Reviews of The Bible (ca. 110 CE) and related work
- Entry: Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE)
- Entry: New Testament (ca. 110 CE)
- Parody: “The Holy Bible: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2015)
- Spin-off: “Science: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2017)
- Spin-off: “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2018)
The Bible (ca. 110 CE)
I read mainly the 1999 Swedish translation, named Bibel 2000, which represents a substantial effort by a state commission started in 1972. The commission was partly secular, perhaps more so than the English-language NIV commission. It took the approach of literal translation to modern language, with stylistic emulation and textual criticism over dogma.
Though the commission project included the Apocrypha, the printed copy I read cover to cover did not, thus falling in line with Swedish Lutheran tradition. Where I do include books from the Apocrypha in this set of reviews, they are based on other sources.
The uneasy progression of a tribe-cum-nation’s belief system from syncretistic polytheism, via monolatry and henotheism, toward Greek-influenced individualism and a nominal theolatry or monotheism undermined by servants, intercessors, opponents and incarnations that are all divine. The latter books describe a cosmopolitan offshoot of the faith where one particular god promises to end the world in the first century CE, extending to disappointment that the apocalypse does not occur.
Some of the material in this book—itself a collection of books—was probably composed in a literal mode on the basis of sincerely held beliefs, i.e. as non-fiction. I have classified it as fiction because indifference to the truth, charlatan intentions and forgeries were evidently more common, not because the beliefs themselves were false.
The text was created piece by piece between the 8th century BCE and the 2nd century CE. Mainly, people wrote down what had been oral tradition and then gradually edited earlier passages or attributed their own additions to dead authors to give the work a more desirable message for each new generation. Numerous proposed additions, including dozens of gospels for one of the later gods, were banned or excised for the same arbitrary historical reasons.
As a result, there has been a huge number of different bibles over time. Through a series of synods and the systematic persecution of internal diversity, a rough mainstream had developed around 200 CE: “The Bible” of Western Roman Catholic Christianity as reviewed here. It differs from lost older Hebrew bibles, the “heretical” Marcionite canon, the younger Masoretic Hebrew Bible (7th–10th century CE), the Peshitta, the Oriental Orthodox Christian (e.g. Ethiopian, Tewahedo) bibles, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Bible and so on. Synods have continued to modify the various canons.
The line between translation and authorship is not always clear. The influential Septuagint translation of an older Hebrew Bible makes its own theological points and expands on the original text, which is no longer extant. In the 16th century, the Catholic church began to officially promulgate the Vulgate (called so since the 13th century), which is a 4th-century translation with some errors. It gave Moses horns on his head, which you can still see in some medieval church murals. Other bibles have taken greater liberties, such as the 1820 Thomas Jefferson Bible, the unfinished 19th-century Joseph Smith Bible and the 1982 abridged Reader’s Digest Bible.
The overall date of 110 CE on this review refers to mainstream scholarly estimates for “2 Peter”, apparently the youngest text in the canonical New Testament. As of this writing in 2019, extant physical fragments of New Testament writings cannot be definitively dated as older than about 200 CE, though largely credible estimates range down to about 125 CE. Chapter numbers were added much later, verse numbers (as used in these reviews) not until about 1551; there were multiple attempts to add them.
When you read this collection, it helps to know some of the ancient history of the Middle East. Scholarly analyses can put each component work in context, and this is useful. However, the main thing you need is an everyday bullshit detector. If you’ve read a bunch of bad fantasy literature, you know what people like to imagine when they don’t need to stick to the truth. If you’ve hung around habitual liars, or even spent time exploring the imagination of ordinary children, you are equipped to read The Bible.
The book speaks poorly for itself. No unprejudiced reader has ever come away from it with a clean, abstract deism, like the faith of David Hume or James T. Kirk. Such ideas come from outside the text. I surmise that actually reading the text—especially with an open mind—has produced mainly atheists. Religion spreads by other means: Parent to child, the peer group, the larger community, song, dance, ritual, political expediency, superstitious fear, the ignorance of facts and alternatives, and above all, wishful thinking.
Internal contradictions litter the text. There are too many for me to list. Even the most basic stuff, like the powers and personalities of the gods, are inconsistent. Generations of rewriters probably fixed some of these errors but left new ones in the canon. Supposedly, this became a concern only at a late date, when philosophy and science presented a more elegant system of explanations even with respect to major questions like the origin of life and humankind. Fundamentalism, it is said, arose under pressure from contrary evidence.
Generally speaking, it’s worth reading some parts of the collection for their influence on politics and other literature, but be prepared to meet some of the least sympathetic authors in literary history.
References here: Som en ateist läser bibeln, Walden (1854), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), “Neighbours” (1952), A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), Man in the Wilderness (1971), The Gnostic Gospels (1979), Valis (1981), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Angel’s Egg (1985), The Sacrifice (1986), On the Silver Globe (1988), Cast a Deadly Spell (1991), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), Metodboken — Bibel 2000 (1999), “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001), The Book of Eli (2010), In the Flesh (2013), Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo (2019), Harriet (2019).
‣ Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE)
The priest John W. Rogerson gives an outline: There was once an ethnic group called Israel, mentioned on a single Egyptian stele. It was locked in an endemic state of struggle for resources. At some point, some of its members attributed an escape from Egyptian slavery to the tribal god, Yahweh. “Faith in Yahweh as the God of Israel then became one of the distinguishing features of Israel as it struggled for survival with the Canaanites and the Philistines in Palestine and with neighbouring peoples in Transjordan.” That’s from the essay on “The History of the Tradition: Old Testament and Apocrypha”, printed in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (2003). There is little to support even this vague speculation.
