lot of people, including me!).

    We start seeing mentions of the Canaanite gods mainly in references to eradicating them or criticizing people who are still worshipping them, but they remain part of the language (Hebrew is a regional (hill) dialect of the Canaanite language, so they share vocabulary. For more on this, see this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_language#:~:text=Hebrew%20belongs%20to%20the%20Canaanite,about%201200%20to%20586%20BCELinks to an external site.).

    The post powerful northern monarchs like Ahab and Omri made important international alliances in part because of their foreign wives, so the bible (written by survivors of the southern kingdom, who by then followed Deuteronomy) blames these wives for the introduction of foreign gods.

    The Jewish people were ethnically, linguistically, and culturally the same as Canaanites . They had the same style of pottery, for example, and some of the same statuary. Some think they evolved a separate identity in the hill country, where Israelites/Judahites tended to concentrate. But they kept the  same vocabulary and even used some gods’ names in their names and everyday speech. Here are some examples of mentions of (or oblique references to)  Canaanite gods in the bible:

    1. The “sky” god (equivalent to Zeus in the Greek pantheon) is named El, (Elohim, El Shaddai, etc.)  and the same name is used for “god” generally, but also for the main God. At a certain point, El was replaced by Baal, the storm god, for some Canaanites but apparently not for the followers of what would one day be called Judaism. So some biblical literature shows the Hebrew God El in conflict with the Canaanite god Baal.
    2.  The word for the Canaanite sky god Yam is also one of the Hebrew words for ocean.
    3. The words “El” and “baal/bell” are part of many Jewish names. Names with Yahweh in them tend to be later, but some have both (EL-i-JAH). The Canaanite word “bal/bil/bel” meant lord or husband. So Beaulah means married and Bildad means “love of the lord.”
    4. The word “dagon” (Canaanite god of fertility) is a Hebrew word for “abundance.” The word “shemesh” (sun) comes from the Canaanite god for the sun Shemesh or Shamesh. Etc.
    5. Some of the Canaanite gods (Chemosh, Dagon) are the names of  competing gods for other semitic peoples.
    6. The Canaanite goddess Asherah (like Hera, Zeus’s consort) was name name of El’s wife/consort. People continued to worship her as late as Josiah’s time. 2 Kings mentions that Josiah removed Asherah and Baal relics from the Jerusalem temple, suggesting they were once worshipped there. He also cut down Asherah poles where she was worshipped. Other related names were Astarte and Ishtar and Inanna. (Interestingly, scholars didn’t know much about Canaanite mythology until the 20th century, when a trove of Ugaritic texts were found. That’s why the King James bible translates “asherah” as “grove of trees.” )
    7. Jeremiah complained that the women of Jerusalem were inviting God’s wrath by baking cakes for Asherah, often called the queen of heaven.
    8. Anat (a violent huntress god, a bit like Artemis/Diana) was still worshipped in at least one Jewish community even after the exile. Her name was “Anat-Yahu” (Anat wife of Yahweh, though Yahweh was called Yahu in this community).
    9. Isaiah refers to a Canaanite myth of the god and goddess of the dawn to predict that Babylon would eventually fall. The gods in that myth were mistranslated in Latin bibles as “Lucifier.” More on that here: https://biblefaq390.com/#hfaq-post-146
  • How much did Canaanite religion influence the bible?

    I love this question. I think the Canaanite group of gods had a big influence on the Hebrew scriptures. The Jewish people were ethnically, linguistically, and culturally the same as Canaanites . They had the same style of pottery, for example, and some of the same statuary. Some think they evolved a separate identity in the hill country, where Israelites/Judahites tended to concentrate. But they kept the  same vocabulary and even used some gods’ names in their names and everyday speech. I can think of a few examples of Canaanite influence off the top of my head:

    1. The “sky” god (equivalent to Zeus in the Greek pantheon) is named El, (Elohim, El Shaddai, etc.)  and the same name is used for “god” generally, but also for the main God. At a certain point, El was replaced by Baal, the storm god, for some Canaanites but apparently not for the followers of what would one day be called Judaism. So some biblical literature shows the Hebrew God El in conflict with the Canaanite god Baal.
    2.  The word for the Canaanite sky god Yam is also one of the Hebrew words for ocean.
    3. The words “El” and “baal/bell” are part of many Jewish names. Names with Yahweh in them tend to be later, but some have both (EL-i-JAH). The Canaanite word “bal/bil/bel” meant lord or husband. So Beaulah means married and Bildad means “love of the lord.”
    4. The word “dagon” (Canaanite god of fertility) is a Hebrew word for “abundance.” The word “shemesh” (sun) comes from the Canaanite god for the sun Shemesh or Shamesh. Etc.
    5. Some of the Canaanite gods (Chemosh, Dagon) are the names of  competing gods for other semitic peoples.
    6. The Canaanite goddess Asherah (like Hera, Zeus’s consort) was name name of El’s wife/consort. People continued to worship her as late as Josiah’s time. 2 Kings mentions that Josiah removed Asherah and Baal relics from the Jerusalem temple, suggesting they were once worshipped there. He also cut down Asherah poles where she was worshipped. Other related names were Astarte and Ishtar and Inanna. (Interestingly, scholars didn’t know much about Canaanite mythology until the 20th century, when a trove of Ugaritic texts were found. That’s why the King James bible translates “asherah” as “grove of trees.” )
    7. Jeremiah complained that the women of Jerusalem were inviting God’s wrath by baking cakes for Asherah, often called the queen of heaven.
    8. Anat (a violent huntress god, a bit like Artemis/Diana) was still worshipped in at least one Jewish community even after the exile. Her name was “Anat-Yahu” (Anat wife of Yahweh, though Yahweh was called Yahu in this community).
    9. Isaiah refers to a Canaanite myth of the god and goddess of the dawn to predict that Babylon would eventually fall. The gods in that myth were mistranslated in Latin bibles as “Lucifier.” More on that here: https://biblefaq390.com/#hfaq-post-146
  • We did some analysis of the names of characters--so, what's the importance of names in the Hebrew Bible?

    That’s a huge question, and it probably varies. Most Hebrew names have meaning (look up the names on Abarim PublicationLinks to an external site.s), and some stories–like Ruth–seem to  have been constructed as allegories in which many if not all of the names are central to understanding the story. Obviously Ruth is one example, in which there is a famine in the  “land of bread” (unthinkable) and then a woman changes her name from “My delight” to “Bitter” and back again because of the gift of friendship (Ruth).

    Genesis 2.2 tells a second version of the creation story which also appears to be allegorical. Adam (“human or clay man”) is made from clay (adamah), and then God  makes a woman out of his rib (isha or “from the man”). The woman is named Eve (Haya or “life”), which is also what God breathes into the clay human. They have three sons. “Abel” (hebel or “breath”) does not live long, much like breath itself. Cain (“Spear”) kills him, so Adam and Eve have a third child, whose name Seth means “foundation.” That name suggests that the Hebrew nation is built on this foundation.

    In the bible, God also has a court, but the members of his court don’t have names exactly; they have roles. So God’s “bad cop” who enforces his rules is called “the adversary or enforcer” (ha satan). The Hebrew word for adversary (“satan”) is not a name at all. He is not the same character as the biblical serpent, which also has no name but is described as “shrewd.”

    However, some biblical texts are clearly meant to be historical or based on historical sources, and they tend to use less allegory.

    The bible also attaches significance to names, suggesting that one should change his name if it no longer applies. For more on this, see this post: https://biblefaq390.com/#hfaq-post-186Links to an external site.  So, for example, in Genesis, a child is named Jacob (“heel”) because he was born holding onto his older twin brother’s heel (or genitals), perhaps with the desire to supplant him. but when God chooses him as his favorite, his name is changed to Isra-el, which means “God is upright.”

    However, a lot of biblical stories have “false etymologies,” where authors try to ascribe meaning to a name based on a misunderstanding of that name’s origin. That’s often because the name originates in older records or oral tales, and the author doesn’t understand the older meaning of the name.

  • Why was the character Lucifer created if that Hebrew phrase actually refers to the Babylonians?
    In answer to your question, Lucifer is just a mistranslation that became popular. Helel ben Shahar meant Helel, son of Dawn. It is a reference to the Canaanite myth of Shahar and Shalim, twin sons of El who ruled the dawn and dusk, respectively (Sahar is Arabic for dawn and comes from the same root). Helel is thought to mean “shining one” by some, but it might also mean “wail” or “he who made us wail.” But the Greek translators guessed Helel to be a proper name meaning “morning star” or Venus, which comes before the dawn, so they translated Helel ben Shahar as Eosphoros (or bringer of [the goddess] dawn (in Greek, Eos is the dawn goddess). Jerome’s Latin version of this was “light bearer” or  Lux-fero. The KJV translators thought this was a name, and Lucifer was born. In Isaiah, this phrase was a reference to the king of Babylon, who had brought the Judeans much pain but who was expected to soon get his come-uppance. It’s a way of saying, “You made us wail (or,  you were once famous and shining) but you are fallen now (or, you will soon fall). Ezekiel 28 makes a similar reference to a shining cherub who once had everything but has now fallen; he’s is referring to the King of Tyre. Comparing these oppressive figures to mythical characters who fell from the sky was the authors’ way of illuminating their predicament. So how did Lucifer become identified with the Satan, who was at first just a servant of Yahweh, and the devil, who is a late product of Persian and Hellenistic influence? After all, by the New Testament, we see lots of references to Satan as a devil character. When did that happen? Well, in The Origin of Satan, Pagels explains that Christians were looking very hard for the devil in the Hebrew bible, especially a source to confirm the Christian notion that the devil Samael had fallen from Heaven into hell, which is alluded to in the non-canonical Enoch. Another late Greek non-canonical text, The Apocalypse of Baruch (attributed to Ezekiel’s scribe but written in the Christian era in Greek) links Samael to the serpent in Genesis. Actually, the canonical Hebrew bible says nothing about a devil OR a hell OR a bunch of fallen angels. “The Satan” (Ha satan) is mentioned, but “The Satan” is a servant of God in the earliest texts. The word “Satan” (it’s not a proper name) meant “Adversary” in the same way that we now call a prosecuting attorney “adversarial” and a defense attorney an “advocate.” Satan followed God’s orders but sometimes, literally, he played “devil’s advocate” to test God’s assumptions about things. So, when they ran across Jeremiah’s misreading of Isaiah 14.12, Christians were pretty excited to think that Lucifer gave them the precedent about fallen angels that they sought. Here’s the KJV of Isaiah: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer.” That translation is just WRONG. But we know that because we know about the Canaanite myths of Helel and Shahar; we know about those myths because scholars discovered the trove of Canaanite stories at Ugarit in the 1920s. (That’s also why we know that the word “Asherim” in 2 Kings, which KJV translated as “groves,” actually referred to either statues of the goddess Asherah or shrines to her. ) In other words, Pagels would argue that Christians created Lucifer because he seemed to prove what they already believed. But it’s hard to fault them; they just didn’t have access to the archeological finds of the 20th century. Later rabbinical writings also equated Satan and Samael, and some of them used Lucifer too, since by now this mistranslation was part of the culture. For more on the name Helel ben Shahar, see https://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Helel.html For more on Pagels and the evolution of the Satan character, see this interview in The Christian Science Monitor.
  • Why did biblical people so fluidly change their names? With Amminadab meaning "my kinsman [are] noble", did he change to that name later on or was his family cocky when he was born?

    Why do individuals change their names so often in the bible? One reason might be literary convenience. I have always read Ruth as a fictional allegory, kind of like the text Everyman, which has characters who stand for things–Good deeds, Fellowship, Death, etc.–because the characters aren’t the point, just concepts in the moral message of the story. I read once that the Wizard of Oz is just such a story, where the Wizard is a populist president like Trump running OZ (DC?) from behind a curtain, while the  other characters also have political significance: Dorothy is the heartland, and Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Cowardly lion represent various political responses to the heartland.

    If we read Ruth the way we read the allegory Everyman, we realize that this short story would have been understood as a morality tale by Hebrew-speaking people. In a morality tale, names are symbolic from the start, which makes them easy to change. Why would a parent name her child “sickness”? Bad luck!  It’s like a friend of mine who named his cats “Speedbump” and “Antifreeze” because he wanted to be prepared for disaster. That’s why I would argue that Ruth is an allegory, where all the characters represent a quality in a moral drama, much like the English story “Everyman.” The names tell us to read this story as a morality tale, not a biography.

    By the way, I think Genesis 2.2’s creation story is kind of similar. You have a character named “Clay” who meets a character called “Life-Breath” and they marry. They have a child named “Breath” who dies young, and another child named “Compensation” (Seth) as a replacement. So either God named these characters with a sense of irony, or Genesis 2.2’s creation story was always meant to be read symbolically, not literally. I realize that’s a controversial position to take.

    On the other hand, maybe people really did change their names. If you google this question, you’ll get lots of Christian web sites that analyze the name changes as transformation, and that’s certainly what happens in Ruth. But is that always what happens? For example, in Genesis God changes Jacob’s name to Isra-el to show Jacob’s connection to the nation. But why didn’t God start Jacob out with that name? I have always thought the name changes solves a problem in the sources, where the character has one name in the southern text and another in the northern text. In Exodus, for example, Moses goes up “Mt Sinai” in one source and “Mt Moriah” in another. Let’s say one source, probably E, used Israel and another, probably J and P, used “Jacob.” (The first name has El in it, the second Yahweh). The the editor merged the sources and used the name change to explain why there were two different names in the source.

    Now let’s look at an example of a character we are sure existed. According to tradition, Paul’s name changed to Saul on the road to Damascus after he had a vision about Jesus saying “Why do you persecute me, Saul?” What was the point of that name change? Well, first, according to Acts, the name change actually happened way after the conversion, in Cyprus, but the story was revised so name change coincided with Paul’s conversion. Perhaps Paul saw it as a kind of “rebranding moment.” What do I mean by that? The truth is, most Jews had a Hebrew name (Saul) and a Greek name (Paul). So when the Jewish Saul changes his name to the Greek Paul, he might have been making a point about abandoning his Jewish destiny for his world destiny (Greece being the world, according to the author of John’s gospel.)

    For another take, a scholar named Timothy Seymour argued in 1983 that people in the ancient near east associated names with destinies, and that the ultimate greatness was for God to speak one’s name. People equated names with souls, so it would make sense that if one’s destiny changed because of God, one’s name would too. Here’s a link to his article: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3dg0m1cj

  • Who came up with the term Old Testament?

    According to Britannica.com, Melito of Sardis coined this term in the 2nd century BCE. He wanted to show the interconnection of the two testaments.

  • What is meant by Aliyah and Golah?
    • These terms refer to the communities that were exiled (Golah) and then returned from exile (Aliyah).
    • Aliyah is not a period but the act of returning to Israel from exile so, technically, any time you did that it could be called Aliyah.
    • As used by Ezra/Nehemiah, Aliyah meant only the second-temple community tasked with turning from exile, rebuilding Judah,  and rededicating themselves to God. Ezra makes it clear in the course of resettling Israel that ONLY those Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon could be considered part of the new nation. Moreover, of that group, only those who could demonstrate they were part of the Golah (the community that had left Judah for Babylon in the early 6th century) counted. So you had to be exiled and returned from exile–that was part of what it meant to be Jewish.
  • Why do Jewish people think that Jesus was not the Messiah? Who do they think is the Messiah?

    Here’s a partial answer to your question: The Jews believe the “messiah” (no capital) is a human, not a god. Though Davidic kings were called “sons of God,” this title was probably more figurative than literal. “Messiah” or anointed is the Aramaic word for king. The true Jewish messiah will be someone from the line of David who restores the Jews to their homeland (Israel), rebuilds the temple, and makes them a military power of the size attributed to David at the height of his powers. One could argue that two of the three have happened, but the temple cannot be rebuilt because there is an important mosque on it. Other people thought at the time (the intertestamental period) to be “messiah” were military leaders: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_messiah_claimants

    But the Jewish messiah is also supposed to usher in the messianic age, the age in which the dead are restored (modern Jewish people generally do not believe in a heaven right now but many do anticipate an afterlife at that time). Since the messianic age has not occurred, previous claimants to messiah are not the correct ones.

    In the late first century, the rabbinical Jews split with the Jewish and pagan followers of Jesus over several practices. For example, the drinking of Jesus’s blood, whether real or symbolic, was anathema to Jewish people. (As you may know, early Christians believed in something later called “transubstantiation,” through which the “blood of the grape” and “bread” become the blood and body of God. Modern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians still hold this belief. While Protestants reject it, it was and is considered an important “mystery” by which humans can participate in divinity). First-century CE Jews also rejected Jesus’s claim to messiahship. For one thing, his crucifixion on the cross makes him “cursed” in Deuteronomy 21. To the Jews, he did not fulfill any of the prophecies a messianic figure should fulfill. Moreover, Jews believe in one God and reject the notion that a man, even the messiah, can share God’s divinity (I refer to questions of the trinity, which became Christian doctrine in the early middle ages.)

    Followers of Islam also agree with Jews that Jesus as a teacher (rabbi), but reject notions of his divinity. Like Judaism, Islam is aniconic, and for them God does not take human form.

    I stress that the Christians radically redefined what “messiah” meant; the Aramaic term had none of the divine and transcendental associations of the Christian concept. Early Christians used the Greek translation of “messiah,” which was “christos.” Paul was a Pharisee and a student of pagan mystery cults like Mithraism, Christianity’s largest competitor in this period. He first articulated in writing–at least, writing that still exists–the idea that Jesus was both divine and human. In doing so, he combined several aspects of both Judaism and mystery cults, which were secret groups by which people used baptism and ritual meals and practices to unite with the divine and live eternally. The earliest gospel, Mark, written after Paul’s writings, hints that Jesus was the messiah, though the original text did not mention a resurrection, just an empty tomb. Gospels after Mark also articulated Jesus’s divinity, especially the gospel of John, written after the Jesus movement members had been expelled from Jewish synagogues. And so Christians began to associate “messiah” or “christos” with divinity, not just humanity.

    For more, the Wikipedia page on this question is also not bad: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judaism%27s_view_of_Jesus#:~:text=The%20belief%20that%20Jesus%20is,the%20coming%20of%20the%20messiah.

  • Why is it so hard to translate Hebrew into English?

    A lot of factors go into this problem. I’ll cover just a few.

    • While English has a huuuuuuge vocabulary, ancient Hebrew had a very small vocabulary. For example, I talk elsewhere about the word ‘aman (pronounced “Chaman” or just Haman). It means wet nurse, or foster parent, or protector, or caretaker, or faithful servant, or pillar. Those are just a few of the ways it can be translated. So not only is it hard to know which one is meant, but we miss wordplay (puns) that arising from multiple senses of the same word. When we are forced to pick just one meaning, we erase nuances and subtexts. For more, see my entry here: https://biblefaq390.com/#hfaq-post-193
    • Many believe that ancient Hebrew was a literary language, not a spoken language. So ancient Jewish people might have reserved certain words just for the bible (for example, the literary word for sun “Shemesh” was linked to the Babylonian and Canaanite sun deities, but even in biblical times, Aramaic speakers used a different word). Therefore, even those writing it might have been uncertain what some words meant; moreover, modern people who do not speak this language but study it are often at a disadvantage.
    • Our main knowledge of Hebrew before the Dead Sea Scrolls came from the Masoretes, a group of monks who painstakingly copied and recopied bible texts. They preserved the tendency to leave out vowels in ancient Hebrew, forcing us to guess about pronunciations like Yahweh vs. Jehovah, and sometimes making it hard for translators to select between similar-sounding words. These days, we guess that Yahweh is correct, in part because we’ve seen fragments of it in names (like Elijah or Eli-Yah) and in other communities (like the Elephantine use of Yah-hu).
    • Many modern translators are Christian. Therefore, they have a tendency to impose Christian meanings on the text, even in translation. For example, Christians tend to translate the first word of Ecclesiastes as Vanity, not “breath,” which is what it means. They do this because others have done it before them. Vanity is not only “emptiness” or “futility.” Over the centuries it’s come to mean that a preoccupation with this world, the body, and bodily pleasures distracts us from the next, spiritual world. So Christians impose a meaning about the afterlife on Ecclesiastes that the Hebrews did not intend.
    • Very few modern people not only understand biblical Hebrew well but are also familiar with its poetry. So most translators ignore the poetry and wordplay in the Hebrew bible. For a more poetic and interesting translation, check out Robert Alter’s recently completed translation of the entire Hebrew bible. It has wonderful footnotes.

  • What exactly is the "promised land" and how do Christians mean it--as opposed to Jews?

    Your question is very interesting. For the Jews, I know, the idea started as early as the prophets that there would be a Day of Yahweh in which God would come and return the Judeans/Israelites to their homeland, restoring also a king from the Davidic line (the Aramaic word for king was messiah, which simply means annointed one). That’s why in Matthew–the author of Matthew being a Jewish Christian–it’s so important to establish Jesus’s connection through Joseph to the Davidic line, and that’s why that text begins with a genealogy of Jesus. So in times of strife, especially after Daniel, people expecting the world to end looked for signs that a Davidic contender would return and restore the Jews to Israel. That is the sense that Jews mean “promised,” at the same time accepting that that restoration is always deferred. 

    In general, when Jewish people refer to the promised land, then, they mean a literal place. But some modern Jews do believe in an afterlife, and that tradition also began with Daniel, the latest book to make it into the Hebrew canon. 

    As for what PART of Israel was promised, that depends on what you read. Some base the boundaries on Abraham’s itinerary (Babylon to Haran to Israel to Egypt and back), which Samuel says was also the boundary of Israel in David’s time. But of course, we have no real evidence of David’s existence any more than we have knowledge of Abraham’s. More on this here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Promised_Land But generally, Jews equate the “promised land” with what Christians call the holy land, which is Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. 

    On the other hand, Christianity is varied, so Christian interpretation of “promised land” is varied too.

    • In Romans, Paul wrote “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” That implies the whole world is “promised.”
    • For many, the promised land is the afterlife; for others, it is a world in which the faithful aree restored after something called the rapture.
    • White settlers of North America believed America was promised to them because of their Christianity and of course their whiteness; they called this manifest destiny. Some Christians who take the Hebrew bible more literally, such as Seventh Day Adventists, think the restoration of Israel means the end of history and the rapture for Chrstians too But then, many Christians believe they have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people.
    • Right now,the Al-Aqsa mosque sits on the site where Jesus was supposedly crucified and where the (second) temple was built. That keeps the world from ending, I suppose. In Muhammad’s time, Jerusalem was the direction of prayer, but Muhammad changed this to Mecca after having a revelation from Jibril (Gabriel). Muslims see this site as more a holy land or a “blessed” land than a promised land.

    I’ve probably oversimplified many religions take on these things, so someone more intimately connected with one of them should share what they know. . 

Gods, goddesses, and ancient religions

  • The midrash ascribes different domains (night, day, love, truth) to different angels. Is this like polytheism?

    I think that is spot on. Judaism was never really an evangelical religion (except by Paul during his lifetime), but when Christianity moved across pagaon Europe, it encountered many polytheistic religions. It used angels and especially saints to replace local polytheistic deities. For example, Catholics will tell you that many geographic areas have “patron saints.”  Some, like Mary, govern many different locales.  For example, we have Our Lady of Guadalupe governs the Americas, but Our Lady of the Snows govern Antarctica. St. Thomas Aquinas governs academics, St. Francis governs animal rights. and St. George governs the boy scots. St. Valentine, among others, governs beekepers. 

    In the same way, named angels or malachi like Gabriel and Raphael (as opposed to just generic “messengers”) appear fiirst in the hellenistic world betweent the two testaments. They may well have risen in response to Greek polytheism. Michael was supposed to be the protective angel of God; Gabriel passed on people’s messages to God (much like Mercury); and Raphael was the healer god (a lot like Aesclepius and Dionysus, who were both healer gods). Similarly, when the Jesus movement spread the message about Jesus as a healer, they portrayed Orpheus and Dionysus on a cross to help people make the imaginative leap from polytheism to Jesus.

  • How much did Canaanite religion influence the bible?

    I love this question. I think the Canaanite group of gods had a big influence on the Hebrew scriptures. The Jewish people were ethnically, linguistically, and culturally the same as Canaanites . They had the same style of pottery, for example, and some of the same statuary. Some think they evolved a separate identity in the hill country, where Israelites/Judahites tended to concentrate. But they kept the  same vocabulary and even used some gods’ names in their names and everyday speech. I can think of a few examples of Canaanite influence off the top of my head:

    1. The “sky” god (equivalent to Zeus in the Greek pantheon) is named El, (Elohim, El Shaddai, etc.)  and the same name is used for “god” generally, but also for the main God. At a certain point, El was replaced by Baal, the storm god, for some Canaanites but apparently not for the followers of what would one day be called Judaism. So some biblical literature shows the Hebrew God El in conflict with the Canaanite god Baal.
    2.  The word for the Canaanite sky god Yam is also one of the Hebrew words for ocean.
    3. The words “El” and “baal/bell” are part of many Jewish names. Names with Yahweh in them tend to be later, but some have both (EL-i-JAH). The Canaanite word “bal/bil/bel” meant lord or husband. So Beaulah means married and Bildad means “love of the lord.”
    4. The word “dagon” (Canaanite god of fertility) is a Hebrew word for “abundance.” The word “shemesh” (sun) comes from the Canaanite god for the sun Shemesh or Shamesh. Etc.
    5. Some of the Canaanite gods (Chemosh, Dagon) are the names of  competing gods for other semitic peoples.
    6. The Canaanite goddess Asherah (like Hera, Zeus’s consort) was name name of El’s wife/consort. People continued to worship her as late as Josiah’s time. 2 Kings mentions that Josiah removed Asherah and Baal relics from the Jerusalem temple, suggesting they were once worshipped there. He also cut down Asherah poles where she was worshipped. Other related names were Astarte and Ishtar and Inanna. (Interestingly, scholars didn’t know much about Canaanite mythology until the 20th century, when a trove of Ugaritic texts were found. That’s why the King James bible translates “asherah” as “grove of trees.” )
    7. Jeremiah complained that the women of Jerusalem were inviting God’s wrath by baking cakes for Asherah, often called the queen of heaven.
    8. Anat (a violent huntress god, a bit like Artemis/Diana) was still worshipped in at least one Jewish community even after the exile. Her name was “Anat-Yahu” (Anat wife of Yahweh, though Yahweh was called Yahu in this community).
    9. Isaiah refers to a Canaanite myth of the god and goddess of the dawn to predict that Babylon would eventually fall. The gods in that myth were mistranslated in Latin bibles as “Lucifier.” More on that here: https://biblefaq390.com/#hfaq-post-146
  • Why does the bible try to erase the goddesses Asherah, Anat, Tiamat, etc., and what would the people preserving these Hebrew texts gain from omitting them?

    I think that the answer to your question is complex, but it boils down to two things.

    The first is the late development of monotheism. The discovery (or late authorship) of Deuteronomy by King Josiah is told in 2 Kings. Deuteronomy makes clear that if the Jews continue to worship other gods, they will be punished. (After the exile, Deuteronomy was probably revised to add the length descriptions of God’s punishment for polytheism, since these punishments sound exactly like what happened in Babyylon). So 2 Kings tells the story of Josiah desperately trying to impose monotheism on a people who clearly didn’t understand why it was necessary. He discussed removing relics of Asherah from the Hebrew temple and destroying hill shrines. He centralizes worship in Jerusalem so that he can monitor how people worship God (and whom else they worship). In the prophecies, we see Deuteronomistic priest prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel doing their best to explain the destruction of Jerusalem as caused by polytheism. Scholars call this “deuteronomism.”

    Moreover, scholars argue that Deuteronomists edited some of the historical texts (Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, etc.) to connect everything bad that happened to polytheism. They “retrojected” (threw back) monotheism into the time of the patriarchs, and argued that Jews continually fell away from God despite being given many, many chances to stay faithful to him.

    So one reason why goddess were removed from the text was to mandate monotheism, which was basically the deal Jews made with God in Exodus. God frees the people from Pharoah (who had god status) and insists that they worhsip him from that point forward. The word “frees” means the same thing as “manumission”–that is, he freed Hebrews from the service of one god so that they can serve him in future.

    The other reason for getting rid of these goddesses was sexism. The Jews were a very patriarchal culture where wives were purchased like servants and the word for “lord” was also the word for husband. Though we see evidence that women ruled communities and led armies in ancient times, women were lauded post-exile as sources of stability, and they were praised mainly for their fertility. That’s why we see the phrase “women of valor” (eishet chayil) being used in post-exile stories to praise mothers who kept their lines going by giving birth. That’s why mothers and midwives figure so heavily in stories in Genesis and Exodus. (In a similar way, after World War II, American women were encouraged to leave their war-time jobs and create homes for their husbands. Detergent companies called them social engineers and praised their unique ability to find the best soap to clean their households).

  • When all of the others gods from the Canaanites/Israelites got taken out, if they're mentioned in the bible a lot where did they go? Did people just believe they had it wrong the whole time? Are there still some branches of Judaism that practice polytheism?

    Great question. I will start by saying I don’t believe any branches of Judaism still practice polytheism, though some believe the Christians do (the Christian trinity confuses a lot of people, including me!).

    We start seeing mentions of the Canaanite gods mainly in references to eradicating them or criticizing people who are still worshipping them, but they remain part of the language (Hebrew is a regional (hill) dialect of the Canaanite language, so they share vocabulary. For more on this, see this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_language#:~:text=Hebrew%20belongs%20to%20the%20Canaanite,about%201200%20to%20586%20BCELinks to an external site.).

    The post powerful northern monarchs like Ahab and Omri made important international alliances in part because of their foreign wives, so the bible (written by survivors of the southern kingdom, who by then followed Deuteronomy) blames these wives for the introduction of foreign gods.

    The Jewish people were ethnically, linguistically, and culturally the same as Canaanites . They had the same style of pottery, for example, and some of the same statuary. Some think they evolved a separate identity in the hill country, where Israelites/Judahites tended to concentrate. But they kept the  same vocabulary and even used some gods’ names in their names and everyday speech. Here are some examples of mentions of (or oblique references to)  Canaanite gods in the bible:

    1. The “sky” god (equivalent to Zeus in the Greek pantheon) is named El, (Elohim, El Shaddai, etc.)  and the same name is used for “god” generally, but also for the main God. At a certain point, El was replaced by Baal, the storm god, for some Canaanites but apparently not for the followers of what would one day be called Judaism. So some biblical literature shows the Hebrew God El in conflict with the Canaanite god Baal.
    2.  The word for the Canaanite sky god Yam is also one of the Hebrew words for ocean.
    3. The words “El” and “baal/bell” are part of many Jewish names. Names with Yahweh in them tend to be later, but some have both (EL-i-JAH). The Canaanite word “bal/bil/bel” meant lord or husband. So Beaulah means married and Bildad means “love of the lord.”
    4. The word “dagon” (Canaanite god of fertility) is a Hebrew word for “abundance.” The word “shemesh” (sun) comes from the Canaanite god for the sun Shemesh or Shamesh. Etc.
    5. Some of the Canaanite gods (Chemosh, Dagon) are the names of  competing gods for other semitic peoples.
    6. The Canaanite goddess Asherah (like Hera, Zeus’s consort) was name name of El’s wife/consort. People continued to worship her as late as Josiah’s time. 2 Kings mentions that Josiah removed Asherah and Baal relics from the Jerusalem temple, suggesting they were once worshipped there. He also cut down Asherah poles where she was worshipped. Other related names were Astarte and Ishtar and Inanna. (Interestingly, scholars didn’t know much about Canaanite mythology until the 20th century, when a trove of Ugaritic texts were found. That’s why the King James bible translates “asherah” as “grove of trees.” )
    7. Jeremiah complained that the women of Jerusalem were inviting God’s wrath by baking cakes for Asherah, often called the queen of heaven.
    8. Anat (a violent huntress god, a bit like Artemis/Diana) was still worshipped in at least one Jewish community even after the exile. Her name was “Anat-Yahu” (Anat wife of Yahweh, though Yahweh was called Yahu in this community).
    9. Isaiah refers to a Canaanite myth of the god and goddess of the dawn to predict that Babylon would eventually fall. The gods in that myth were mistranslated in Latin bibles as “Lucifier.” More on that here: https://biblefaq390.com/#hfaq-post-146
  • How did the deities El and YHWH come to be identified as one?

