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Origins of the Bible: Connections in history and geography
First semester postgrad minor research in literature compiled and edited by Tom Burnett, and dedicated to an understanding the Bible’s evolution in literature.
BIBLE, also called the Holy Bible, the sacred book or Scriptures of Judaism and of Christianity. The Bible of Judaism and the Bible of Christianity are different, however, in some important ways. The Jewish Bible is the Hebrew Scriptures, 39 books originally written in Hebrew, except for a few sections in Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus). The Christian Bible is in two parts, the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. The Old Testament is structured in two slightly different forms by the two principal divisions of Christendom. The version of the Old Testament used by Roman Catholics is the Bible of Judaism plus 7 other books and additions to books; some of the additional books were originally written in Greek, as was the New Testament. The version of the Old Testament used by Protestants is limited to the 39 books of the Jewish Bible. The other books and additions to books are called the Apocrypha (q.v.) by Protestants; they are generally referred to as deuterocanonical books (q.v.) by Roman Catholics.
The term Bible is derived through Latin from the Greek biblia, or “books,” the diminutive form of byblos, the word for “papyrus” or “paper,” which was exported from the ancient Phoenician (1) port city of Biblos. By the time of the Middle Ages the books of the Bible were considered a unified entity.
Order of the books
The order as well as the number of books differs between the Jewish Bible and the Protestant and Roman Catholic versions of the Bible. The Bible of Judaism is in three distinct parts: the Torah, or Law, also called the books of Moses; the Nebiim, or Prophets, divided into the Earlier and Latter Prophets; and the Ketubim, or Writings, including Psalms, wisdom books, and other diverse literature.
The Christian Old Testament organizes the books according to their type of literature: the Pentateuch, corresponding to the Torah; historical books; poetical or wisdom books; and prophetical books. Some have perceived in this table of contents a sensitivity to the historical perspective of the books: first those that concern the past; then, the present; and then, the future. The Protestant and Roman Catholic versions of the Old Testament place the books in the same sequence, but the Protestant version includes only those books found in the Bible of Judaism.
The New Testament includes the four Gospels; the Acts of the Apostles, a history of early Christianity; Epistles, or letters, of Paul and other writers; and an apocalypse, or book of revelation. Some books identified as letters, particularly the Book of Hebrews, are theological treatises.
The Bible is a religious book, not only by virtue of its contents but also in terms of its use by Christians and Jews. It is read in practically all services of public worship, its words form the basis for preaching and instruction, and it is used in private devotion and study. The language of the Bible has informed and shaped the prayers, liturgy, and hymnody of Judaism and Christianity. Without the Bible these two religions would have been virtually speechless.
Both the confessed and actual importance of the Bible differ considerably among the various subdivisions of Judaism and Christianity, but all adherents ascribe some degree of authority to it. Many confess that the Bible is the full and sufficient guide in all matters of faith and practice; others view the authority of the Bible in the light of tradition, or the continuous belief and practice of the church since apostolic times.
Early Christianity inherited from Judaism and took for granted a view of the Scriptures as authoritative. No formal doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture was initially propounded, as was the case in Islam, which held that the Koran was handed down from heaven. Christians generally believed, however, that the Bible contained the word of God as communicated by his Spirit first through the patriarchs and prophets and then through the apostles. The writers of the New Testament books, in fact, appealed to the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures to support their claims concerning Jesus Christ.
The actual doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit and the in errancy of its words arose during the 19th century in response to the development of biblical criticism, scholarly studies that seemed to challenge the divine origin of the Bible. This doctrine holds that God is the author of the Bible in such a way that the Bible is his word. Many theories explaining the doctrine have been suggested by biblical scholars and theologians. The theories range from a direct, divine, verbal dictation of the Scriptures to an illumination aiding the inspired writer to understand the truth he expressed, whether this truth was revealed or learned by experience.
