Real Bible Studies: Introduction

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Real Bible Studies is an occasional series of essays I plan to post to this blog as I complete them. No specific order or time frame is planned, just whatever topic strikes my fancy, whenever I feel like writing about it. I call this series Real Bible Studies, because it’s my attempt to study and analyze stories and other information in the Bible that I’ve read, and to comment on what I feel the Bible is trying to tell us in each particular instance. When many people speak of “bible studies” they mean reading commentary by someone else, that guides their reading. In this case, I’m reading, then adding to the commentary, rather than relying on an outside source to direct my reading.

It’s not my intention to delve into the debates over whether this or that tale in the Bible actually happened, or to provide textual analysis, though, at times, it may be impossible to avoid some of the scholarship over texts, or the history behind the work. While I have read large portions of the Bible, as well as a great deal of commentary on it, I do not regard myself as a biblical scholar, and with a few exceptions, I rarely engage in debates over why the Bible was written, or whether or not it’s relevant in today’s society. For better or worse, the Bible is one of the most influential books in the history of Western civilization, and continues to influence countless people throughout the world today, so its relevance speaks for itself. The model on which I plan to pattern this series is Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, and therefore my main source for comparison and commentary will be other portions of the bible.

All writing, by its very nature, is trying to convey a message. The original Greek tragedies were meant to instruct the people on the consequences of not properly honoring the gods, while the comedies often poked fun at the foibles of humans. It’s fascinating to know that someone hundreds, or even thousands of years ago, could set words to paper (or papyrus, or stone, as the case may be) and those words continue to resonate in the modern world. The bible is no different. The authors probably didn’t imagine that their words would still be read centuries after committing them to paper, and translated into languages which had not yet evolved at the time of writing. The “old testament,” as the original Jewish scriptures have come to be known to many, is so well revered, that it’s easy to forget, it was written or compiled by a specific group of people and intended only for a specific audience.

While it’s not the focus of this column to delve deeply into the history of each biblical text, most of the scholarship I’ve read suggests much of the old testament was compiled by scribes during the Babylonian exile, or during the Second Temple period, as a means of defining and preserving what it meant to be a Jew of that time, and to bolster the spirits of those exiled in Babylon; while the “new testament” documents the rise and spread of Christianity in the First Century CE. The main focus of the old testament is on the story of the children of Israel, how they overcame captivity, and established a homeland in Palestine, only to lose it by not obeying the will of their god. It’s filled with inspirational tales, legendary figures, and stories meant to provide hope for their oppressed people. The truth behind each story will undoubtedly remain the subject of debate for generations to come, but it’s reasonably clear, even from a cursory reading of the old testament, that it’s meant to tell the story of a particular group of people, over a particular period in history. I’ll leave it to scholars, who have far more resources at their disposal, to define specifically who those people were and where they originated, and rather focus on the stories contained within. There is no lack of biblical commentary, both pro and con, in written or electronic format, for anyone wishing further study.

For source material, I’ll be using the resources provided by the Bible Gateway, which I’ve found to be an excellent online source for study of the Bible. The particular translation I’ll mainly be relying upon is the New International Version (NIV), though the Bible Gateway provides access to just about every known English translation, making comparisons between texts very easy. Again, textual analysis is not the main focus of this column, but it’s sometimes helpful to be able to view a different translation for clarification of what’s being said in a given passage. It shows how a different set of scholars interpreted a particular passage versus how another group interpreted it. For instance, some translators seem intent on documenting how the ancient Greek or Hebrew translates into modern English, whereas others go further to provide their interpretations of the idea the writer was trying to convey. An example is the term “lay with” which some scholars interpret as having sexual relations, while others simply use the wording “lay with” without attempting to explain the nuances of the term.

I haven’t been capitalizing the word “god” within the commentaries, because I regarded “god” as a generic term for the entity, not the actual name, and I’ve been using it as shorthand for “the entity referred to as god.” However, convention generally dictates when using the term for the entity, it should be capitalized, which is what I plan to use going forward. In the case of first five books of the Jewish Bible, commonly called “The Law”, YHWH is the primary deity, so in most instances, I’ll use that term. The ancient Israelites, and, I believe, many Jews to this day, believe no one is allowed to speak the name of their god other than the high priest, a position which became obsolete with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. I shall continue to use the gender neutral “it” in referencing god , since I believe it’s wrong to assign human characteristics to non-human entities, and the entity referred to as god, as defined by most religions, is about as non-human as one can get.

It is my intention to present a well-rounded view of the stories, with, perhaps, a bit of humor thrown in for good measure. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll make the best attempt I can to reason it out, but otherwise, plan to reveal any confusion I encounter. It is hoped those who read these entries will find something of interest.

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