    This is a complicated question that no one really knows the question to. Here’s what I know:

    • In the bible, this happens in Exodus. YHWH (Yahweh–Lord) tells Moses (twice) that he is the God of the fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but that he’s revealing his name for the first time. That name means something like “I am” or “I will be.”
    • Adherents to the four-author theory of the Torah, called the Documentary Hypothesis, suggest that most texts refer to God EITHER as El or as Yahweh, but not both:
      • The oldest of the four texts, the northern E text, refers to God only as El until the moment in Exodus where Yahweh tells Moses his real name.
      • The newest text, the Priestly text, does the same.
      • But there’s a text called J, which uses southern place names, so we also call it the Judahite text OR the Yahwist text (in Germany, where the theory comes from, Yahweh is spelled with a J). The J text uses “Yahweh” or “Lord” exclusively from the start.
      • The editors harmonized these texts. So where you see “Lord God” in the bible, proponents of this theory believe editors wove the different texts together.
    • Scholars believe El is by far the older name. One way they determine this is by sculptures representing El vs images of Yahweh. Another way is that people/place names with “El” in them were much commoner in early Israel and Judah: Isra-el, Ishma-el, Othni-el, Beth-el, Ja-el, Raphae-el. (You also see a lot of Baal name: Jeruba-bel, Beulah).  Names with “jah” or “yah” in them (El-i-Jah, Joshua, Joannha, Jesus or Yeshuah, Jeremiah, Josiah, etc.) come along much later.
    • One theory advanced by people like Richard Elliot Friedman is that the Yahwist religion was the creation of the Levites, a violent tribe that may have entered Canaan by force and gradually overtaken the group of Canaanites that worshipped there. More on this here: https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-historical-exodus.  This theory maintains that the two names, El and Yahweh, gradually became synonymous.
    • Another theory, one that accepts the historicity of the Exodus, is called the Kenite hypothesis. It suggests that Moses met a group in the Arabian peninsula during his wanderings in the desert. Exodus describes Moses’ father in law as a priest of Midian, and one theory is that Moses took God’s name and perhaps the canon of laws from this group.
    • A related theory mentioned in BibleOdyssey.org links YHWH (in Hebrew pronounced yodhehvavheh) to a regional YHW in Egypt; the thinking is that immigrants coming from Egypt to Canaan brought this name with them. (For much of the 2nd millenium BCE, Canaan was a vassal of Egypt. The Amarna letters, exchanged between Canaanites and their Egyptian governors, document this fact.)
    • Around 400 BCE, during the time of Ezra/Nehemiah, a trove of letters and documents from Elephantine, a military outpost in Egypt, reveals a community of Jews settled in Egypt worshipping a god YHW as well as Anat-Yahu (Anath wife of YHW). Members of this community corresponded with temple priests in Jerusalem. 

  • Where can I learn more about the ancient Canaanites?

    The web has lots of good sites about the Canaanite religion. Wikipedia is a good place to start. Here are some other links:

    Our textbook also discusses the Canaanites, particular in the creation myths section, as well as the Babylonian myths we know influenced Genesis.

  • Where did the goddesses come from, and what happened to them?
    • The earliest Jews were Canaanites, and we know something about Canaanite religion from the discovery of a whole bunch of writings at Ugarit. We know that the word “El” or God in the bible was the proper name of their sky God, someone a bit like Zeus. We know they had a whole pantheon of gods, and we know that El had a wife named Asherah who was worshipped as late as the Babylonian exile. We also know that Jews in communities outside Jerusalem continued to worship a version of Asherah as late as 300 BCE, perhaps later. (Other female goddesses like Anath–an Artemis figure–and Astarte were also popular).
    • But there was a  strong reform movement in bible that began with the discovery / creation and dissemination of Deuteronomic ideas. The Deuteronomists believed all the troubles they were having with foreign nations were because of polytheism, so they worked hard to get rid of everyone but the main god, whom they called Yahweh or El pretty much interchangeably. So there was a strong effort to get rid of goddess worship.
    • However, goddess worship was important to many Judahites, especially women. When Jeremiah orders the women of Judah to stop making cakes for the queen of heaven, who went by Innana/ Ishtar/ Ashtoreth and eventually Aphrodite, they refuse, saying that she was a better provider than Yahweh: “We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. But from the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and by famine.” (Jeremiah 44.17-18). Ezekiel, too, complains the the women of Judah are “weeping for Tammuz,” Ishtar’s consort and another fertility god.
    • Therefore, some people think the goddess was repurposed in works like Proverbs, where “Wisdom” is personified as a goddess who helped God create the world. In the New Testament, the female “wisdom” (Chokmah) is translated as the masculine “Logos” in the gospel of John. Most translations we have use “The Word” for “Logos,” as a way of linking Jesus to the “word” that God spoke during the creation.
    • Another theory is that some traits of Asherah were “reassigned” to Yahweh starting with Deuteronomy: “Language that speaks of God as mother, for example (as in Deut 32:18Num 11:12–13; Isa 45:9–10, 49:15; 66:13), probably represents the assimilation of Asherah’s maternal characteristics to YHWH” (Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Asherah entry).
    • Some of the goddess features might have been naturalized into stories. For example, while the “name” Adam simply means, “the man” and is associated with clay,  Eve’s name is associated with “hebel” or breath, which is a divine function, and she is connected with serpents, which had cultic meaning. Asherah was also frequently represented with serpents: “Ugaritic and other Canaanite materials further associate Asherah with lions (indicating power), serpents (representing immortality or healing), and sacred trees (signifying fertility). Thus Asherah’s children at Ugarit can be called her “pride of lions”; the goddess is called “lady of the serpent” in second-millennium B.C.E. inscriptions from the Sinai” (Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Asherah entry).
    • Just as formidable are the dark female figures and ruthless queens of the bible, like the “foreign woman” of Proverbs, Lilith, Jezebel, Delilah, Potiphar’s wife, and the mythic sea-beast Rahab, who owe a lot to Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of watery chaos.
    • The goddess also persists in rabbinic traditions, maybe to appease people who were strongly attached to goddess worship. She may also have found her way into myths about the demonic Lilith, the sabbath (“Shabbat”) bride, the indwellingness of God or “Shekinah,” even the Torah herself–all these were later personified as female figures.
    • Moreover, the bible is full of stories of militant women who use their sexuality to help their people. Some of these are fictional, like Deborah, Ruth and Naomi (who may take on Asherah’s maternal “wet-nurse” function), and Esther, while others like Miriam and Jael come from ancient legend. Samuel is populated with “wise women” and witches. Esther’s name may link her to Ishtar, an important Sumerian goddess of love. While these women aren’t the sort of “women of valor” mentioned in Proverbs and Ruth, they are larger than life warrior females, stronger, more beautiful, and more fertile than ordinary women.
  • How did scholars conclude that Asherah and Wisdom could be the same goddess?

    Well, this is a common assertion among Hebrew scholars. I read a brief summary of the idea on the Bart Ehrman blog (though Ehrman is a New Testament scholar). Most of the articles talk about Wisdom as a “tamed-down” version of a very powerful goddess, perhaps created to appeal to those who were forcefully prevented from worshipping the goddess they had depended on for generations.

    Here is a wonderful article on Asherah herself by someone named Asphodel Long, reprinted in a book of feminist biblical scholarship: http://www.asphodel-long.com/html/asherah.html (Links to an external site.) . This article asserts a connection between the  female figure named Asherah, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Menorah. Long quotes Proverbs 3.18, who says of Wisdom: “She shall be a tree of life to all who lay hold on her.” Peter Ackroyd argues that as part of this program, Deuteronomists engaged in a campaign to “discredit any cult of goddesses and to classify them as alien rather than part of the Hebrew popular religion” (Ackroyd: 1983: 256).

    Asherah worship was usually associated in the bible with trees, one reason the KJV assumed Asherah was a totem and not a goddess. Here’s a quote from Long’s article: “The great rabbi Akibah said ‘ wherever thou findest a high mountain or a lofty hill and a green tree know that an idol is there’ (Danby: 1933:441). Trees described by the rabbis as being an asherah or part of an asherah include grapevines, pomegranates, walnuts, myrtles and willows (Danby:1933:90,176). From this it will be seen that these [medieval] lawmakers denied Asherah as part of the Hebrew religion but recognised her as a divinity worshipped by the “heathen,” and treated her as a living tree or living part of a tree.”

    I like the idea that Asherah was herself the tree of knowledge proscribed in Genesis, whose fruit is often thought to be a pomegranate (no apples in the ancient near east). A Greek story about why we have winter tells of Persephone eating a forbidden pomegranate. Anyway, identifying Asherah with the tree of knowledge itself explains why Proverbs makes such a distinction between the good goddess Wisdom and the bad goddess  or “strange woman.” Could they be aspects of the same goddess? That is, assuming that exile scholars associated Asherah herself with foreign women [see Ezra/Nehemiah] in an effort to discredit her, could they have tried to separate the bad woman (Tiamat/Asherah) from the good aspects of the goddess (Wisdom, nurture) that they wanted to preserve? Proverbs instructs men to pursue “wisdom” instead of seeking this goddess, and their wives are appeased by the assertion that feminine wisdom–even as the creation of God–created the world.

    For more on the connection between Asherah and Wisdom, see these articles:

  • Why are more modern (visual) depictions of YHWH not reflective of Ezekiel's vision? 

    Thank you for this question, which allowed me to hunt around and find out something about the history of representations of YHWH (in Christianity, referred to as “God the father” to distinguish him from the other two parts of the Christian trinity, God the son, and God the spirit. )

    As we know, according to Deuteronomistic laws, YHWH is supposed to be aniconic—that is, without image or likeness. Prior to Deuteronomy, he seems to have occasionally been represented by a bull (or as being carried by two bulls). More on this in my blog entry on this subject: https://biblefaq390.com/helpie_faq/why-is-the-bull-or-calf-as-opposed-to-some-other-animal-so-important-in-the-ancient-near-east/ 

    In Deuteronomy itself, and in parts of Exodus, YHWH is figured as a mighty warrior. I say figured, because he has the powers of one, but is never depicted physically as one. Frequently, he is evoked by the image of a “mighty hand,” which led to a tradition in early Jewish art whereby YHWH’s hand alone was depicted. As we’ll see in a moment, this tradition was coopted by early western Christian artists; western Christianity depicts YHWH (as God the father) far more frequently. 

    Until recently, scholars assumed Jews did not include images in art at all; they even assumed that Jews had no tradition of representative art. A 19th c. Austrian scholar named David Kaufman proved this was not the case. Jews did have representative art, even depicting religious scenes, as long as those scenes were not used for worship. In addition, the biblical book of Esther was a popular subject of representation and its scrolls could be illustrated precisely because Esther does not mention YHWH at all. 

    While Eastern Orthodox Christianity shied away from representing God in art, Western Christianity frequently depicted Jesus (God the son) before the 10th c. After the 10th c., artists gradually began to depict parts of God the father, starting with the hand (see above), then the head, then the torso, and finally the whole body. I cannot swear to it, but I suspect the image of God the father as an old man with a white beard comes from the Ancient of Days image in Daniel, which many have assumed was God, whether it was or not. Like this figure in Daniel, God the father in Western Art is frequently enthroned, and sometimes shown holding an orb of the world. Widespread use of this white-haired God the Father image persisted in Catholic parts of Europe (see Michelangelo’s famous portrayal of God the father on the Sistine Chapel ceiling: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/god-the-father-creation-of-the-sun-moon-michelangelo.html?product=puzzle&puzzleType=puzzle-18-24. Whenever YHWH stops in to the Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert, he looks like Michelangelo’s deity.) However, Protestant nations like England shied away from such representation, whitewashing most church windows and murals in the late 16th century. For more and for some sources, the Wikipedia article on “God the Father in Western Art” is pretty good: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_the_Father_in_Western_art

    As for why God is not shown in a chariot, as in Ezekiel, I wonder if one reason is that Apollo is so frequently depicted with a chariot. Early Christian artists were highly aware of iconography, and I think using the chariot with YHWH ran the risk of associating him with pagan gods.

    Modern Jewish artists, while still avoiding representation of YHWH, now feel safe in depicting “aspects of God” such as the Shekhinah, often shown as a winged female who comforts her people. 

  • How did the depiction of God in Ezekiel 1 become likened to angels?

    I don’t say a lot about angels in this class, but angels as we come to understand them (flying beings who are intercessors for God) come pretty late in biblical history, and this is why they often resemble the Babylonian or Persian art encountered in exile. The Hebrew god was supposed to be formless or “aniconic” (without image or likeness), and though Ezekiel tried to represent God as “something like” a creature in a chariot born by winged cherubim, these were interpreted by later readers as angels.

    We see named angels named for the first time in Daniel (165 BCE), which was a Hellenistic work with some Hebrew and some Aramaic passages (some additions in the Apocrypha were written in Greek). Daniel mentions Gabriel and Michael, who are called “princes” and don’t have wings. By the New Testament Gabriel is called “angelos” in the gospels (“angelos” was also a word for “messenger,” so you can see why people linked Torah “malakh” or “messengers” with Greek angels.)

    But we see the closest connection between Ezekel’s cherubim and angels in Revelation and other apocalyptic texts, which tended to borrow Ezekiel’s imagery for imagining the end times. In Revelation, Michael gives the speaker a book to eat (an image from Isaiah) in order to prophesy. This Micahel has a rainbow on his head, one foot on sea and one on shore, and fiery feet. Another apocalyptic text, Enoch, mentions cherubim and seraphim (a winged serpent mentioned in Isaiah and possibly derived from Assyrian or Egyptian art) as being near the throne of God. By the middle ages, cherubim and seraphim are orders of angels in both Rabbinic and Christian works, but exactly how that happens is not clear to me.

    Coogan, who edited our textbook, believes the named angels we see in Daniel, intertestamental stories like Tobit, and Luke evolved primarily from Persian thought; Persia’s Zoroastrian religion was dualistic, meaning it divided divine beings into good and bad, God and the Devil, angels and demons. At any rate, by the first century BCE, we see references not only to Michael and Gabriel as angels but to demons, magic fish, and the first references to a devil called Azazel (eventually associated with the New Testament Satan, who is definitely not the same dude as the Hebrew “Satan,” a prosecuting attorney of sorts working for God). 

    If you read the bible in English, of course, you may have seen the word “angel” in early parts of the bible, but these creatures were really part of a pantheon of Gods called Ben Elohim (sons of El)–in other words, the large Canaanite pantheon that included Baal, Anat, Asherah, Yam, and others. We also see “malakh” or messengers from God in the Torah, but though these are often translated into English as “angels,” they weren’t described as having wings and haloes until the New Testament. (The haloes were appropriated from sun-god worship during Roman times; Sol Invictus was considered the official God of late empire times, and Mithras, who birthday was appropriated by followers of Jesus, also  usually had a halo or sunburst. )

    Angels in apocryphal Greek works like Tobit answer human prayers and do God’s’ bidding. Angels in Rabbinic literature are often in competition with human beings, but in the Kabbala, angels are a kind of emanation in a level above the human realm. In early Christian thought, saints and martyrs often took on the intercessory function of angels, such as virgin Mary’s of various locales or Saint Frances or St Thomas of Becket. I am not sure when people decided that humans themselves could join the order of angels after they die; more research needed!

  • Why do we see goddess worship in the Hebrew bible but not in Christianity?

    I just wanted to follow up on your statement that the goddess doesn’t exist in Christianity by talking a little about the worship of Mary (officially called “veneration” to distinguish it from worship. which was popular in Christianity from at least the second century CE. Mary had churches dedicated to her veneration by the fourth century, 

    In Luke and other early Christian writings, Mary’s immaculate conception and assumption into heaven put her on the same plane as gods (a later text argued that Mary’s mother was a virgin too.) I always wondered about Mary’s virginity, since Mary is described as having several children, but then I realized Mary took the place of the worship of the virgin goddess Diana/ Artemis/ Cybele at a time when women’s’ only control over their own lives was through fasting or taking a vow of chastity.

    Like Mary, Cybele was mother to the god, in this case “Attis,” who died and was resurrected by her. In fact, some believe the veneration of Mary came about in imitation of the worship of Cybele, who was extremely important to the part of the Roman Empire that would give rise to the Eastern Orthodox church.

    The early church tried to discourage female virginity, censoring the story of Paul and Thecla in which lions came to defend Thecla’s virginity. So the official designation of Mary as “mother of God” in the 4th century placated many of Cybele’s followers. 

    Long before the middle ages, Mary worship had scattered throughout Europe, and Mary and a host of Catholics saints served as intercessors for those who prayed for help but felt God was too far away.  Marian veneration (and saint worship) also served as a surrogate as the church banned local religions that had a goddess component. This is especially true in the Americas, where each locale had a virgin intercessor to whom her followers could make pilgrimages. 

    For more on this, see this Wikipedia article on Mary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veneration_of_Mary_in_the_Catholic_Church#:~:text=In%20the%20early%20part%20of,Jerusalem%20by%20the%20year%20350.

    See also Peter Brown’s book The Cult of the Saints, which is old but highly influential. https://archive.org/details/cultofsaintsitsr0000brow 

    For more on Cybele worship in the Roman empire, see this Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybele 

  • Does any Babylonian spiritual literature refer to a goddess of wisdom like the hypostasis in Proverbs?

    First of all, for those of you who, like me, struggle to grasp the term “hypostasis,” here is one useful definition: “in Stoicism,  hupostasis comes to be used to refer to being that has “attained reality,” that is, objective or concrete reality.”  I think of the devil, who is real to us through an accretion of cultural associations but who had no basis in early Hebrew scripture. 

    When you ask about a Babylonian goddess of Wisdom like the character in Proverbs, I recall that the Proverbs character represents the domain of Wisdom but is also a mother-of-mankind-midwife figure. While there’s no one-to-one corresponding goddess in Babylon, several gods and goddesses possessed aspects of Wisdom.

    Mesopotamian literature usually attributes wisdom to male gods, especially Nabu. However, there is a story of a mother goddess who, very much like Wisdom in Proverbs, is credited with creating humanity. Her name was Ninmah or NIntud (a couple variations of the name). More at this handy resource: http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/mothergoddess/index.html.

    In the Mesopotamian flood story, Atrahasis, the goddess Ninmah was credited with making humanity by mixing the blood of a dead god with clay (note that “adam,” the word for “the human” in Genesis 2, means “clay.”) Ninmah was gradually replaced with a male god, Enki, in later tradition. Enki was associated with wisdom. Apparently, Babylonian myth gradually marginalized female gods, just as the Hebrew bible seems to have done. 

    In one Akkadian (Babylonian language) tablet attributed to Ashurnasipal I (11th c. BCE), the goddess Ishtar is endowed with wisdom:

    To the creator of wisd[om, . . . (are) worthy of r]enown,
    To the one who dwells in the Emashmash, [Ishtar . . .] (who) extols my name,
    To the queen of the gods, into whose hands [all(?)] the cultic rites are [be]stowed,
    To the lady of Nineveh, the he[ro of the god]s, the most exalted one....
    To the one who decides lawsuits, the goddess of absolutely everything,
    To the lady of the heavens and the earth, who receives petitions,
    To the one who hears prayer, who accepts supplication,
    To the merciful goddess, who loves justice..... (source is Akkadian Prayer Miscellany)

    In the Enuma Elish, the goddess Tiamat is the mother of all the gods (she is the primordial sea deity that Marduk defeats to create the world, using her belly and limbs to do it). Her name, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is the word in Genesis 1 for “deep.” She combines two even older traditions, the sea goddess Namma, out of whom Gods were created, and the mythic bird “Anzu.” Anzu is usually a male bird-monster god, but Tiamat takes on some of his qualities. We can see references to both aspects of Tiamat  in the first couple verses of Genesis 1, in which God’s wind “broods” over the deep. The word for brood or hover, “Rachaph,” is used only three times, one of which is in a description of an eagle brooding over her young. And the word “ruach” or wind (sometimes translated spirit) reminds us that in the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk defeats Tiamat with an “evil wind” and then cuts her in half, using her sea-belly as the sky dome and the rest of her watery substance as the earth. More on this here: http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/tiamat/index.html

    Those Jews returning from Babylon would have grown up with these stories. The Enuma Elish was performed publicly in Babylon on the winter solstice, and all residents would have learned it. The murder of Tiamat and the creation of the world from her body may even have been graphically re-enacted. It would not be surprising if these story elements found their way into the Hebrew bible’s origin stories, especially Genesis 1, which was probably written in exile by someone very much like Ezra (if not Ezra himself). Genesis 1 contains echoes not only of the Enuma Elish but also of the Babylonian seven-day lunar week. However, in Genesis 1, El takes over the functions of all the other Babylonian deities. 

    Note: I owe most of my knowledge of these deities to this wonderful scholarly source:
    “Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses”: http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/index.html. It has an incredible bibliography. Funding limitations allowed them to cover “only the first 50 gods and goddesses.”

  • Were women excluded (or at least underrepresented) in the Bible because Jewish and Christian men were threatened by their enormous contribution to religious history?

    First of all, early Christian fathers and Christians all the way up to the 1970s were hugely misogynistic. While we can’t underestimate that, I’d add that Judaism was also largely patriarchal, and so was  most of Hellenism.  So while Christians shaped the New Testament and views of it, Judeans wrote the Hebrew bible and Jewish hellenists mostly wrote the apocrypha, and most of those works are misogynist too.

    In Judaism, Deuteronomy was the main force in suppressing polytheism, including Goddess worship. Worship of other gods like Dagon, Baal, and Adonis/Tammuz was also discouraged. Deuteronomy is the dominant theory of just about everything in the Hebrew bible, or it was for a long, long time, and its influence is responsible for a lot of misogyny in the bible. Lots of Jewish stories are anti-woman. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t exceptions, and those are what interest me. 

    For example, we know the mystery religion of Isis was worshipped widely during the New Testament period, and the worship of Athena was widespread during different times in Athens. We know that the early Jesus movement welcomed women, which may be one reason why it succeeded where other religions like Mithraism failed. We know some gnostic stories prized Mary as Jesus’s most beloved companion. And as Christianity spread across Europe and later the Americas, encroaching on other religions, worship of the virgin Mary’s success depended on Mary replacing local goddesses already popular there. 

    In the same way, we know that the second temple period in Judah devoted several important texts to women or the sacred feminine, including Ruth, Proverbs, Esther, and in the apocrypha, Judith, Susanna, and the Wisdom of Solomon. Perhaps these were written to redefine “valor” and “strength” in ways that helped the Jewish people survive against impossible odds. In the Jewish oral tradition, the Torah is female, and in the Kabbala, the Shekinah is portrayed that way. So it all comes back to the notion that the Hebrew bible is a conversation about these themes. It’s a debate without a resolution, one that entertains multiple points of view at the same time as a path to wisdom. 

  • How were these gods or goddesses were "removed" from history? If their existence is in conflict with the First Commandment, how are they in the bible at all?

    This is something we’re going to talk about a lot. For now I’ll just respond with two points:

    1. The first commandment  seems not to say that only Yahweh -El ( translated “The Lord your God”)  should be worshipped. It says “you will have no other gods before the face” (meaning “ahead of me” or “above me” because Yahweh is jealous, not because the other gods don’t exist.  In the polytheistic world that Deuteronomy tried to regulate, God would have regular contests with other deities. For example, Moses, who would not have been raised as a monotheist, is God’s instrument in a contest or “god-off” with Pharoah. God’s challenge is to Pharoah: Free your followers so they may be my followers. More on this here: https://fromislamtoheathendom.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/monolatrist-moses/ The point I’m making here is that polytheism was the rule after the exile but probably not before then. We see Deuteronomists like Jeremiah and Ezekiel arguing for it, but many followers refused to give up goddess worship. 
    2. The theory of authorship our book will advance tells us that these commandments did not come first. The commandments were not written in the order they appear in biblically. Instead, they were collected from a variety of sources and ages and communities. The first that we know of come from Deuteronomy, which formed the core of the Torah, and others may have been collected in temple documents or followed by different ethnic communities that were eventually united as one people after the exile. The Hebrew bible tells us two origin stories for the Hebrew people, one in Genesis and one in Exodus, and these stories are eventually fused together to form a narrative of a united people with a common origin. What actually happened, and where all these stories and laws come from, is more complicated, but we can assume they were collected and gradually integrated into the narrative that becomes the Torah. Some attribute them to prophets like Amos and Hosea.
      1. In other words, the ten commandments that Christians prioritize were not the original or most important commandments for the Jewish people. In Mark and Matthew, we see Jesus telling us that the most important laws are the Shema (Deut 6) and a law from Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew further says that all 613 laws are of equal value for his followers, who were Jewish followers of Jesus. Neither of these authors prioritize the ten commandments. 
      2. The ten commandments only assume their current importance for Christians in the 13th century CE with the rise of Protestant churches. Some believe the number 10 was easy to remember so these commandments became part of catechism (remember that before the Protestant reformation, most Christians did not read the bible at all).

  • Who is Lilith? I know she is mentioned in Isaiah, and she is also listed as a first wife for Adam in the Midrash. Where does she come from?

    Lilith is only mentioned in Isaiah, and she’s often translated as a screech owl or night demon. But she is covered at great length in the Midrash as a first wife to Adam who was rejected because of her demand for equality and her refusal to nurture her children (some even thought her breasts dispensed poison instead of milk). She is similar to Tiamat and some of the darker goddesses, and she has a history in Sumerian literature, and is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which may also be a source for the biblical flood story.

    There are only a few ancient representations of her, though she’s popular in more recent Western art. Most statues once thought to depict her were actually of Love goddess like Isis, Ishtar, or even Asherah. But there are a few drawings of her. Here’s a great article about her with some illustrations: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/lilith/

    Lilith has a long history in the ancient near east outside of Judaism, and so she is a classic example of the cross-pollination of ideas in the ancient near east. In the medieval Jewish spiritual tradition, the Kabbala, she became a formidable enemy of god very much like the Christian Satan. But modern feminists have rescued her and rehabilitated her image. Lily Rivlin, whose book began this process, writes, “In the late twentieth century, self-sufficient women, inspired by the women’s movement, have adopted the Lilith myth as their own. They have transformed her into a female symbol for autonomy, sexual choice, and control of one’s own destiny.”

    See this wonderful and comprehensive article from the Encyclopedia of Jewish women, which discusses how she warded off with charms and amulets: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lilith

  • In Wisdom of Solomon and Proverbs, did the writers mean to call Wisdom a goddess, or were they just using poetic personification?

    In portraying Wisdom as a goddess, the author of Wisdom of Solomon is harkening back to Proverbs, which makes a similar claim. In chapter 8 of Proverbs, Wisdom speaks as a lover and co-creator of the world with God, and this reference may have been a way to appease those who were being asked to give up the worship of Ahserah, Anat, and Astarte, important goddess figures. 

    Here are Wisdom’s words in Proverbs 8.22: 

    The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
        the first of his acts of long ago.
    Ages ago I was set up,
        at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
    When there were no depths I was brought forth,
        when there were no springs abounding with water.
    Before the mountains had been shaped,
        before the hills, I was brought forth—
    when he had not yet made earth and fields,
        or the world’s first bits of soil.
    When he established the heavens, I was there,
        when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
    when he made firm the skies above,
        when he established the fountains of the deep,
    when he assigned to the sea its limit,
        so that the waters might not transgress his command,
    when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
    then I was beside him, like a master worker;
    and I was daily his delight,
        rejoicing before him always,
    rejoicing in his inhabited world
        and delighting in the human race.

    Proverbs 8.22-31 (NRSV)

    Wisdom is also referenced in Job and the Psalms as a goddess figure. 

    In a similar way, when Wisdom of Solomon was written, many Jewish people were, like the author, attracted to all that Greek culture (we call it Hellenism) had to offer. Jewish Hellenism encountered the Greek worship of Athena, the goddess of Wisdom (In Hebrew Hokmah or Chokmah, which was translated into Greek as Sophia). In Athens (Athena being a patron saint of that city), Wisdom and its arts are held up as the highest form of life, and many Jews wanted to participate in Hellenistic culture (art, drama, dance, gymnastics, philosophy, oratory). 

    Here is what Plato, who heavily influenced the authors of Wisdom of Solomon AND Paul and the authors of the gospels, said about Athena ((I lifted this quote from the Wikipedia entry on Athena):

    [Most poets] assert that he [Homer] meant by Athena "mind" [noũs] and "intelligence" [diánoia], and the maker of names appears to have had a singular notion about her; and indeed calls her by a still higher title, "divine intelligence" [theoũ nóēsis], as though he would say: This is she who has the mind of God [ἁ θεονόα, a theonóa). Perhaps, however, the name Theonoe may mean "she who knows divine things" [τὰ θεῖα νοοῦσα, ta theia noousa] better than others. Nor shall we be far wrong in supposing that the author of it wished to identify this Goddess with moral intelligence [εν έθει νόεσιν, en éthei nóesin], and therefore gave her the name Etheonoe; which, however, either he or his successors have altered into what they thought a nicer form, and called her Athena. — Plato, Cratylus 407b 

    So I think the reference to Wisdom as a goddess was deliberate. Hokmah (Chokmah) was often pictured as a goddess with wings, taking over some of the iconography associated with Asherah (pre-exile) and Isis (post-exile). She is still worshipped by those who follow Kabbala. The Jews and Greeks didn’t capitalize words to show significance the way we do in English, so the capitalization or lack of it is the choice of a modern English-speaking editor. We can’t form conclusions based on it. 

    Incidentally, Sophia (the Greek word for Wisdom, which was feminine) was changed by other hellenistic Jews to Logos (Word), which is masculine. This is the Greek word used in the gospel of John to describe Jesus: In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This is a clear reference to the story of Wisdom in Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon, but it is made masculine so that the aspect of God can be God’s son, not a goddess. The Greek culture was even more patriarchal than the Jewish culture. 

    For more on Athena, see this link: https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Athena.html

    For more on Wisdom (Hokmah or Chokmah), see this interesting Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chokhmah

    For information about the concept of Logos in Greek culture, Jewish Hellenism, and Christian thought, see this entry in the New World Encyclopedia: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Logos.

    A more detailed article on Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenistic Jew who brought the Stoic concept of the Logos into Jewish thought, where he identified it with the “utterance of God”: https://iep.utm.edu/philo/#H11

  • Why was Aaron the one that made the golden calf? If he had been alongside Moses the whole time, and seen all that YHWH had done for them, why was he so quick to abandon YHWH and make another idol god for the Israelites and then even built an altar in front of it? Why declare a festival to YHWH the following day?

    Aaron is only Moses’ brother in P, and E is the writer credited with the Golden calf story. If you’re pro-Moses and Anti-Aaron, this story could make Aaron look bad. Other versions of the story, such as the one in the Quran, blame this incident on someone else, so some think it’s an incident that got blamed on Aaron later. On the other hand, ancient worship of El, Baal, and Yahweh was originally accompanied by bull statues, though Deuteronomy later forbade that. So this scrap of the story might be a holdover from an earlier time, or it could be an attempt to explain the existence of bull statues in the temple, where we know Baal and Asherah were also worshipped as late as the time of Josiah. Here’s’ a Wikipedia article on Yahweh and bull worship: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahweh. There are a bunch of other theories about this; the Wikipedia article on the golden calf summarizes them well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_calf

  • Why is the bull or calf--as opposed to some other animal--so important in the ancient near east?

