More on the Old Testament and How We Got It

We are taking a look at how we got the Old Testament  as part of a survey of the Bible. Let’s continue.


Because all we have are copies, some may worry about how careful the Old Testament copyists were. We know that we make mistakes copying information. It might be interesting at this point to talk about how the Old Testament was physically written. Almost all of it was written in Hebrew, with the exception of a few small portions, which were written in Aramaic. Most writing material was papyrus, made from the inner bark of the papyrus plant that grew plentifully along the banks of the Nile River. It was easy to write on, easy to roll, and cheap to produce. The problem was that it was not strong or long-lasting.


Until about 600 years after the birth of Christ, Hebrew was never written with any indication of what vowels should be used. The Jews knew how to pronounce the words only by the way they learned them in the school or synagogue. By the 10th century A.D., Jewish Masoretes introduced the vowel points which were worked into Jewish letters. Before then Hebrew writing was unpunctuated and missing vowels as well as having no  space between the words. Isaiah 7:14 in English and without vowels, punctuation, or spacing would look something like this: THRFRTHLRDHMSLFWLLGVYSGNTHVRGNWLLBWTHCHLDNDWLLGVBRTHTSNNDWLLCLLHMMMNL. Hard to read, right?


By the way, that’s why we’re not sure about the sacred name for God  since it was written out without vowels– YHWH. That word has been called the Tetragrammaton (having four letters); the best guess is that it was pronounced “Yahweh.”


A Look at the Old Testament

Let’s start a new discussion here as we go through the Bible as literature, one that’s full of misunderstandings–how the Bible was put together. We’ll start with the Old Testament.


We aren’t sure when writing was first invented, but we do have some samples dating from around 3100 B.C. They come from Sumer, part of Mesopotamia. Egyptian writings from about the same time have also survived. The earliest copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, was written much later.


Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the oldest copy we had for the entire Old Testament in Hebrew had been produced about 1000 A.D. These scrolls contained all of the books of the Old Testament (except Esther) as well as other documents.  They had been written in the first century A.D., and their value is that they take us back almost 1000 years closer than before to the originals, which are no longer in existence. So it’s good to know that over 95% of them matched the Hebrew Old Testament as we have it today.


Scholars can reasonably claim that if 1000 years (the time of Jesus for the Dead Sea Scrolls to our previous oldest copy in 1000 A.D.) showed such detailed accuracy and care in copying the manuscripts, then we must allow the same accuracy, for example,  for the previous 600 years from Isaiah’s original manuscript to the Dead Sea Scrolls copy. Other ancient writings are trusted, even with similar gaps between creation and our earliest copies.


More on the Bible as Literature

We have been discussing the value of the Bible. In past blog posts we mentioned its great literature, worldly wisdom, literary inspirations, and its words and phrases that have entered our language. Let’s end this discussion on perhaps its most important characteristic–the Bible is the cornerstone book of the Western world. Think about what we value in our society – an emphasis on the individual, the elevation of women, freedoms and civil rights we enjoy, the development of science, the emphasis on laws, our morality, our economic system. All these owe their ascendancy in the West to the Bible.


In recent research 41 outstanding teachers said that knowledge of the Bible is crucial for a good education and provides an educational advantage. Another survey of leading figures at secular colleges said the Bible is the key book for high school students to know.


It might be good to end with several interesting quotations about the Bible. One person said, “The Bible is the learned man’s masterpiece, the ignorant man’s dictionary, the wise man’s directory.” William James, the famous psychologist, noted that “the Bible contains more exquisite beauty, more morality, more important history, and finer strains of poetry and eloquence than can be collected from all other books.” Reid Buckley, a person who trains professional speakers, claims that if someone doesn’t read the Bible, he/she is “irreparably ignorant and culturally deprived.”


Thanks to the Bible for much in our language today

So, last time we looked at several reasons the Bible still has importance in today’s society, even among those who don’t believe its spiritual message. It has great literature, useful wisdom, and literary references we need to understand much literature.


In addition, our language has been enriched by the Bible. Think about these phrases: the tower of Babel, an eye for an eye, the scapegoat, the promised land, the valley of the shadow of death, inherit the wind, feet of clay, my brother’s keeper, the straight and narrow, the handwriting on the wall, a house divided against itself cannot stand, a pearl of great price, the blind leading the blind, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword, the meek shall inherit the earth, the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, turn the other cheek, oh ye of little faith, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, the good Samaritan, eat drink and be merry, the prodigal son, born again, doubting Thomas, a Damascus Road conversion, it is more blessed to give than to receive, the wages of sin, you reap what you sow. These all have their origins from biblical passages.


In addition, all sorts of common terms have come straight from the Bible – heaven, hell, angel, devil, Satan, atonement, Antichrist, Armageddon, apocalypse, babel, evangelist, mission, pagan, redeem, sabbath, testament, worship, Messiah, philistine, scapegoat.


These terms are even richer when used as allusions by many writers who expect their readers to pick up on the source for their works. Let’s continue next time with more reasons all should read the Bible.


Diving Into the Bible–Why Is It Important?