Importance and Influence
The importance and influence of the Bible among Christians and Jews may be explained broadly in both external and internal terms. The external explanation is the power of tradition, custom, and creed: Religious groups confess that they are guided by the Bible. In one sense the religious community is the author of Scripture, having developed it, cherished it, used it, and eventually canonized it (that is, developed lists of officially recognized biblical books). The internal explanation, however, is what many Christians and Jews continue to experience as the power of the contents of the biblical books themselves. Ancient Israel and the early church knew of many more religious books than the ones that constitute the Bible. The biblical books, however, were cherished and used because of what they said and how they said it; they were officially canonized because they had come to be used and believed so widely. The Bible truly is the foundation document of Judaism and Christianity.
It is commonly known that the Bible, in its hundreds of different translations, is the most widely distributed book in human history. Moreover, in all its forms, the Bible has been enormously influential, and not only among the religious communities that hold it sacred. The literature, art, and music of Western culture in particular are deeply indebted to biblical themes, motifs, and images. Translations of the Bible, such as the Authorized Version (or King James Version, 1611) and Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German (first completed in 1534) not only influenced literature but also shaped the development of languages. Such effects continue to be felt in emerging nations, where translations of the Bible into the vernacular help to shape language traditions.
The Old Testament
It is remarkable that Christianity includes within its Bible the entire scriptures of another religion, Judaism. The term Old Testament (from the Latin word for “covenant”) came to be applied to those Scriptures on the basis of the writings of Paul and other early Christians who distinguished between the “Old Covenant” that God made with Israel and the “New Covenant” established through Jesus Christ (see, for example, Hebrews 8:7). Because the early church believed in the continuity of history and of divine activity, it included in the Christian Bible the written records of both the Old and the New covenants.
Old Testament Literature
The Old Testament may be viewed from many different perspectives. From the viewpoint of literature, the Old Testament indeed, the entire Bible is an anthology, a collection of many different books. The Old Testament is by no means a unified book in terms of authorship, date of composition, or literary type; it is instead a veritable library. Generally speaking, the books of the Old Testament and their component parts may be identified as narratives, poetic works, prophetic works, law, or apocalypses. Most of these are broad categories that include various distinct types or genres of literature and oral tradition. None of these categories is limited to the Old Testament; all are found in other ancient literature, especially that of the Near East. It is noteworthy, however, that certain types did not find their way into the Old Testament. Letters, or epistles, so important in the New Testament, are not found as separate books (except for the Letter of Jeremiah in some manuscript traditions). Autobiography, drama, and satire are not found at all. It is particularly striking that most Old Testament books contain several literary genres. Exodus, for example, contains narrative, laws, and poetry; most prophetic books include narratives and poetry in addition to prophetic genres as such.
In both outline and content, a great many Old Testament books are narratives; that is, they report the events of the past. If they have, as most do, a plot (or at least the development of tension and its resolution), characterization of the participants, and a description of the setting where the events occurred, then they are stories. On the other hand, a great many narrative works of the Old Testament are histories although they would not fit a scholarly definition of the term. A history is a written narrative of the past that is guided by the facts, as far as the writer can determine and interpret them, and not by some aesthetic, religious, or other consideration. The historical narratives of the Old Testament are popular rather than critical works, because the writers often used oral traditions, some of them unreliable, to write their accounts. Moreover, all these narratives were written for a religious purpose; they may therefore be called salvation histories, because they are concerned with showing how God was active in human events. Examples of such works are the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings; see below), the Tetrateuch (Genesis through Numbers), and the Chronicler's History (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah). The so‑called Throne Succession History of David (see 2 Sam. 9‑20, 1 Kings 1‑2) comes closer to the modern understanding of history than does any other biblical narrative. The writer was sensitive to the details of historical events and characters, and he interpreted the course of affairs in the light of human motivations. Nonetheless, he could see the hand of God moving behind the scenes.
Other narrative books are Ruth, a short story; Jonah, a didactic, or teaching, story; and Esther, a historical romance or a festival legend. It is likely that such books developed from folktale or legends. Several didactic stories are found in the deuterocanonical books of the Bible and in the Apocrypha: Tobit, Judith, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon.
Many of these and other narrative genres are found within the books of the Old Testament. The Book of Genesis is composed, as are most of the other narrative works, of numerous individual stories, most of which originally circulated independently and orally. The patriarchal stories in Genesis 11‑50 have been called legends, sagas, and more accurately family stories. Many of them are etiological; that is, they explain some place, practice, or name in terms of its origin.