    Here’s a great explanation of the bull theme as associated with ancient deities.https://dornsife.usc.edu/wsrp/deity-on-a-bull/#:~:text=The%20bull%20was%20a%20widespread,of%20the%20fertility%20god%20Apis.&text=Many%20scholars%20believe%20that%20Jeroboam,to%20represent%20God%20(YHWH).

    Besides the episode in Exodus, there is a famous one in 1 Kings about Jeroboam setting up two golden calves at Dan and Bethel. While Kings uses this as evidence of Jeroboam’s apostasy, it seems that even after it was forbidden to worship Yahweh/El AS a bull, it was okay to show him as an invisible God being CARRIED by two bulls. 

    As we know, bulls are still symbols of virility in Spain (bullfights, running of the bulls) and the US (rodeos), so I guess it makes sense that they were symbols of virility in the ancient near east as well. Most gods (and goddesses) of ancient cultures had important fertility functions in temples, and based on the reference to male and female temple prostitutes in the bible, El/Yahweh probably had that function as well. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieros_gamos

Laws

  • Deuteronomy says certain people cannot enter the "assembly of God." Does that mean heaven?

    It does not mean heaven, which Jews generally didn’t and don’t believe in, at least not in the way Christians do. I looked it up. This is the best answer I found:

    “The congregation [aks assembly] of the LORD served as the national governing body, akin to to a popular legislature, that was charged with a broad range of judicial, political, and policy matters (Judges 20:2) “

    However, it seems to also mean they cannot undertake a Jewish marriage.

    It does not mean heaven, which Jews generally didn’t and don’t believe in, at least not in the way Christians do. I looked it up. This is the best answer I found:

    “The congregation [aks assembly] of the LORD served as the national governing body, akin to to a popular legislature, that was charged with a broad range of judicial, political, and policy matters (Judges 20:2) “

    However, it seems to also mean they cannot undertake a Jewish marriage. https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-prohibition-of-joining-the-assembly-of-the-lord

  • Why did the Jews blame themselves for the Babylonian crisis? Is it possible that they thought they did something wrong and broke their laws when in actuality no such thing happened?

    I love your question. I would definitely argue that Deuteronomy comes along and is read into history retroactively. Many scholars believe the historical texts from Joshua through kings were edited by Deuteronomists (that is, people who believe all bad things come from disobeying the rules in Deuteronomy, especially worship of foreign gods and marrying foreign wives (which leads to foreign gods)). So Jewish history in the bible is constantly interpreted according to the rules of a book that probably hadn’t been written yet. It’s pretty clear that when Ezra and Nehemiah read the Torah aloud to the returnees in the 5th and 4th century, they had never heard it before. While some priests and prophets and kings might have been aware of Deuteronomy in the 8th or 7th century BCE, assuming it existed, most people don’t know about it until after the exile.

    Whether the Judahites broke the laws or not, the author of Job would argue that God is above our laws and that we have no idea why God does anything. Job begs for a “redeemer” or kinsman to defend him against God in court, because he hasn’t done anything wrong. In response, God tells Job about the ostrich, who lays her eggs in the most dangerous possible and doesn’t see to care, in order to demonstrate (I think) that nature has no truck with all our “cause and effect.” In other words, while Deuteronomists believe people are to blame for bad things that happen, Job’s author doubts we can ever know why bad things happen. Though we don’t know when Job was written, it was probably during or after the exile. The “writings” or wisdom books are so named because they take on the big questions and argue with preconceived assumptions like those in Deuteronomy, which by post exile times was the part of the law of the land.

  • Why didn't the Elephantine community know how to perform Passover? What happened to them that that piece of knowledge was lost? When did they lose it, or did they ever have it?

    Your question is a great one, and the answer hinges on several factors we aren’t sure of. When did the Elephantine community arrive in Egypt, who were they, and where did they come from? I’vre read a host of conflicting arguments that I don’t completely understand, but one theory is that these were Jews who lived in the northern communities (Samaria) who either fled to Judah after the Assyrian destruction of the north or were exiled to Assyria and eventually made their way to egypt. We know this group had “Yahwistic psalms” (that is, psalms to Yahweh) written in Aramaic. One is pretty close to Psalm 20. But they had no Torah.

    If this group had left Israel before the finding or creating of the book of Deuteronomy, they would not have knowm any Torah rules except through oral tradition. These include the rules for passover, some of which were written in Exodus and some in Leviticus, which comes from the time of Ezra. Neither book would have been common knowledge before the exile, though aspects of these books might have been part of priestly tradition that was probably not well known outside the temple. The Elephantines did have a recipe or procedure for creating unleavened bread.

    So here is some speculation (and bear in mind I’m not a scholar in this area): The Elephantine community did not know the rules for passover because they had separated from the Jerusalem community before most these laws were set down. For the same reason, they wouldn’t have known about laws forbidding polytheism or laws regarding centralization of worship in Jerusalem.

    In answer to your question about building the temple, the rule about centralized worship–the one that insisted that all Jews worship only at the Jerusalem temple–were also in Deuteronomy.  If the Elephantine people did not know  Deuteronomy in its final form, they would not have known about the rule that there be only temple, in Jerusalem and nowhere else.

    The fact that the Jerusalem group approved the building of temple in Elephantine means that they did not consider the Elephantine community real Jews for the same reason Ezra expounds–the Elephantine group did not emigrate from the exile community in Babylon. While parts of the Elephantine community considered themselves Israelite or Jewish, it doesn’t seem as if the Jerusalem community shared their belief.

  • How do the historical contexts of the Deuteronomy writings reflect the challenges faced by the Hebrew people during the Babylonian invasion?

    To clarify, the major prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel were prophecying during the initial Babylonian conflict, which begans in the 600s BCE. Jeremiah seems to have been predicting the destruction of Judeah by Babylon or in some places explaining why it is happening, while Ezekiel was prophesying in Babylon, dictating to a scribe named Baruch. Isaiah was a school of prophets that probably interpreted events from the Assyrian period through the Babylonian period, but since it was frequently revised and adapted to reflect new events, it’s hard to tell what part was written when (but scholars generally divide Isaiah into three parts, the second corresponding to the Babylonian crisis and the third concerning the return from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem).

    Now to your question: Deuteronomy has a series of laws written inside a literary frame. The frame has Moses speaking to his followers right before they enter Canaan as an invading force (they’ve been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, so all the people who remember Egypt have died, and this new generation has to be reminded how the long journey started). The end of the frame has Moses issuing a litany of curses to all those who don’t follow the rules in Deuteronomy. Because the curses sound just like what actually happened in the Babylonian crisis, some scholars think this part was added after Babylon to “predict” what happens in Babylon and connect it directly to Jewish disobedience. The literary frame ends with Moses’s death; those who believe Moses actually wrote Deuteronomy say that last part was narrated by Joshuah.

    So the literary frame is one way the story reflects the challenges of Babylon. But more generally, Deuteronomy created a series of reforms designed to appease God, who had already allowed the north of Israel to fall to the Assyrians. The Deuteronomists generally, and Josiah specifically, were trying to appease God’s anger in order to prevent the same thing happening to Judah. It seemed to work for a while, but Josiah’s alliance with Egypt failed when Egypt did not show up to protect tiny Judah from the invading Babylonian force.

    So in a way, all of Deuteronomy can be related to the Babylonian crisis because it was an attempt to anticipate why God was allowing the country to be destroyed. The key reforms in Deuteronomy had to do with monotheism and centralized worship, but it also tried to codify a whole way of life (proper rituals, proper animal sacrifice, proper fabric and diet, etc.) The Torah has 613 laws, some collected from regional sources, some probably quite ancient and some (like those in Leviticus) quite late, but Deuteronomy may have been the first text set down in narrative form and applied to the whole people. Deuteronomy also specifically forbade foreign marriages, which would cause a huge problem when the exiled Jews returned with the wives they’d married in Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem. Many argue that Ruth, the first text we’re reading, was written to dispute the idea that foreign marriages were always wrong.

  • After the exile, when Ezra and Nehemiah set up their theocratic state, what caused the switch from oracles to texts as the absolute authority of God’s word?

    My theory is that when the Jews established this post-exile theocracy, they needed a sense of God’s word that was fixed, stable, and always accessible. They realized they were a small vassal community surrounded by ethnically similar people with a host of different beliefs. So their emphasis was on two things: Defining themselves as separate from these groups and insuring their survival.

    Imagine you are Ezra and a school of priests, sitting down in exile and trying to write your first edition of the Torah. You have a book of laws, some historical records, some oral legends, and a lot of prophecies. All of this is sacred material, but what do you do with it? The first thing they would notice about the prophecies is what we all notice: They are vague and hard to read. Their credibility is based on direct revelation, which is hard to verify and frequently disputed. They are often antiauthoritarian, openly defying kings and established leaders. And they only seem to be active in times of war and crisis.

    No, the prophecies are not good guides for life after the exile, and new prophecy would have to be actively discouraged, since you don’t want your average Joe getting stoned and preaching that the book is wrong and that God is giving them new instructions.

    Moreover, the prophets were a militant lot, and the heads of this new Jewish state had to discourage military insurrection at all costs. Why? Because they would be creamed! They would be utterly destroyed. Their only hope was to appease their Persian overlords. Nehemiah was a trusted member of the Persian royal household, and he emphasizes success by collaboration. In this era we get lots of stories–particularly Esther and Joseph, which I think is basically a Priestly addition to Genesis, about Jews who succeed and help their people by pleasing their overlords.

    I mentioned the phrase “women of valor” at the start of this class as a redefinition of military virtue for peacetime. It’s no accident that post-exile writers call “valor” the ability to provide for your family and ensure their success. They actively discourage military virtues.

  • How were Judeans not outraged and completely taken back by what they were reading about their Elephantine counterparts doing in their secluded community? Were the books more about how they were supposed to live rather than how they actually lived, or did higher officials just adopt an "out of sight out of mind" attitude toward the Elephantine community?

    Your speculations are similar to mine. I figure that either Ezra and Nehemiah present an ideal of a Torah-based community that much stricter in theory than in practice, or the Judean community didn’t really see the Elephantine community as truly Jewish, or (as you say) out of sight out of mind.

    I go back to this with the text of Ruth, which many argue was written around the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah, and which directly attacks  the assertion that foreign women have no value. One might argue, if Ruth directly contradicts Torah law, how could the story of Ruth not only be admitted to the Jewish canon but also be treated as a sacred festival scroll? I come back to this theory vs practice notion. I feel certain that some people resisted the edict to send away their foreign wives (and children). I am certain that not everyone did it. In the same way, it seems possible that monotheism existed alongside polytheism and that people didn’t see those two things as mutually exclusive, strange as that seems to us.

    But another possibility comes to mind, and that is that the Hebrew bible purposely includes books with opposing points of view so that those books can be disputed and argued. For example, the book of Daniel (a very late text) suggests that Jews can succeed merely by adhering to the Torah’s dietary laws. They do not have to actively resist their oppressors because if they obey the Torah strictly God will take care of them. On the other hand, the story of Esther suggests that Jews should use guile and sexuality to manipulate their oppressors, even if they have to violate dietary laws to do it. Or take the book of Job, which contradicts Deuteronomy on the connection between guilt and suffering. Job says that God withholds the reasons for our suffering from us and exists in a reality beyond our understanding.

    This last perspective makes the most sense to me. For Jews, the Mishnah and the Talmud have largely replaced the Hebrew bible as the primary object of study, and frequently the Talmud openly contradicts biblical teachings. The Talmud is an enormous body of stories, legends, conversations, interpretations, and arguments about how to apply laws to everyday life. So the Jewish experience of the bible involves argument, dispute,  and negotiation. The laws don’t exist in a vacuum but are applied to every day life, and that’s not always a perfect fit. Unlike some Christians, who believe every word of the bible is true and can be reconciled with every other word of the bible, the Jewish experience is different. To them, each story is part of a big noisy conversation, and arguing about their meaning lies at the heart of the Jewish experience of God.

  • Near the end of the book of Ruth, why did they use sandals as a legally binding method? I assume, but may be wrong, that they needed their sandals, and could have used something less valuable? That however, may be the point.

    Here’s something else I learned from your question. The sandal thing was clearly as strange to the audience of Ruth as it is to us, since the author felt he had to explain it:

    Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal.

    So the audience understands this detail made the contract binding at one time.

    I am quoting heavily from a blog entry by a pastor from Rudtlege Baptist Church, which he wrote in response to this very question. He notes that in Deuteronomy, it says that if a woman asks for Levirate marriage and is denied, she should take off her shoe and spit in the man’s face.

    So we know the sandal or shoe (na’ al) was connected to Levirate marriage in this way; we know less about the sandal being used to seal a contract. According to Pastor Vinson, one could seal a bill of sale (especially of land) by lifting  up one’s shoe from the contract and having the buyer set his shoe upon it as a mark of possession. Since part of the legal transaction involves Boaz buying Elimelech’s land, that might explain the shoes.

    Vinson also notes that sandals are connected to locks conceptually, and that shoes are connected to power, and when one removes one’s shoes, that is connected to submission. He quotes a book by Edna Nahshon, Jews and Shoes. 

    We’ve noted that there’s a common metaphorical link between feet and genitals, as mentioned in Ruth 3 with the uncovering of the feet. So, speculate some, this transaction might be sexual in nature.

    Also, argues Vinson, in some Near Eastern cultures, a man could reject a wife by removing a slipper. So perhaps the point of the shoes was for the official next of kin to officially renounce his right to marry Ruth, a right he passes to Boaz. But I didn’t find anything authoritative in my limited search about using sandals in the way that Boaz uses them. Except for his point about shoes in Deuteronomy, I think that Vinson’s’ explanation of shoes in this story is a guess and not a documented fact.

    So I, your teacher, believe that the author of this story knew a little about ancient law but not much. This author knew about the connection in Deuteronomy between levirate marriage and shoes, but I speculate that the author is guessing at the rest. You’ve seen above that no one has a really satisfactory answer to your question. If the author of Ruth once knew of a convincing link between marriage contracts and shoes, I don’t know that we’ve ever found it.

    Here’s the link to Pastor Vinson’s blog: http://trivialdevotion.blogspot.com/2012/02/boazs-shoe-deal.html

  • When did the Christian and Jewish traditions diverge regarding obeying the 613 laws such as the Laws of Kahrut (dietary laws)?

    I’m not sure about the answer to your question (if I understand it correctly) , but I would say that Paul is the key figure in Christians drifting away from the Mizvot in general. As you probably know, Paul got into a huge debate with the Jerusalem Jesus movement about diet and circumcision, and most would say he lost. Though he continued to try to placate the Jerusalem Jews like Peter and James, we see by Romans that he feels teaching the law (usually translated “works”) has no place, because a true follower of Jesus will obey the law in his heart. He says that concentrating on  not breaking laws makes you want to break them (kind of like when  parents tell little kids “don’t put beans up your nose”). In the middle ages, most Christians had only a rudimentary understanding of the gospel and no knowledge of the Hebrew bible at all. Then of course centuries of Anti-Semitic thinking led to the notion that Jews used laws to persecute Christians (see for example, the famous Justice/Mercy speech in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where Justice refers to Jewish law and Mercy refers to Christian notions of “grace”).

    I would like to know when Christians began concentrating on some laws (like who you have sex with) while ignoring others. Maybe this was Calvinist; maybe it is uniquely American. 

  • Regarding the Greek additions to Esther, added for Hellenized Jewish readers: Why would using her skills to help her people not be enough? 

    I loved your question. I too would have thought Esther’s sacrifice would be enough, but by the Greek period, Hellenized Jews seemed to think Esther was more whore than hero. Perhaps that was because of her sexual training and the Greek emphasis on female virginity. (Hestia, Artemis, and Athena were considered virgins, and Greeks even named the famous Athenian temple the Temple of the Virgin (Parthenon, after parthenos or virgin). Here’s an interesting blog article by classicist Edith Hall on ancient Greek virginity tests, their invalidity, and their persistence today: http://edithorial.blogspot.com/2013/08/what-greeks-knew-about-virginity-testing.html 

    Another obvious problem with Esther to intertestamental, Hellenized Jews was her diet. We don’t have much discussion of Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) before Daniel and Tobit, both written in the Hellenic or Greek period (Daniel dates from about 164 BCE and Tobit is probably later). Yes, the laws are mentioned in Deuteronomy and especially Leviticus, but we don’t see the evidence of their importance before Daniel and the Apocryphal texts:

    • Both Daniel and Tobit prohibit eating the meat and “wine of the gentiles,” though vegetables are permitted, partly because eating these foods, especially wine, might lead to intermarriage. God is shown sending angels (popular in the Greek period) to defend them when gentiles torture them for their diet.
    • In the Greek text 4 Maccabees in the Apocrypha, seven sons of their father go to their deaths at the hands of Antiochus IV (the same villain mentioned in Daniel) because they will not eat the pork of the gentile oppressors. Their mother is lionized as “mother of the nation, vindicator of the law and champion of religion…more noble than males in steadfastness, and more courageous than men in endurance” (4 Mac 29-30).  
    • In the New Testament, Acts discusses Paul’s struggle with the Jerusalem Jesus movement over dietary laws, and Jesus, an observant Jew, seems to follow them in some gospels while actively defying them in others (Mark 7).

    My point is that, somewhere between the time the original Esther was written and the Greek additions were composed, diet became the single greatest sign of Jewish separateness, for those who advocated it. 

    I suggest that these two issues–Esther’s sexuality and her diet–were every bit as disturbing to later readers as the lack of mentions of God, and both are addressed in the Apocryphal additions to Esther. Even in the first century CE, Esther is not mentioned or found among the Dead Sea scrolls. It isn’t till the third century CE that Esther is considered canonical by the Jews–some argue because Esther was a festival scroll (megillot) that justified an important Jewish holiday, Purim. 

    Still, I agree that her sacrifice should have been enough, for those who saw women as capable of sacrifice. But the Mediterranean world that “closed” the Torah canon was every bit as misogynist as the early Christians. 

    For more on dietary laws, see these books about the kashrut:

    • Kraemer, David C. Jewish Eating and Identity through the Ages. London: Routledge, 2007.DOI: 10.4324/9780203941577A history of major developments in Jewish eating practices, from the Bible to the present.
    • Rosenblum, Jordan D. The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.A good survey of Jewish dietary laws, as referenced in both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, from the Hebrew Bible through the Rabbinic/Patristic period.

  • How were these gods or goddesses were "removed" from history? If their existence is in conflict with the First Commandment, how are they in the bible at all?

    This is something we’re going to talk about a lot. For now I’ll just respond with two points:

    1. The first commandment  seems not to say that only Yahweh -El ( translated “The Lord your God”)  should be worshipped. It says “you will have no other gods before the face” (meaning “ahead of me” or “above me” because Yahweh is jealous, not because the other gods don’t exist.  In the polytheistic world that Deuteronomy tried to regulate, God would have regular contests with other deities. For example, Moses, who would not have been raised as a monotheist, is God’s instrument in a contest or “god-off” with Pharoah. God’s challenge is to Pharoah: Free your followers so they may be my followers. More on this here: https://fromislamtoheathendom.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/monolatrist-moses/ The point I’m making here is that polytheism was the rule after the exile but probably not before then. We see Deuteronomists like Jeremiah and Ezekiel arguing for it, but many followers refused to give up goddess worship. 
    2. The theory of authorship our book will advance tells us that these commandments did not come first. The commandments were not written in the order they appear in biblically. Instead, they were collected from a variety of sources and ages and communities. The first that we know of come from Deuteronomy, which formed the core of the Torah, and others may have been collected in temple documents or followed by different ethnic communities that were eventually united as one people after the exile. The Hebrew bible tells us two origin stories for the Hebrew people, one in Genesis and one in Exodus, and these stories are eventually fused together to form a narrative of a united people with a common origin. What actually happened, and where all these stories and laws come from, is more complicated, but we can assume they were collected and gradually integrated into the narrative that becomes the Torah. Some attribute them to prophets like Amos and Hosea.
      1. In other words, the ten commandments that Christians prioritize were not the original or most important commandments for the Jewish people. In Mark and Matthew, we see Jesus telling us that the most important laws are the Shema (Deut 6) and a law from Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew further says that all 613 laws are of equal value for his followers, who were Jewish followers of Jesus. Neither of these authors prioritize the ten commandments. 
      2. The ten commandments only assume their current importance for Christians in the 13th century CE with the rise of Protestant churches. Some believe the number 10 was easy to remember so these commandments became part of catechism (remember that before the Protestant reformation, most Christians did not read the bible at all).

  • Does the Eden story in the Hebrew bible explain "original sin"?

    I cover this in the lecture, but I always like to stress that according to the Hebrew bible, the episode with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was not a “sin,” and certainly not an “original sin.” Instead, God says they will be “cursed from the ground,” referring to their inability to grow crops because of their relationship to the soil. This is a big deal in Jewish history; the subset of Canaanites who eventually saw themselves as Jews were geographically separate at key times, occupying the hill country where they relied on goats and sheep rather than farming because the desert land could not grow crops.  Some of the most disputed areas of the land in biblical history, such as the coastal plain and the Arad-Beersheba valley in the eastern Negev region, were the places with sufficient rainfall to grow crops. 

    The word “sin” vs. the word “cursed” in Hebrew

    The word “sin” is first used to refer to Cain’s killing of Abel, and is later referenced in reference to the violations of host-guest rules in the city of Sodom. Why is that important? Because Original sin is a Christian idea, not a Jewish one. In the Hebrew bible, the story is etiological–it explains the origins of some bad things–but it never suggests the whole race is sinful because of the episode. Rather, the emphasis is always on the struggle with the arid soil of the region. Genesis 3 says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground for your sake. and you will eat of it in sadness.”  When God warns Cain to avoid sin, which he says lurks and waits for him like an animal, Cain kills his brother anyway, and God reiterates the “curse”: “And now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood.” Noah, whose name means “rest” or “resting place,” was said to be named “rest” because he was a relief from the labor resulting from the “ground that God has cursed.” 

    Where did “Original Sin” come from?

    The idea of “Original Sin” is a Christian idea that was created in the 3rd century CE by Augustine of Hippo. He got it by mistranslating Paul 5.12, which did say that “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all,” but he immediately added that sin spread to all humans “because all have sinned.” The key for Paul was that we are all guilty because we all ALSO commit sins. We aren’t just carrying Adam’s burden.

    Augustine really formulated the idea of “original sin” and its connection to women and sex. He believed that  people use to have perfect sexuality before the fall, but since we disobeyed god, the post-lapsarian body disobeys (that is, human bodies after the fall betray us, divorcing desire from good sense and causing the man’s sexual organ to rebel against him). He says sin results from unfulfilled desire and is not a quality but the absence of good, like a wound. He formulated the notion that “the human” or “adam” contained  all of us and therefore when he and Eve sin, we all sin. That was a very new idea that even Paul didn’t intend (read more about his idea here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_sin#Paul

    So what does this episode mean in Christianity? Well, of course, that’s complicated, but again, a lot of it starts with Paul. According to Bart Ehrman’s blog, which I subscribe to, Paul was highly preoccupied with sin:

    For [Paul,] the forces that are aligned against God. . . . are great powers that hold sway over the world, including the powers of sin and death.

    Sin, for Paul, was not simply an act of transgression, an action that was opposed to the will of God.  It was that, for sure; but Paul had a view of sin that was much bigger and all-encompassing.  Sin for Paul was also a kind of demonic power that existed in the world, a force that was trying to enslave people and make them do what was contrary both to their own will and contrary to the will of God.   Sin came into the world with the transgression of Adam, and it dominated the human race.  Everyone was enslaved to sin, which is why people were alienated from God.  This did not simply mean that everyone did things that were wrong.   It meant that they were helpless to do otherwise because they were under the power of an alien force opposed to God.

    Bart Ehrman Blog, https://ehrmanblog.org/the-resurrection-in-paul/

    So for Paul, Jesus defeats sin by being crucified, and other followers of Jesus can participate in this escape from sin by being baptized. The original sin concept comes in because the simple act of baptism allows you to undo Original Sin. Other Christians believe sin is “the loss of God.” So in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan (now a fully-fledged archdemon) exists in a perpetual state of sin. But Sin appears to him as a really gross snake lady being raped by her own son, Death, until hellhounds come out of her lady parts (the clinical word is Hoo-hah). Satan doesn’t recognize that she is also his daughter, not realize that Death is his grandson. No one else encounters Sin this way. But Satan’s reality is distorted because he is fallen (also a Christian concept).

    Did Adam and Eve “sin” or do something else?

    As I mentioned above, Adam and Eve were “cursed,” but the word “sin” is not used in the tree of knowledge episdoe. The Hebrew Bible has lots of words that get translated into English as “sin,” but their distinctions are important. For a language with a small vocabulary, Biblical Hebrew used lots of different words to describe badness: 

    Our own culture doesn’t have that many words for impurity and violation, but the literary language of the Hebrew bible was highly preoccupied with different ways for you to be wrong, cursed, unclean, disobedient, cursed, and otherwise nasty.

    Sin vs. Towebah (Abomination)

    Without getting too complicated, I’ll add that the idea that a person can commit “a sin,” that is, disobey one of the commandments or have sex before marriage, is perhaps the most widely known meaning of the word. But Jews would call most violations of their laws “abomination,” or Towebah, a word that sounds best in the original Klingon.

    And it wasn’t an apple

    P.S. Eve definitely didn’t eat an apple, since they did not exist in that part of the world. Many think a pomegranate. Persephone eats a pomegranate offered her in a similar Greek story. I don’t think that the story would be influential at all if a man had eaten the fruit. Behind this innocent story is a sexualized fall in which Eve betrays Adam with the serpent (Eve’s name might be related to the word for serpent, is what I’m reading). Women’s sexuality is a the heart of many ancient near eastern stories. Pandora opens a box and lets loose misery on the world, for example. 

  • If Ezra taught even those who didn’t know God about God, why couldn't he teach the innocent foreign wives and children about God too, rather than sending them away?

    My answer to your question is that knowledge of God was not enough to make you part of the post-exile Judahite community. I mentioned in my comment to Zac’s question that other Torah-observing groups existed, such as the group you mention in Takeaway 4 that “turned on” the Judahites. The Elephantine group considered themselves part of the same tradition though they clearly had no copy of the Torah. Ezra’s rule, which is more or less the rule today, is that people’s inheritance and not their belief system made them a Judahite (later Jew).

    It was possible to convert. When Paul tried to convert people to the Jesus movement, he got in a dispute with the Jerusalem group (Peter, James) about whether one had to be circumcised and observe the 613 laws (James and Peter believed conversion to Judaism should happen first). When Paul argued that faith was more important than works, he meant that they should not have to follow the laws and be circumcised, which was an obstacle for many non-Jews. 

    You will also find disagreement about the bible about whether individual innocence mattered. Some believed the king’s guilt was enough to implicate all his subjects. Deuteronomy says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” Ezekiel, who was a deuteronomist, said, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. ” But Psalms says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me..” And Christians believed Adam’s guilt was inherited. 

    I mention this disagreement because I want to emphasize that Ezra excluded foreign wives and their children (to the extent he actually did, which I have my doubts about) not because of their guilt or innocence or lack of knowledge about the law, but because they were mixed. Leviticus’s “holiness” or purity laws are very specific about that, and I very much believe Ezra to have been one of the people who wrote them. 

  • Why did Moses smash the tablets that the original commandments were written on? Why smash the one physical piece of "law" that was handed directly to him straight from YHWH?

    Here’s my take on the tablet smashing–it’s probably been espoused by many others. Exodus has a second version of the commandments (ch 34), attributed by Friedman to J. They are completely different, but that’s kind of glossed over. I think that the authors editing the sources together had to find a way to explain two sets of commandments. The second has much more to do with rules for diet and sacrifice, which to me suggests it is a second-temple text, not an ancient one at all. I don’t really know. But no matter how often I assign this topic, I can’t get any students interested in the fact that there are two hugely different sets of 10 commandments. Still, I would like those who think the commandments should be published in front of courthouses to tell me which set they mean–the first set, which is the one we generally refer to, or the second set, which the bible says is the second draft?

  • Why is it that that means of devotion changed so much? It went from killing your child to follow just a set of rules. Why/what happened that made worship so distinct and different between Genesis and Exodus?

    For an answer to that, I believe you can thank P and the post-exile redactor, who wanted to emphasize peaceful ways of surviving under foreign rule. To survive as a tiny vassal community, the Israelites obviously couldn’t practice child sacrifice very widely. They couldn’t rely on prophets who tended to present God as vengeful, mysterious, and hard to read. To create a stable theocracy, they needed a set of rules to follow that were authorized by God himself. But they also needed governing figure–the priests–to replace the kings, so that they weren’t simply absorbed by other communities with stronger political leaders. And they needed a code that kept them “holy” or separate–that is, that kept them from being assimilated into surrounding religions. 

    My theory is based on the belief that Genesis and Exodus were once separate origin stories that were joined by the author of the Joseph story, which reads like a biography of Nehemiah, and which were both revised to reflect post-exile experience and beliefs. 

Texts and Titles

  • What is the order of events in Nehemiah 8? It seems like Ezra first read it to them (8:3), then opened the book (8:5), which would be weird? Or is this just a later description of the same event? Also, later we are told that all the Levites read from the book (and help the community understand the law) – does this occur at the same time as Ezra’s reading?

    I do not REALLY know the answer to your question. I think that many hands shaped the text of Ezra in particular, which was probably revised many times between the 400s and the 2nd century BCE, when it was first considered scripture. It contains several Persian loan words and includes several Aramaic texts.

    Nehemiah, which you specifically asked about, was written as late as 336, so again much later than the events described, and again was edited. I am not familiar with all the complex theories about authorship and transmission (in this case, the Wikipedia article is a good introduction), but I think it’s hard to rely on the chronology of events as presented in the text. That’s a squirrely answer, because I just don’t know enough.

    Having said that, what I think is happening is that in Neh 8.3 the author is presenting an overview or thesis: He read the document all day for several days. Then he breaks down the process:

    1. Ezra stands on a wooden platform with a bunch of Levites next to him.
    2. Ezra opens the book, and when he does so, everyone stands up.
    3. There is a prayer while everyone says Amen and bows.
    4. Nehemiah and the Levites who were standing next to him “instructed the people in the Law” which could mean read but probably means either translate or interpret (as is explained in 8.8 in more detail).
    5. Nehemiah says they shouldn’t grieve that they have been disobedient unintentionally but should celebrate the fact that they now know what God wants.
    6. The heads of families decide to celebrate the Festival of booths

    Chapter 8 ends with a conclusion, which restates the two things that happened: Ezra read, and they celebrated the festival.

  • How do the historical contexts of the Deuteronomy writings reflect the challenges faced by the Hebrew people during the Babylonian invasion?

    To clarify, the major prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel were prophecying during the initial Babylonian conflict, which begans in the 600s BCE. Jeremiah seems to have been predicting the destruction of Judeah by Babylon or in some places explaining why it is happening, while Ezekiel was prophesying in Babylon, dictating to a scribe named Baruch. Isaiah was a school of prophets that probably interpreted events from the Assyrian period through the Babylonian period, but since it was frequently revised and adapted to reflect new events, it’s hard to tell what part was written when (but scholars generally divide Isaiah into three parts, the second corresponding to the Babylonian crisis and the third concerning the return from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem).

    Now to your question: Deuteronomy has a series of laws written inside a literary frame. The frame has Moses speaking to his followers right before they enter Canaan as an invading force (they’ve been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, so all the people who remember Egypt have died, and this new generation has to be reminded how the long journey started). The end of the frame has Moses issuing a litany of curses to all those who don’t follow the rules in Deuteronomy. Because the curses sound just like what actually happened in the Babylonian crisis, some scholars think this part was added after Babylon to “predict” what happens in Babylon and connect it directly to Jewish disobedience. The literary frame ends with Moses’s death; those who believe Moses actually wrote Deuteronomy say that last part was narrated by Joshuah.

