Getting real --
Re-viewing our religion
Doubts on Bible stories
(Otago Daily Times 30/10/99)
The ancient social and political environment
The phenomenon of Israel
The exodus story
The religion of tribal Israel
The end of the experiment
The beginnings of the Bible
Jesus of Nazareth
The kingdom of God
The events which led to the production of the Bible covered a period of 14 centuries or so. The Bible fails us if what we want from it is an accurate historical account. None of its many authors had modern research skills for distilling sober historical information from the documents and traditions at their disposal. Nor did they feel the lack. What they did have, each in their own way, was a theological perspective which it was natural for them to express in the shape they gave to their stories. What we now have is access to high quality historical research, which is offering us an intuition of the actual events that underlie the biblical account.
There were two outstanding creative moments in that history. The first saw the birth of Israel and its religion; the second the movement initiated by Jesus of Nazareth. This essay puts those key events in context. That will help us to understand why some of what we have inherited from ancient religion is no longer viable for us. We shall also see that a 'caring' theme was central to both Israelite and Christian origins. The same theme, of course, is primary in the best we know of religion, down the centuries and in our own time.
What this essay does not do, and cannot do, is lay out the
scholarly evidence for the story it tells. A bibliographical appendix
indicates where that information can be found.
Something else the ruler needed was a public relations department. It was much more economical to keep people on side through stories that had the right 'spin' than to solve all your problems by sending in the military. Even if it didn't directly win over the peasants, effective propaganda was calculated to promote loyalty and harmony amongst the retainers.
An agrarian society was therefore two-tiered. The ruler and
his retainers, perhaps ten percent of the population, lived
in a walled city. Slaves, and others whose labour was
directly necessary to them, were no doubt kept close at
hand. Around the city there were agricultural villages and
associated farmlands. Alongside the farmer peasants,
but of lower status, were artisans. At the bottom of
society were those engaged in degrading occupations, and those
others who, at least from the elite point of view, were
useless and surplus to requirements.
For example, in a Babylonian account from around the eighteenth century BCE, the first divine beings were Apsu and Tiamat, the originators of everything else. But the time came when Apsu and Tiamat found the disruptive activity of the godlings they had themselves produced intolerable, so they decided to destroy them all. The younger gods then made Ea their leader, to deal with this threat. Apsu was killed by Ea (or maybe by Ea's son Marduk) and Marduk finally killed Tiamat also. He then fashioned the world -- earth and sky -- out of Tiamat's body. But that was not the end of dissension in the divine realm. The lesser gods began to complain bitterly of the heavy toil that was their lot. So Marduk responded by creating humans to perform the sweaty labour. Out of gratitude the gods built Marduk a sanctuary, thus establishing Babylon as a temple city, with Marduk as its special god.
The political usefulness of this story is that it underlines the significance of Babylon as the temple city, and therefore of its ruler and governing classes. The ruler might be represented as the god's son. (Compare Psalm 2:7.) Babylon is special to Marduk, and its king must be Marduk's special representative, and could be assumed to be doing what Marduk wants. Humans are put in their place, especially those humans -- peasants and others -- who sweat to provide what the elites demand of them. After all, their toil is the reason the working population were created, their only excuse for existence.
We move a little closer to the origins of Israel when we explore the mythology of Canaanite religion. Here Baal is the active warrior god (similar to Babylonian Marduk). He is credited with defeating Yamm, the sea divinity, the power of Chaos. El, the patriarch of the gods, comparable with Babylonian Ea, decrees that a temple be built for Baal as king of the gods. Then another struggle develops between Baal and Mot, lord of the dark powers that cause sterility, disease, and death. Baal is swallowed by Mot and goes down to the underworld, but is rescued by his consort, Anat. Baal (rather than El) is the active god of choice for Canaanite city-states. He is the storm-god and the bringer of fertility. It may be of interest that Psalm 29 is thought to be a Canaanite hymn to Baal taken over and adapted as a hymn to Yahweh.
It is not to be expected that the lower classes became enthusiastic
adherents of a religion that served upper-class interests.
They were bound to have their own religious and moral perspective,
which might even encourage a measure of calculated resistance to ruling
expectations. Commentators speak of the
'Great Tradition' which was elaborated by the priests in the best
interests of the aristocracy, and the
'Little Tradition' of the common people -- which,
unfortunately for later students, wasn't often put on record for the
information of posterity.