The poetic books of the Old Testament may be taken to include Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (Songs), and in the deuterocanonical books and the Apocrypha, Sirach and the Prayer of Manasseh. The Book of Wisdom has much in common with the poetic wisdom books, but it is not poetry. Most of the prophetic books are written in Hebrew poetry, but they are sufficiently distinctive to be considered separately.
Hebrew poetry has two major characteristics, one relatively easy to recognize even in translation and the other difficult to discern. The more obvious characteristic is the use of ‘parallelism us membrorum’, or parallelism of lines or other parts. For example, the meaning of one line may be restated or paralleled by a second line, as in Psalms 6:1: “O Lord, rebuke me not in thy anger, nor chasten me in thy wrath.” These two lines are synonymous. On the other hand, the second line in the unit may state the negative side of the first line's point, as in Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” In other cases, the second line may extend or explain the first, and in still others, the parallelism is merely formal. Parallelism can in some instances extend to three or more lines. One major advantage of most modern English translations of the Bible is that they retain the poetic form of the Hebrew, enabling the reader to enjoy and understand the structure of the original.
The other major feature of Hebrew poetry is rhythm, which seems to have been based on the number of accents in each line. One of the more easily recognized meters is that of the quina, or dirge, in which the first line has three beats or accented syllables and the second line has two.
The poetic books
The poetic books include a great many diverse genres. The most widespread types are the various songs of worship (Psalms) and wisdom poetry. In addition, the Bible contains one book of love poetry, the Song of Solomon (Songs).
Israel's worship literature was lyrical poetry, that is, poetry meant to be sung. Most, but not all, of these songs are collected in the books of Psalms. Many are hymns songs in praise of God himself, his works on behalf of Israel, or his creation. Others are communal laments or complaint songs, which were, in effect, prayers of petition sung by the people when they were faced with trouble. Approximately one‑third of the Psalms are individual laments or complaints, songs used by or on behalf of individuals facing death or disaster. When the nation or the individual has been saved from trouble, thanksgiving songs would be sung. A few Psalms, such as 2, 45, and 110, celebrate the coronation of a king in Israel as God's special servant.
The wisdom poetry includes collections of wisdom sayings and short poems, as in the Book of Proverbs, and long compositions such as Job, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. The shorter wisdom materials are proverbs, sayings, and admonitions, commonly only two lines long. Some were undoubtedly traditional or popular sayings; others bear the marks of thoughtful and creative composition. Proverbs 1‑9 contains a collection of poems on the nature of wisdom itself, but the Book of Job is a lengthy poetic composition in the form of a dialogue framed by a folktale. Ecclesiastes is a somewhat disjointed work; Sirach is a book written by a Jewish teacher and later translated by his grandson.
The subject matter of the wisdom sayings ranges from practical advice for living a good and successful life to reflections on the relationship between following the wise path and obedience to the divinely revealed law. Job, at least on one level, agonizes over the question of the suffering of the righteous, and Ecclesiastes meditates sadly on the meaning of life in the face of death.
Prophets were known elsewhere in the ancient Near East, but no other culture developed a body of prophetic literature comparable to that of Israel. Ancient Egyptian writers produced literary works called “prophecies,” for example, but these writings are different in both form and content from the biblical prophetic books.
Most Hebrew prophetic books contain three kinds of literature: narratives, prayers, and prophetic speeches. The narratives generally are stories or reports of prophetic activity, either attributed to the prophet himself or told by some third person. They include vision reports, reports of symbolic actions, accounts of prophetic activities such as conflicts between the prophets and their opponents, and historical narratives or notes. One book in the prophetic collection, Jonah, is actually a story about a prophet, including only one line of prophetic address (see Jonah 3:4). The prayers include hymns and petitions such as Jeremiah's complaints (for example, Jeremiah 15:10‑21).