    So the literary frame is one way the story reflects the challenges of Babylon. But more generally, Deuteronomy created a series of reforms designed to appease God, who had already allowed the north of Israel to fall to the Assyrians. The Deuteronomists generally, and Josiah specifically, were trying to appease God’s anger in order to prevent the same thing happening to Judah. It seemed to work for a while, but Josiah’s alliance with Egypt failed when Egypt did not show up to protect tiny Judah from the invading Babylonian force.

    So in a way, all of Deuteronomy can be related to the Babylonian crisis because it was an attempt to anticipate why God was allowing the country to be destroyed. The key reforms in Deuteronomy had to do with monotheism and centralized worship, but it also tried to codify a whole way of life (proper rituals, proper animal sacrifice, proper fabric and diet, etc.) The Torah has 613 laws, some collected from regional sources, some probably quite ancient and some (like those in Leviticus) quite late, but Deuteronomy may have been the first text set down in narrative form and applied to the whole people. Deuteronomy also specifically forbade foreign marriages, which would cause a huge problem when the exiled Jews returned with the wives they’d married in Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem. Many argue that Ruth, the first text we’re reading, was written to dispute the idea that foreign marriages were always wrong.

  • I know how Christians interpret the story of Isaac. How might non-Christians interpret it?

    One major way that Isaac is interpreted by the Jewish people is as a symbol of Jewish suffering and martyrdom throughout history. Martyrdom became an important way for Jews to show their devotion to God during the Hellenistic period (that’s the period from the time of Alexander the Great to the early common era (what used to be called AD)). Jews were martyred first by the Greeks and later by the Romans and Christians. Antisemitism was rampant in Europe and Russia.  The persecution of Jews was especially bad at Christmas. Later, as most of us know, Jews were persecuted horribly during the holocaust and in the Russian pogroms.

    While Isaac is spared at the last minute in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament, some oral Jewish lore tells that Abraham did sacrifice him, just as many devoted Jews were sacrificed over the centuries. (In some Islamic texts, on the other hand, it was Isaac’s older brother Ishmael, the father of Islam, who was sacrificed). Those who believe in the Documentary Hypothesis (a theory about sources for the Torah that we will learn about in weeks 3-4) note that Isaac is sacrificed in the E text, the text that also tells the story of Ishmael’s sacrifice in the desert. The E-text never mentions Isaac again, lending credence to the belief of textual scholars that his last-minute salvation was inserted by a redactor or later editor. Other stories about Isaac’s later years belong to the J and P text, both thought to be later versions of the story. Since the E text is thought to originate in the ancient north at a time when child sacrifice was still practiced, usually as a means of appeasing an angry god, the idea that Isaac did not survive the binding is still shared in some circles.

    To summarize, Isaac came to stand for the martyrdom of an entire people at God’s behest, since God’s displeasure is one way of understanding why Jews continue to suffer. However, Christians tend to read most of the Hebrew bible, this story included, as typology. They read Isaac as a “type” or early version of Jesus, who is sacrificed but then ressurrected.

  • Many texts had contradicting ideas on how the Jewish people should live among foreigners. Of the different views of how the Jewish people should live among others, was there one that was more popular, and what makes it so?

    After the exile, I think the dominant view was probably that Jews should live separately even when living in foreign lands and under foreign rules. Ezra and Nehemiah emphasize the separation through avoiding foreign marriage (so with marriages contracted in Babylon, one presumes the wife would have to show she was descended from Judahites), which would have been devasting to the returnees from Babylon. They had the entire Torah read aloud and asked all Judahites to sign that they understood and would follow these rules, and the Deuteronomic view of history clearly linked disobedience of its rules with cultural disaster. In intertestamental times, separation was emphasized by diet practices or kashrut, as you can see inn several texts (Daniel, the apocryphal additions to Esther, 4 Maccabees, etc.)

    At the same time, we see plenty of evidence that not everyone agreed with the dominant view. We’ll hear more later of some of the diaspora communities (Jews who did not return to Jerusalem), but we know they had no copy of the Torah and regularly violated the most basic of its laws, including the law against polytheism. Many of the writings (post exile books sometimes called the Wisdom books) like the canonical text of Esther showed people violating dietary laws and marrying foreigners to help their people. Jonah shows God caring as much for Assyrians as he does for Judeans. The Wisdom of Solomon (an apocryphal text) celebrates the value of learning, even when it comes from the Greeks. Job questions whether people actually deserve the bad things that happen to them and by extension, this text suggests that God is much more mysterious than Deuteronomy suggests. And of course Ruth shows a foreign wife saving her family and, through David, becoming the mother of a nation.

    This is why I emphasize that biblical books are engaged in a conversation–even a friendly debate–about the big issues.

  • Why were animals granted the access to God in Jonah? I find this very interesting because it is not something that is commonly seen.

    I wish I knew the answer to your question. In this story, I think the idea is that unlike Jonah the prophet, the whole of creation obeys God. I love the idea that God would spare the animals since they are guiltless because they’ve never heard God’s word or read the Torah.

    The bible really has very few other mentions of animals, and in another post I detailed some of them:

    • Tobit’s dog, who followed Tobit back and forth in the Apocrypha
    • A bird that poops in Tobit’s eyes, making him blind, and a magic fish that cures him
    • The shepherd’s lamb, which was told to David as an allegory of his stealing Bathsheba from Uriah. In it, the Shepherd was described as having a pet lamb that he slept with and fed at the table. One day a neighbor slaughtered the lamb. David condemned the thief, and then his prophet Nathan pronounced, “You are the man!”
    • Lazarus the Leper’s dog, who licked his sores (dog saliva was actually curative for sores). Lazarus goes to heaven, while the rich man does not. Nobody mentions the dog, but I like to think he went along with Lazarus.
    • Lilith in Isaiah is some kind of a screech owl, or maybe an owl goddess. She becomes Adam’s first wife in the Midrash.
    • The talking donkey in Numbers who is beaten by Balaam because the donkey sees the angel of God (“the satan”) barring the way, and Balaam does not. The satan tells Balaam that if the donkey had allowed Balaam to  disobey God’s orders, the satan would have killed Balaam and spared the donkey.
    • The serpent in the garden (who is NOT Satan in the Hebrew text, though Enoch later connected the two) tricked Eve.
    • Plus there are generic animals–the two (or seven) of each species in the ark, the sheep that Jacob persuades to have spotted babies, the raven (or dove, depending on which strand of Genesis you read).
    • Joseph dreamt of animals, as did Daniel.
    • Also, and this is kind of cool, Jacob’s two wives had animal names: Rachel (ewe) and Leah (cow). The Jews preferred goats and sheep to cows because of the rugged terrain they lived in, so Rachel is the favorite wife. Many early folktales–I consider the story of Rachel and Leah one such tale–have gods and goddesses that have animal qualities. For example, Irish myth has a horse goddess named Macha, who could outrun any man. Her husband forced her to race while she was in labor, so she cursed every man present so that he would have labor pains once a year. A Welsh goddess owl goddess was named Blodeuwedd (“flower face”). Bronwen was a  Welsh Raven goddess.

    Right off I can’t think of other animals, though I know there are some. The early Jews were herders more than growers, though that varied over the years. But the bible doesn’t have a lot of animal characters compared to, say, native American folklore.

  • Why did the Jews blame themselves for the Babylonian crisis? Is it possible that they thought they did something wrong and broke their laws when in actuality no such thing happened?

    I love your question. I would definitely argue that Deuteronomy comes along and is read into history retroactively. Many scholars believe the historical texts from Joshua through kings were edited by Deuteronomists (that is, people who believe all bad things come from disobeying the rules in Deuteronomy, especially worship of foreign gods and marrying foreign wives (which leads to foreign gods)). So Jewish history in the bible is constantly interpreted according to the rules of a book that probably hadn’t been written yet. It’s pretty clear that when Ezra and Nehemiah read the Torah aloud to the returnees in the 5th and 4th century, they had never heard it before. While some priests and prophets and kings might have been aware of Deuteronomy in the 8th or 7th century BCE, assuming it existed, most people don’t know about it until after the exile.

    Whether the Judahites broke the laws or not, the author of Job would argue that God is above our laws and that we have no idea why God does anything. Job begs for a “redeemer” or kinsman to defend him against God in court, because he hasn’t done anything wrong. In response, God tells Job about the ostrich, who lays her eggs in the most dangerous possible and doesn’t see to care, in order to demonstrate (I think) that nature has no truck with all our “cause and effect.” In other words, while Deuteronomists believe people are to blame for bad things that happen, Job’s author doubts we can ever know why bad things happen. Though we don’t know when Job was written, it was probably during or after the exile. The “writings” or wisdom books are so named because they take on the big questions and argue with preconceived assumptions like those in Deuteronomy, which by post exile times was the part of the law of the land.

  • How and why did Ezra and Nehemiah keep such an accurate log of names/populations? Other ancient civilizations don't seem to stress this kind of detail. So why were these two books so detailed and precise? What added value does that give them?

    Your question is very revealing and useful. By revealing, I mean it assumes a modern idea about direct quotes, numbers, and evidence, specifically that they are based on fact.

    To me, the texts’ emphasis on detail is rhetorical, not literal. What I mean is that these texts emphasize evidence in the form of documentation, pedigrees, and exact transcriptions of prayer to give the text authority. Consider what Ezra was doing. He was making a radical break with the past:

    He was not only asserting a new way to organize the community; he was also furnishing the first draft of set of laws that most people had never heard before. This text gains authority and canonical status by its reliance on the appearance of proof and evidence, and it asserts that this proof and evidence are better and more reliable that prophecy as a means of understanding God’s’ intentions.

    What kind of evidence do the scrolls of Ezra and Nehemiah employ in new ways?

    • The author of Ezra frequently quotes the text of a letter and incorporates it into the story.
    • He implies that everyone possessed the ability to document his genealogy for over 200 years.
    • He provides detailed head counts and statistics that even Ezra and Nehemiah, as precise as they must have been, could not have collected.
    • He includes what purport to be direct transcriptions of public speeches and prayers. No technology (short hand, recording, etc) would have allowed these speeches to be recorded in these ways.

    So even if the detailed evidence these texts present us could not be real, they are still convincing and persuasive. They had to be to convince a community to redirect its faith in charismatic oracular figures to a book of what would eventually by 613 laws.

    Moreover, since Ezra himself, or a person like him, probably wrote many of these laws, including all of the laws in Leviticus, he would have needed the appearance of proof to assert the authority of these laws over all members of the new community.

    The most important new groups of laws that Ezra promulgated were the “holiness” laws or laws of separation. Ezra is telling people that God wants them to separate themselves from their wives, their neighbors, and the customs and beliefs they held in Babylon. He is asking them to agree to strict laws about what can be worn or eaten. And he is asserting that he and his fellow priests or Levites are the final authority for interpreting these texts. For such bold assertions, precision (or its appearance) matters.

  • What explains Ruth's contradictions and inconsistencies with the rest of the bible?

    The biggest contradiction, in my opinion, is about the issue of foreign wives. Ezra & Nehemiah, the “authors” of the bible, showed up with this giant Torah, read it allowed for days, and  then they tore their hair and said, O No! Deuteronomy says we shouldn’t marry foreign women. Send them away! (Such wives would have either come with the Judeans from Babylon, or they would have been chosen from  surrounding communities once the Judeans arrived).

    So what are we to make of Ruth coming along and saying, foreign women are good? (They can convert. They can save your family. They can father David.) I think Ezra and Nehemiah oversimplify what actually happened. These texts say that all the women just got up and left. But there’s plenty of evidence that they didn’t. And if they didn’t, you could see why at some point someone would want to write a defense of his own foreign wife.

    Another big contradiction is between this text and Deuteronomy on Levirate marriage, where Boaz is supposed to be the Goel or redeemer, standing in for the dead husband. One reason this text might disagree with Deuteronomy 25 is that the texts were written at different times. The author of this article (https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/levirate-marriage) suggests that for women, Levirate marriage was an ideal solution, whereas men might find it problematic because they risked disinheriting their other children by standing in for an older brother and fathering his kids. It is clear that the bible has contradictory information about levirate marriage; at any rate, for the text to claim that “a child is born to Naomi” rather than Elimelech is a deliberate distortion of the institution, which existed to perpetuate the male line, not the female line.

    The problem in Ruth being a Moabite when, in the actual time of the Judges, Moabites were enemies, can be explained by the late composition of Ruth. It begins “In the days of the Judges,” which is the bible equivalent to “Once upon a time…” The actual text of Ruth seems to have been written sometime after Judeans returned from Babylon in the second temple period.  I would suggest, then, that its author didn’t realize Moabites were once enemies, having never read Judges.

    But the text had reasons for setting this story in “the time of the judges.”

    • It not only enlists the female point of view, but it seems to actively defend the value of foreign women as wives.
    • Its use of the term “Woman of valor” or Eishes Chayil (the same term used in Proverbs) suggests the two texts might have been written around the same time.  But Proverbs specifically defines the “woman of valor” as local, not foreign. She is defined in opposition to the bad “foreign woman” who seduces young men away from everything they know. So again, Ruth deliberately redefines “Woman of valor” to pertain to foreign women.
    • When we read Ezra and Nehemiah, we’ll see that leaders during this time strongly advocated sending away all foreign wives (that is, women who returned with their husbands from Babylon, but also women from neighboring communities acquired after the return).
    • The prohibition against foreign wives is made after the public reading of Deuteronomy; clearly, until that moment, no one knew it was against the rules to marry foreign women, because no one had ever even heard of Deuteronomy. That’s not so strange; Deuteronomy would have existed only in manuscript, and what we know about first time practices tells us that only kings and priests had access to those texts.
    • So the text of Ruth seems to be in active disagreement to standard church law about foreign women. Setting it in the distant past makes it safer.

    On the larger issue of the canon and how Ruth made it in, I would suggest that making Ruth an ancestor of David ensures that the text will be read. Moreover, by the time the Hebrew canon closed, Ruth had become one of the five megillot, or festival scrolls. These were performed aloud on special holidays; in Ruth’s case, at a harvest festival. Once that happened, getting rid of it would have been difficult–kind of like our getting rid of Thanksgiving.

  • What are the origins of the typically used names of the Bible books and writers (ex. Luke, Jeremiah, Daniel, etc.)?
    • Most of the Old Testament books’ names come from the Greek translation of the bible called the Septuagint, which was the version of the bible most people knew during the Roman Empire. It’s pretty clear that the writers of the gospels who were Jewish, like the author of Matthew, had read the Hebrew Bible only in Greek.
    • For example, Genesis comes from the Greek word for beginning or creation. Deuteronomy comes from the Greek word for copy; it means second law (I guess because they thought Exodus was the first law). Exodus comes from the same word as our modern “exit”; it’s also Greek in origin.
    • Leviticus comes from one of the Hebrew words for priest, Levite.
    • Most of the Hebrew prophetic writings took their names from the actual prophets: Jeremiah and Ezekiel were real people, and Isaiah was a school of prophecy.
    • Many of the Writings were named after central characters in those works (Job, Esther, Ruth).
    • The New Testament gospels were generally named for disciples of Jesus, but they were attributed to those people only in the second or third century. So we really don’t know who wrote those works.
    • Revelation is an English translation of the Greek word “apocalypse,” which means revelation.
    • Paul’s works (Paul wrote most of the letters attributed to him) were named for the communities he addressed them to. For example, 1 and 2 Corinthians were addressed to the religious communities he had established in Corinth. These letters addressed questions that came up after Paul moved on to found new communities.
  • Why is Jonah taught to Christian children without its satirical undertones? Do Christians intentionally teach stories highlighting rather than opposing assimilation?

    Well, this is one of my favorite questions, and I don’t know for sure, but I do think that Jonah is palatable for the same reason that Luke is Christians’ favorite gospel–they are both highly sympathetic to non-Jews. Luke goes so far as to tell the story of the prodigal son in which the youngest son, emblematic of the gentile Jesus movement, gets the “fatted calf” while the oldest son–or Jews–looks like a sap for believing in YHWH all along. These stories suggest gentiles were the heirs of God’s chesed, and I’m sure that’s why Christians like them.

    For the same reason, many Christians eschew Matthew, perhaps because of its emphasis on Torah law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5.17-19). The author of Matthew believed Jesus was a Jewish messiah, and that he preached to Jews only: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel'” (Matt 10.5-7). 

    Back to Jonah. As you probably know, some Christians teach that the three days Jonah spent in the whale are emblematic of Jesus’s three day period spent–wherever–between his death and resurrection. I find this connection odd. 12, 7, and 3 are sacred numbers in many traditions, and the “three” is the only connection I see–except the fish. Early Christians used the fish as the sign of their faith because the Greek word for fish was an acronym or acrostic for Jesus:

    • Iota (i), Iēsoûs (Ἰησοῦς), “Jesus”
    • Chi (ch), Khrīstós (Χρῑστός), “anointed”
    • Theta (th), Theoû (Θεοῦ), “of God”, the genitive singular of Θεóς, Theós, “God”
    • Upsilon (y or u), (h)uiós[10] (Yἱός), “Son”
    • Sigma (s), sōtḗr (Σωτήρ), “Savior”

    Christians assumed Jonah was one of the prophecies, not a story about the prophet, and they read the the prophecies as prefiguring Jesus. That’s because gospel authors littered the gospels with references to the Septuagint (Greek version of TNK). The gospel authors use these quotes to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy.

    Or maybe Jonah is taught to children because it is short and palatable, like the 10 commandments. These became popular among Christians, most of whom don’t know about the other 600+ laws, only after the Protestant reformation (more on this in another entry on this blog).

    By the same token, we know that Christians dislike some stories that resist assimilation. Martin Luther hated Esther, though he wasn’t the only one, even though it’s very popular with my students and modern feminists. Most Christians do not dwell on the Jewish laws that advocate separateness, but modern conservative Christians love the holiness code in Leviticus because of the male-to-male sex business. So, yes, Christians do pick and choose the laws and the stories they read, but some read the entire TNK as existing only to foreshadow Jesus.

    As for why these Christians don’t see Jonah as satirical, I accuse them–most unfairly–of over-earnestness. Jesus himself joked about dietary laws (Mark 7.14 “Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.'” This is a poop joke. No one ever points that out.) The bible can be funny. Esther’s 30-day banquets and year-long regimen being marinated in myrrh is a good example. Tobit being blinded by bird poop is another.

  • Regarding the Greek additions to Esther, added for Hellenized Jewish readers: Why would using her skills to help her people not be enough? 

    I loved your question. I too would have thought Esther’s sacrifice would be enough, but by the Greek period, Hellenized Jews seemed to think Esther was more whore than hero. Perhaps that was because of her sexual training and the Greek emphasis on female virginity. (Hestia, Artemis, and Athena were considered virgins, and Greeks even named the famous Athenian temple the Temple of the Virgin (Parthenon, after parthenos or virgin). Here’s an interesting blog article by classicist Edith Hall on ancient Greek virginity tests, their invalidity, and their persistence today: http://edithorial.blogspot.com/2013/08/what-greeks-knew-about-virginity-testing.html 

    Another obvious problem with Esther to intertestamental, Hellenized Jews was her diet. We don’t have much discussion of Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) before Daniel and Tobit, both written in the Hellenic or Greek period (Daniel dates from about 164 BCE and Tobit is probably later). Yes, the laws are mentioned in Deuteronomy and especially Leviticus, but we don’t see the evidence of their importance before Daniel and the Apocryphal texts:

    • Both Daniel and Tobit prohibit eating the meat and “wine of the gentiles,” though vegetables are permitted, partly because eating these foods, especially wine, might lead to intermarriage. God is shown sending angels (popular in the Greek period) to defend them when gentiles torture them for their diet.
    • In the Greek text 4 Maccabees in the Apocrypha, seven sons of their father go to their deaths at the hands of Antiochus IV (the same villain mentioned in Daniel) because they will not eat the pork of the gentile oppressors. Their mother is lionized as “mother of the nation, vindicator of the law and champion of religion…more noble than males in steadfastness, and more courageous than men in endurance” (4 Mac 29-30).  
    • In the New Testament, Acts discusses Paul’s struggle with the Jerusalem Jesus movement over dietary laws, and Jesus, an observant Jew, seems to follow them in some gospels while actively defying them in others (Mark 7).

    My point is that, somewhere between the time the original Esther was written and the Greek additions were composed, diet became the single greatest sign of Jewish separateness, for those who advocated it. 

    I suggest that these two issues–Esther’s sexuality and her diet–were every bit as disturbing to later readers as the lack of mentions of God, and both are addressed in the Apocryphal additions to Esther. Even in the first century CE, Esther is not mentioned or found among the Dead Sea scrolls. It isn’t till the third century CE that Esther is considered canonical by the Jews–some argue because Esther was a festival scroll (megillot) that justified an important Jewish holiday, Purim. 

    Still, I agree that her sacrifice should have been enough, for those who saw women as capable of sacrifice. But the Mediterranean world that “closed” the Torah canon was every bit as misogynist as the early Christians. 

    For more on dietary laws, see these books about the kashrut:

    • Kraemer, David C. Jewish Eating and Identity through the Ages. London: Routledge, 2007.DOI: 10.4324/9780203941577A history of major developments in Jewish eating practices, from the Bible to the present.
    • Rosenblum, Jordan D. The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.A good survey of Jewish dietary laws, as referenced in both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, from the Hebrew Bible through the Rabbinic/Patristic period.

  • If the Catholic religion discourages individuals reading sacred texts themselves and encourages receiving guidance from a priest, how do modern-day Catholics and Jews view Nehemiah's charge to the Hebrew people to read the text themselves?

    I apologize in advance for anything I get wrong when I answer your question. First of all, I think that people mainly listened to the bible more than reading it. I do think the Jews were more literate, and more likely to be literate, than many members of the ancient near East. But there couldn’t have been more than one or two copies of the Torah available, so it would have been closely guarded. We know that the Essenes, the Jews who made the Dead Sea scrolls in the first century CE, had copies of all the Hebrew bible texts except Esther. But we also know the third-century BCE Jewish community in Elephantine, in Egypt did not have a Torah and had write to Jerusalem for advice on how to celebrate Passover. At any rate, Ezra and Nehemiah have the Torah performed aloud and translated and/or interpreted so that people could “listen with understanding” (one assumes they could no longer read Biblical Hebrew after the exile, if they ever could). They make the people sign or make a mark saying that they accept the teaching. But I probably misspoke when I implied that ordinary people were encouraged to read.  

    So it’s quite possible that the Catholics thought Nehemiah had it right and believed that he was interpreted and guiding interpretation even then. Still, that’s a lot different from reading the passages in Latin to an audience that doesn’t know Latin, as Catholic texts were read until 1968 and even later.

    I’m less sure of the answer to your question about modern-day Jews, but where I grew up most observant Jews studied ancient Hebrew and/or Yiddish, which is the language that the Mishnah and Talmud were written in (the Talmud being the medieval body of Jewish interpretive literature). The very fact that Jews tend to concentrate on Mishnah and Talmud instead of the Hebrew bible is proof that they promote a mediated experience of the bible. But they also encourage individual study, and they promote reading these works in their original languages.

  • Why did the Septuagint or Greek-language Jewish bible include additions to Esther with prayers in them?

    First a clarification about takeaway 3–when I mentioned the Greek editions to the Esther, I meant editions by Hellenistic Jews, probably from the period between the 2nd c. BCE and the 1st century CE. I think they added those prayers for at least three reasons: 

    1. A literary device (to give both Esther and Mordecai point of view, like thought bubbles or soliloquies) and make them more sympathetic. Mordecai is shown worrying about his people, not just throwing Esther to the wolves, and Esther is shown humbling herself with sackcloth and hating the enemy crown she is forced to wear. More sacrificing, less slutty. 
    2. To bring God into the story through personal prayer (and also to show that the providential reversals in the story are all responses of God to personal prayer) since God is not mentioned in the original text at all. That’s the only reason why it was okay  for medieval Jews to illustrate the text (Links to an external site.) (no images associated with Yahweh). 
    3. To solve certain problems for late Hellenistic Jews, particularly about Esther’s apparently sinful behavior (intermarriage, feasting with foreigners, foreign gods, diet). Esther points out in her prayer that she keeps the Jewish diet.  Note that I don’t mention her sexuality; women from Judges to Kings were expected to use their sexuality for their people. Another apocryphal text, Judith, shows a woman luring an enemy king with her sexuality and then cutting off his head — though she doesn’t actually have sex. 

    When we get to the apocryphal texts, we’ll see that, in Hellenistic Judaism, keeping the diet was the one inviolable rule and perhaps the only form of resistance left. (See Daniel, Tobit, Maccabees). 

  • How exactly did Jews perform biblical works? How often did that happen?

    While we don’t have all the details, we can make assumptions based on present-day Jewish performative traditions. At least since the modern era, several Hebrew texts are performed on Jewish holidays. These were called the Megilla or the festival scrolls. From  this we get the term “the whole megilla.” Plural Megillot. Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are some of these, as are Lamentations and Esther. 

    Other texts are probably performed at different occasions too, but I doubt they were read aloud every day. They are kind  of long, for one thing.

    Actually, they are sung now. Maybe then too. A better word is chanting. The current system was created by the Masoretic monks. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_cantillation (Links to an external site.)

    Here is a recording of Ecclesiastes being chanted in Hebrew: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyFmwTzs-BQ

Jesus and the Jesus movement

  • I know how Christians interpret the story of Isaac. How might non-Christians interpret it?

    One major way that Isaac is interpreted by the Jewish people is as a symbol of Jewish suffering and martyrdom throughout history. Martyrdom became an important way for Jews to show their devotion to God during the Hellenistic period (that’s the period from the time of Alexander the Great to the early common era (what used to be called AD)). Jews were martyred first by the Greeks and later by the Romans and Christians. Antisemitism was rampant in Europe and Russia.  The persecution of Jews was especially bad at Christmas. Later, as most of us know, Jews were persecuted horribly during the holocaust and in the Russian pogroms.

    While Isaac is spared at the last minute in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament, some oral Jewish lore tells that Abraham did sacrifice him, just as many devoted Jews were sacrificed over the centuries. (In some Islamic texts, on the other hand, it was Isaac’s older brother Ishmael, the father of Islam, who was sacrificed). Those who believe in the Documentary Hypothesis (a theory about sources for the Torah that we will learn about in weeks 3-4) note that Isaac is sacrificed in the E text, the text that also tells the story of Ishmael’s sacrifice in the desert. The E-text never mentions Isaac again, lending credence to the belief of textual scholars that his last-minute salvation was inserted by a redactor or later editor. Other stories about Isaac’s later years belong to the J and P text, both thought to be later versions of the story. Since the E text is thought to originate in the ancient north at a time when child sacrifice was still practiced, usually as a means of appeasing an angry god, the idea that Isaac did not survive the binding is still shared in some circles.

    To summarize, Isaac came to stand for the martyrdom of an entire people at God’s behest, since God’s displeasure is one way of understanding why Jews continue to suffer. However, Christians tend to read most of the Hebrew bible, this story included, as typology. They read Isaac as a “type” or early version of Jesus, who is sacrificed but then ressurrected.

  • What other stories from the bible have been influenced by Christian ideas? What stories have Christians reinterpreted?

    Technically, no stories in the Hebrew bible were written influenced by Christians, since Christians came into being hundreds of years after the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) were written. However, most bibles that Christians have access to were translated by Christians, so Christians have unwittingly inserted Christian ideas into them. For example, Christians tend to translate the word “sheol” (the pit) as “hell.” Hell was not a concept Christians had. They often use “Heaven” instead of sky or dome (again, Jews didn’t have a “heaven” concept).

    Christians have a tendency to read the Hebrew bible as if it is predicting the coming of Jesus, so many Christians read Hebrew stories in a Christian light. For example, the story of Jonah and the big fish is a story that I interpret to be satire. It tells of a prophet who refuses to obey God’s command to predict the destruction of Ninevah in Assyria because he doesn’t want Yahweh to make him look bad when he mercifully spares the people at the last minute. Every other person, animal, or thing obeys Yahweh, but not his own prophet. For example, the big fish swallows Jonah on command and spits him out whole, also on command. All the citizens of Ninevah (including its farm animals) dress in sackcloth and ashes to repent their evil ways. I interpret this late story to be critical of Judea’s isolationist stance and to be promoting a message that Yahweh is the God of the whole world, not just Judea. (That’s a common belief today, but the Jews believed Yahweh was their God alone, so this message advocates tolerance of others. It contrasts with texts like Esther that shows all the colonial enemies of the Judeans dying horrible deaths.).

    However, Christians read the story of Jonah entering the fish for three days and then being spewed out as prefiguring Christ’s resurrection. That is an interesting idea, but clearly not what the Jewish author, who lived before Christ’s time, intended.

    With gospels like the gospel of Mark, we can see examples of events being narrated in a way that connects Jesus to earlier prophecy. For example, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. This appears to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9.9: ” Your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” There are three ways to understand the connection between the two texts. One is that Jesus really is the Jewish messiah predicted in Zechariah (that’s an idea Christians take for granted but Jews reject). The second is that Jesus, who is called “rabbi” or teacher in Mark and Matthew, deliberately rode the donkey to evoke Zechariah. The third is that the Jewish author of these gospels inserted the event to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy from the Hebrew bible.

    My main point here is not to give an encyclopedic list, but to show that Jews (and also Muslims) not only read the Hebrew bible differently than Christians do, but they also see the New Testament in a very different light than Christians do. Muslims see Jesus as a teacher, but like Jews they do not accept that Jesus is a divine being (or an aspect of a divine being). Jews read Messiah (which means annointed–a ceremony used to crown kings– to mean an eartly ruler from the line of David.

  • Why do Jews disbelieve in Jesus Christ as a holy figure?

    Although the historical Jesus was a Jew looking to reform the Jewish religion, he was not the kind of “messiah” or king that the Jews were looking for. Jews in the time of Jesus expected a military leader from the line of David to vanquish their colonial enemies (particularly the Greeks and the Romans) and restore the kingdom to the scope and power it was thought to have had in the ancient past. A second reason why Jesus was not accepted by the Jews is that he died what was considered a disgraced death (according to Deuteronomy 21.23 which says “anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.”) A third problem was the Christian tradition of the communion, through which the bread was thought to turn into Christ’s body and blood (Matthew 26). To the Jews, this was cannibalism, and Jews have special rules against drinking blood. Finally, the Christians ate communal meals with non-Christians, which Jews were forbidden from doing. For these reasons (and several others), the Jews ultimately split from the Jesus movement. In the time of Jesus, dietary laws were perhaps the single most visible sign of holiness and separateness. The laws of Kashrut (commonly called “kosher”) signaled one’s distinct Jewish identity in an empire that emphasized a “melting pot” tendency.

    The literature being written about Jesus in the first center CE emphasized his sacrificial death as a means to eternal life. Similar ideas were being circulated by “mystery” cults like Orphism, Mithraism, and the cult of Isis. But Jews generally didn’t believe in resurrection after death, though some apocalyptic writers during this time thought that the worthy might be resurrected at the end of history. They had no concept of a heaven or a hell, concepts Christians may have received from Hellenistic belief systems. So the Jews didn’t appreciate the Christian reimagining of “messiah” or king to mean a metaphysical ruler rather than an earthly one.

    I think the most important reason is that in the first century, there were two groups of people who followed Jesus. The Jewish Jesus movement, represented by Peter and James, was not interested in spreading the message to non-Jews (Matthew reflects this group; in it, Jesus targets only the “lost sheep of Israel”–that is, poor Jews who have been ignored by Jewish leadership. He does not appear to be interested in the salvation of non-Jews).  The Jewish movement’s members were probably not literate, so they left no records of their beliefs. So the other pagan Jesus movement, lead by Paul, won out, because Paul wrote lengthy letters defining his version of Christianity, letters that shaped Christian beliefs and are still read today. Paul’s version of Christianity was too different, too worldy in its scope, to be accepted by rabbinic Judaism. By the end of the first century of our era (CE), the two groups had moved so far apart that the author of the gospel of John  referred to “Jews” as a separate religion.