In the quote, Rogerson mentions the Philistines. They were one of the “sea peoples” that moved in the region as part of a cultural and economic collapse, likely with ecological causes. The Old Testament implies the effect of these forces on the popular imagination. However, it is composed almost entirely of mutually contradictory fragments of the mythology invented to support one resulting faith, written down from oral traditions with minimal context. The Old Testament does not preserve the real prehistory of the tribe.
The main texts of this collection revolve around the cult of Yahweh as it existed in a later event called the Babylonian exile. The kingdom of Judah, south of Israel, rebelled against Babylonian rule and was destroyed in 586 BCE. The royal court of Judah, with its priests and scribes, were taken into captivity in Babylon to prevent further uprisings. Their exile produced a faith now called Judaism, along with the bulk of this collection.
As I understand it, the Babylonian exile had a bigger impact on the writing process than anything else. It can be compared to the terrorist attacks on 2001-09-11, piercing the heart of a confident, self-aggrandizing nation and causing a crisis of faith. A faction among the exiled elite blamed their fate on disobedience to Yahweh and invented a past and future where their broken country was and would be glorious. This fusion of fantasy and recrimination became the backbone of the new state religion and The Bible, including the New Testament.
This development is summarized in psalm 137 of Psalms: The shame and humiliation of the authors and their people, the captors requesting samples of Hebrew culture as a diversion, the authors effectively delivering on this request by composing the psalm, and a fantasy of killing babies, all formulated as pious prayer.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Rogerson mentions the Egyptian Merneptah Stele as the oldest preserved writing about an ethnic group called Israel, supporting the idea that some part of the cult of Yahweh came out of Egypt. However, it is also possible that slavery in Egypt was invented to serve as a mythical analogue of exile in Babylon. This makes reading The Bible in its traditional order awkward, but that is what I did. If I had known better, I would have started with “Ezra”.
The Old Testament was written mainly by priests, usually attributing their words to some fictional prophet by pretending to find a lost scroll in the temple library and by revising old texts in the process of copying them and destroying the original, short-lived papyrus. According to Rogerson, “as late as the first century BC there was a group within Judaism that claimed and attributed revelations of God to Moses regarding vital matters of religion.” That is in reference to an apocryphal Temple Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contains plans for a temple, attributed to Moses and meant to supersede the canonical plan for the First Temple. Without apocrypha the Old Testament seems to have been finished around 164 BCE, going by a 2002 John J. Collins estimate of the age of “Daniel”, specifically its second half. The oldest parts borrow from Sumerian literature, which is itself up to 2000 years older than the Collins estimate.
It’s worth reading some books of the Old Testament to get a sense of how dull life was in the ancient Near East when regional Bronze Age cultures had collapsed around 1177 BCE. With their impoverished imagination, the authors show the incuriousness and brutality of that dark age. Through their religion, the message of wilful ignorance survived into Christianity.
References here: New Testament (ca. 110 CE), Reasons to invent Jesus, A Clockwork Orange (1962), “The Apple” (1967), Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie (1989), “Sins of the Father” (1990), “The Collaborator” (1994), Fight Club (1999), Devilman: Crybaby (2018).
‣ New Testament (ca. 110 CE)
A fork of Judaism, revolving around bigger blood sacrifice and a new god called Jesus extending the line of Jewish prophets.
Although written in the same tradition of wishful thinking as the Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE), the New Testament has the advantage of additional economic and philosophical development reaching Israel. It was written in the Pax Romana, a time when the interconnections of the late Bronze Age had been reknitted and the tribal Yahweh was no longer in fashion. On the whole, therefore, Jesus is more dignified and empathetic than the preceding prophet-wizards, which makes him more appealing as a fictional character.
An important piece of background for it is an already-existing split in Judaism between Sadducee and Pharisee sects, plus a bunch of fringe cults. As explained in Acts, “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things” (23:8). Basically, the Sadducees were a better informed upper class boosted by the Pax Romana, with beliefs resembling “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE).
On one level I admire the boldness of the escalation from Isaac to Jesus as a piece of fiction, something I trace in an article on reasons to invent Jesus. It’s a fusion of our most primitive delusions using internal logic, topped off with a tragedy resembling the murders of Emmett Till, John Hron et al. It’s got the power creep of a superhero comic. It even solves the problem of taboo, on the inelegant technicality that Jesus both was and was not human, and it obviates all future human sacrifice. On the other hand, it makes no sense that the creator of the universe—itself an extraneous hypothesis—would kill itself and survive to work around a bug in its creation. Similarly, it makes no sense to accuse people of sin in the first place. Anyway, it might have been possible to write amazing stories on the basis of the escalation. That is what the early Christians tried to do.
Though invented by and for Jews, by some coincidence the resulting religion was not a hit with Jews in the long term. Like the other cults of dying and rising gods at the time, but unlike early Yahwism, the cult of Jesus was cosmopolitan, memetically fit for the new age. It mutated rapidly. Not having to cut off your foreskin anymore became a selling point for adult male converts and the new version of Yahweh promised more than just a state for Abraham’s biological descendants.
‣ “The Holy Bible: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2015)
Zach Weinersmith (writer).
Read in 2020.
Yes, I am the real deal. If you hear someone else talking about some other Jesus, it’s not the genuine article. OKAY? You think I would put up with this crap if God didn’t make me do it? Check yourself, Corinth.
‣‣ “Science: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2017)
Zach Weinersmith (writer).
Read in 2020.
If you punch the universe, it punches right back.
‣‣ “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2018)
Zach Weinersmith (writer).
Read in 2020.
Beauty’s junked and virtue’s boned.
I’d die, but then you’d be aloned.
The biographical framework for interpreting the original is well summarized. The abbreviated poetry is remarkably readable in that context; the book actually succeeds as an introduction, unlike the series’ books on The Bible and science, which are merely inside jokes.