Speeches predominate in the prophetic literature, for the essence of prophetic activity was to announce the word of God concerning the immediate future. The most common addresses are prophecies of punishment or of salvation. Both of these are framed, as are most prophetic speeches, by formulas that identify the words as revealed by God; for example, “thus says the Lord.” The prophecy of punishment usually gives reasons for the punishment in terms of social injustice, religious arrogance, or apostasy and spells out the nature of the disaster military or otherwise to be visited upon the nation, group, or individual addressed. The prophecies of salvation announce God's impending intervention to rescue Israel. Other speeches include prophecies against foreign nations, woe speeches enumerating the sins of the people, and admonitions or warnings.
Legal materials are sufficiently prominent in the Hebrew Scriptures that the term Torah (Law) came to be applied in Judaism to the first five books, and in early Christianity to the entire Old Testament. Legal writings dominate in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The fifth book of the Bible was called Deuteronomy (“second law”) by its Greek translators, although the book is primarily a report of the last words and deeds of Moses. It does, however, contain numerous laws, often in the context of interpretation and preaching.
According to biblical tradition, the will of God was revealed to Israel through Moses when the covenant was made at Mount Sinai. Consequently, all the laws except those in Deuteronomy are found in Exodus 20 through Num.10, where the events at Mount Sinai are reported.
Scholars have recognized in the Hebrew laws two major types, the apodictic and the casuistic. Apodictic law is represented by, but not limited to, the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:1‑21, 34:14‑26; Deuteronomy 5:6‑21). These laws, usually found in collections of five or more, are short, unambiguous, and unequivocal statements of the will of God for human behavior. They are either commands (positive) or prohibitions (negative). The casuistic laws, on the other hand, each consist of two parts. The first part states a condition (“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it . . .”) and the second part the legal consequences (” . . . he shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep,” Exodus 22:1). These laws generally concern problems that arise in agricultural and town life. The casuistic laws are parallel in form, and frequently in content, to laws found in the Code of Hammurabi and other ancient Near Eastern law codes and are thus not original to the Bible.
The apocalypse as a distinctive genre arose in Israel in the postexilic period, that is, after the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews from 586 to 538 BC. An apocalypse, or revelation, contains the disclosure of future events by means of a lengthy and detailed dream or vision report. It makes use of highly symbolic and often bizarre images, which in turn are explained and interpreted. Apocalyptic writings generally reflect the author's historical view of his own era as a time when the powers of evil are gathering to make their final struggle against God, after which a new age will be established.
Daniel is the only apocalyptic book as such in the Hebrew Scriptures, and its first half (chap. 1‑6) is actually a series of legendary stories. Sections of other books, however, are similar in many respects to apocalyptic literature (see Isaiah 24‑27; Zech. 9‑14; and some parts of Ezekiel). In the Apocrypha, 2 Esdras is an apocalypse. Judaism in the last two centuries BC and the first century AD produced numerous other apocalyptic works that were never considered canonical. These include Enoch, the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, and the Apocalypse of Moses.
Until recently, most scholars argued that the development of apocalyptic literature and thought was strongly influenced by Persian religion. That view is being challenged by the recognition of the roots of apocalyptic literature in Israelite thought itself, especially the prophetic understanding of the future, and in older Near Eastern traditions. By no means did all the books of the Old Testament originate at the same time and in the same place; rather, they are the product of Israelite faith and culture over a thousand years or more. Consequently, another literary perspective examines the books and their component parts in terms of their authorship and their literary and preliterary history.
Virtually all the books went through a long history of transmission and development before they were collected and canonized. Moreover, it is necessary to distinguish between traditional Jewish and Christian views concerning the authorship and date of the books and their actual literary history as it has been reconstructed by modern scholarship from the evidence in the biblical books and elsewhere. It is not my aim to present a detailed account of the literary history of the Old Testament. Many of the facts are not known, the history is long and often complicated, and older conclusions regularly are being revised under the weight of new evidence and methods. The general contours of that history can, however, be summarized.
For most Old Testament books it was a long journey from the time the first words were spoken or written to the work in its final form. That journey usually involved many people, such as storytellers, authors, editors, listeners, and readers. Not only individuals but different communities of faith played their parts.