    Later on, of course, Christian persecution of Jews widened the gap between the two groups. As Christianity prospered, Jews became convenient scapegoats to blame for anything and everything.

    For more, see my response in bible FAQ to a similar question posed by a former student: https://biblefaq390.com/#hfaq-post-534

  • How do we know which disciples could read and write, or not? What other sources outside of the Bible tell us this? For example, Matthew was a tax collector before following Jesus, so would it not be reasonable to assume he could also read?

    You are correct that Matthew was a thought to be a tax collector, and such people were probably able to read but not write—at the time these were separate skills. . You’ll notice, by way of illustration, that Paul dictates his letters to a trained scribe.  (Some argue that Jesus would not have been able to read, but others say he would have needed rudimentary reading at least to work as a carpenter in Carpernaum).

    Some tax-collecting jobs did not require literacy, according to Bart Ehrman, who believes that if Matthew was an Aramaic-speaking northern Jew like Jesus was, he was probably illiterate, because 97% of the region was illiterate. Even if he were literate, he would have known Aramaic, not high-level Greek. Again, it’s possible that a worker in Carpernaum, the nearest Roman city, would have been able to read rudimentary Greek to do business. But the Gospel attributed to Matthew is written in advanced Greek, and it uses Greek sources, too (again, I cite Ehrman’s blog).

    But even if there was a Matthew the tax collector, and even if he could read and write in Greek, there’s no evidence that Matthew the tax collector actually wrote the gospel attributed to him. The first time we know the texts were attributed to Matthew, Mark, etc. was 180 CE, so about 150 years after events and about 120 years after the last known original followers of Jesus, Peter and James, had been executed. The earliest manuscript of Matthew we have dates from 150-250 CE. This doesn’t mean that the gospel wasn’t written much earlier, but it does mean we have a copy that was recopied and conceivably altered.

    Furthermore, nowhere does the gospel attribute itself to Matthew, if he existed (the other gospels refer to Levi the tax collector, not Matthew).

    Some parts of the gospels were added much later–for example, the prohibition against throwing stones dates from the middle ages. All this means that the literal truth of the events in the gospels, as well as their authorship, is a matter of faith and conjecture, not fact. The scholar who’s made a name for himself in this field is Bart Ehrman, who still teaches at UNC Chapel Hill. Here’s his take on this subject (part of the article is behind a paywall, but you will get the idea, I think).  https://ehrmanblog.org/why-was-the-gospel-of-matthew-attributed-to-matthew/

  • What topics, themes, and books are contained in Apocrypha, and how might they be similar to later Christian writings such as Revelation?
    • The books in the apocrypha are excluded from the rest of the Hebrew bible/ TNK because they are in Greek and because they are considered too late to be canonical.
    • The apocrypha has stories that emphasize martyrdom and Jewish separatism, but they also contain stories that reflect interest in Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy from the period.
    • These books include Greek additions to books like Esther and Daniel, created to make the stories more acceptable to Jewish people in the late second temple period. For example, the Greek additions to Esther include prayers by Esther and Mordecai that show their dependence on Yahweh. These prayers assign “inner states” to Esther or Mordecai, states that make their attitudes more mainstream. Esther reveals in one that she refuses to eat the impure diet of the Persians she lives among.
    • The books also include additional chapters of standard texts, such as the additions to Ezra (Esdras) which show him to be a prophet.
    • They contain wisdom literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon, attributed to Solomon of the Hebrew bible.
    • They contain stories such as Maccabees, which chronicle the military resistance of the Jews to their Hellenistic oppressors. The Maccabees story contains the origin of Hannuka.
    • The story of Tobit in the apocrypha tells us about attitudes toward magic and the supernatural in the late second temple period; they also introduce named angels like Michael and Raphael.
    • The apocrypha doesn’t contain apocalyptic stories like Daniel and Revelation. However, several other works that didn’t make it into the apocrypha (sometimes called the Pseudepigrapha because they are always attributed to famous biblical figures pseudonymously) are apocalyptic. Some of the most famous of these are the book of Enoch and the Coptic Apocalypses of Peter and Paul.
    • This group (the Pseudepigrapha) also contains gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament, such as the gnostic  gospels and works like the Acts of Thomas, etc.
    • In the Christian canon, these works were widely accepted. While St. Jerome first suggested that these stories should be taken less seriously because the Jews did not include them in their canon, Martin Luther is the first to bracket them in a separate book, following Jerome’s authority. Later Protestant bibles excluded them completely.
    • See more here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ and here: http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/.
  • Why do ministers bring up the "rapture" when it's not in the bible? I ask because "rapture" proponents often reject LGTBQ issues.

    The rapture question is interesting, because it reflects a preoccupation with last things that was common during the time Jesus and later Paul lived. Both Jesus and Paul probably believed the end would come in their lifetime. We know Paul believed that, and though portraits of Jesus are filtered through later authors, we can infer that too. For Jews like Jesus, last things meant the Day of Yahweh, a day when Yahweh would return and restore the faithful to life on earth, in the promised land. For Christians, this seems to involve some kind of space flight. I can’t be sure but it seems like Gnostic idea, except the Gnostics believed we escaped our human bodies–that was the point. Mainstream Christians believe we keep them.

    According to what I’ve read, the inspiration from the “rapture” idea comes from a line in 1 Thessalonians (Paul’s first letter) and uses the Greek word harpazo being “to seize” (as in “God will seize us into the air”). A Latin word for harpazo is raptus, which also means to seize or carry off. An Anglo-Irish Dispensational theologian named John Darby believed the Rapture or Harpazo would precede the great Tribulation which is then followed by the second coming. This idea was published by Darby in 1833. By the 1920’s, a pre-millenial organization, World’s Christian Fundamental Association, which opposed theological modernism, won the sympathy of the American Southern Baptist denomination.  “By the 1920s,says William Akenson, author of Exporting the Rapture, “Darby’s belief system had become the doctrinal template of the fundamentalist branch of North-American evangelicalism. (I emphasize with bold-face the close connection between Darby’s idea and American evangelicalism, which has historically been anti-LGBTQ and is especially so today.)

    Today, the concept of “rapture” is widely associated with certain evangelical Christians, who are often socially conservative (especially those who are white and southern). Some disagree about the particulars. But since many of these evangelicals also tend to frown on LGBTQ issues, the ideas of Rapture and anti-LGBTQ may have become associated, though Darby himself never considered the validity of LGBTQ. (Indeed, these terms were unknown at the time; the first use of the word “homosexual” was by J. A. Symonds in 1891, though same-sex sex acts are no doubt as old as opposite-sex sex acts.)

    How does the Bible stand on homosexuality (a 19th c. word)? Leviticus frowns on male-to-male intercourse, probably because as a post-exile text written by the Priestly author, Leviticus encouraged all Jewish men to marry and reproduce, regardless of their own preferences. As we’ve often discussed, Leviticus’s laws are directed at a population in danger of dying out, so reproduction was an imperative for all citizens, which is not true now. In the New Testament, Paul also frowned on male-to-male sex, which he associates with the Greeks, among whom it was widely practiced. (Paul also believed people should abstain from heterosexual behavior until the end times, though he added “it is better to marry than to burn.”) The Hebrew bible does not mention sex between women, since women could not choose to refuse men. (Milton argues that women never refused men until after the fall, which I add light-heartedly, since I often teach Milton).

    However, we know from the midrash that rabbinic Jews believed bible laws could and should be adapted to new circumstances. The Bible sanctions slavery and execution of disobedient children by stoning, which we no longer accept as ethical or moral, so we all pick and choose which laws we consider relevant to us today. The New Testament, in particular, shows Jesus engaged in strong male friendships (I am not suggesting anything more). In John, Jesus issues one commandment–love one another.

    Moreover, though the technology of gender reassignment is recent, gender fluidity is as old as biology. A famous Greek prophet, Tiresias, lived as both a woman and a man, and in the European middle ages we have evidence of people who dressed and lived–and in the case of actors and prostitutes worked–as members of the opposite sex. On this question the bible is silent. But I think the attitudes toward non-cis sexuality in the bible reflect the prejudices and imperatives of the times when they were written (post-exile Jews were repeated exhorted to reproduce and have large families). I am not sure that if the bible were written today, the same prohibitions would be in it.

    Links:

  • Why do Jewish people think that Jesus was not the Messiah? Who do they think is the Messiah?

    Here’s a partial answer to your question: The Jews believe the “messiah” (no capital) is a human, not a god. Though Davidic kings were called “sons of God,” this title was probably more figurative than literal. “Messiah” or anointed is the Aramaic word for king. The true Jewish messiah will be someone from the line of David who restores the Jews to their homeland (Israel), rebuilds the temple, and makes them a military power of the size attributed to David at the height of his powers. One could argue that two of the three have happened, but the temple cannot be rebuilt because there is an important mosque on it. Other people thought at the time (the intertestamental period) to be “messiah” were military leaders: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_messiah_claimants

    But the Jewish messiah is also supposed to usher in the messianic age, the age in which the dead are restored (modern Jewish people generally do not believe in a heaven right now but many do anticipate an afterlife at that time). Since the messianic age has not occurred, previous claimants to messiah are not the correct ones.

    In the late first century, the rabbinical Jews split with the Jewish and pagan followers of Jesus over several practices. For example, the drinking of Jesus’s blood, whether real or symbolic, was anathema to Jewish people. (As you may know, early Christians believed in something later called “transubstantiation,” through which the “blood of the grape” and “bread” become the blood and body of God. Modern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians still hold this belief. While Protestants reject it, it was and is considered an important “mystery” by which humans can participate in divinity). First-century CE Jews also rejected Jesus’s claim to messiahship. For one thing, his crucifixion on the cross makes him “cursed” in Deuteronomy 21. To the Jews, he did not fulfill any of the prophecies a messianic figure should fulfill. Moreover, Jews believe in one God and reject the notion that a man, even the messiah, can share God’s divinity (I refer to questions of the trinity, which became Christian doctrine in the early middle ages.)

    Followers of Islam also agree with Jews that Jesus as a teacher (rabbi), but reject notions of his divinity. Like Judaism, Islam is aniconic, and for them God does not take human form.

    I stress that the Christians radically redefined what “messiah” meant; the Aramaic term had none of the divine and transcendental associations of the Christian concept. Early Christians used the Greek translation of “messiah,” which was “christos.” Paul was a Pharisee and a student of pagan mystery cults like Mithraism, Christianity’s largest competitor in this period. He first articulated in writing–at least, writing that still exists–the idea that Jesus was both divine and human. In doing so, he combined several aspects of both Judaism and mystery cults, which were secret groups by which people used baptism and ritual meals and practices to unite with the divine and live eternally. The earliest gospel, Mark, written after Paul’s writings, hints that Jesus was the messiah, though the original text did not mention a resurrection, just an empty tomb. Gospels after Mark also articulated Jesus’s divinity, especially the gospel of John, written after the Jesus movement members had been expelled from Jewish synagogues. And so Christians began to associate “messiah” or “christos” with divinity, not just humanity.

    For more, the Wikipedia page on this question is also not bad: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judaism%27s_view_of_Jesus#:~:text=The%20belief%20that%20Jesus%20is,the%20coming%20of%20the%20messiah.

  • When did the Christian and Jewish traditions diverge regarding obeying the 613 laws such as the Laws of Kahrut (dietary laws)?

    I’m not sure about the answer to your question (if I understand it correctly) , but I would say that Paul is the key figure in Christians drifting away from the Mizvot in general. As you probably know, Paul got into a huge debate with the Jerusalem Jesus movement about diet and circumcision, and most would say he lost. Though he continued to try to placate the Jerusalem Jews like Peter and James, we see by Romans that he feels teaching the law (usually translated “works”) has no place, because a true follower of Jesus will obey the law in his heart. He says that concentrating on  not breaking laws makes you want to break them (kind of like when  parents tell little kids “don’t put beans up your nose”). In the middle ages, most Christians had only a rudimentary understanding of the gospel and no knowledge of the Hebrew bible at all. Then of course centuries of Anti-Semitic thinking led to the notion that Jews used laws to persecute Christians (see for example, the famous Justice/Mercy speech in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where Justice refers to Jewish law and Mercy refers to Christian notions of “grace”).

    I would like to know when Christians began concentrating on some laws (like who you have sex with) while ignoring others. Maybe this was Calvinist; maybe it is uniquely American. 

  • Why do you call Paul the "real author" of Christianity?

    I’ll give you a quick summary of why I think Paul is central to founding what we now call Christianity, and then I’ll give you a counter-view. Paul and his teachings occupy a huge part of the New Testament, which tells us that, at least by the fourth century, people saw his teachings as incredibly important. Paul wrote his letters before any of the gospels were written, and he spent his life up to the time of his execution spreading the word about Jesus around the empire and setting up churches. So by the time the gospel writers set down Jesus’s story, it had already been affected by Paul’s ideas–though perhaps the ideas he writes about were not original to him. 

    Paul was a Pharisee (an educated Jew with a Hellenistic education) so he was uniquely qualified to spread the message of Jesus to gentiles. The Jesus he wrote about and talked about was not Jesus the teacher, as Paul had no knowledge of Jesus’s teachings. His version of Jesus focused on Jesus’s death and resurrection and the process by which others could partake in eternal life through him.

    In other words, Paul was teaching a mystery religion like other popular mystery cults of the time–cults of Mithras, Isis, Dionysus, Aesclepius, and others. Let’s take Mithraism so I can explain. Mithraism taught that the sun God Mithras died and was resurrected and sent to Heaven on a chariot. Mithras’s birthday was celebrated on December 25,and people were initiated into the cult through wine and a ritual meal or feast. From Mithraism and other mystery religions, Christians may have taken the birthday, the solar halo, the communion, and the idea of personal resurrection through.  initiation. Now, it’s unclear how much of Paul’s idea of the “mystery” of Jesus came from him and how much came from others. 

    A central Christian concept that Paul articulated in his idea of justification by faith, explained in Romans. Here I’ll quote Bart Ehrman’s blog on Paul:

    In this model the Jewish Law plays no role in salvation.  Those who have broken the Law and incurred the sentence of death cannot remove their guilt simply by obeying a number of other statutes, just as a convicted embezzler will not be set free by pleading that he has obeyed all of the traffic laws.  The only way to be restored to a right standing before God (= “justified”) is through the death of Jesus, a payment of the penalty owed by others.

    This idea is incredibly important for modern Christians, especially Protestants, but Jesus never says it. Moreover, as  Jew, Jesus would have rejected the idea that the Torah has no effect on salvation. In Matthew, in particular, Jesus says that Torah law is central to his teachings: 

    Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 

    Other gospels frame the issue differently, but I quote Matthew because it seems to best reflect Jesus’s Jewish Jesus movement, the one headed by his brother and friends.

    Now, Bart Ehrman argues that even though Paul is incredibly important to those who assembled the New Testament and to Christianity today, he was not important at the time. Ehrman cites Paul’s disagreement not only with the Jerusalem movement of Jesus’s family, but also with followers of Jesus in Galatia and Corinth:

    My sense is that despite the centrality that Paul has to the NT today, he did *not* have that kind of centrality in his day.  He was one voice among many.   The other voices, in places, drowned his out.  And in yet other places, probably his voice was not heard at all (for example, in Matthew’s community).  Only later, after Paul’s day, was he thought to represent the “correct” understanding of the faith. (Ehrman’s blog entry https://ehrmanblog.org/pauls-importance-in-early-christianity-for-members/ (Links to an external site.) )

Women, Sex, and Marriage

  • AAccording to the levirate law Ruth's son was supposed to be named Mahlon but instead he was named Obed. Can you explain more about the law of levirate marriage so I understand?

    Here’s a link to the Q&A blog that discusses the word “goel” and Levirate marriage: https://biblefaq390.com/#hfaq-post-522

    After you read that, continue here, where I will attempt to answer the rest of the question.

    According to the principal of levirate marriage, the goel or redeemer marries the widow of the head of the family if that family member has no male heir to carry on the family. So, for example, if an oldest son dies, the second-oldest son would inherit. However, according to Levirate marriage rules, he is obligated to marry the widow of his older brother and have that brother’s children for him. That means that the children he has with the widow would inherit before his own children. In the story of Tamar and Er in Genesis, Er dies, and Tamar tries to find a goel to have Er’s children. She first goes to his brother Onan, but Onan doesn’t want to have Er’s children and by doing so disinherit his own children. So he “spills his seed on the ground” and is consequently struck down by God . (God kills him for not fulfilling his job as goel, as dictated in Deut. 25.5-10. Or God is upset about spilling the seed, which is considered unclean in Leviticus as explained here. )

    Tamar then asks Er’s father to find her a goel, but when he fails to do so for a long time, she disguises herself as a prostitute and has sex with him. When she gets pregnant, she is first accused of being unfaithful to Er (apparently, a widowed woman must seek a goel and must not go outside the family to find one), until she’s able to produce proof that she slept with Tamar in her quest for Er’s goel.

    Now to your question: In Ruth–which is set in a time when Levirate marriage was still practiced but written in a time when it no longer took place–Ruth was married to Mahlon, and Mahlon dies. Therefore, she is supposed to have Mahlon’s son with Boaz as next of kin (goel) according the rules of Levirate marriage, or she’s supposed to give the dead Elimelech a new son. Abarim seems to suggest she should name this child Mahlon because he’s a replacement for the first Mahlon. But this is where the story gets weird, as she instead has a son for Naomi, according to the text. The author is deliberately reframing the story so that Ruth becomes Naomi’s goel too (Goels are usually men). As to why the child is named Obed instead of Mahlon–well, I have no idea.

    It’s possible the author of Ruth didn’t understand the rules that well, as this tradition was no longer practiced at the time Ruth was written. On the other hand, we do see biblical examples of women having children for other women. For example, Hagar (Sarah’s slave in Genesis) has a baby for Sarah when Sarah thinks she is infertile, and Rachel and Leah (Jacob’s wives) also force their slaves to have children for them. The process by which this happens is quite icky, and it’s enacted in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale in graphic detail.

  • Do many women in the bible NOT have husbands or men to take care of them? How are they portrayed? Are they still happy and productive or does the bible mostly portray women who don’t have men in their life as lacking?

    You’ve asked an interesting question. I’m  racking my mind but I can only think of a few single women in the bible. I am sure I’ve overlooked some, but here’s a quick list:

    • I’ve mentioned before the midrashic legend of Lilith, who leaves Adam because she does not want to be dominated. She seems to be some sort of bird-demon or screech owl, judging from her one mention in the bible. She is pretty much a troublemaker. Though she is vilified in the rabbinic tradition, modern feminist scholars have used her to represent the single female tradition. I quote the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women entry:Lilith not only embodies people’s fears of how attraction to others can ruin their marriages, or of how risky childbearing and raising children are, but also represents a woman whom society cannot control—a woman who determines her own sexual partners, who is wild and unkempt, and who does not have the natural consequences of sexual activity, children.. . . [Modern scholars] have transformed her into a female symbol for autonomy, sexual choice, and control of one’s own destiny.”

      A recent book, Which LIlith, shows that Lilith was important as an demon/ alternative goddess figure for Hebrew women. Later, Carl Jung would associate her with the repressed animal in men. For more on her:

      • Encyclopedia of Jewish women entry: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lilith
      • JewishChristianlit.com’s list of links: http://jewishchristianlit.com//Topics/Lilith/lilith.html
      • LIlith Magazine: A magazine for Jewish feminists: https://lilith.org/
    • One of these didn’t even get a name; we call her “Jephthah’s daughter.” In Judges, Jephthah promises, in return for a military victory, to “dedicate to God” (sacrifice) the first thing he sees when he comes home. Unfortunately, that “first thing ” is his daughter, coming to celebrate his victory with him. Unlike Isaac in Genesis, the daughter gets no reprieve. She asks for time to mourn with her women friends the fact that she never lost her virginity, and then she is sacrificed. We are meant to read Jephthah’s promise as extremely rash. A similar  thing happens in ancient legends of the Trojan war; Agamemnon sacrifices his virgin daughter Iphigenia so that the gods will give his men the winds to sail to Troy. His wife is pissed, and she plots her revenge for 10 years.
    • Judges also has a remarkable story of Deborah, who was not only a prophet but also a war leader. Miriam, Moses’ sister, seems to have enjoyed similar abilities.
    • The bible makes a big point of saying that widows, orphans, and strangers should be cared for; clearly, they are considered the most vulnerable. Most widows who are specifically mentioned are either beggars or are cared for by their sons. One story in Kings tells of a widow who loses her son, who is her lifeline. Fortunately, Elijah miraculously revives him.  One of the most frequent complaints of Deuteronomic prophets is that priests hoard money and do not care for the poor. Jesus gets into an argument about this with the pharisees.
    • Jesus also gets into an argument about a prostitute, and famously says “let he who is without stone throw the first stone at her.” This prostitute is NEVER identified as Mary Magdalene, by the way. And Bart Ehrman says Jesus’s line about the stones is a very late addition. One assumes that prostitutes were common, and that prostitution is one way women could take care of themselves if they lost their spouses. The books of Joshua and Genesis both mention prostitutes. Jephthah, mentioned above, is the son of a prostitute, and this in no way keeps him from rising to the position of Judge or war leader. (By the way, prostitutes are usually not the same as concubines, which was the King James version’s’ translation for “second wife.”)
    • There’s also a great story about a widow in one of the apocryphal Maccabees books, book 4. She allows each of her sons to be tortured and killed rather than agree to eat pork, which was considered unclean. (Her husband, Eleazar, is killed first and in the same way; I’m pretty sure her name is not mentioned.) This very late text extols the virtues of martyrdom. But the author reserves the greatest praise for the widow who, despite her “complex…love for her children, which draws everything toward an emotion felt in her inmost parts,” makes the greatest sacrifice. His praise for her is remarkable. He calls her “mother of the nation, vindicator of the law and champion of religion, who carried away the prize of the contest in your heart! O more noble than males in steadfastness, and more courageous than men in endurance!” He even calls her “guardian of the law” (that is, the Torah).
    • The Apocrypha also has a story about a widow named Judith who, famously, seduces an enemy and beheads him. Despite multiple offers, she remains single for the rest of her life. Judges also mentions “a certain woman” who kills an enemy by dropping a millstone on his neck. We don’t ever find out if she was married; Abimelech, her victim, doesn’t want people to know he died by a woman’s hands, so he asks his men to stab him.
    • The other women I can think of are the wise crones. In Samuel, the witches of Endor are asked to commune with the dead prophet Samuel. It doesn’t go well, as that is forbidden in Deuteronomy. The book of Samuel  also mentions a “wise women” who negotiates with General Joab to save her people. In return, she hands over a traitor named Sheba (an enemy of David). In the midrash, the wise woman is identified with Serat bat Asher, a woman who lives a really long time (or forever) and gets to enter Heaven alive (in another tradition, she dies when she is 1000 years old). Her wisdom comes from her longevity.
  • Where can I read more about Ruth uncovering Boaz's feet at the threshing floor? Who came up with that?

    What exactly was Ruth was doing at the threshing floor? not everyone agrees with me, but many people do. See, for example, this article: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/seduction-on-the-threshing-floor. Also, this interesting blog: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/what-did-ruth-and-boaz-do-on-the-threshing-floor/.

    Here’s another article about the feet in general: https://bycommonconsent.com/2006/01/24/weird-ot-euphemisms-uncovering-the-feet/

    And, for an example not mentioned in either story, consider several incidents in Genesis which use the term “thigh” to refer to the genitals. In one, Abraham asks a servant to put his hand on his “thigh” and swear that he would bring Isaac a wife from Haran so that Isaac would not have to marry a Canaanite woman. This was called the Yarek Oath after the word for “thigh” which is also the word for genitals, “yarek.” The thigh was a fairly well known euphemism for male genitalia, because an Israelite man made a covenant with god (literally, he “cut a covenant”) by circumcising his organ of generation (that is, penis). In return, God promised fertility, again through same organ of generation. The servant puts his hand there as a verification of that promise. It seems weird to us.

    Another incident if Genesis has Jacob wrestling all night with “a man” whom many consider to be God. The man “strikes Jacob on the hip socket.” Why there? According to several articles, this is again a euphemism for the genitals, possibly because the man was anticipating Jacob’s demand for a blessing and is promising him children. He’s already had at least 13, but this man is promising him a nation: “Your name is no longer Jacob, but Israel.” For an article on this incident, see https://www.jstor.org/stable/1519231?seq=1. Another theory is that “the man” is kicking Jacob in the groin to get away, making it all the more impressive that Jacob does not let go: (see this funny blog entry: http://www.bethcarlsonmalena.com/blog/2008/04/when-wrestling-with-god-wear-cup.html).

    This story is embedded in a reunion story between Jacob and his brother Esau in which  he says he has seen his brother’s face as if he has seen the “face of God.” The word “face” is used many more times than is clear in translation. It’s a moving story and sort of bewildering. But at the heart of it is a contest about how many children each brother has had, and about whether Jacob can be forgiven for stealing his brother’s’ birthright. Fertility is at the heart of this and other parts of the narrative, and, again, is a basic term of the covenant itself.

  • I'm a little confused as to what happened between Boaz and Ruth. Did he become her second husband or only a sole provider for her to have a child? Was sex outside of marriage less taboo then than later?

    You know, as many times as I’ve read this, I’ve never considered this question carefully. Regarding sex outside of marriage, according to a 2005 book on marriage and sex in Judaism by Michael Broide (quoted in Wikipedia): “The written Torah [as opposed to the oral Torah] never forbids sex outside the context of marriage, with the exception of adultery and incest. According to Exodus 22:15–16, the man who entices a single woman to have sex must offer to marry her afterwards or the equivalent in compensation, unless her father refuses to allow him. This law is only for virginal women, as their value in the marriage market, as it were, decreases. Therefore, the man must either himself offer to marry her or pay for her lesser value, as it were, in a marriage market that highly values virginity,” Note that the source for this factoid is the case law in the bible itself.

    So Ruth runs the risk of devaluing herself by attempting to seduce Boaz; on the other hand, Ruth is not a virgin, so perhaps the conditions mentioned above do not apply to her. Also, she has no male relatives to be compensated if she IS cheapened by sex, which gives her a special freedom to use her sexuality to protect her family. Another story from the Persian or early Hellenistic era, Esther, shows Esther using her sexuality for her people, but in this case through a lawful union, though that union is with a “foreign” husband.

    Regarding Boaz’s status in relation to Ruth, I think that Ruth’s relationship to Boaz is that of a marriage; he is her second husband because her first husband dies. But “second wife” means something different, because wealthy men had multiple wives. The first had the highest status, but that was often an arranged alliance; the second wife was more often a love match.

    So the question is, is Boaz single when he meets Ruth? We don’t hear of any children or wives. But he is an older man (he praises Ruth for approaching him rather than the young men). In second temple times, Jewish men are strongly encouraged to marry and reproduce. It is their main job. Moreover, when he discovers who Ruth is, Boaz invites her to glean (pick up extra grain after the threshing) with his “young women” (Na’ arah). This word seems to mean either single women of marriageable age, concubines, or prostitutes. In most cases it means an untouched woman, but in judges it is used to refer to a second wife. So the question, who are Boaz’s “young women”? Are they servants? Are they a harem? Both seem possible to me, especially if Ruth was written in the Persian period, when texts like Esther specifically mention harems. (The word “na’ arah is used 10 times in regard to these harem women, who are kept pure and beautiful and taught sexual techniques to please the King. They are being auditioned to become his new first wife or queen).

    Therefore, it’s quite possible that Ruth is not Boaz’s first wife. However, the negotiations around their marriage specifically refer to the idea of levirate marriage, so Boaz understands that if he has a child, it will be for Elimelech (not Naomi, despite what the story tells us). Since Elimelech is the elder kinsman, Boaz’s child for Elimelech would inherit the family name and wealth, thereby disinheriting his other children, even if they were older.

    Since Ruth’s goal is to find someone to care for herself and her mother-in-law, she has accomplished her goal, regardless of where she resides in the harem. On the other hand, as the mother of the heir, she would enjoy a special status, so Naomi would enjoy that status too.

  • How are women usually portrayed in the Bible, historically speaking? Ruth is of only two books named after a woman, so I wonder what else the Bible holds in store for the presentation of women.

    Well, the bible was written over many centuries by different authors, and I’d suggest none of them agree wholeheartedly about women. I will generalize and say that the bible, especially the Hebrew bible, is extremely patriarchal and women do not often benefit from their portrayals in it. Probably the collections of laws like Leviticus and Deuteronomy are the worst for women. You have laws defining when a woman can be considered innocent of infidelity (when she’s too far away to be heard when she screams rape). Women can be returned, disgraced, stoned, sold, raped, and sent away to die. A couple women get sacrificed. One “second wife” gets gang raped and chopped into 12 pieces and put in the mail. Women’s’ menstrual blood is impure (but then, so is any male “emission.”) There are some mitigating laws, but women are property in the bible, and their main value is as wives, mothers, and seductresses.

    On the other hand, there are some great portrayals of women like Ruth, and even more interesting portrayals of “bad” women like Jezebel. You don’t see these women that often, but the women you do see are very memorable. Some stories that don’t make it into the bible–like the story of Lilith, or the story of the Torah, or the story of Thecla–are way cool. Here are some of my favorites:

    • God speaks to Hagar and to Sarah in Genesis. Hagar gets a rough existence, but at least God speaks directly to her and gives her her own destiny.
    • The Hebrew women and their friends the midwives in Exodus are so fertile that they scare Pharaoh. They are like an army of babies and caregivers pitted against an army of soldiers. And they win.
    • I think Jezebel in Kings gets demonized, but she’s interesting and powerful. I read an article today about how Americans like to insult black women by calling them Jezebel, implying they are promiscuous. Several Baptist preachers have already equated Vice President Harris with Jezebel. Before that, people called slave women Dinah. So culturally, those two women are interesting.
    • In Esther, the protagonist replaces queen Vashti because Vashti is asked to pose naked in front of her husband’s drunk friends and she says no. She can’t even. So she’s pretty cool.
    • I am very fascinated by Tiamat, the chaos goddess.
    • In the New Testament, there seem to be women running the church or keeping the communities organized. Among them are Priscilla, Mary and Margaret, Mary Magdalene, Mary Jesus’s mother.
    • We’ve already talked about Ruth.
    • We see some interesting prophets such as Huldah (2 Kings), who validates the text of Deuteronomy and finds it authentic. Two of the gates to Jerusalem were named Huldah, and the rabbinic literature contains theories about their connection to the prophet. Some also suggest she was kin to Jeremiah and prophesied at the same time h e did, perhaps to an audience of women. Ironically, some people think Huldah herself is not part of the original text of 2 Kings but was inserted by someone like P or R from the second temple period. This period seems to accepted women as prophets; for example, Noadiah the prophetess is mentioned in Nehemiah. 
    • I guess no list would be complete without the warrior prophets Deborah and Miriam. And the witches of Endor. And the professional female mourners in Lamentations. There are some badass warrior women in the bible too, but I am ambivalent about all the violence.

    Historically, I would not say these portrayals “evolve.” It’s not like portrayals of women improve; it’s more like they either stand out or get shut down based on the context. I mean, Jezebel might as well be molesting children in a pizzeria. I have some theories about why this happens, but that would require another week.

    You can look up any woman, goddess, or other female reference in the bible in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia. There you will learn about that woman’s life in later Jewish traditions such as the Midrash and Talmud, the spiritual tradition of the Kabbala, and modern scholarly thinking. It is a wonderful trove of knowledge! 

  • Why do ministers bring up the "rapture" when it's not in the bible? I ask because "rapture" proponents often reject LGTBQ issues.

