Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bible and History 1

I want to resume my discussion of bible and history as it pertains to the texts of the Old Testaments, ‘ancient Israel’ and biblical religion. To start off, I have to state that, with a handful of exceptions, we have no idea of when, where, or by whom any of the Old Testament texts were written. Only one text, the Wisdom of ben Sirach tells us who its author was, and that only because his grandson who translated it into Greek tells us in a prologue to the Greek version. From that prologue we know ben Sirach wrote early in the 2nd century BCE while his grandson translated the text some fifty years later. The author of 2 Maccabees tells that the text is a précis of a (now lost) 5 volume work by a Jason of Cyrene. But the author remains anonymous although it appears they wrote in the late 2nd century BCE. The Greek version of Esther also seems to indicate that it was translated in late 2nd century BCE. Daniel and 1 Maccabees likewise can be dated to the 2nd century BCE. Daniel is about the crisis caused by Antiochus Epiphanes’ suppression of traditional religious practices in Judah and ‘paganisation’ of the Jerusalem Temple. 1 Maccabees recounts the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes that gave birth to the Jewish Hasmonean kingdom in Palestine. However in the case of Daniel, Greek Daniel has got more stories about the prophet than Hebrew Daniel and at Qumran we have remnants of other Daniel stories that were never included in either books of Daniel.

In contrast to these few texts, all the rest of the Old Testamental literature is anonymous. Authorship has been attributed to various biblical figures, most famously Moses traditionally understood as the author of the Pentateuch (with the exception of the account of his death at the end of Deuteronomy, attributed to Joshua). Samuel was often understood to have written Judges and part of Samuel while Psalms are attributed to David (for the most part) and other wisdom texts to Solomon but the texts themselves remain anonymous. It’s anyone’s guess who wrote Job or Song of Songs. As for the Prophets, Baruch is traditionally believed to have compiled Jeremiah, but the book itself never says so. Jubilees never names its author and as for the Enoch literature, there are great quantities both canonical (1 Enoch in the Ethiopian bible) and non-canonical (as well as texts of 1 Enoch there was a lot of other Enoch associated material at Qumran and there is the 2 Enoch Slavonic corpus and a much later Rabbinic 3 Enoch). Who wrote any of this we don’t know. Interestingly 4 Ezra/2 Esdras reckons that Ezra and five other men wrote most of the Old testament literature following the return from Babylonian captivity. The Babylonians had destroyed all the old sacred texts so under divine inspiration Ezra and his companions rewrote it all ... ‘ninety four books were written ... the Most High spoke...saying “Make public the twenty four books you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them... but keep the seventy ... (and) give them to the wise among your people”’ (14:44-46). In Jewish tradition it was Ezra who at least gave the final form to the Law following the return from Babylon.

What is most fascinating about these Ezra stories is that they recognise one definite fact about the bulk of the Old Testament literature. All of these texts know in some way of the destruction of the ‘Israelite’ states in Palestine by the Assyrians and Babylonians in 723 BCE and 600-586BCE respectively. In my previous post on this topic I linked to an article on Israeli archeologist, Israel Finkelstein. In that article, Finkelstien was presented as a radical for arguing that the stories of David and Solomon were fictions written in the reign of Josiah to justify a Jerusalemite claim to suzerainty over central or northern Palestine following the eclipse of Assyrian power. The only problem for Finkelstien’s theory is that the story of Solomon is part of the scroll of Kings (3 & 4 Reigns in the Greek bible) which goes on to recount the story of Josiah’s reign and the destruction of the Jerusalem kingdom itself by Babylon. In other words, Kings dates itself as a text to a post-monarchical present. It was also common to place the writing of Deuteronomy in the reign of Josiah because of the account in 2 Kings/4 Reigns 22 about the finding of a scroll of the law in the Temple and Josiah’s move to reform Judahite religion. The only problem is that we know little or nothing about the reign of Josiah apart from what’s in Kings and Chronicles. Furthermore the book of Deuteronomy itself knows that that the Israelite ‘experiment’ will end in tears. Indeed, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings can be read as a saga in which the Israelites are set up to fail over and over again culminating in the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the end, once and for all, of the old monarchies in Palestine and the deportation of their priestly and aristocratic elites. The same can be said for the prophetic texts. Isaiah looks back to an Assyrian past from a Persian present, likewise the book of the 12 Minor Prophets. And while I can imagine an aristocrat from Jerusalem lugging a scroll of Psalms or a royal chronicle into exile, I can’t imagine that same aristocrat carting off a miscellany of rabble rousing texts from a ragtag of prophets. Jeremiah and Ezekiel recount the fall of Jerusalem and beyond while 1 Enoch has a panoramic vision stretching from the pre-diluvian world right through the Babylonian crisis to the (eagerly anticipated) fall of the second Temple.

I hold the view that the Old testament scriptures were composed and collated in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, and are a product of the Imperial age in the eastern Mediterranean. This period was marked by the rise and fall of empires and the resulting intermingling of cultures and religions. The Persian Empire was the first to bring together under one rule the eastern Mediterranean world. Established under Cyrus the Great in 559 BCE, at its peak the empire would stretch from Egypt and the Balkans in the west to Afghanistan and Central Asia in the east. Before Cyrus, the Fertile Crescent had been subject to the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires through most of the first half of the first millennium. Canaan and the broader Levant had been caught up in these imperial progressions from the 9th and 8th centuries BCE onwards. I would argue that the Hebrew scriptures and the associated Greek and Samaritan scriptures, Pseudepigrapha and Qumran literature then are better understood as representing a religious project(s) of engaging with and transforming that older Canaanite-Levantine religio-cultural matrix. This project was part of major religious movements then occurring in the ancient eastern Mediterranean world in the first millennium BCE in response to the upheavals and transformations brought about by the imperial progressions. In this biblical project elements of older mythology, imagery, ritual, history were taken up and deployed to experiment with, explore and debate questions of universalism and diversity, the One and the Many, together with the allied questions of justice, good and evil, suffering and death. Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian and Greek religious ideas are also deployed as befitted the multi-cultural imperial background. This project was open-ended, pluralistic. There was no single monotheistic vision but several and I would argue the project continued even after the construction of biblical canons and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity (For a very good analysis and overview of questions of Bible and history see Thomas Thompson The Bible In History: How Writers Create A Past, 2000).

Rene Girard argues that the biblical literature displays a deliberate anti-sacrificial movement, one that stands for the victim against the oppressor and scapegoater. He would argue that it is intentional on the part of the biblical authors. I think he is partially correct here. This literature is rewriting a religious world, a religious legacy. One can even say it is demythologizing the old religious order, but only because, in part, it is remythologizing a new religious order. But the demythologizing and mythic experimentation gives these texts an unanticipatad power. Furthermore the biblical project is not a coordinated process. There are a variety of projects unfolding here and a number of utopian visions. And beleive me these texts, including (especially?) such legal texts as Leviticus are utopian texts. but they all have one thing in common, the Temple. Old Palestine was a land of small monarchies and royal cults. But following the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions and the rise of the Persian rule over all of the Middle East,what happens to the Temples and their royal cults when here are no longer local kings?

No comments:

Post a Comment