Behind many of the present literary works stand oral traditions. Most of the stories in Genesis, for example, circulated orally before they were written down, and are implausible in their present form. Prophetic speeches, now encountered in written form, were first delivered orally. Virtually all the Psalms, whether originally written down or not, were composed to be sung or chanted aloud in worship. However, It is not safe to infer that oral transmission was merely the precursor of written literature and ceased once books came into being since oral traditions existed side by side with written materials for centuries.
According to Jewish and Christian tradition, Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, but nowhere in the books themselves is this claim made; tradition stemmed in part from the Hebrew designation of them as the books of Moses, but that meant concerning Moses. As early as the Middle Ages, Jewish scholars recognized a problem with the tradition: Deuteronomy (the last book of the Pentateuch) reports the death of Moses. The books are actually anonymous and composite works. On the basis of numerous duplications and repetitions, including two different designations of the deity, two separate accounts of creation, two intertwined stories of the flood, two versions of the Egyptian plagues, and many others, modern scholars have concluded that the writers of the Pentateuch drew upon several different sources, each from a different writer and period, and that neither story or version can be taken literally since they differ.
The sources differ in vocabulary, literary style, and theological perspective. The oldest source is the Jehovistic, or Yahwist (from its use of the divine name Jahwemodern Jehovahor Yahweh), commonly dated in the 10th or 9th century BC. The second is the Elohist ( from its use of the general name Elohim for God), usually dated in the 8th century BC. Next is Deuteronomy ( limited to that book and a few other passages), dated in the late 7th century BC. Last is the Priestly Writer (for its emphasis on cultic law and priestly concerns), dated in the 6th or 5th century BC. Jehovistic includes a full narrative account from creation to the conquest of Canaan (3) by Israel. Elohist is no longer a complete narrative, if it ever was; its earliest material concerns Abraham. Priestly Writer concentrates on the covenant and the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai, but sets that into a narrative that begins with creation.
None of the writers of these documents, if they were individuals and not groups, was a creative author in the modern sense. Rather, they worked as editors who collected, organized, and interpreted older traditions, both oral and written. Therefore, most of the contents of the sources are much older than the sources themselves. Some of the oldest written elements are parts of poetic works such as the Song of the Sea (see Exodus 15), and some of the legal material was derived from ancient legal codes.
One recent view suggests that the individual stories of the Pentateuch were collected under the heading of several major themes (Promise to the Patriarchs, Exodus, Wandering in the Wilderness, Sinai, and Taking of the Land) and took their basic shape by about 1100 BC. In any case, the story of Israel's roots was formed in and under the influence of the community of faith. In recent years the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings have been reconized as a unified account of the history of Israel from the time of Moses (13th century BC) to the Babylonian exile (the period from the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC to the reconstruction in Palestine of a new Jewish state after 538 BC).
Because the literary style and theological perspective are similar to those of Deuteronomy, this account is called the Deuteronomistic History. On the basis of the last events it reports, among other evidence, it seems to have been written about 560 BC, during the exile. It is possible, however, that at least one edition was written earlier.
The writer (s) of the work set out to record Israel's history and also to account for the disaster that befell the nation at the hands of the Babylonians. On the one hand, he worked as any other historian would, by collecting and organizing older sources, both written and oral. He used materials of many kinds, including stories of the prophets, lists of various sorts, earlier histories, and even court records. In fact, he often refers the reader to his sources (for example, see Josh. 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18; 2 Kings 15:6). On the other hand, however, he worked as a theologian who already had firm convictions about the course and meaning of the events he recorded. He expressed those convictions by the way he organized the material and by placing speeches, which he had written, into the mouths of the major characters (for example, see Joshua 1). He believed that Israel had fallen to the Babylonians because of disobedience to the law of Moses (as in Deuteronomy), especially in its worship of false gods in false places of worship; he also believed that the prophets had warned of the exile long before it happened.
The poetic books
Both the cultic and wisdom poetry of the Old Testament are difficult to date or to attribute to particular authorship, primarily because they contain so few historical allusions. David is regarded as the author of the Psalms because of the tradition that he was a singer and composer; in fact, only 70 of the 150 Psalms are specifically identified with David, and far fewer than that originated during his era. The attributions to David and to others are found in the superscriptions, which were added long after the Psalms were written. The identification of Proverbs and other wisdom books with Solomon stems from the tradition of that king's great wisdom, and is reliable to the extent that Solomon did encourage institutions that developed such literature. Wisdom poetry contains in the sayings some of the oldest material in the Hebrew Scriptures, and in compositions such as Ecclesiastes and Sirach some of the latest.