    The rapture question is interesting, because it reflects a preoccupation with last things that was common during the time Jesus and later Paul lived. Both Jesus and Paul probably believed the end would come in their lifetime. We know Paul believed that, and though portraits of Jesus are filtered through later authors, we can infer that too. For Jews like Jesus, last things meant the Day of Yahweh, a day when Yahweh would return and restore the faithful to life on earth, in the promised land. For Christians, this seems to involve some kind of space flight. I can’t be sure but it seems like Gnostic idea, except the Gnostics believed we escaped our human bodies–that was the point. Mainstream Christians believe we keep them.

    According to what I’ve read, the inspiration from the “rapture” idea comes from a line in 1 Thessalonians (Paul’s first letter) and uses the Greek word harpazo being “to seize” (as in “God will seize us into the air”). A Latin word for harpazo is raptus, which also means to seize or carry off. An Anglo-Irish Dispensational theologian named John Darby believed the Rapture or Harpazo would precede the great Tribulation which is then followed by the second coming. This idea was published by Darby in 1833. By the 1920’s, a pre-millenial organization, World’s Christian Fundamental Association, which opposed theological modernism, won the sympathy of the American Southern Baptist denomination.  “By the 1920s,says William Akenson, author of Exporting the Rapture, “Darby’s belief system had become the doctrinal template of the fundamentalist branch of North-American evangelicalism. (I emphasize with bold-face the close connection between Darby’s idea and American evangelicalism, which has historically been anti-LGBTQ and is especially so today.)

    Today, the concept of “rapture” is widely associated with certain evangelical Christians, who are often socially conservative (especially those who are white and southern). Some disagree about the particulars. But since many of these evangelicals also tend to frown on LGBTQ issues, the ideas of Rapture and anti-LGBTQ may have become associated, though Darby himself never considered the validity of LGBTQ. (Indeed, these terms were unknown at the time; the first use of the word “homosexual” was by J. A. Symonds in 1891, though same-sex sex acts are no doubt as old as opposite-sex sex acts.)

    How does the Bible stand on homosexuality (a 19th c. word)? Leviticus frowns on male-to-male intercourse, probably because as a post-exile text written by the Priestly author, Leviticus encouraged all Jewish men to marry and reproduce, regardless of their own preferences. As we’ve often discussed, Leviticus’s laws are directed at a population in danger of dying out, so reproduction was an imperative for all citizens, which is not true now. In the New Testament, Paul also frowned on male-to-male sex, which he associates with the Greeks, among whom it was widely practiced. (Paul also believed people should abstain from heterosexual behavior until the end times, though he added “it is better to marry than to burn.”) The Hebrew bible does not mention sex between women, since women could not choose to refuse men. (Milton argues that women never refused men until after the fall, which I add light-heartedly, since I often teach Milton).

    However, we know from the midrash that rabbinic Jews believed bible laws could and should be adapted to new circumstances. The Bible sanctions slavery and execution of disobedient children by stoning, which we no longer accept as ethical or moral, so we all pick and choose which laws we consider relevant to us today. The New Testament, in particular, shows Jesus engaged in strong male friendships (I am not suggesting anything more). In John, Jesus issues one commandment–love one another.

    Moreover, though the technology of gender reassignment is recent, gender fluidity is as old as biology. A famous Greek prophet, Tiresias, lived as both a woman and a man, and in the European middle ages we have evidence of people who dressed and lived–and in the case of actors and prostitutes worked–as members of the opposite sex. On this question the bible is silent. But I think the attitudes toward non-cis sexuality in the bible reflect the prejudices and imperatives of the times when they were written (post-exile Jews were repeated exhorted to reproduce and have large families). I am not sure that if the bible were written today, the same prohibitions would be in it.

    Links:

  • Who is exactly married to Boaz? Naomi or Ruth?

    I assume you are also confused because of the ancient practice of Levirate marriage, or surrogacy, which occurs in Genesis in the story of Tamar and Judah but which is here taken much further. There’s a figure in Judaism with the name Goel, which some bibles translate as “kinsman redeemer.” It is related to the word “redeem,” not in the Christian sense, but in the sense of avenger or rescuer or even redemption from slavery (you can also redeem someone by paying their debts). It’s’ a very important word. For example, in Job, he wants someone to defend him against God. He says “I know that my Goel lives” but, he believes, any such Goel is afraid to enter a contest with God, so Job has no advocate against God. (Christians often assume this is a reference to Jesus, whom they call a “redeemer” in a very different sense.)

    Anyway, a Goel’s job, for one, is to avenge a fallen family member. In Levirate marriage, when the head of a household dies. the nearest kin must marry his wife and father a child for that fallen kinsman. So Boaz, as Goel, should have married Naomi and fathered Elimelech’s child with her.

    However, in this story, Naomi is too old to have children, so she selects Ruth (a Moabite and no blood relation) to be a kind of Goel for her, having her child because Naomi cannot. As far as I know, this is a new twist on the idea of Levirate marriage, in which the Goel was always a man. That’s just one of the ways in which this is a remarkable story. Either the author of Ruth didn’t fully understand the ancient idea of levirate marriage, or they were deliberately adapting it so that a woman, too, could play this heroic role.

    Interestingly enough, Deuteronomy seems to be against levirate marriage in most circumstances, even though it occurs in Genesis. Early Christianity, which saw man and woman as one flesh, believed that marrying one’s brother’s’ wife was a kind of incest.

  • Why do you believe there was such as focus on fertility in Genesis 35-46? Why is fertility handled so publicly?

    You perceptively notice the struggle with fertility between Rachel and Leah. I have mentioned elsewhere that female fertility is central to the post-exile concept of “woman of valor,” a term which is only assigned to Ruth and the “ideal wife” or “woman of valor” of Proverbs 31. It isn’t just that Ruth cares for her mother in law, although that’s important. Her key accomplishment is  finding a redeemer for the dead Elimelech’s line and having a son for him. Because their numbers were decimated before exile and because so many people drifted away or married away during exile, Jews had an absolute duty to marry and reproduce. (Some scholars have used this expectation to argue that Jesus himself must have married). This may be one reason for the prohibition against same-sex relations in Leviticus, which was written entirely by P and P’s friends. 

    Leah, the favored wife, almost doesn’t have an heir, and in this she resembles other women in Genesis like Sarah, who is like 9000 years old and she finally gives birth (and then has to endure her husband sacrificing him or almost sacrificing him). Eve loses her first two sons, only belatedly getting a replacement son in Seth (whose name may mean compensation). Edward Everett Fox has noted this motif, which is one of several that are repeated: 

    Chosen Figure (Noah)

    • Sibling Conflict with sympathy for youngest (Cain/Abel – Seth)
    • Family Continuity Threatened (Abel murdered)
    • Ends with Death (Haran, Terah, Sarah barren)
    •       Humanity Threatened (Flood)
    •       Ends Away from Land of Israel (“In Haran”)

    Chosen Figure (Abraham)

    • Sibling Conflict with sympathy for youngest (Ishmael/Isaac)
    • Family Continuity Threatened (Sarah barren; Isaac almost sacrificed)
    • Ends with Death (Sarah, Abraham)
    •       Wife Rivalry (Hagar-Sarah)
    •       Wife/ sister story (Chs. 12 “J” and 20 “E”)        
    •       Barren wife (Sarah)
    •       Ends with Genealogy of Non-covenant Line (Ishmael)

    Chosen Figure (Jacob)

    • Sibling Conflict with sympathy for youngest (Jacob/ Esau)
    • Family Continuity Threatened (Jacob almost killed)
    • Ends with Death (Deborah, Rachel, Isaac)
    •       Wife Rivalry (Rachel/ Lea)
    •       Wife/ sister story “J” (E believes Isaac is dead?) (Ch. 26)
    •       Barren wife (Rachel)
    •       Ends with Genealogy of Non-covenant Line (Esau)

    Chosen Figure (Joseph)

    • Sibling Conflict with sympathy for youngest (Brothers/ Joseph)
    • Family Continuity Threatened (Juda’s sons die, Joseph almost killed; family almost dies in famine)
    • Ends with Death (Jacob, Joseph)
    •       Humanity Threatened (Famine)
    •       Ends Away from Land of Israel (“In Egypt”)

    These themes emphasize a few ideas over and over again: The near-extinction of the chosen people or “covenant line,” rescued by God at the last moment; perpetual wandering and homelessness; struggles with famine and pestilence, and emphasis on younger sons being chosen over their older brothers (maybe a Judah vs. Israel thing). 

  • Was Esther considered a "woman of valor" the way Ruth and the wife in Proverbs were?

    This question refers to the phrase “Eishet Chayil” used in Ruth, where it is sometimes translated “woman of power,” “virtuous woman,” or “good girl.” and in Proverbs 38, where is usually is translated “ideal wife.” First of all, though the phrase is not used in Esther, I think Hellenistic Jews (both male and female) were supposed to see from Esther that their very weakness in the face of their persecutors could be strength. Though she doesn’t pray, she fasts, which is a sign of holiness. The key moment is when her ‘Aman or protector Mordecai (which puns on Haman (Links to an external site.)) tells her that saving the Jews is the reason she has “come to power,” suggesting an invisible hand in events. And her reply, “If I perish, I perish,” shows her willingness to be martyred, which is also an important Hellenistic Jewish theme. 

    On the other hand, Esther was also much reviled. The authors of the Dead Sea scrolls had every biblical text but Esther. St. Jerome and later Martin Luther wished the text had never been written. Medieval Talmudic literature was troubled by her as well. Why? Here’s a good summary from the Esther entry in the Encyclopedia of Jewish women: 

    “The rabbis were troubled by Esther’s failure to live as a Jew: she has sexual intercourse with and marries a Gentile, lives in the Persian court, and does not follow Jewish dietary laws (the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, tries to remedy this by adding prayers and repeatedly invoking God, as well as having Esther declare that she loathes her present lifestyle). In addition, Esther has been taken to task by both female and male commentators for her apparent willingness to participate in Persian harem customs, and by Christian commentators for her evident bloodthirstiness in destroying Gentiles.” 

    I should add that she doesn’t just marry a Gentile. She gets sex training in a harem. While I’ve said that biblical women were expected to use their sexuality for their people, by the middle ages female modesty was definitely the rule, as much in Judaism as in Christianity. Here’s an article on modesty in the Halakhic tradition (the Halakha was the law part of the Talmud): https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/modesty-and-sexuality-in-halakhic-literature (Links to an external site.)

Canons

  • What other stories from the bible have been influenced by Christian ideas? What stories have Christians reinterpreted?

    Technically, no stories in the Hebrew bible were written influenced by Christians, since Christians came into being hundreds of years after the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) were written. However, most bibles that Christians have access to were translated by Christians, so Christians have unwittingly inserted Christian ideas into them. For example, Christians tend to translate the word “sheol” (the pit) as “hell.” Hell was not a concept Christians had. They often use “Heaven” instead of sky or dome (again, Jews didn’t have a “heaven” concept).

    Christians have a tendency to read the Hebrew bible as if it is predicting the coming of Jesus, so many Christians read Hebrew stories in a Christian light. For example, the story of Jonah and the big fish is a story that I interpret to be satire. It tells of a prophet who refuses to obey God’s command to predict the destruction of Ninevah in Assyria because he doesn’t want Yahweh to make him look bad when he mercifully spares the people at the last minute. Every other person, animal, or thing obeys Yahweh, but not his own prophet. For example, the big fish swallows Jonah on command and spits him out whole, also on command. All the citizens of Ninevah (including its farm animals) dress in sackcloth and ashes to repent their evil ways. I interpret this late story to be critical of Judea’s isolationist stance and to be promoting a message that Yahweh is the God of the whole world, not just Judea. (That’s a common belief today, but the Jews believed Yahweh was their God alone, so this message advocates tolerance of others. It contrasts with texts like Esther that shows all the colonial enemies of the Judeans dying horrible deaths.).

    However, Christians read the story of Jonah entering the fish for three days and then being spewed out as prefiguring Christ’s resurrection. That is an interesting idea, but clearly not what the Jewish author, who lived before Christ’s time, intended.

    With gospels like the gospel of Mark, we can see examples of events being narrated in a way that connects Jesus to earlier prophecy. For example, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. This appears to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9.9: ” Your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” There are three ways to understand the connection between the two texts. One is that Jesus really is the Jewish messiah predicted in Zechariah (that’s an idea Christians take for granted but Jews reject). The second is that Jesus, who is called “rabbi” or teacher in Mark and Matthew, deliberately rode the donkey to evoke Zechariah. The third is that the Jewish author of these gospels inserted the event to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy from the Hebrew bible.

    My main point here is not to give an encyclopedic list, but to show that Jews (and also Muslims) not only read the Hebrew bible differently than Christians do, but they also see the New Testament in a very different light than Christians do. Muslims see Jesus as a teacher, but like Jews they do not accept that Jesus is a divine being (or an aspect of a divine being). Jews read Messiah (which means annointed–a ceremony used to crown kings– to mean an eartly ruler from the line of David.

  • A question I pose is what other books of the Hebrew Bible could be missing? With examples such as the Dead Sea Scrolls it begs the question of are their others that are lost to time and do we have any evidence that there are some missing from the history?

    In answer to your question, we are going to talk a lot about canon formation (that is, which books made it into which bibles or anthologies of “little books”) at the end of our short semester. During the centuries of the common era (CE, formerly AD)  the Hebrew and Christian canons considered a host of books that did not make it into the bible for various reasons–some for their lateness, some for their controversy, etc.

    And here are a couple of clarifications: The Dead Sea Scrolls was not “left out” of the bible, exactly. It was a collection that contained copies of all the bible books (except Esther) that were much older than the copies we have, which date from the middle ages of our era. It also contained other texts. Some of these copies were different (longer or shorter) than the copies we had, so they’ve been used to supplement our later copies. The New Revised Standard Version (the copy we’re reading) integrates those findings. The reason the KJV didn’t include those findings is that the Dead Sea Scrolls weren’t discovered until the 1940s. They were composed by a group of acetic Jews who lived in a separate community. They hid the texts in caves, in jars that helped preserve them, that were only recently rediscovered.

    Clarification 2: For reasons I’ve gone into in response to other posts, the biblical authors and editors that created our current Hebrew Bible suppressed a lot of Canaanite culture and distanced themselves from the Canaanite gods. If not for the discovery of a trove of texts at Ugarit in 1929, we would still probably know anything about them. Archeologists discovered several texts as well as a list of the Canaanite gods.  The translators of the KJV did not know about this pantheon, which is why they didn’t realize that Asherah was a goddess and not a grove of trees. More on that here: https://www.britannica.com/place/UgaritLinks to an external site.

    Clarification 3: Paul and Ezekiel are the only people believed to have composed their own books (and both of them used scribes, since writing was a specialized skill in ancient times). Some argue that Revelation was written by a guy called John of Patmos.  The gospels were not attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John till centuries after they were written, so we should consider them, like almost every other text of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, anonymous. Many texts attributed to Moses and others were pseudonymous, meaning that they were associated with famous figures of the past as a way to gain credibility. I qualify this statement by adding that belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Torah and the midrash is absolutely fundamental to many traditions, both Jewish and Christian (and Muslim).

  • Who or what were the gatekeepers when it came to choosing the gospels and canons in the bible?

    Scholars know a fair amount about this subject.

    I can refer you to the excellent Wikipedia article:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_New_Testament_canon As another student has mentioned, the NT canon began with the Council of Nicea but didn’t end there. A scholar I’ll cite a lot in relation to the New Testament is Bart Ehrman, who has a blog on this topic: https://ehrmanblog.org/question-on-how-we-got-the-canon-of-the-new-testament-for-members/:  (I’ll quote part of it since it’s behind a paywall: “This did not happen overnight.  The first – the very first – author to list our 27 books of the New Testament as THE New Testament was the powerful bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, who in the year 367 CE wrote a letter to the churches in his jurisdiction, giving them pastoral advice, including which books were acceptable as scriptural authorities to be read in the churches (and which were not).  There were other authors before (and after) Athanasius who provided such lists.  But his list was the first that coincided with the list we use today.   After his time, other church authorities continued to have other opinions.”)

    Why were some books rejected? Here are a few possible reasons:

    1. They were in Greek. While a lot of Jewish people wanted to learn about literature, philosophy, and art from the Greeks, the dominant feeling was that the Greeks were bad and participated in shocking practices like running around naked, and also they persecuted the Jews quite horribly. So anything in Greek got banned, even though by the time of the gospels, people were reading the Hebrew bible mainly in Greek.
    2. They were not considered authoritative, either because they were late, they were considered forged, or they had a hero who was a woman. Or they were really crazy, like Enoch, which was nevertheless quite influential.
    3. They espoused beliefs that conflicted with Deuteronomy or other law books.
    4. They duplicated other material (for example, Jubilees and the Apocalypse of Moses both said new things about Adam and Eve. But it’s not like they were going to stick these books in the middle of the Torah, which was already super established).
    5. The New Testament books were often thrown out if they were considered forgeries. One guy tried to jettison the whole “Old Testament” because he didn’t like God as much as Jesus. (The idea that the two were related wasn’t universally accepted at first).
    6. Esther almost didn’t make it in. Her story had been rejected by the Essene community in Qumran (holders of the dead sea scrolls). Martin Luther wanted to exclude it too. But it told the story of Purim, which was very important for the Jewish people.

    We’re going to be watching a movie about this closer to the end of the semester. It is a two-part film called “Banned from the Bible” that you can usually find on YouTube.

  • Since the individual components of the Hebrew bible were written by a multitude of authors across a large time period, how did the components end up being compiled into the singular "book" we know as the Hebrew bible?

    I don’t really know as much about the Hebrew canon formation as I do about the formation of the Christian canon. Here is an article from Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_Hebrew_Bible_canon (Links to an external site.). It mentions several stages of composition:

    • The collection or creation by Ezra of the first Torah (as late as 400 BCE). This collection probably included the Torah and possibly some prophetic writings–possibly just Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah.
    • The 3rd c. BCE composition the the Septuagint (the Greek text of the Hebrew bible), which includes the Torah and Nevi’im (prophets) but not the writings (Ketuvim)
    • Sirach, an apocryphal text, mentions most of the works above and a few others
    • Josephus (first c. CE), mentions 22 of the 24 works of the Hebrew bible. He may have combined Ruth with Judges and Lamentations with Jeremiah.
    • The status of some writings aka Wisdom books such as Ecclesiastes were still being debated in the 2nd c. CE.
    • Also in 2nd c. CE, Rabbi Akiva says that no one who reads non-canonical texts will be admitted to the afterlife. He excepts himself, since he read non-canonical texts.

    For later Rabbinical Jews, the extensive literature of the MIshnah and Talmud was also canonical, but that is because they consider it “oral Torah” and attribute it to Moses. I suspect the tradition of copying and reproducing texts by the Masoretes, whose Hebrew bible is still considered canonical, had a role in the decision too.

    By the time the canon was finished, many more books were floating around being read than made it into any canon. Some of those books had a huge effect of Christian ideas of Purgatory, Hell and the harrowing of hell by Jesus, and Mary’s virginity, among other things. They probably also influenced canonical Jewish thought in the Mishnah and Talmud. One example might be Sirach, mentioned above.

    In the case of the Christian canon, one of the factors in closing it was Constantine’s decision to print bibles (printing was expensive) so there was an extensive debate about what would go in and what wouldn’t.  Though some wanted to exclude the entire Hebrew bible, the Old Testament Christians eventually kept contained all the same books as the Hebrew Bible but in a different order (though, as we’ve said elsewhere, they added a third class of “secret” books that Jews did not recognize called the apocrypha). Martin Luther, a well-known anti-Semite, nevertheless excluded the apocrypha because Jews did not accept it.

  • What topics, themes, and books are contained in Apocrypha, and how might they be similar to later Christian writings such as Revelation?
    • The books in the apocrypha are excluded from the rest of the Hebrew bible/ TNK because they are in Greek and because they are considered too late to be canonical.
    • The apocrypha has stories that emphasize martyrdom and Jewish separatism, but they also contain stories that reflect interest in Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy from the period.
    • These books include Greek additions to books like Esther and Daniel, created to make the stories more acceptable to Jewish people in the late second temple period. For example, the Greek additions to Esther include prayers by Esther and Mordecai that show their dependence on Yahweh. These prayers assign “inner states” to Esther or Mordecai, states that make their attitudes more mainstream. Esther reveals in one that she refuses to eat the impure diet of the Persians she lives among.
    • The books also include additional chapters of standard texts, such as the additions to Ezra (Esdras) which show him to be a prophet.
    • They contain wisdom literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon, attributed to Solomon of the Hebrew bible.
    • They contain stories such as Maccabees, which chronicle the military resistance of the Jews to their Hellenistic oppressors. The Maccabees story contains the origin of Hannuka.
    • The story of Tobit in the apocrypha tells us about attitudes toward magic and the supernatural in the late second temple period; they also introduce named angels like Michael and Raphael.
    • The apocrypha doesn’t contain apocalyptic stories like Daniel and Revelation. However, several other works that didn’t make it into the apocrypha (sometimes called the Pseudepigrapha because they are always attributed to famous biblical figures pseudonymously) are apocalyptic. Some of the most famous of these are the book of Enoch and the Coptic Apocalypses of Peter and Paul.
    • This group (the Pseudepigrapha) also contains gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament, such as the gnostic  gospels and works like the Acts of Thomas, etc.
    • In the Christian canon, these works were widely accepted. While St. Jerome first suggested that these stories should be taken less seriously because the Jews did not include them in their canon, Martin Luther is the first to bracket them in a separate book, following Jerome’s authority. Later Protestant bibles excluded them completely.
    • See more here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ and here: http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/.
  • What's the difference between the Tanakh (TNK) and the Old Testament?
    • The Tanakh (TNK) is another name for the Hebrew bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). But the Christian Old Testament is not in the same order as the Hebrew bible/Tanakh. The Hebrew bible is organized into Torah (first five books Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy), Nevi’im (Prophets, which for the Jews includes the historical writings) and Ketuvim (Writings, which include the more modern wisdom books and philosophical works like Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Songs, etc.) so TNK or Tanakh. The Tanakh/TNK/Hebrew bible ends with the command in Chronicles by Cyrus, the Persian king, to return to Judah and rebuild the temple. The final TNK was organized and ordered after the second temple in Rome was destroyed. The TNK ends that way so that the promise of a new temple is always out there in the world (“Tomorrow in Jerusalem”).
    • The Old Testament is organized differently, and it ends with the prophecy of Malachi that a “Day of Yahweh” was coming and Elijah, a famous Hebrew prophet, would return. The Christians organized the Old Testament that way because they read Malachi as predicting the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus. So they wanted the Old Testament to point to the New Testament. In the same way, the New Testament puts Matthew first, even though it was written after Mark, because it begins with a genealogy connecting Jesus to Abraham (through Joseph).
    • Since Jews don’t believe Jesus is the coming “messiah” (Hebrew for anointed Davidic king), their text ends with the promise of the restoration of the temple, which is a necessary precondition of the return of the Jewish “messiah.”
  • Why didn't the Jews consider the book of Enoch canonical?

    I got the impression Enoch was rejected because of its violent and strange visions. Also, the work describes “fallen angels” rebelling against God, a story that exists nowhere in the bible, but which becomes an important tradition for Christianity and authors like Milton. Tertullian wrote that Jews rejected Enoch because of its references to Christ, but most Jews would reject Tertullian’s interpretation. 

    One scholar, Margaret Barker suggests that the main problem  with Enochic judaism is that it rejected the tenets of mainstream Judaism: 

    • It makes no references to Torah commandments, sabbath observance, or circumcision
    • It rejects Second Temple Judaism’s practices of sacrifice
    • It portrays heaven, God, and the angels in ways rejected by second temple priests
    • It uses a solar calendar instead of a lunar calendar to set feast dates
    • It suggests life after death, a concept not embraced by mainstream Rabbinic Jews, at least at the time the canon closed. 

    More on Barker’s thoughts here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Enoch#Judaism

    The Ethiopian Christian church and one Ethiopian sect of Judaism still consider this text canonical. But it was widely quoted and definitely made its way into early Christian thinking. And though it exists mainly in Aramaic and Ethiopic manuscripts, scholars did find Hebrew fragments of the text at Qumran among the Dea Sea Scrolls.

  • Question: Were the gnostic gospels and other excluded material left out because they too progressive for their time, or maybe too conservative? Who were those people back then to say that those writings were not for us to learn from?

    I will oversimplify in my answer, but regarding the Gnostics, one problem for mainstream Christians was that they tended to reject not only the value of the body and the bodily resurrection argued for in mainstream Christianity, but also the Hebrew bible and its God. For them, Yahweh was a kind of fallen or bad God, and Jesus was the antidote to him. Early Christians wanted to emphasize that God and Jesus were one–John says over and over, “I AM the way, the truth, and the light” where “I am” is a reference to  Yahweh’s name. The author of Matthew, a Jewish Christian, said that Jesus was there to “perfect” the law, not reject it. So mainstream Christians stressed continuity between the Hebrew bible and the New Testament.

    Gnostics echoed Plato in suggesting the body was part of the fallen state, something to be transcended. For example, in the gospel of Judas, Jesus needs Judas to free him from his bodily prison so he can go back to his spiritual home. In that way, Gnosticism resembles some modern cults like Scientology or Heaven’s Gate. Some were also progressive in that they emphasized women like Mary (not Peter or James) as closest to Jesus; early Christianity was highly misogynistic. 

    Unlike Rabbinical Judaism, which is a tradition that embraces debate and multiple perspectives, mainstream Christianity really wanted a unified message and in some ways still does. The word “orthodox” suggests a right way of teaching and a wrong way. So people were executed for what feel to me like small differences of interpretation–when to celebrate Easter, whether God is three or one, etc.

  • What is purgatory, and who believes(d) in it?

    13th century Christians came up with Purgatory as a place where you could work off your imperfections and eventually get to Heaven. I’m not sure if it evolved because it filled a need–for instance, no one likes the idea that an innocent baby might go to hell just because it isn’t baptized. Dante’s Divine Comedy, which devoted 33 cantos each to hell, purgatory, and heaven (well, I think heaven got an extra canto to make 100) popularized purgatory in the imagination of the world, but he had very specific ideas about who might end up there and who might not, ideas that didn’t always coincide with mainstream church ideas.

    Neither Babylonians nor ancient Jews had a heaven or hell concept. Like Homer, writers of the Hebrew bible refer to death as a place where you are aware but dead and beneath the earth. It is neutral, and everyone goes there. When we read bibles in English, we see heaven as a synonym for sky, and we see hell as a translation for two Hebrew words and a couple of Greek Christian words.

    • The Hebrew words for hell are Sheol and Gehenna. Sheol just means “pit.” Gehenna or Gehinnon (The Valley of Hinnon) was a suburb of Jerusalem where people burned trash, and it had an association with more ancient practices like child sacrifice. I like to compare Gehenna to Canton, NC, because they both smelled bad.
    • The Greek word is Hades, the Greek name for their underworld. Different authors had different ideas about Hades. In most myths, it was a joyless place ruled by the god of death, Hades, and sometimes his wife Persephone, whom he abducted and whose mother ravaged the world with winter while she was gone. It is often described as being guarded by a three-headed dog, and it has a ferryman who rows you over the river of forgetfulness (Lethe). In Homer, Achilles describes it as the worst possible state. Virgil, on the other hand, set aside a place for the great heroes and poets to be reincarnated after a purgative period.
    • A Latin word for the same place was Tartarus.

    We don’t see references in the Hebrew bible to any kind of organized afterlife until Daniel, who implies a resurrection for a select few at the end times. He says the rest will perish. Luke describes a rich man “in torment in Hades” asking for a drink to quench his thirst. (Luke’s Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to thread a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.) The apocalypse of Peter (second century CE) first describes a vivid hell: Murderers were “cast into a certain strait place, full of evil snakes, and smitten by those beasts” while the souls of the murdered looked on with satisfaction. Those who blasphemed and slandered the righteous were forced to “[gnaw] their own lips… and [receive] a red-hot iron in their eyes.” The rich who refused the orphans and widows were made to wear “tattered and filthy” garments and to walk endlessly over “pebbles sharper than swords or any spit, red-hot.” Here’s my source for that quote: https://people.howstuffworks.com/hell.htm . 2 Esdras actually sets aside a place of torment for the undead.

    Purgatory is a 13th century CE Christian invention, which is one why the protestants rejected it. This resource on Dante also discusses beliefs about Purgatory generally: https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/discover-dante/doc/purgatorio/page/2

    It was Dante who really fleshed this idea out in his Divine Comedy, which is divided into inferno–the interesting part, purgatorio, and paradiso. Purgatory was invented because it seemed too harsh to deny all sinners paradise, so they put the minor sinners in purgatory to burn off their imperfections before they get to paradise. The ancient Judaeans didn’t need a purgatory because they didn’t believe in an afterlife period. 

    This is fun for English majors because Protestants rejected the notion of Purgatory while Catholics still accepted it. So Hamlet comes home from college in Wittenberg, which was the flower of Protestantism. It’s where Martin Luther nailed his theses. And he sees a ghost who tells him he’s in Purgatory. Big problem for Hamlet: Catholics believe in ghosts and purgatory,  but Protestants did not.  So Hamlet doesn’t just have a problem of sanity; he has a life or death dilemma, one that contradicts everything he’s been taught. 

Empires

  • How did the theological and cultural shifts that occurred due to the Babylonian Exileinfluence the development of Jewish religious practices and the formation of the Hebrew Bible?

    Many scholars believe that almost all Jewish theology and religious practices came post exile and in direct response to the exile. In Ezra Nehemiah, we see stories of public readings of the Torah, which people very clearly have never read and know nothing about. Some argue that these texts were written not only as a way to worship God but also to give the people emigrating to Jerusalem a shared history and ancestry that was essentially fictional.

    Others would argue that the texts predate the exile but were confined to the temple and not available to the public. These people argue that Ezra and Nehemiah made the bible (or at least the Torah) central to worship in a way it had never been before. They made reading and interpreting the text the job of the whole community, adding that they should no longer expect direct communication from God via prophets. At the very least, the exile changed the bible’s role in this community–that is, if it existed before this moment.

    Babylonian language and myth also shaped Hebrew stories. Our textbook explains the connection between Genesis 1–the first creation story in the bible–and the Babylonian national myth of the Enuma Elish, a myth that would have been read publicly to exiled communities like the Judeans.

    As our textbook explains, the bible is filled with exile themes. For example, in the Torah alone, we see frequent stories ending outside the promised land or homeland. We see a chosen figure who is a  younger son (this theme mirrors the idea that only the Judahites and not the “elder son” of Israel were “chosen” to carry on as God’s chosen). We see a constantly deferred promise by Yahweh of return to the homeland echoed in prophecy and stories. We see efforts to define the roles of the non-covenants lines.

    Later, in Roman times, as Jews lost their second temple and eventually their homeland, Babylon (and Egypt) become a metaphor for Jews wandering without homeland or nation, constantly trying to preserve their uniqueness as colonized citizens of other nations.

  • During their time under foreign rule by the Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, did those cultures influence the bible stories in other ways besides instilling a sense of homelessness?

    That’s a very interesting question and yes, we can see the effect of exile on the bible stories in many ways: Cultural, linguistic, thematic, even religious.

    The cultural impact of Babylon can be seen even in Genesis 1.