There were several avenues of entry into the new possibilities. Numbers of have-nots, perhaps without direct access to tillable land, had begun to form bands of armed men who were ready for brigandage, or willing to provide military services to any who would hire them. Diplomatic correspondence from the region gives them the label 'apiru (which may be the origin of the term 'Hebrew', used occasionally in the Bible). City-states with defensive or offensive needs were happy to employ 'apiru. That fact in itself would have encouraged the proliferation of 'apiru bands in the region. The important point is that 'apiru were self-determined and could go their own way. Egyptian documents also tell of independent-minded groups they call Shosu. These, like the 'apiru, had military tendencies and were attracted to brigandage. The difference seems to be that they were pastoralists, nomadic to a certain extent when they had to move to new ground. All this means that unhappy peasants need not be reliant only on themselves if they wanted to create a new life. Rewarding partnerships could form between militarised and nonmilitarised bands of dissenters from citystates.
City-states were strong especially in the fertile low country. There were not so many of them in the hills. Their military wings, generally organised around horses and chariots, found the hill country difficult to manoeuvre in when they were sent out to deal with deserters. The new settlers would be more secure in the hills, even if the land was harder to work. At least there was less chance of being raided to feed the greed of ruler and governors.
Certain technological innovations were favourable to the new movement. Waterproof plaster had been devised, so that it was now possible to arrange permanent water storage. Iron tools were coming into use, and these were far more efficient for shaping the land and working the soil than those previously made of copper or bronze.
The situation must have been propitious for the movement of dissidents into the hillcountry in the thirteenth century. The city-states were themselves in some disarray. Egypt was not managing to keep Canaan stabilised. Militarised groups had formed whose sympathies would be strongly propeople. Opening up the highlands had become a real technical and political possibility.
Over the decades numbers grew. Bands became
tribes. Tribes became aware of one another, and eventually
saw themselves as being in association and having mutual loyalties and a
common history. Their ethos was egalitarian, and they
had no room for a ruling and exploiting class.
Sing to Yahweh, for he triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he threw into the sea.
This is my God, whom I praise, my father's God, whom I exalt.
Yahweh is a warrior; Yahweh is his name.
The chariots and the army of Pharaoh he cast into the sea;
the pick of his troops drowned in the Reed Sea.
The deeps closed over them; they sank in the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, Yahweh, is awesome in power,
Your right hand, Yahweh, shattered the enemy.
In your great majesty you crushed your foes;
you sent forth your fury to consume them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters were piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps foamed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my soul shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.'
You blew with your breath, the sea covered them;
they sank as lead in the dreadful waters.
Who is like you among the gods, Yahweh?
Who is like you, terrible among the holy ones,
awesome in deeds, worker of wonders?
You stretched forth your hand, the earth swallowed them.
You faithfully led the people you liberated,
A highly respected authority states that the language of the passage is more consistently archaic than that of any other prose or poetic work of some length in the Bible. In his view this hymn is not merely one of the oldest compositions preserved in the scriptures. It is the primary source for the central event in Israel's history. It must derive from an annual celebratory festival observed at a shrine in tribal Israel, and dates to the late twelfth or early eleventh century BCE.
Note that this account contains none of the dubious miracles --
walls of water to pass between, and daily feeding in the desert
-- which became standard in later retellings of the
story. The archaic version seems to imply only that the
Egyptians, caught in an intensifying storm, were thrown from
barges or ferries into the sea and sank like stones. Or did a
wild sea trap them as they were negotiating a causeway that would not have
been a problem at a different time? At any rate, it is
unlikely that this story is a pure fabrication.
The exodus group must have joined only after Israel had become conscious of itself as a united movement. Otherwise the uniting name would have pointed to Yahweh rather than to El. Yahweh was a characterisation of El that the newcomers brought with them, and which was adopted by the tribes. The Yahweh story was so powerful, and the dynamic presentation of El (=Yahweh) was so exciting, that wider Israel accepted these later arrivals (under the name of Levites) as religious guides. Over time ancestral traditions that had developed in particular tribes or tribal groups (e.g. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) were harmonised with the exodus story of the Levites, so that one 'history' belonged to everybody. The theme of revelation and covenant at Sinai was another element that needed to be elaborated and cemented in.
Although Yahweh was a tribal name for one of the gods of Canaanite
mythology, the religion of Yahweh was different from the Baal religions in
particular. The reason for the difference was that Yahwism
reflected the experience and aspirations of the oppressed, while Baalism
was the religion of the oppressors. Some of the special
characteristics of tribal Yahwism were:
The theologian Karl Barth made the following observation, which
underlines a quality essential to the Yahwism of tribal Israel,
something which was never entirely left behind:
The human righteousness required by God, and established in obedience -- the righteousness which according to Amos 5:24 should pour down as a mighty stream -- has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favour of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans, and aliens. For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of his people, God always takes his stand on this side and on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly, against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it.Karl Barth is reporting a theme widespread in the Hebrew scriptures, but it would be a mistake to suppose that this is how society generally worked. The persistence with which prophets and others had to make the point is a sign that social elites of later times didn't take it nearly seriously enough.