The Book of Psalms became the hymn and prayer book of Israel's second temple, but many of the songs predate the second temple. They contain motifs, themes, and expressions that Israel inherited from its Canaanite predecessors in the land. Many voices speak in and through the Psalms, but above all they are the voices of the community at worship.
The prophetic books
Few if any of the prophetic books were written entirely (if at all) by the person whose name serves as the title. Moreover, in most instances even the words of the original prophet were recorded by others. The story of Jeremiah's scribe Baruch (see Jer. 36; see also Isa. 8:16) illustrates one of the ways the spoken prophetic words became books. The various utterances of the prophets would have been remembered and collected by their followers and eventually written down. Later, most of the books were edited and expanded. For example, when the Book of Amos (c. 755 BC) was used in the time of the exile, it was given a new and hopeful ending (Amos 9:8‑15). The Book of Isaiah reflects centuries of Israelite history and the work of several prophets and other figures: Isaiah 1‑39 stems primarily from the original prophet (742‑700 BC); chapters 40‑55 come from an unknown prophet of the Exile, called Second Isaiah (539 BC); and chapters 56‑66, identified as Third Isaiah, come from various writers of the period after the exile.
The Hebrew Bible and the Christian versions of the Old Testament were canonized in different times and places, but the development of the Christian canons must be understood in terms of the Jewish Scriptures.
The Hebrew Canon
The idea in Israel of a sacred book dates at least from 621 BC. During the reform of Josiah, king of Judah, when the temple was being repaired, the high priest Hilkiah discovered “the book of the law” (see 2 Kings 22). The scroll was probably the central part of the present Book of Deuteronomy, but what is important is the authority that was ascribed to it. More reverence was paid to the text read by Ezra, the Hebrew priest and scribe, to the community at the end of the 5th century BC (see Neh. 8).
The Hebrew Bible became Holy Scripture in three stages. The sequence corresponds to the three parts of the Hebrew canon: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. On the basis of external evidence it seems clear that the Torah (q.v.), or Law, became Scripture between the end of the Babylonian exile (538 BC) and the separation of the Samaritans from Judaism, probably by 300 BC. The Samaritans recognized only the Torah as their Bible.
The second stage was the canonization of the Nebiim (Prophets). As the superscriptions to the prophetic books indicate, the recorded words of the prophets came to be considered the word of God. For all practical purposes the second part of the Hebrew canon was closed by the end of the 3d century, not long before 200 BC.
In the meantime other books were being compiled, written, and used in worship and study. By the time the Book of Sirach was written (circa 180 BC), an idea of a tripartite Bible had developed. The contents of the third part, the Ketubim (Writings), remained somewhat fluid in Judaism until after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in AD 70. By the end of the 1st century AD the rabbis in Palestine had established the final list.
Both positive and negative forces were at work in the process of canonization. On the one hand, most of the decisions had already been made in practice: The Law, the Prophets, and most of the Writings had been serving as Scripture for centuries. Controversy developed around only a few books in the Writings, such as Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon (Songs). On the other hand, many other religious books, also claiming to be the word of God, were being written and circulated. These included the books in the present Protestant Apocrypha, some of the New Testament books, and many others. Consequently, the official action of establishing a Bible took place in response to a theological question: According to which books would Judaism define itself and its relationship to God?
The Christian Canon
The second canon, what is now the Roman Catholic version of the Old Testament arose first as a translation of the earlier Hebrew books into Greek. The process began in the 3d century BC outside of Palestine, because Jewish communities in Egypt and elsewhere needed the Scriptures in the language of their culture. The additional books in this Bible, including supplements to older books, arose for the most part among such non‑Palestinian Jewish communities. By the end of the 1st century AD, when the earliest Christian writings were being collected and disseminated, two versions of Scripture from Judaism were already in existence: the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Old Testament (known as the Septuagint; q.v.). The Hebrew Bible, however, was the official standard of belief and practice; no evidence indicates that an official list of Greek Scriptures ever existed in Judaism. The additional books of the Septuagint were only given official recognition in Christianity. The writings of the early Fathers of the Church contain numerous different lists, but it is clear that the longer Greek Old Testament prevailed.