    • While in exile, Jews had to listen to the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic, performed aloud on a regular basis. When we get to Genesis a bit later in the semester, our textbook points out that the creation narrative in Genesis 1, which is much newer than the one  in Genesis 2.2, seems almost like a revision of the Enuma Elish. In that story, the God figure, Marduk, defeats water deity Tiamat, whose Babylonian name is used for “the deep” in Genesis 1. He defeats her by cutting her in half and using one half of her belly as the sky and the other as the earth. In Genesis, also, God puts “a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  God called the dome Sky.” So God contains the rebellious waters (Tehom or Tiamat) but they keep trying to escape, successfully doing so during the flood. Even the order of creation is the same, beginning with chaos. But in their revision, the Jews had God simply speak things into being, not needing to disembowel his enemies. In other words, you could see Genesis 1 as the answer to the Enuma Elish.
    • Another Babylonian impact on Genesis 1 that we seldom think about is the seven-day lunar week God uses to organize his creation. The seven-day week was invented by Babylonians, so the Jewish concept of “shabbat” or “seven” came from them too.
    • The Eden story starting in Gen 2.1, the flood story, and the story of Moses’ childhood owe a great deal to the epic of Gilgamesh. That was an ancient Sumerian epic, but Jews would have encountered it in Babylon. Eden’s rivers place that primordial garden in Babylon, probably at modern Baghdad, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet.
    • Similarly, Ezekiel’s vivid description of God’s chariot is borrowed from images of cherubim that he would have seen in Babylon, where he composed his prophecies. Those same cherubim make their way into most apocalyptic literature, including Daniel and Revelation.
    • Much of the apocryphal literature and New Testament gospels, especially the gospel of John, show the impact of Platonic philosophy, which posits a perfect divine “form” of which we are only copies. In the same way, John’s Jesus tells  his disciples that only those “born from above” in that divine place can return to that place after death.

    Another way we can see the influence of these empires is in the language:

    • One way we can date second-temple texts is by the presence of Babylonian, Persian, or Greek loan words. I’ve mentioned both Tiamat and Shemesh (the Babylonian sun god) in Genesis. Part of Daniel is written in Aramaic, or Persian, which was the spoken language of the Jews by the 2nd c. BCE (it was still being spoken in remote locations; Jesus and his disciples spoke only Aramaic). Furthermore, the New Testament gospels are written in street Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire. Their authors were also reading the Hebrew Bible in Greek; several important Christian ideas come from Greek apocryphal works, even if those works didn’t make it into the final Jewish canon.

    Thematically, we can see the influence of exile and foreign rule in the bible. A couple of these will suffice here:

    • The idea of purity or “holiness” in Leviticus is defined in opposition to Babylonian practices.
    • The Torah’s stories frequently end outside the land of Israel (witness the exile of Cain, Joseph, of Esau, or Jacob). They end with the endangerment of the covenant line: Abel, Isaac, Joseph (again). They have a preference for younger sons and underdogs.

    Many religious practices come from contact with other empires.

    • In the New Testament, Paul’s Jesus movement resembles several mystery religions popular in the empire such as Mithraism. A mystery religion is one in which followers attain eternal life by a secret practice such as ritually eating the body of the God (for those of you who take communion). By contrast, the Jesus movement followed by Jesus, Peter and James would have found such practices abhorrent. Jesus took over Mithras’s birthday and his sun rays (which became a halo).
    • The Persian religion gave Judaism and especially Christianity its dualism: A good god and a bad god or devil fight it out for the souls of humanity. (As mentioned elsewhere, Jews before Persia did not believe in a devil or an afterlife). The Persians also gave humans its angelic advocates such as Michael and Raphael, who appear in Daniel and Tobit, among other late works.  The Greek idea of Hades influenced the concept of hell, which was embraced by Christians and rejected, at least at first, by the Jews. And the Christian devil took aspects from Hades, the god of the dead, as well as Poseidon, the god of the ocean.
    • To this day, Jews celebrate Purim, a Persian holiday that resembles our Mardi Gras. One reason the book of  Esther stayed in the canon, despite its unpopularity with many people, is that it invents a Jewish origin and  justification for Purim.
    • By the first century BCE, Jews had incorporated ideas about the afterlife, predestination, and even reincarnation from other cultures they encountered in the Hellenistic empire. Not all those ideas made it into the bible, but Virgil’s idea of souls burning off their imperfections before they could be reborn influenced Christian ideas of purgatory.

    Even before Babylon, Israelites did not exist in a vacuum. For centuries before the first monarchs, Israel was a vassal to Egypt, where circumcision and monotheism may have originated.

Culture and Morality

  • Near the end of the book of Ruth, why did they use sandals as a legally binding method? I assume, but may be wrong, that they needed their sandals, and could have used something less valuable? That however, may be the point.

    Here’s something else I learned from your question. The sandal thing was clearly as strange to the audience of Ruth as it is to us, since the author felt he had to explain it:

    Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal.

    So the audience understands this detail made the contract binding at one time.

    I am quoting heavily from a blog entry by a pastor from Rudtlege Baptist Church, which he wrote in response to this very question. He notes that in Deuteronomy, it says that if a woman asks for Levirate marriage and is denied, she should take off her shoe and spit in the man’s face.

    So we know the sandal or shoe (na’ al) was connected to Levirate marriage in this way; we know less about the sandal being used to seal a contract. According to Pastor Vinson, one could seal a bill of sale (especially of land) by lifting  up one’s shoe from the contract and having the buyer set his shoe upon it as a mark of possession. Since part of the legal transaction involves Boaz buying Elimelech’s land, that might explain the shoes.

    Vinson also notes that sandals are connected to locks conceptually, and that shoes are connected to power, and when one removes one’s shoes, that is connected to submission. He quotes a book by Edna Nahshon, Jews and Shoes. 

    We’ve noted that there’s a common metaphorical link between feet and genitals, as mentioned in Ruth 3 with the uncovering of the feet. So, speculate some, this transaction might be sexual in nature.

    Also, argues Vinson, in some Near Eastern cultures, a man could reject a wife by removing a slipper. So perhaps the point of the shoes was for the official next of kin to officially renounce his right to marry Ruth, a right he passes to Boaz. But I didn’t find anything authoritative in my limited search about using sandals in the way that Boaz uses them. Except for his point about shoes in Deuteronomy, I think that Vinson’s’ explanation of shoes in this story is a guess and not a documented fact.

    So I, your teacher, believe that the author of this story knew a little about ancient law but not much. This author knew about the connection in Deuteronomy between levirate marriage and shoes, but I speculate that the author is guessing at the rest. You’ve seen above that no one has a really satisfactory answer to your question. If the author of Ruth once knew of a convincing link between marriage contracts and shoes, I don’t know that we’ve ever found it.

    Here’s the link to Pastor Vinson’s blog: http://trivialdevotion.blogspot.com/2012/02/boazs-shoe-deal.html

  • Orpah seems to do exactly what Naomi tells her to do--she leaves. Should we demonize her because of it?

    Heh! You would think that Orpah (Oprah’s mother tried to copy that name but transposed the letters) would be off the hook, since she is just doing what her mother-in-law told her to. But that’s not always how it works. One time my mother told me to leave the dishes till she got in. Boy, did I get clobbered when I obeyed her. Some people expect to those who care sincerely to keep pushing. Observe this excerpt from How to speak Minnesotan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdLPJfbLNOM

    Something similar to this happens at the end of Judges, when a “certain Levite” comes to retrieve his angry “second wife” from her father. It takes a very long time for him to leave, and from there, things do not go well. Some see this story as an example of what happens when people violate host/guest protocols. For a summary of these, click here protocols: http://www.maryadams.net/classpages/bible/downloads/hospitality.html.

    Therefore, I believe that Orpah needed to insist on staying, as Ruth did. Clearly Ruth’s insistence is treated as true “friendship,” while Orpah seems to merely observe basic politeness before she sprints away. Let’s say your elderly neighbor was having symptoms of a heart attack and insisted he would be fine. If you believe he is in danger, you have a moral and human obligation to push on. In Naomi’s case, she did not want to be the reason Orpah and Ruth ruined their lives. But she probably secretly hoped they would stay with her.

    Moreover, this story doesn’t exactly advocate obedience to authority. It is a story about how to manipulate those in charge to make sure your family is cared for. It could be argued that Ruth doesn’t do exactly what Naomi tells her to do when she appears at Boaz’s feet. But she accomplishes the same result–maybe even a better one.

    By the way, if you want to read more tales about Orpah from the Midrash, here are some resources. Here is the Ruth/Boaz story in Ginzberg’s Legend of the Jews; you can search on the page Orpah and learn more about her–fascinating! She did not fare well in the misogynistic oral tradition, where she is described as sleeping with 100 men in one night (including butt stuff!) and giving birth to Goliath, David’s enemy in the story: https://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/loj/loj403.htm (Links to an external site.)

    The Jews loved symmetry. Also, here is a resource I didn’t know before: The Encyclopedia of Jewish women. I am so glad to find it! It summarizes the Aggadah tradition of Orpah, not just the few tales told by Ginzberg: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/orpah-midrash-and-aggadah

  • Why do ministers bring up the "rapture" when it's not in the bible? I ask because "rapture" proponents often reject LGTBQ issues.

    The rapture question is interesting, because it reflects a preoccupation with last things that was common during the time Jesus and later Paul lived. Both Jesus and Paul probably believed the end would come in their lifetime. We know Paul believed that, and though portraits of Jesus are filtered through later authors, we can infer that too. For Jews like Jesus, last things meant the Day of Yahweh, a day when Yahweh would return and restore the faithful to life on earth, in the promised land. For Christians, this seems to involve some kind of space flight. I can’t be sure but it seems like Gnostic idea, except the Gnostics believed we escaped our human bodies–that was the point. Mainstream Christians believe we keep them.

    According to what I’ve read, the inspiration from the “rapture” idea comes from a line in 1 Thessalonians (Paul’s first letter) and uses the Greek word harpazo being “to seize” (as in “God will seize us into the air”). A Latin word for harpazo is raptus, which also means to seize or carry off. An Anglo-Irish Dispensational theologian named John Darby believed the Rapture or Harpazo would precede the great Tribulation which is then followed by the second coming. This idea was published by Darby in 1833. By the 1920’s, a pre-millenial organization, World’s Christian Fundamental Association, which opposed theological modernism, won the sympathy of the American Southern Baptist denomination.  “By the 1920s,says William Akenson, author of Exporting the Rapture, “Darby’s belief system had become the doctrinal template of the fundamentalist branch of North-American evangelicalism. (I emphasize with bold-face the close connection between Darby’s idea and American evangelicalism, which has historically been anti-LGBTQ and is especially so today.)

    Today, the concept of “rapture” is widely associated with certain evangelical Christians, who are often socially conservative (especially those who are white and southern). Some disagree about the particulars. But since many of these evangelicals also tend to frown on LGBTQ issues, the ideas of Rapture and anti-LGBTQ may have become associated, though Darby himself never considered the validity of LGBTQ. (Indeed, these terms were unknown at the time; the first use of the word “homosexual” was by J. A. Symonds in 1891, though same-sex sex acts are no doubt as old as opposite-sex sex acts.)

    How does the Bible stand on homosexuality (a 19th c. word)? Leviticus frowns on male-to-male intercourse, probably because as a post-exile text written by the Priestly author, Leviticus encouraged all Jewish men to marry and reproduce, regardless of their own preferences. As we’ve often discussed, Leviticus’s laws are directed at a population in danger of dying out, so reproduction was an imperative for all citizens, which is not true now. In the New Testament, Paul also frowned on male-to-male sex, which he associates with the Greeks, among whom it was widely practiced. (Paul also believed people should abstain from heterosexual behavior until the end times, though he added “it is better to marry than to burn.”) The Hebrew bible does not mention sex between women, since women could not choose to refuse men. (Milton argues that women never refused men until after the fall, which I add light-heartedly, since I often teach Milton).

    However, we know from the midrash that rabbinic Jews believed bible laws could and should be adapted to new circumstances. The Bible sanctions slavery and execution of disobedient children by stoning, which we no longer accept as ethical or moral, so we all pick and choose which laws we consider relevant to us today. The New Testament, in particular, shows Jesus engaged in strong male friendships (I am not suggesting anything more). In John, Jesus issues one commandment–love one another.

    Moreover, though the technology of gender reassignment is recent, gender fluidity is as old as biology. A famous Greek prophet, Tiresias, lived as both a woman and a man, and in the European middle ages we have evidence of people who dressed and lived–and in the case of actors and prostitutes worked–as members of the opposite sex. On this question the bible is silent. But I think the attitudes toward non-cis sexuality in the bible reflect the prejudices and imperatives of the times when they were written (post-exile Jews were repeated exhorted to reproduce and have large families). I am not sure that if the bible were written today, the same prohibitions would be in it.

    Links:

God and his people

  • In Ezra and Nehemiah, why would priests exclude people and define Jewishness so narrowly? To me it would make sense to want to have lots of people in your religion to make it powerful and influential.

    I love your question. Since Paul, the Jesus movement (later Christianity) has been an inclusive movement. Luke’s gospel tells the prodigal son story to suggest that while the one son (the Jewish people) has always “been with me,” the prodigal son (symbolically, the non-Jewish converts) is still entitled to his father’s blessing, no matter how long it takes him to come to it.

    But there was another Jesus movement supervised by Peter and Jesus’s brother James. It was centered in Jerusalem and it was only directed at what Matthew’s gospel calls “the lost sheep of Israel” (that is, other Jews, especially the poor or provincial or unlucky.) It was not interested in obtaining converts or for that matter setting down its tenets, which is one reason why this group vanished when Peter and James vanished at the hands of their Roman overlords. I believe Jesus was preaching to this group, not Luke’s group. But that’s just my interpretation of who Jesus really was.

    I mention this movement because its much more in keeping with Judaism itself, which was a national religion before the exile and a racial and familial movement after. To this day, Judaism is passed down through the mother because she is the surest link to the past. It’s the reason why you don’t see Jews proselytizing, and why Jews have traditionally emphasized marriage from within. To be part of God’s chosen, you have to be able to (theoretically) trace your connection to David. Of course, actually providing proof of that lineage in Ezra and Nehemiah’s time would have been extremely difficult. People didn’t have notarized family trees. But the texts of Ezra and Nehemiah present an ideal rather than a reality (it’s equally unlikely that they sent away all those “foreign” women).

    In the same way, the Puritan movement in America was an exclusive rather than an inclusive movement. The puritans believed in predestination, so you had to prove that you were predestined by God to be saved (when we get to Daniel, we’ll see how the idea of having your name in a “secret book” was first articulated. ) To prove you were part of the elect, you had a keep a diary or spiritual autobiography to show signs of your election. These were pretty formulaic, so to show you were chosen, your diary had to look like everyone else’s. The consequences of NOT being chosen were devastating. Besides being saddled with the knowledge that you were going to hell, you were also excluded from the community and forced to make your way alone. That’s a tough sentence on the frontier. The story of Anne Hutchison, whom I’ve mentioned elsewhere, illustrates the dangers.

  • Why did God go from talking to people, then only speaking to certain prophets, then talking through the wind, to only talking to some through prayer? Is it considered a punishment for a lack of followers or because of disobedience?

    That’s a great  discussion question with no fixed answer. Here are a couple of ways one might approach it:

    1. In terms of history, once Ezra and Nehemiah set up a priest and book-centered theocracy, they couldn’t really have ordinary people saying they talk to God, because that could disrupt the whole community. My favorite story about this is in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a puritan theocracy. The elders needed to be able to justify their decisions based on revelation from God. But one day Anne Hutchison said she talked to God too, and based on that she challenged the elders. They needed to be able to discredit her vision for the stability of the community. (They did it by using her miscarriage as proof of God’s disfavor; in those days, monstrous births were a common way to attack the beliefs of the mother). So while the idea of direct revelation from God was okay in the distant past, in an age that was structured around God’s rules for living, direct revelation could turn Judah upside down.
    2. In terms of the Deuteronomistic theory of why bad things happen, you could say that God’s chosen continually disappoint him. Or you could say that God gives them the book so that they don’t need to hear from him directly, and he gives them the priests to interpret it.
    3. In folkloric terms, figures like Moses from the distant past were portrayed as literally larger than life in many cultures. Literally, because the Greeks believed the race of the titans was bigger than later gods. The Irish created myths of giant forebears to explain how people made the ancient stone circles and mounds that they found all around them. In the bible, the patriarchs speak directly to God, and they also seem to have lived a really long time.  All these past figures are “larger than life,” but in later ages, people lost their magical powers and their special bond with God. They became ordinary, like us. The Hebrew bible is a very nostalgic text; it’s based on a vision of the past in which the country was bigger and stronger and was led by great kings like David. The people who wrote it lived in a tiny community buffeted about by great military powers, so that nostalgic vision of the past comforted them.
  • Why do the Jews in Elephantine consider their god, Yahu, the same god as Yahweh when there are clear differences? For example, Yahweh does not have a wife, but Yahu does.

    Now, In answer to your question, I don’t know enough about Hebrew to be sure, but I suspect Yahweh and Yahu were just regional differences in pronunciation for the same God name. Also though Yahweh did not have a wife in post-exile Judah, he certain seems to have had one in Judges and Kings, and she is still being worshipped in Jeremiah. Deuteronomy was the first book to assert that God should be worshipped exclusively, but before the exile your average Joe would not have had access to Deuteronomy. After he reads Deuteronomy (or finds it), Josiah is seen pulling priests and Baal and Asherah out of the temple and killing them. That means that shortly before the exile, all gods must have been worshipped there.

    As we’ll see in the next couple of weeks, Proverbs makes a point of saying that Yahweh created the world with and even through Wisdom (Hokmah), who describes herself as a sexual partner of God. Is it possible that works like Proverbs turned the goddess into a metaphor to appease those who still wanted to worship her?

    The picture that we get of pre-exile Israel is one that was probably widely polytheistic. If so, it’s not surprising that some Jews emerged from exile without the Torah-centered idea that God should be worshipped exclusively The Jewish community in Elephantine didn’t have access to a Torah, because Ezra and those like him had spent much of exile revising and editing their own personal copy. So it’s not surprising that they did not possess a book that said Anat-Yahu or Asherah or Ishtar couldn’t be worshipped along-side Yahweh.

    You can read more about the wide-spread association of Yahweh and his consort Asherah in the Encyclopedia of Jewish women: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/asherahasherim-bible. The references to God as “mother” in Hebrew suggest that after Deuteronomy, Asherah’s functions were either absorbed into Yahweh or relegated to metaphor and story. 

  • Did the Hebrew prophecies predict the coming of Jesus?

    I think many Christians believe that Christianity pre-dates Jesus’s birth, and that belief bothers some Jews for reasons articulated in the Supercessionalism video. 

    As I have emphasized elsewhere and will continue to stress, the prophecies in ancient Judaism were considered messages from God that helped people interpret current calamities. While these prophets might go so far as to predict how long a crisis might last, they were never meant to predict events in the distant future and certainly not meant to predict the coming of Jesus, whom rabbinic Jews reject as a messianic contender for many reasons. 

    While I don’t want to debate whether the Hebrew scriptures predict the coming of Jesus, I will say the the writers of the gospels framed their stories to link Jesus to the prophecies.  The writers of the gospels knew these prophecies through reading the Septuagint (Greek translation of Torah and prophets). So the author of Mark’s gospel frames his story of Jesus’s life with a (mis) quote from Isaiah, and later has Jesus enter town on a donkey to fulfill a prophecy from Zechariah. Mary’s virgin status, which is added in later gospels, seems to fulfill a passage from Isaiah that says “a woman shall become with child” (The Septuagint mistranslates “woman” as “virgin.”).

    On the other hand, apocalyptic texts like Daniel and Revelation, which were widespread during Intertestamental times, did try to predict when the end times or Day of Yahweh might happen. These works, however, were set in the past so that events predicted in them might seem give the texts authority by coming true. For example, Daniel predicts the coming of Antiochus IV, because it was written in the midst of Antiochus’s persecutions though  set 300 years earlier. So Daniel’s’ accuracy about Antiochus encouraged its readers to believe its prediction hat the end of days was imminent was also accurate (apparently, it wasn’t). 

  • After the 10 tribes were conquered by Assyria, many may have maintained very different traditions from the Judean Aliyah. What happened to those divisions of the nation of Israel, and are there any known remnants of those cultures?

    I don’t know a lot about this, so someone may be able to correct me. There is still a Jewish community in the region referred to in the New Testament as Samaria. They accept only the Torah and not the other parts of the Tanakh.  It’s really hard to know if they have any connection to the Jewish community that lived there before the Assyrian destruction, though one tradition suggests that Jews remained there and eventually merged their traditions with those of Assyrian settlers. Others reject that idea and believe that the Samaritans settled in the region after the exile with their own version of the Torah. Nehemiah tells the story of a schism among the exiled settlers who returned to Israel, so some argue that the post-exile Samaritans split off from Nehemiah’s Jerusalem group. 

    Are there records of Jews remaining in Assyria and Babylon after the Jerusalem community returned to Judah? Theoretically, but I’m not aware of any scholarship on the subject.

    The Elephantine community in Egypt (approx. 500-400), the earliest diaspora group I’m aware of, were probably Aramean residents who left Samaria by the 6th c. BCE. We know th ey were polytheists but tried to follow the Torah and observe Jewish holidays. Aramean is a language and culture associated with Syria after Alexander the great and covered parts of Assyrian, Turkey, and Lebanon. It was widely spoken in the northern part of Israel during New Testament times. The language persisted until the 7th c. CE, Jesus and his followers spoke it and some parts of Daniel were written in it. But were the Elephantine group Jewish from way back, or did they convert to Judaism later in history? What I’ve read suggests the latter. At any rate, the Jerusalem group advised them on Torah matters (they did not have their own Torah) but seemed to consider them a separate group for whom some Torah laws did not apply.

    There were plenty of Jewish diaspora groups around the empire by the Hellenistic period and, again, I’m not sure how they got there. Here is more about them: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-diaspora/. And obviously, after the fall of Rome, Jewish communities have lived all over Euope, Asia, Africa, and later the Americas.

    It is likely that the bible contains remnants of northern traditions. For example, parts of Genesis and Exodus use northern place names. The mountain Moses got the commandment on is referred to as either Sinai or Horeb. The documentary hypothesis, which we’ll learn more about in this class, argues that “Horeb” was the name used by northern writers while “Sinai” was the name used by southern writers. They believe northern versions of the story were woven together with southern versions after the exile. Deuteronomy also uses “Horeb,” suggesting to some scholars that Deuteronomy was northern in origin. Many of the stories of Shechem in Genesis may have come from the north, where sacred sites date back several thousand years before the earliest Israelite settlements. 

  • I'm curious about "diaspora Jews." Besides the Elephantine group, were other Jewish communities more aware of Jewish practices, especially closer to the Promised Land?

    The evidence from the text itself, which describes conflicts between the Judahite groups and another group (perhaps Samaritans) to the north, suggests that the Jerusalem group didn’t necessarily see other Torah-following groups as part of the same nation. We see this group offer to help rebuild the temple, but they are rejected. In Jesus’s time, the Samaritans were considered separate, and the two groups mutually despised each other Jesus’s efforts to reach out to this group were not accepted. The Samaritans still exist today. They accept the Torah but no other biblical texts.

    Besides the letters from the Elephantine community, I’m not aware of outside evidence from other groups, so I’m not about the answer to your community. I do know that in Paul’s time, Jewish synagogues existed all over the Roman empire. The first-century historian Josephus mentions important Jewish communities in Syria, Egypt, and Babylon, but I don’t know how old they were. Below are some quotes from Wikipedia, which is a good starting place (No, you shouldn’t cite Wikipedia in your research papers). 

    From Wikipedia: 

    The entry on Diaspora Judaism is really helpful, especially the part on early diaspora Judaism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_diaspora#Early_diaspora_populations (Links to an external site.) 

    On the Samaritans (from the Wikipedia entry on Second Temple Judaism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Temple_Judaism#The_diaspora (Links to an external site.) )

    “For most of the Second Temple period Samaria was larger, richer, and more populous than Judea—down to about 164 BCE there were probably more Samaritans (Links to an external site.) than Judeans living in Palestine.[19] (Links to an external site.) They had their own temple on Mount Gerizim (Links to an external site.) near Shechem (Links to an external site.) and regarded themselves as the only true Israel, the remnant left behind when Israel was deceived by the wicked priest Eli to leave Gerizim and worship at Jerusalem.[20] (Links to an external site.) Second Temple Judeans regarded them as foreign converts and the offspring of mixed marriages, and therefore of impure blood.[21] (Links to an external site.) Relations between the two communities were often strained, but the definitive break dates from the destruction of the Gerizim temple and of Shechem by a Hasmonean king in the late 2nd century BCE; before that the Samaritans seem to have regarded themselves as part of the wider Jewish community, but afterwards they denounced the Jerusalem temple as completely unacceptable to God.[22] 

    For more on this, see these resources:

  • Why is individual communication with God discouraged after the exile? If individual communication with God through prophecy is discouraged, who will spread the word and teach others about God?

    As always, your question is insightful and so the answers are complicated. Ezra’s attempt to “fix” the message of the bible by restricting access to God to the Torah and public prayer was an attempt to do at least three things: 

    • Follow God’s laws to the letter so that disaster would not happen again
    • Keep people who claimed to have a vision from God from dividing the community with competing messages (clearly, this had been a problem in Jeremiah, since he talks about false prophecies)
    • Make sure that no king or priest could keep the message secret from the people, thereby making community survival a community responsibility

    In one sense I agree with him. Interpretation of the bible is difficult, which we know because so many of us disagree about what the bible means. Understanding it is always a balancing act between individual and community voices. Some American evangelicals who claim to speak to God have been criticized for abusing the privilege, telling their followers that God wanted them to send them money and gifts. Others have argued that God wants them to abolish the separation of church and state. That worries me, because I know the widespread bloodshed that happens in societies that try to impose a single set of belief systems on their people. 

    To give just one example, the American Puritan communities tried to build a theocracy, and a theocracy cannot tolerate dissenting voices. That explains the tragic story of Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Links to an external site.)

    On the other hand, the rabbinical tradition is proof that laws need to be updated, reinterpreted, and reapplied. That’s why modern Jews learn the Talmud and the Midrash, not just the Hebrew bible. American laws have to be rewritten and reinterpreted in the courts, and the battle for how to interpret them lies at the heart of American politics. The New Testament books were attempts by disparate Jewish groups to apply Hebrew laws to Roman times. Islam, too, can be seem in this way. 

    Later on in the Hellenistic period, we’ll see stories in which individuals communicate with God through private prayer. While I’m sure the content of private prayer was diverse, these stories only made it into the Apocrypha if they communicate approved ideas. My sense is Ezra would not have approved of that.  But the key thing about those prayers is that God does not answer, at least not directly. Instead, the Hellenistic period has God sending a new group of Angels such as Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel (notice they all contain “el” in their names) to answer the prayers. 

  • We know Ezra and the second-temple Judahites bent the rules about polytheism and intermarriage. Could they have also bent the rules about the genealogical record defining your membership in the community? How about foreign wives?

    It’s interesting that you speculate that Ezra’s community might not have strictly enforced the rule on documenting their inheritance and sending away foreign wives. First of all, how, really, would people have documented their genealogy? Settlers didn’t have to go all the way back to Abraham, but according to Ezra they did have to prove they were part of the Jewish group who went to Babylon and then returned. But they had no Ancestry.com, no birth certificates, no photographs, no DNA.  And Ezra’s second-temple community was rebuilding Jerusalem 150-200 years after the exile began. If you don’t think that’s a long time to remember who was part of the original exile community and who wasn’t, ask your friends how far back they can document their own genealogy (it’s hard enough for white American families who didn’t have their histories erased). Holocaust deniers doubt events that happened only 80 years ago. So I imagine the only way to prove your history was tp get someone else to testify for you. I believe the “shared past” Ezra insisted upon was a cultural construct, like many of the pedigrees and “begats” in the Hebrew bible and in Matthew. The Book of Ezra actually lists the pedigrees of those who returned. At that point, it’s like a loop. The text of Ezra becomes part of the proof Ezra is looking for.

    You mention the “seeking and finding” in earlier disputes as a kind of documentation. This “seeking” is associated with Ezra’s overall obsession with documents. For example, he includes the text of earlier letters to the Persian king and refers to archives quite often. He also “documents” public prayers as a kind of legal document or contract, including the entire text of these prayers in the record. He even makes those who hear the Torah performed sign that they have understood it and will be bound by it. Perhaps he used those signatures as documentation against people who violated Torah laws.

    You might ask a similar question about the foreign wives problem. Did people really send their wives away? Some must have resisted (take the author of Ruth, who insists on the importance of foreign wives to the entire community). Some must have refused. I think the text of Ezra is an idealization of what actually took place. Just look at Nehemiah, which is part of the same scroll. Nehemiah argued that anyone who helped rebuild the city walls should be considered a Judahite. Nehemiah was Ezra’s late contemporary. So we don’t have to go as far as Ruth to find a critique of Ezra’s demand for a pedigree and his insistence on “pure” native bloodlines. Nehemiah proves that some early settlers wanted to be much more inclusive.

    Another possibility that could explain why some rules were bent is that the post-exile community in Jerusalem saw themselves as a group apart, and perhaps they believed the laws they followed were only for them. There is mention in Ezra of an attempt by another group of Jews, perhaps the ancestors of Samaritans–northern Torah observers who did not accept any other texts–to help with the temple. These people are treated as outsiders and rebuffed. (In contrast, Nehemiah says that anyone who helps build the wall belongs to that community. ) So perhaps when the Judeans refer to “gods” when addressing other Hebrew groups and allowed them to build a second temple and celebrate Passover without a text, they were being tolerant because they believed their laws only applied to themselves. 

  • If Ezra taught even those who didn’t know God about God, why couldn't he teach the innocent foreign wives and children about God too, rather than sending them away?

    My answer to your question is that knowledge of God was not enough to make you part of the post-exile Judahite community. I mentioned in my comment to Zac’s question that other Torah-observing groups existed, such as the group you mention in Takeaway 4 that “turned on” the Judahites. The Elephantine group considered themselves part of the same tradition though they clearly had no copy of the Torah. Ezra’s rule, which is more or less the rule today, is that people’s inheritance and not their belief system made them a Judahite (later Jew).

    It was possible to convert. When Paul tried to convert people to the Jesus movement, he got in a dispute with the Jerusalem group (Peter, James) about whether one had to be circumcised and observe the 613 laws (James and Peter believed conversion to Judaism should happen first). When Paul argued that faith was more important than works, he meant that they should not have to follow the laws and be circumcised, which was an obstacle for many non-Jews. 

    You will also find disagreement about the bible about whether individual innocence mattered. Some believed the king’s guilt was enough to implicate all his subjects. Deuteronomy says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” Ezekiel, who was a deuteronomist, said, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. ” But Psalms says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me..” And Christians believed Adam’s guilt was inherited. 

    I mention this disagreement because I want to emphasize that Ezra excluded foreign wives and their children (to the extent he actually did, which I have my doubts about) not because of their guilt or innocence or lack of knowledge about the law, but because they were mixed. Leviticus’s “holiness” or purity laws are very specific about that, and I very much believe Ezra to have been one of the people who wrote them. 

  • Why did the North and South divide into two kingdoms?

    As you might imagine, scholars are divided about whether Israel was divided into two kingdoms, whether David and Solomon existed, and more. 

    The biblical explanation is that the south and north divided into a great kingdom (Israel) and a smaller Kingdom (Judah) because of Solomon’s taxing policies and his relationship to the priesthood. Internecine strife among David’s children further divided the single monarchy. 

    However, Israel Finkelstein’s archeological findings have cast some doubt on that story. He argued for a “low chronology”  in which David was a “small chieftain” over a loose southern group that had no connection to the more powerful northern kingdom. While we have records of building projects and international alliances associated with powerful northern kings Omri and Ahab, he finds no sense that Judah emerged as a full-fledged nation state until after the north fell. He believes the south may have been a vassal of the north, whose removal allowed it to blossom. That would make many of the stories of David and Solomon, including Solomon’s legendary great works, a nostalgic fiction about a united past that never existed. Some adherents to Finkelstein’s arguments see the “united monarchy as fabricated during the Babylonian Exile (Links to an external site.) transforming David and Solomon from local folk heroes (Links to an external site.) into rulers of international status.” (quote is from the Wikipedia entry on the divided monarchy). This goes along with the general themes I have put forward in this class, which is that the united past described in Genesis and Exodus was constructed to create a unifying fiction for a diverse post-exile group. Others believe Josiah himself created the fiction to justify his territorial expansion. 