Israel lasted as a tribal society committed to equality and social
justice for around two centuries. Then the Philistine
military threat seemed to demand the establishment of a monarchy for
effective response. Saul, a Benjaminite, was
the first to be made king-commander of Israel. The date was
around 1020 BCE. However Saul eventually died in
battle. After a time it became clear that only David, from
Judah, was competent to follow him. David dealt with
the Philistines, and then captured Jerusalem, a Canaanite
city, and made it his capital. There could be no
return to the egalitarian ideal of tribal Israel.
The consequences were generally unhappy. Most of what
Israel had never wanted was re-established.
The ruler in an agrarian state required effective propaganda. After all he was where he was not by natural right but because he happened to have the power. David's position was particularly sensitive because it was known that he had been Saul's enemy. He had even been in Philistine service at the time when Saul had been killed. So David needed his public relations branch (priests, scribes) to put together a good story with the right spin, to prove that his kingship was divinely ordained and altogether appropriate. Probably, the earliest major piece of writing in the Bible, the document scholars refer to as 'J', was in fact prepared in the first place for David, to meet just this need. 'J' begins in the second chapter of Genesis and is now to be found, alongside other material, in Genesis and Exodus and some parts of Numbers. Some commentators suggest that traces of it appear also in Joshua and Judges. 'J' took up the epic story of Israel as it had evolved, and prefixed it with a mythological account of creation and divine purpose. The document may have ended in Numbers with the children of Israel marching inexorably to their promised land. See, (original 'J' implied) David's kingdom is the fulfilment of Yahweh's promises. It is what Yahweh planned from the beginning. However it is quite possible that, when the Hebrew scriptures were finally assembled, scribes suppressed the original ending of 'J', as inappropriate in the light of later history.
After the split into two kingdoms the document 'J', though it did preserve much of the lore and ethos of tribal Israel, was felt, in the north, to be a poor representation of their religious basis. It was too Judah-centred. And it was curiously light-hearted in its depiction of Yahweh. So 'J' underwent a northern revision, gaining additional material now labelled 'E'. It was the combination 'JE' which eventually ended up in the Old Testament.
Solomon's removal of the oldschool chief priest did not wipe out all memory of the religious heritage of tribal Israel. A continuing Levitical party in Judah felt that it was they who should be in charge of the temple. Their big chance came towards the end of the monarchy. A strong king, Josiah, made them his allies in social and religious affairs, and encouraged them to produce documentary backing for their approach. The books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings resulted -- a substantial part of the 'historical' material in the Hebrew scriptures. This 'Deuteronomist' literature was assembled half a millenium or so after the collapse of tribal Israel, and it had a preoccupation with the monarchical experience. It has been given the scholarly label 'D'. 'D' is an important component of biblical literature but, if only for reasons of distance, it has its limitations as a representation of founding traditions. Its sponsors lost much of their influence after the death of Josiah.
In the monarchical period the earlier prophets were vigorous individual
campaigners for founding principles. Prophets believed they
had been entrusted with the edicts of Yahweh, which must be
proclaimed. Prophetic oracles were preserved --
and substantially edited -- in Levitical circles, and
incorporated in the Hebrew scriptures when these were finally
assembled. The prophets insisted that the nation's woes were
divine retribution for failure to meet Yahweh's social and religious
In the long run the outlook brightened for the priestly faction. When the Persians took control of the Babylonian empire they chose to let exiles return to their homelands. Their idea was to establish stable and compliant situations, with local leadership responsive to Persian suzerainty. Not much was to be expected in Judah (they discovered) from what was left of the Davidic royal line. The Persians came to the conclusion that the religious leaders, the high priest and his party, should become the local rulers also. The priests were rather happy about that. The ruling interests they served as priests had become their own interests.
Around the beginning of the Persian period priestly scribes established the text of a large part of the Hebrew scriptures, more or less as we have them today. They picked up the earlier historical work, 'JE' and 'D', and edited and supplemented it to make it tell their story, and to underwrite their own dominant position in Judah. So we now find in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers substantial additions showing a keen interest in the social and cultic law of which priests understood themselves to be the guardians and administrators. The book of Leviticus is entirely priestly in origin. Eventually they also produced, in Chronicles, a revision of the books of Samuel and Kings. Scholars attach the label 'P' to material recognised as the work of the priestly school.