The last major step in the history of the Christian canon took place during the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he rediscovered what others, notably St. Jerome, the 4th‑century biblical scholar had known: that the Old Testament had originated in Hebrew. He removed from his Old Testament the books that were not in the Bible of Judaism and established them as the Apocrypha. This step was an effort to return to the presumed earliest and therefore best text and canon, and to establish in opposition to the authority of the church the authority of that older version of the Bible. All contemporary translators of the Bible attempt to recover and use the oldest text, presumably the one closest to the original. No original copies or autographs exist; rather, hundreds of different manuscripts contain numerous variant readings. Consequently, every attempt to determine the best text of a given book or verse must be based on the meticulous work and informed judgment of scholars.
With regard to the Old Testament, the chief distinction is between texts in Hebrew and the versions, or translations into other ancient languages. The most important, and generally most reliable, witnesses to the Hebrew are the Masoretic texts, those produced by Jewish scholars (called the Masoretes) who assumed the task of faithfully copying and transmitting the Bible. These scholars, active from the early Christian centuries into the Middle Ages, also provided the text with punctuation, vowel points (the original of the Hebrew text contains only consonants), and various notes. The standard printed Hebrew Bible in use today is a reproduction of a Masoretic text written in AD 1088. The manuscript, in codex or book form, is in the collection of the Saint Petersburg Public Library. Another Masoretic manuscript, the Aleppo Codex from the first half of the 10th century AD, is the basis for a new publication of the text in preparation at Hebrew University in Israel. The Aleppo Codex is the oldest manuscript of the entire Hebrew Bible, but it dates from well more than a millennium after the latest biblical books were written, and perhaps as much as two millennia later than the earliest ones.
Extant, however, are older Hebrew manuscripts Masoretic and other texts of individual books. Many from as early as the 6th century were discovered during the late 19th century in the genizah (storage room for manuscripts) of the Cairo synagogue. Numerous manuscripts and fragments, many from the pre‑Christian era, have been recovered from the Dead Sea region since 1947. Although many of the most important manuscripts are quite late, the Masoretic texts in particular preserve a textual tradition that goes back to at least a century or more before the Christian era.
The Septuagint and Other Greek Versions
The most valuable versions of the Hebrew Bible are the translations into Greek. In some instances the Greek versions actually offer readings superior to the Hebrew, being based on older Hebrew texts than are now available. Many of the Greek manuscripts are much older than the manuscripts of the full Hebrew Bible; they were included in copies of the entire Christian Bible that date from the 4th and 5th centuries. The major manuscripts are Codex Vaticanus (in the Vatican Library), Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Alexandrinus (both in the British Museum).
The major Greek version is called the Septuagint (“seventy”) because of the legend that the Torah was translated in the 3d century BC by 72 scholars. The legend is probably accurate in several respects: The first Greek translation included only the Torah, and it was done in Alexandria in the 3d century BC. Eventually the remaining Hebrew Scriptures were translated, but obviously they were translated by other scholars whose skills and viewpoints differed.
Numerous other Greek translations were made, most of them extant only in fragments or quotations by the early Fathers of the Church and others. These include the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, and Lucian. The 3d‑century Christian theologian Origen studied the problems presented by these different versions and prepared a Hexapla, an arrangement in six parallel columns of the Hebrew text, the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek, Aquila, Symmachus, the Septuagint, and Theodotion.
Peshitta, Old Latin, Vulgate, and Targums
Other versions include the Peshitta, or Syriac, begun perhaps as early as the 1st century AD; the Old Latin, translated not from the Hebrew but from the Septuagint in the 2d century; and the Vulgate (q.v.), translated from the Hebrew into Latin by St. Jerome at the end of the 4th century AD.