    An archeologist named Eliat Mazar discovered evidence of structures she believes support the existence of David’s Kingdom, which has resulted in a “modified low chronology.” Archeologist William Dever has criticized Finkelstein’s findings and supports the idea of a divided monarchy. Other archeologists remain divided among the three camps.

    The Wikipedia entry on the divided monarchy is quite useful. I am not one of those who believe we should not use Wikipedia; however, citing encyclopedias in general in research is less helpful than going to the original sources. Here are some ideas for further reading: 

  • Why did Pharaoh only try to throw boys into the Nile or kill first-born boys?

    Jacob Wright argues that both Genesis and Exodus have been reshaped as post-exile stories that emphasize how survival in this new Persian empire depends on fertility. So while Pharaoh comes out with an army, Moses has an army of babies. Genesis has a similar contest between Jacob and Esau. So Pharaoh is afraid that the Hebrew babies will grow up to be an army. This tells post-exile Jews to concentrate on fertility instead of fighting, to preserve their identity against their powerful overlords, the Persians. This story valorizes fertile women and midwives, but it also reaffirms the patriarchal value that women’s value is as the mother of sons.

    Because this is essentially a P story that explains the origin of Passover, God’s redemption of the first-born sons of Israel with calf’s blood must be repeated three times a year in sacrifice. The second-temple or post-exile period was dominated by national days of sacrifice in which the Israelites sacrificed a goat or lamb to pay for the redemption (or substitution–see how this word is used in Ruth) of the first-born sons and to repeat it.

  • What does it mean when "Pharaoh's heart was heavy?" Does that mean it was filled with remorse or was made more stubborn?

    The word used when God makes Pharaoh’s heart “heavy” is chazak. This word also means courageous, strong, obstinate, hard, etc. For example, when Jews finish reading the Torah, they should say Chazak or “strength.” This word usually describes God’s power; there are other words like chabad or chesed that describe God’s glory and his love (loving-kindness). So the big question is, why does God make Pharaoh “chazak”? I think God wants a worthy adversary. By making Pharaoh strong, he seems stronger by besting him. Or perhaps the author of this passage wants people to know that even Pharaoh’s strength was made by God.

    As a parallel, many second-temple people used the Egypt story as code for talking about their Babylonian or Persian oppressors. Jeremiah had promulgated the view that if Babylon was “chazak” or strong, God made it that way as an instrument to punish his own people. To this day we still use “Jeremiad” to talk about how suffering is a purifying punishmentt from God.

    As illustration, when the story of the Persian conquest of Babylon is told in Kings and the prophets, Yahweh is the cause of Persia’s victory over Babylon, and Yahweh is using King Cyrus of Persia as a tool (in essence, he’s making him “chazak” to punish the Babylonians and free the Judeans). When the Persians tell of Cyrus’s victory, on the other hand, they give credit to the Persian god Marduk. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1880-0617-1941

    In the same way, some fundamentalist Christians believe Trump was chosen by God to deliver his people from Barack Obama and the liberals they see as the new pagans. They argue that Trump was no more unlikely a choice than Cyrus to be an instrument of God. 

  • Question: Why did the all authors start calling God as both Yahweh and El after Exodus and not before this point?

    I love your question and am not sure about the answer. I think–and this is my own speculation– the Judean, J, author only saw God as Yahweh and wanted to make sure that God was established as Yahweh from the beginning. J is much more invested in the peaceful coexistence story of Abraham through Jacob. J is much less involved in the story of the 10 commandments. For J, Moses is less important than Abraham and Jacob because their story provides a common origin for a diverse group of Hebrew people. 

    On the other hand, E and P really emphasize the story of Moses (and Aaron for P). I think they use El to create tension and dramatize the moment God reveals his name. For them, God saved this revelation for Moses of all the people on earth. I am not sure why, but here’s my theory: 

    • The P writer, who probably did exist, wanted to emphasize Moses’s story because it most closely paralleled their own struggle in Babylon. P also wanted to emphasize God’s revelation to Moses and Aaron because P thought it authorized the Priesthood, which was the governing power in Judah after the kings were destroyed. Friedman argues that the priestly line began with the Levites who, he believes, first brought the name Yahweh and synthesized that identity with the native god El. So again, they might want to emphasize that symbolic moment when El and Yahweh become one. 
    • E–if E really existed–might well have been a Deuteronomist. There is a theory that Deuteronomy began as a reform book in the north of Israel and was transported south after the Assyrian conquest of the north. If E existed, he was probably northern; he used northern place names, for example. So E might also have wanted to emphasize the delivery of God’s law to Moses as a special moment in history, a moment in which Deuteronomic laws are delivered to Moses. If God provided all the laws–including the ones in Deuteronomy–early in history, then all of the Israelites’ suffering at God’s hands is deserved because they should have known better. That’s the Deuteronomic position: suffering happens when you disobey God’s laws. So, again, E chooses this moment of God’s appearance to Moses as the moment to reveal his name. E does this to emphasize the day in which God chooses his people by assigning his laws to them and sharing his personal identity with them. That’s the moment when they are to understand that gods with OTHER names like Baal are not for them. For E, then, this is the moment, and not the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis, is when the Jews become God’s people.
    • Anyway, whether you believe the religion begins in Genesis with Abraham or Exodus with Moses, both these beliefs stress than monotheism existed from the beginning. I believe both these ideas are a fiction. I think that the authors of Deuteronomy imposed monotheism by centralizing worship. Ezra and the exiled priests continued the process by telling these stories and writing down the laws, all 613, with monotheism at the center. Their stories retrojectied (threw back) monotheism into the distant past. Then they presented their newly edited Torah’s as God’s word to prove monotheism’s ancient origin. The people returning to Judah from exile took them at their word, having no way of knowing any differently.

  • Why was Aaron the one that made the golden calf? If he had been alongside Moses the whole time, and seen all that YHWH had done for them, why was he so quick to abandon YHWH and make another idol god for the Israelites and then even built an altar in front of it? Why declare a festival to YHWH the following day?

    Aaron is only Moses’ brother in P, and E is the writer credited with the Golden calf story. If you’re pro-Moses and Anti-Aaron, this story could make Aaron look bad. Other versions of the story, such as the one in the Quran, blame this incident on someone else, so some think it’s an incident that got blamed on Aaron later. On the other hand, ancient worship of El, Baal, and Yahweh was originally accompanied by bull statues, though Deuteronomy later forbade that. So this scrap of the story might be a holdover from an earlier time, or it could be an attempt to explain the existence of bull statues in the temple, where we know Baal and Asherah were also worshipped as late as the time of Josiah. Here’s’ a Wikipedia article on Yahweh and bull worship: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahweh. There are a bunch of other theories about this; the Wikipedia article on the golden calf summarizes them well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_calf

  • Why did the Israelites seem to have so little faith? As soon as Moses left them to go up they mountain they got right to work on making themselves another god to worship even after all they had seen.

    I think the Israelites being faithless is part of the Deuteronomistic history that arguably starts with Exodus. In this story, which goes from Exodus to 2 Kings, the Israelites are given the law and deliberately violate it, and ONLY after centuries of giving second chances does God decide to smite the Israelites with Babylon. This version of events puts all the blame on the Israelites themselves–not just their kings, which is who bears most of the brunt in Joshua, Judges, and Kings, but all of them. The Deuteronomistic school was probably a northern school, and of course this story is told by P and E, not J, who was arguably southern if he existed. 

Authorship

  • What inspired the first creators of the Bible to write down what was happening and the history behind the creation?

    The answer to your question about what inspired biblical writers depends on whether you look at the creation of the text through a lens of scholarship (you can probably tell I do) or a lens of faith. Certainly Deuteronomy states that God told Moses to write down “these words” (meaning Deuteronomy or the whole Torah, depending on how you read it). The prophets generally say that they are speaking for God; for example, Ezekiel eats a scroll, which seems to mean that he’s taking in God’s word and speaking to the people. And I think the prophets believed they spoke for God. Ancient prophecy and oracles sometimes involved going into a special trance, stimulated by music or hallucinogenic substances, to become inspired by God.

    My own sense is that priests in exile like Ezra felt the Judeans were in danger of disappearing, much like the Israelites had, by being absorbed into the exile communities in Babylon. I think they felt creating this history– from the records and archives and memories and laws that the original exiles brought into Babylon–was critical to maintaining a cultural identity and a national memory. And they came to believe that reading this book, which they pieced together, editing, and supplemented, was key to understanding what God wanted from them. Knowing clearly what God wanted from them was critical to their survival, and the prophets weren’t always very clear on the subject. In the rebuilt city of Jerusalem and for ever after, the text was the center of everything. I suggest that the Jews believed that having access to that text meant that no one could claim to speak for God and mislead the people again.

    As for what inspired individual writers of individual books, before they were collected together in the bible, I think each writer probably had a different reason. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I see Genesis 1.1 as a rebuttal or revision of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish. I see Deuteronomy as an attempt to standardize and centralize worship during the 7th century BCE. I see Leviticus as a 4th century attempt by priests to mandate separateness from other exile communities. We’ll talk about several of these books, and when we do we’ll talk a little about how they might have come into being and been reshaped and adapted over time.

  • Why were bible stories sometimes attributed to famous people, if those people didn't actually write them?

    The question of why these books were named after people who didn’t write them is, to me, a matter of authority and sometimes a matter of survival. Attributing a book to a famous author might have also ensured that it got read.

    Authority is probably the most common reason.

    • For example, the best way to claim that Deuteronomy is true, especially if you are using it to argue for reforms in worship (like the centralization of temple sacrifice and the execution of priests of Baal and Asherah), is to attribute it to Moses. (The question of whether Moses actually wrote it is matter of faith, of course).
    • It was very common, especially in the period from about 300 BCE to 100 CE, to attribute books to famous individuals of the past. The book of Enoch, which existed in several editions, probably would have seemed crazy in the same way that some think QAnon is crazy now. So attributing it to a patriarch gave it authority.
    • In the same way, at a time when  lots and LOTs of gospels were floating around, attributing them to apostles helped give them authority. Unfortunately, almost all the gospels and apocalypses eventually got attributed to apostles, so sorting through them took a lot of debate and research. For example, the infancy gospel of Thomas claimed Jesus was a rotten child before he became the savior. He once cursed a boy to death and then blinded his parents when they complained. That story got excluded from the final collection.

    Another issue is safety.

    • For example, the author of Daniel lived in very dangerous times, so he set Daniel in the ancient past to disguise its critique of the Seleucid dynasty. In the same way, Revelation couched its criticism of Nero in vague, prophetic terms.
    • The author of Ruth made an argument that was controversial: That a foreign wife could make an important contribution to her Jewish family. To make that claim might have been dangerous, especially when Ezra ordered all foreign wives to be sent away, possibly to die. To argue with priests about foreign wives could have been dangerous. So the end of Ruth has a post script claiming this same foreign wife was an ancestor of David. That made Ruth safe, even necessary, to include in the bible.
    • In a time when many Jews hated the Greeks and wanted to reject all of their cultural contributions outright, The Wisdom of Solomon espoused several Platonic ideas. To disguise its Greek influence, someone decided to attribute the text to Solomon, a legendary Jewish king. I’m not completely sure anyone was expected to believe Solomon wrote that text, but centuries later, it’s easier to believe, especially when we read the text in English.

    A related issue was canonization. When it came time to decide what works to include, attributing them to famous past figures helped. For example, Ecclesiastes is about a person called Qoheleth. We don’t know what that means (teacher? preacher? questor?) but it was depressing and controversial. The end even has a warning not to read it: “Much study is a weariness of the flesh.” But someone eventually inserted, “son of David, who was king in Jerusalem,” inviting us to believe Solomon wrote it. True or not, that got it into the bible.

  • Who are the people who wrote the bible, and what was their authority?

    The answer to your question is huge and mostly unanswerable, but I will say we will be talking about THEORIES of authorship all the way through the class. The short answer to part one of your question, who wrote the bible, is that we don’t know for sure, except in two cases:

    • Prophecies: Ezekiel seems to have dictated and dated his prophecies in his own lifetime. We even know the name of his scribe, Baruch. We don’t know who wrote down the other prophets’ work, but in most cases they worked with collections of material (Isaiah, for example, was a school of prophets, and Isaiah’s prophecies span several centuries). Jeremiah’s prophecies seem close to the Babylonian exile, but we don’t know how they got recorded. 
    • Paul wrote most of the letters attributed to him and definitely had a scribe who wrote them down. In Romans he mentions a scribe named Tertius. We also know Paul could write, as occasionally he will add a personal note: “Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you” (Colossians). Paul never met Jesus, and he wasn’t too interested in Jesus’s teaching. 
    • We can speculate about the gospel authors:
      • The author of Matthew was Jewish and addressed a Jewish audience.  He used Mark’s gospel as a source. 
      • The author of Mark addressed an audience that didn’t know Aramaic. He did, however.
      • The author of Luke addressed a Roman, non-Jewish audience. He also used Mark’s gospel as a source. He was pretty well educated. 
      • The author of John knew a lot about Plato or Jewish Platonism. 
      • None of the gospel authors had read Paul’s letters, though the author of Luke knew a lot about Paul. 
    • Most of the rest is silence. We don’t really know who wrote any of the gospels or Revelation or anything else (besides Ezekiel) in the Hebrew bible.
    • Now here are a couple of theories about Torah authorship:
      1. Moses wrote it.  The bible suggests that Moses wrote down his thoughts in Deuteronomy, but that’s more a matter of faith. The earliest texts we have of most Hebrew bible works are from the 1st century CE—Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947. Before that, our earliest texts came from the middle ages. In other words, we don’t have ancient texts to examine for linguistic or paleographic (handwriting) or other forensic evidence. We just have copies of copies.
      2. If not Moses, then who? We don’t know that either. A popular theory we’ll learn about is the documentary hypothesis or four-author theory, which attributes most of the Torah to four authors whose works were woven together by some redactors or editors. I’ll suggest to you that this redaction was probably done by a priest much like Ezra or Nehemiah. Such a person or persons wrote lots of priestly sections of the Torah, including much of Leviticus.
      3. Other scholars think that the four-author theory of the Torah is a bit simplistic, instead arguing that the bible is full of smaller fragments that were reworked and incorporated into larger and larger narratives, and that so many hands were on them that we’ll never know what was original to which period.

    As for the rest of the bible, well, we don’t know that either. But:

    • Some argue that the historical books from Joshua through Kings were either written or revised by the same person(s) who wrote (or revised) Deuteronomy OR by people who shared its theories of why bad things happen.
    • Many books in the bible seem to have been revised, reshaped, updated over time. That makes it hard to get a really good handle on who wrote them.
    • The people who hypothetically did rework the Hebrew bible were certainly priests with priestly authority. Who gave them that authority is a matter of faith, I think.
  • How do we know which disciples could read and write, or not? What other sources outside of the Bible tell us this? For example, Matthew was a tax collector before following Jesus, so would it not be reasonable to assume he could also read?

    You are correct that Matthew was a thought to be a tax collector, and such people were probably able to read but not write—at the time these were separate skills. . You’ll notice, by way of illustration, that Paul dictates his letters to a trained scribe.  (Some argue that Jesus would not have been able to read, but others say he would have needed rudimentary reading at least to work as a carpenter in Carpernaum).

    Some tax-collecting jobs did not require literacy, according to Bart Ehrman, who believes that if Matthew was an Aramaic-speaking northern Jew like Jesus was, he was probably illiterate, because 97% of the region was illiterate. Even if he were literate, he would have known Aramaic, not high-level Greek. Again, it’s possible that a worker in Carpernaum, the nearest Roman city, would have been able to read rudimentary Greek to do business. But the Gospel attributed to Matthew is written in advanced Greek, and it uses Greek sources, too (again, I cite Ehrman’s blog).

    But even if there was a Matthew the tax collector, and even if he could read and write in Greek, there’s no evidence that Matthew the tax collector actually wrote the gospel attributed to him. The first time we know the texts were attributed to Matthew, Mark, etc. was 180 CE, so about 150 years after events and about 120 years after the last known original followers of Jesus, Peter and James, had been executed. The earliest manuscript of Matthew we have dates from 150-250 CE. This doesn’t mean that the gospel wasn’t written much earlier, but it does mean we have a copy that was recopied and conceivably altered.

    Furthermore, nowhere does the gospel attribute itself to Matthew, if he existed (the other gospels refer to Levi the tax collector, not Matthew).

    Some parts of the gospels were added much later–for example, the prohibition against throwing stones dates from the middle ages. All this means that the literal truth of the events in the gospels, as well as their authorship, is a matter of faith and conjecture, not fact. The scholar who’s made a name for himself in this field is Bart Ehrman, who still teaches at UNC Chapel Hill. Here’s his take on this subject (part of the article is behind a paywall, but you will get the idea, I think).  https://ehrmanblog.org/why-was-the-gospel-of-matthew-attributed-to-matthew/

  • Why do you call Paul the "real author" of Christianity?

    I’ll give you a quick summary of why I think Paul is central to founding what we now call Christianity, and then I’ll give you a counter-view. Paul and his teachings occupy a huge part of the New Testament, which tells us that, at least by the fourth century, people saw his teachings as incredibly important. Paul wrote his letters before any of the gospels were written, and he spent his life up to the time of his execution spreading the word about Jesus around the empire and setting up churches. So by the time the gospel writers set down Jesus’s story, it had already been affected by Paul’s ideas–though perhaps the ideas he writes about were not original to him. 

    Paul was a Pharisee (an educated Jew with a Hellenistic education) so he was uniquely qualified to spread the message of Jesus to gentiles. The Jesus he wrote about and talked about was not Jesus the teacher, as Paul had no knowledge of Jesus’s teachings. His version of Jesus focused on Jesus’s death and resurrection and the process by which others could partake in eternal life through him.

    In other words, Paul was teaching a mystery religion like other popular mystery cults of the time–cults of Mithras, Isis, Dionysus, Aesclepius, and others. Let’s take Mithraism so I can explain. Mithraism taught that the sun God Mithras died and was resurrected and sent to Heaven on a chariot. Mithras’s birthday was celebrated on December 25,and people were initiated into the cult through wine and a ritual meal or feast. From Mithraism and other mystery religions, Christians may have taken the birthday, the solar halo, the communion, and the idea of personal resurrection through.  initiation. Now, it’s unclear how much of Paul’s idea of the “mystery” of Jesus came from him and how much came from others. 

    A central Christian concept that Paul articulated in his idea of justification by faith, explained in Romans. Here I’ll quote Bart Ehrman’s blog on Paul:

    In this model the Jewish Law plays no role in salvation.  Those who have broken the Law and incurred the sentence of death cannot remove their guilt simply by obeying a number of other statutes, just as a convicted embezzler will not be set free by pleading that he has obeyed all of the traffic laws.  The only way to be restored to a right standing before God (= “justified”) is through the death of Jesus, a payment of the penalty owed by others.

    This idea is incredibly important for modern Christians, especially Protestants, but Jesus never says it. Moreover, as  Jew, Jesus would have rejected the idea that the Torah has no effect on salvation. In Matthew, in particular, Jesus says that Torah law is central to his teachings: 

    Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 

    Other gospels frame the issue differently, but I quote Matthew because it seems to best reflect Jesus’s Jewish Jesus movement, the one headed by his brother and friends.

    Now, Bart Ehrman argues that even though Paul is incredibly important to those who assembled the New Testament and to Christianity today, he was not important at the time. Ehrman cites Paul’s disagreement not only with the Jerusalem movement of Jesus’s family, but also with followers of Jesus in Galatia and Corinth:

    My sense is that despite the centrality that Paul has to the NT today, he did *not* have that kind of centrality in his day.  He was one voice among many.   The other voices, in places, drowned his out.  And in yet other places, probably his voice was not heard at all (for example, in Matthew’s community).  Only later, after Paul’s day, was he thought to represent the “correct” understanding of the faith. (Ehrman’s blog entry https://ehrmanblog.org/pauls-importance-in-early-christianity-for-members/ (Links to an external site.) )

  • The bible is supposed to be literal and factual, with real names, not symbolic names like those in Ruth.

    I love the comment that the bible is “supposed to be factual.” The Christian idea of bible inerrancy is actually as recent as the late 19th or early 20th century. In America, it was first articulated officially in the 1970s.

    On the other hand, early Christian thinkers did not all see the bible as literally true. For example, Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the 4th c. CE, thought that the early books of the bible were extended metaphor. For more on this, see this Wikipedia article on biblical literalism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_literalism

    Today, three in ten American Christians believe the bible is inerrant, but not all agree what that means. For example, some believe that the only possible way to understand God’s meaning is by reading in the original Hebrew or Greek. Others believe God’s hand guided all translations.

    A small group believes God’s hand only authorized the King James bible (which was called “authorized” because it was authorized by King James, who felt the Geneva translation was too radical).  American slaveholders, incidentally, agreed with King James, and therefore created a “slave’s bible” that left out much of the Hebrew bible, especially Exodus, a story that celebrates slaves rising up against their masters. 

    Similarly, the Jewish belief that every word of the bible comes from God–also not universally accepted–dates from the rabbinic period.  But even though many Jews believe God dictated the bible to Moses, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jews also believe God meant the words to be taken literally. For example, if God caused the story Ruth to be in the bible, God could still have intended the story to be read allegorically rather than historically. So even “inspired by God” doesn’t mean “exactly how it happened.”

    For more on this interesting distinction, see this blog entry on whether Jesus himself saw the Hebrew bible as inerrant: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/unsystematictheology/2015/08/did-jesus-believe-that-scripture-is-inerrant/ 

    In this class, you’re learning about textual scholars and archeologists, who believe that the Torah we have, including the story of Genesis, dates from the post exile period in the 5th c. BCE, as much as a thousand years after Moses lived (if he did). According to them, earlier biblical writers didn’t see the bible as inerrant. They point to evidence that these stories were revised and reshaped by many hands, perhaps to update them for changing audiences, as when a post-exile conclusion was added to Deuteronomy.

    Even the New Testament was revised over time. For example, one of my favorite New Testament lines, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” seems to have been added about a thousand years after Jesus died. It wasn’t in the earliest manuscripts of the gospels.

    Some scholars believe that God exists but doubt we can know what the bible said because of its problematic history of transmission and translation. And many such scholars are also fervent believers, though not all are. Not everyone equates the bible’s “truth” with its factual accuracy.

    How each individual approaches this problem is for each to decide. We just have to be respectful and open to learning new perspectives.

  • If Deuteronomy was the first book we know of, when and how was the rest of the Torah written? Does it have older components in it?

    Here is some thinking about the dating of the Torah.

    Documentary Hypothesis: First, a bit about the documentary hypothesis, which is the earliest and best-known theory of authorship (besides the Moses authorship theory). Dating from the 18th and 19th century, the hypothesis argues that the Torah was written by four authors: The E author and the J author (northern and southern authors from the monarchic period), the D author who wrote Deuteronomy, and the P author (someone in the 5th or 4th c. BCE much like Ezra), who wrote Leviticus and many other parts of the Torah. Authors called redactors wove these versions of the bible together during and after the Babylonian exile and may have been linked to P. Evidence for this hypothesis includes doublets (repeated versions of the same story), different place names, different names for God, and different preoccupations. To see the Flood story broken down by author, visit this link: https://www.livius.org/articles/misc/great-flood/flood1-t-bible_2/

    Revisions to the Documentary Hypothesis: Modern scholars mostly believe that the Torah in its final form dates from the period of Ezra and was composed in exile by a priest of scribe. They accept that multiple fragments from the north and south are revised and incorporated into the bible, but they argue that the bible existed in multiple small fragments impossible to identify and shaped and reshaped by many, many hands. If there was a J, J would probably be much later, as many scholars doubt the south had a monarchic period like the one the bible mentions (but…what about David? I know. It’s a controversy). But a large number break down the Torah authorship into two groups: “P” (a person or school probably associated with Ezra) and “not P” or everything else. Even here the lines are blurred, since “P” probably shaped so much of the material not written by “P.” For example, does am Aramaic loan-word mean that something was written post exile, or does it just mean it was revised during that time? We have virtually no biblical materials before the first century, so it’s not like we can examine manuscripts.

    Note: there are plenty more camps, but this is a broad outline. Richard Elliott Friedman still defends the four-author theory, and we’ll be studying his work later on.

    Here are some thoughts on dates of some components of the Torah:

    1. Earliest: Core laws in Deuteronomy dealing with centralization of worship, monotheism, limits on kingship, and the single temple in Jerusalem. These date from Josiah’s reign at the latest and from the northern court at the earliest. Probably used to frame the histories of Joshua – Kings, which were heavily redacted during the exile. 
    2. Pre-exile: Early fragments of Genesis and Exodus also date from the north, pre-exile (binding of Isaac, God-off between Yahweh and Pharaoh, wife-sister stories, etc.) The song of Miriam may be very old.
    3. Post-exile: Curses and prohibitions from Deuteronomy 28: post exile. Mosaic frame also.
    4. Impossible to date: Other commandments, folklore, and prehistoric laws probably brought to exile by priests and scribes and incorporated into narrative in Babylon or composed there (flood story, for instance, may use a Babylonian source or something much older). Some argue the whole Exodus narrative comes from a Levite group that lived in Egypt. It is violent and intolerant of foreigners. Others say it’s a folklore cycle with many sources, some Egyptian, some even older. The Genesis story, for the most part, tells an origin story of peaceful coexistence with the Canaanites. Note that these are impossible to date because they are revised, reshaped, translated, and recopied at many stages. 
    5. Latest: Leviticus, parts of Numbers, Genesis 1, and priestly fragments of Torah: time of Nehemiah. Genesis 1 uses the Babylonian lunar week to describe creation, and it seems to be a revision of the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish. 

  • How can scholars know if biblical books were written pseudonymously? Couldn't they have had someone write their story for them?

    The answer to your “pseudonymous” question is complex and varies with the figure. For example, we suspect that the gospels were all ascribed to the apostles long after they were written. One reason for that is that you don’t see them attributed to these people until the 2nd century CE. Another is that the gospels were written in Greek, and the apostles would most certain have had to be illiterate speakers of Aramaic. The author of Mark, the first gospel, refers to events that happened 40 years after Jesus died. It’s possible that someone could have lived that long, but not likely. Most of Jesus’s followers were executed. This author also explains Jewish customs to people who are unfamiliar with them. He translates Jesus’s Aramaic words to his Greek-speaking audience. 

    At the end of the semester we’ll look at 2 Esdras, which is a prophecy attributed to Ezra. It refers to events in the first century CE, 400 years after Ezra lived, and it is not written in Hebrew. So usually, we assume something is pseudonymous because of the lateness of language or choice of the wrong language, and because of references to events we can date to a much later time. But we also know that in the Hellenistic period, both inside and outside Judea,  it was common to attribute works to famous people in order to get them read. Originality was not prized like we prize it today.

    Another reason that attributing books to famous dead people was so common in the intertestamental period–that is, the 2nd century BCE through the 2nd century CE–is that direct prophecy was no longer encouraged or believed. Ezra and Nehemiah emphasize going to the Torah for answers because they understood that distinguishing between true prophecy and false prophecy was not possible. Even Jeremiah, who complained that the Israelites were listening to the wrong prophets, could give no criteria about which prophet was correct except this: The correct prophet is the one who turns out to be right. So when you read all the apocalyptic works of the intertestamental period, like Daniel, Revelation, 2 Esdras, the Book of Enoch, and others, you see prophecy put in the mouths of long-dead individuals. For example, the last parts of Daniel are most certainly written about 165 BCE, but Daniel is described as living during the Babylonian period. He interprets dreams for various Babylonian monarchs–identified wrongly, by the way–and yet all the dreams are about events happening in 165 BCE. All these pseudonymous prophecies are very similar: They are very specific about events that happened, say, between Daniel’s time and 165 BCE, and they use vague but vivid animal imagery to describe the near future after 165 BCE, the period leading up to the end of days. They speak to angels like Uriel who were unknown to the Hebrew people during the Babylonian period. And of course they are written in a language that was spoken in 165 BCE but not 586 BCE. These are just a few reasons why scholars deem various works to be pseudonymous.

Origin Stories

  • How did scholars conclude that Asherah and Wisdom could be the same goddess?

    Well, this is a common assertion among Hebrew scholars. I read a brief summary of the idea on the Bart Ehrman blog (though Ehrman is a New Testament scholar). Most of the articles talk about Wisdom as a “tamed-down” version of a very powerful goddess, perhaps created to appeal to those who were forcefully prevented from worshipping the goddess they had depended on for generations.

    Here is a wonderful article on Asherah herself by someone named Asphodel Long, reprinted in a book of feminist biblical scholarship: http://www.asphodel-long.com/html/asherah.html (Links to an external site.) . This article asserts a connection between the  female figure named Asherah, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Menorah. Long quotes Proverbs 3.18, who says of Wisdom: “She shall be a tree of life to all who lay hold on her.” Peter Ackroyd argues that as part of this program, Deuteronomists engaged in a campaign to “discredit any cult of goddesses and to classify them as alien rather than part of the Hebrew popular religion” (Ackroyd: 1983: 256).

    Asherah worship was usually associated in the bible with trees, one reason the KJV assumed Asherah was a totem and not a goddess. Here’s a quote from Long’s article: “The great rabbi Akibah said ‘ wherever thou findest a high mountain or a lofty hill and a green tree know that an idol is there’ (Danby: 1933:441). Trees described by the rabbis as being an asherah or part of an asherah include grapevines, pomegranates, walnuts, myrtles and willows (Danby:1933:90,176). From this it will be seen that these [medieval] lawmakers denied Asherah as part of the Hebrew religion but recognised her as a divinity worshipped by the “heathen,” and treated her as a living tree or living part of a tree.”

    I like the idea that Asherah was herself the tree of knowledge proscribed in Genesis, whose fruit is often thought to be a pomegranate (no apples in the ancient near east). A Greek story about why we have winter tells of Persephone eating a forbidden pomegranate. Anyway, identifying Asherah with the tree of knowledge itself explains why Proverbs makes such a distinction between the good goddess Wisdom and the bad goddess  or “strange woman.” Could they be aspects of the same goddess? That is, assuming that exile scholars associated Asherah herself with foreign women [see Ezra/Nehemiah] in an effort to discredit her, could they have tried to separate the bad woman (Tiamat/Asherah) from the good aspects of the goddess (Wisdom, nurture) that they wanted to preserve? Proverbs instructs men to pursue “wisdom” instead of seeking this goddess, and their wives are appeased by the assertion that feminine wisdom–even as the creation of God–created the world.

    For more on the connection between Asherah and Wisdom, see these articles:

  • Why did the worship of God change so much between Genesis and Exodus?

    As my lecture explains, many think that Genesis and Exodus were originally two different origin stories joined together by P and or R with the story of Joseph, which resembles in many ways the story of Nehemiah, a page to the king of Persia. One, attributed to J, shows the Israelites living among the Canaanites and gradually separating from them, intermarrying (returning to their kinship group in Haran) to avoid mixing with the other Canaanites, and preferring El over Baal and other local deities. We see Abraham purchasing land from the surrounding community. We see Jacob’s sons atoning for atrocities visited on the sacred community of Shechem, and we see Shechem evolving into a Hebrew shrine. We see lots of examples of peaceful coexistence. 

    The violent overthrow story of Exodus and Joshua, on the other hand, seems to have been written by the Yahwists, whom Friedman argues were a violent tribe of Levites from another region. In this story, a nation of slaves from Egypt kills all the Canaanites and supplants them. Their gods merge. Their worship of God changed because they were two different religions. 

    Without the story of Joseph, there is no real link between these two stories except for those transitions provided by P and the redactors. Joseph seems to have no real connection to the lineage. His story, which I think is also Nehemiah’s’ story, provides a historical link between two origin stories. 

    Eventually, the theory goes, El and Yahweh are merged, and the story of Moses the Egyptian Jew (whose biography was lifted from other Mesopotamian folk tales) marks the moment when the two religions become one. 

    There are other theories, of course, but to me this one is pretty persuasive.