When we read the Hebrew scriptures now we are, for the most
part, seeing Israel and its system through priestly
spectacles. The creation account in Genesis 1
points to the heart of priestly belief.
In the beginning, when God made heaven and earth, the earth
was formless and void. There was darkness over the abyss,
and a mighty wind sweeping over the water. God said,
"Let there be light", and there was light. God saw that
the light was good, and separated the light from the
darkness. He called the light 'day', and the darkness
'night'. Evening came and morning came: the first
day. God said, Let there be a vault in the midst of the
waters, dividing the waters in two." And so it
was. God made the vault, separating the water below the
vault from the water above it. God called the vault
'heaven'. Evening came and morning came: the second day.
God said, "Let the waters under heaven be gathered into one place so that dry land may appear." And so it was. God called the dry land 'earth' and the gathered waters 'seas', and God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let the earth produce vegetation. Let there be plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit containing seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth." And so it was. The earth yielded vegetation, plants giving seed according to their kind, trees bearing fruit each containing seed according to its kind, and God saw that it was good. Evening came and morning came: the third day.
God said, "Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to separate day from night; and let them indicate festivals, days and years. And let them shine in the vault of heaven to give light on earth." And so it was. God made the two great lights, the greater to govern the day and the lesser to govern the night, and with them he made the stars. God put these lights in the vault of heaven to shine on earth, to govern day and night, and to divide light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. Evening came and morning came: the fourth day.
God said, "Let the waters teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of heaven." Then God created the great sea monsters and all the living creatures that move and swarm in the waters, according to their kinds, and every kind of bird. And God saw that it was good. So God blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds increase on the earth." Evening came and morning came: the fifth day.
God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind: cattle, creeping things, and wild animals, all according to their kind." And it was so. God made wild animals, cattle, and creeping things, each according to its kind. God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our own image and likeness, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the earth."
So God created humankind in his own image, the image of God. He created them male and female. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, and every living thing that moves on the earth." God also said, "I give you all the seed-bearing plants on earth and every tree bearing seed-yielding fruit: these shall be yours for food. And all green plants I give for food to the wild animals, to all the birds of heaven, to everything that crawls on earth, to every living creature." And so it was. God saw all that he had made and indeed it was very good. Evening came and morning came: the sixth day.
Thus heaven and earth were completed, with all their array. On the sixth day God finished the work he had been doing, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on that day God rested from all his work of creation.
(Genesis 1:1 - 2:3)
The special 'skill' of the priests was to recognize and interpret the perfection God intended for the world, and to prescribe or perform the rituals required to correct or adjust or atone for shortcomings and failures -- to repay debts to God incurred by misbehaviour. Animal sacrifice was a central part of their responsibility -- to the extent that the temple was virtually the national slaughterhouse. Priests ate most of the sacrificial flesh (which cannot have been good for their health). They also collected the ten percent tithe tax which was supposed to keep the system functioning, and meant also for charitable purposes.
The priestly class had a 'good thing' going. But they presumably believed in what they were doing. Some of their literary work shows that the priests -- at least in the Persian period -- did have a commitment to justice. They taught that one law applied to all. However, if the delivery of justice is entrusted to the rich it is difficult to ensure impartiality, and difficult for the judges to enter imaginatively into the necessities of the poor. It would not have been easy for the priests to understand that their own affluence contributed directly to the distress of others. They would have believed that to be fortunate meant they stood in the favour of God. To be in trouble meant one must in some way be guilty before God.
As time passed, the pursuit of power and wealth came increasingly
to dominate priestly motivation. The temple hierarchy of the
time of Jesus was not in continuity with that of the Persian
period, though they were working much the same system. The
Christian scriptures have nothing complimentary to say about the priests of
Nazareth was an agricultural village -- that is, a peasant community -- a satellite of the former Galilean capital city, Sepphoris. Its culture was Judean. As far as we can tell, Jesus was born as well as raised there. If he and his father were artisans they were even lower in social standing than peasants working the land. The situation in Palestine in the time of Jesus, and at least through the first century, was as oppressive as at almost any period in the history of the region. Exploiters of the common people included the Roman colonial power, the immediate rulers under the Romans (Herods or the Roman procurator), and the templebased religious system. Debt was increasing, with the wealthy of Jerusalem, in particular, profiting. Family life was under threat because of financial pressures.
Jesus was sensitive to the prophetic call for social justice and caring community. A society functioning according to such a rule would indeed be 'the kingdom of God'. Jesus accepted the vocation to bring about the kingdom of God in his environment. He made a powerful impression in a short period of time. Finally, he took his message to Jerusalem. An act of defiance in the temple courtyard led to his being arrested by the temple authorities and handed over to the Romans, who executed him as a dangerous agitator.