The Aramaic Targums
Also to be considered with the versions are the Aramaic Targums. In Judaism, when Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the language of everyday life, translations became necessary, first accompanying the oral reading of Scriptures in the synagogue and later set down in writing. The Targums were not literal translations, but rather paraphrases or interpretations of the original. The two major Targums are those that originated in Palestine and those that were revised in Babylon (2). Recently a complete manuscript of the Palestinian Targum has come to light, Neofiti I of the Vatican Library. The best‑known Babylonian Targums are Onkelos for the Pentateuch and Jonathan for the Prophets. The versions often are good, sometimes even the best, witnesses to the original text. Moreover, they are important as evidence for the history of thought among the communities that took the Bible seriously.
The Old Testament and history
On virtually all its pages the Old Testament calls attention to the reality and importance of history. The Pentateuch and the historical books contain salvation histories; the prophets constantly refer to events of the past, present, and future. As the history of Israel was told in the Old Testament, it came to be organized in a series of pivotal events or periods: the exodus (including the stories from the patriarchs to the conquest of Canaan), the monarchy, the exile in Babylon, and the return to Palestine with the restoration of the religious institutions.
Separating Interpretation from History
It is important to distinguish between the Old Testament's interpretation of what happened and critical history. In order to write a reliable account, the historian needs more or less objective sources contemporary with the events themselves. The major source of information concerning Israel's history is the Old Testament, and its writers generally are concerned primarily with the theological meaning of the past. Moreover, most of the documents are later, sometimes by centuries, than the events they describe. No significant body of written evidence exists before the time of the monarchy, which was established with the anointing of Saul as the first king of Israel in the 11th century BC. Other evidence, both written and artifactual, has been recovered through archaeology, but all the evidence both biblical and archaeological must be evaluated critically.
To be sure, all biblical texts that can be dated at all furnish important historical information. They reveal facts concerning the period in which they were written, but they do not necessarily contain literally accurate accounts of the events they report.
The historical core
Israel's life was a part of the history of the ancient Near East. Like the other small nations of the eastern Mediterranean, Israel was at the mercy of the major powers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia and could prosper independently only when they were in decline or preoccupied with struggles among themselves.
Early history and development of Israel
A considerable body of information concerning the history of the ancient Near East is available from the 3d millennium BC on, but a detailed history of Israel can begin only about the time of David (1000‑961 BC). This does not mean that nothing at all can be said about the preceding eras, or that all the reports of events before David are inaccurate. It does mean that historical evidence can be separated from later interpretation only with difficulty, and that relatively few details can be known with certainty. The Genesis stories of the patriarchs, for example, are not intended as history. History deals with public events; the accounts of the patriarchs are family stories, concerned for the most part with private matters. Archaeological evidence, however, has shown that the background or setting of the stories gives a reasonable picture of life in the late Bronze Age. The stories suggest that the ancestors of Israel were semi-nomads and provide an indication of their religious beliefs and practices.
Careful analysis of the biblical record and judicious use of archaeological evidence suggest a date for the exodus from Egypt in the second half of the 13th century BC. The route of the exodus however, is unknown; the Old Testament preserves at least two major traditions on that point. Not all of Israel would have been involved, and most likely only the Joseph tribes.
Joshua 1‑12 and Judgments 1‑2 present two different versions of Israel's entrance into the land of Canaan. The summary statements in Joshua report a sudden conquest by the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua; but Judgments 1‑2 and other traditions support the conclusion that individual tribes moved into the land gradually and that it was decades if not centuries before Israel acquired its territory. The period of the conquest and that of the Judges thus overlap. For the most part, during the two centuries after 1200 BC individual tribes were sometimes on their own and sometimes together, only gradually becoming one nation, Israel.
The monarchy arose during the 11th century BC in the midst of internal strife and external threat. The internal strife concerned the question of the proper form of government for the nation. Some favored the more traditional form of charismatic leadership in times of crisis; others wanted a stable kingship. Kingship won out because of the external threat from the militarily superior Philistines (now Palestinians (4)), who occupied five cities on the coastal plain. Saul united the tribes and established a monarchy, but was killed, along with his son Jonathan, in a battle with the Philistines. David then became king, first in the south and then of the entire nation. It was left to him to put an end forever to the Philistine threat and then to establi