Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bible Background

I'm going to start reading the Bible tomorrow. In order to keep tomorrow's post a manageable length, I'll provide some background and explain the parameters of what I am going to do.

The Bible is a compilation of many documents, from various historical and cultural contexts, which were produced for various reasons. People made decisions about what to include, and there were some debates about that along the way. The Old Testament is largely but not entirely based on the Jewish scriptures, called the Tanakh, although the organization is different; but the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Testaments include additional material. I'll put off talking about the New Testament for now.

The Tanakh was mostly written in Hebrew, of course. (A bit of it was originally in Aramaic.) So we're dealing with a translation. I've chosen the New International Version, which was produced by an interdenominational committee of  Christians. Although it is generally well respected, we can never be sure exactly how to render concepts from an ancient and not entirely well understood context.

Keep in mind also that books in Biblical times were not produced in the same way they are now. Typically today one person writes an entire book, then gives it to a publisher who produces any number of identical copies. Back then documents had to be copied by hand. There was no copyright and there was no money to be made in books either. Scribes were free to take whatever they wanted from whatever source, to combine, to remove material, to change whatever they wanted. They also made mistakes.

I'll just talk for now about the provenance of the first five books,  which Jews call the Torah and Christians the Pentateuch. I won't bother with the details, but if you're interested you can look at this Wikipedia entry on one of the hypothesized authors called the Jawhist because he calls God Jahweh (or Yahweh). The leading theory is that there were four main sources, but in fact any of these could have been composites made earlier, and whoever compiled them may have made edits and interpolations. So it's not surprising that it contains multiple versions of some stories, contradictions, and material that appears to be missing. We'll cross those bridges when we come to them.

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