After his death some of those who had been close to Jesus had visionary experiences of him. There was an ongoing awareness of his spiritual presence and guidance. In some parts of the surviving Jesus movement (but not in all) the belief arose that he had been returned to earthly life and then carried into heaven. Such belief demanded a conception of the divine realm after the old Canaanite pattern. This had never been superseded, except that the subordinate gods had been re-imagined as angels.
What eventually became the dominant strand in the Christian movement
found it appropriate to 'theologise' Jesus, using hints they found
in the Hebrew scriptures, and the language of the temple's sacrifical
theory and system. Christian documents that expressed this
(mis)understanding were chosen to become official in the
church. Jesus himself knew none of this theology, and
would have deplored it. He did not regard himself as the
'messiah' or his own death as uniquely redemptive. He did
not prescribe what are now the Christian sacraments.
Jesus summed up his teaching in the phrase "the kingdom of God", which meant community under God's rule. For Jesus this certainly did not imply biblical legalism. Nor did it establish the authority of the temple priesthood and their emissaries. It was much more a matter of getting back to the prophets' emphasis on Israel's founding inspiration.
One problem we have is that our way of thinking about relationships is very different from that of first century Mediterranean people. We are individuals, understanding ourselves introspectively. We think out who we are. They were group-oriented. They were whotheywere because they were incorporated in a particular community. They were defined by their community and by the way others regarded them, not by what they thought of themselves. Conscience was the accusing voice of others, not an interior sense of guilt. Most often the reference group was the family. But it could be a group constituted in a different way.
Jesus was calling people into a new community under God, which he intended as an effective response to society's ills. That meant leaving an old community which was not proving equal to the challenge of the times. 'Hating' the members of your family did not imply violent antipathy (though that could happen). It did mean detachment from the old and attachment to the new.
Jesus was renowned as a healer and as one who could drive out demons. He expected the same skills to appear in his community. Anthropologists explain to us that in his situation healing didn't mean curing the disease. It meant finding a solution for the psychic and social calamity that had befallen people because of their condition. (Think of the problems of the 'leper' in biblical times or a sufferer from AIDS in our day.)
The situation in colonial Palestine could push some people over the edge
into insanity, which would be explained as demon
possession. The response of an authoritative but
compassionate person, and then of a caring community, could
change the outcome -- could be healing -- in either
There have been two great creative events in our religious history -- the birth of Israel and the mission undertaken by Jesus of Nazareth. Both were born of the sufferings of the little people at the hands of the powerful and the wealthy.
If there are lessons to be learned from our exploration of this
history, they may perhaps be summarised in these propositions:
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Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999 (first published Orbis 1979)
Cross, Frank Moore Canaanite Myth and Hebrew
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1973 ... 1997
Gottwald, NK and Horsley, RA editors The
Bible and Liberation
London: SPCK, 1993 (revised edition)
Coote, RB and Ord, DR The Bible's First
Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989
Coote, RB In Defense of Revolution ['E']
Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991
Coote, RB and Ord, DR In the Beginning ['P']
Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991
Coote, RB and Coote, MP Power, Politics,
and the Making of the Bible
Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990
Gottwald, Norman K The Hebrew Bible - A
Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985
Crossan, John Dominic In Fragments -- The
Aphorisms of Jesus
San Francisco: Harper, 1983
Crossan, John Dominic The Historical Jesus - The
Life of a
Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
San Francisco: Harper, 1991
Crossan, John Dominic Jesus - a
New York: HarperCollins, 1994
Crossan, John Dominic Four Other
Sonoma California: Polebridge, 1992 [prev. 1985 - Harper & Row]
Crossan, John Dominic The Cross that Spoke -
the Origins of the Passion Narrative
New York: Harper & Row, 1988
Crossan, John Dominic Who Killed Jesus?
New York: HarperCollins, 1995
Borg, Marcus J Meeting Jesus Again for the
New York: HarperCollins, 1994
The Jesus Seminar The Five Gospels
New York: Macmillan, 1993
The Jesus Seminar The Acts of Jesus
New York: HarperCollins, 1998
The Jesus Seminar, The Complete Gospels -
New York: HarperCollins, Third edition 1994
Horsley, Richard A Sociology and the Jesus
New York: Crossroad, 1989
Malina, B, Rohrbaugh, RL
Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992
Pervo, Richard I Profit with Delight --
Literary Genre of Acts
Myers, Ched Binding the Strong Man
Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1988
Herzog, William R Parables as Subversive
Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster / John Knox, 1994
Keck, L Robert Sacred Quest: the evolution
and future of the human soul
West Chester, Pennsylvania: Chrysalis Books, 2000