Let’s start by examining the importance of the Bible in today’s world. There are those who believe the Bible is only important for pious Christians and Jews who look at it for its theological significance. As a result, they don’t read it, and we end up with a biblically illiterate society. But the Bible has tremendous value beyond its theology.


First, it is a repository of some of the world’s best literature. Think of just the stories that are in the Bible – Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath, the ministry of Jesus, the missionary trips of Paul. In addition, some of its poetry ranks with the best the world has produced. A portion of Isaiah is inscribed at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The Bible has parables, history, letters, tragedies, and comedies throughout its pages.


Secondly, the Bible contains a lot of worldly wisdom. Take the book of Proverbs. Verses there discuss the value of relationships, money and financial wisdom, success in dealing with time constraints, the role of parents, the best way to deal with criticisms, the types of friends to have, and other practical advice. It’s no wonder that many people go through one chapter of Proverbs a day. By the end of the month, they have finished the book and gained wisdom.


The Bible is also the source of many literary inspirations. Think about the opening three words of Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” We will understand the character in the book so much better if we recognize the name Ishmael from the book of Genesis. Ernest Hemingway had a book called The Sun Also Rises, which takes its title from a passage in Ecclesiastes. One scholar claimed that Shakespeare had 1300 allusions to the Bible in his works. Other writers who were influenced by the Bible include John Milton, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leo Tolstoy, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and too many others to name. Of course, music, sculpture, painting, and other fine arts owe much to the Bible.


We’ll cover more on the importance of the Bible in the next post.


A new year for me

I am starting another year of teaching. Of course, this is now a part-time job, so there’s so much less pressure. I’d like to continue with my blog (on vacation for some time). Maybe for the next few months I can write about the Bible as literature since that was my favorite class to teach. I’d love to have a chance to teach it again, so I want to keep up by blogging on it. Here goes the first of many blogs on the Bible as literature.

Having taught a survey course in Biblical literature at Palomar College for a number of years, I have seen the need for some introductory material to help students understand many things: the culture of Biblical times, geography of the areas discussed, key names/places/events, an historical outline to be able to place the events in perspective, introductions to each book of the Bible, literary terms, and other important elements.  We are in a culture that has become Biblically illiterate, unfortunately.

So, in a series of blog posts, I’d like to share the kind of material I have gone over with my past classes. I will cover several key areas: the importance of the Bible, the history of the Bible itself, the history of the Bible world (very brief!), the geography of the Bible world, how to read the Bible, introductions for each book of the Bible, and literary devices found in the Bible.


Continuing to look at Total Truth

I have been going through the book by Nancy Pearcey called Total Truth. Since the concept of truth has become so confusing in our society today, I think it’s worthwhile to cover her material.


In the next section of Nancy Pearcey’s  book, Total Truth, she deals specifically with Darwinism.  She believes that so much of what is wrong today in American society goes back to how we see the beginning of life on earth.  The Christian perspective is that God created everything; the Darwinian view says matter randomly assembled itself without any overall design or plan.  The crucial thing to realize is what Darwinism does for the concept of truth. If evolution is true, than both religion and philosophical absolutes (goodness, truth, and beauty) are false.


She begins by showing how limited the evidence for Darwinian evolution really is.  First, evolutionists trot out the idea of Darwin’s finches, showing the beak size differs according to the habitats where they live.  However, this is nothing but a cyclical fluctuation; the birds were not on the road to evolving into a new kind of bird.  Beak size either grew or went back to a smaller size depending on the amount of rainfall.  This was cyclical, not heading anywhere.


The same thing applies to resistance of bacteria and viruses to antibiotics.  Once the drugs are removed, the changes reverse.  Then there are fruit flies — exposed to radiation, they produce many mutations.  After fifty years of bombarding fruit flies with radiation, scientists have not managed to turn them into any kind of new insect or even a new and improved fruit fly.


The third case involves peppered moths in England.  Supposedly, dark moths survived in England rather than light colored moths because of soot which during the Industrial Revolution darkened tree trunks where the moths perched.  The lighter colored moths were easier for birds to pick off.  This has been touted as the showcase example of natural selection.  Oops – it can now be revealed that the moths don’t actually perch on tree trunks in the wild.  But what about all the pictures of them doing so in textbooks?  Actually, scientists glued those moths onto the tree trunks.  Perhaps the most famous fake was a well-known exhibit of vertebrate embryos lined up side-by-side — fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, and human.  The point of the illustration is to show how similar all the embryos are, suggesting common ancestry.  It turns out the creator of this, Ernst Haeckel, fudged his sketches, making them look far more similar than they really are.  Scientists in his time, more than 100 years ago, already knew these illustrations were fakes, yet only recently have they publicly been talking about them.  Strangely enough, these illustrations still show up in biology textbooks.


OK, enough for now. More on Darwin in the next blog post.


More From Total Truth–Part 3

Let’s continue with more from Nancy Pearcey’s book Total Truth. Good stuff here.


Pearcey says we can use the same three-part format (see previous blog post) to compare worldviews.  Creation refers to ultimate origins (where did all come from?  how did we get here?).  Every worldview will also offer a counterpart to the fall, an explanation of the source of evil and suffering (what has gone wrong with the world?  why is there warfare and conflict?).  Finally, every worldview has to instill hope by offering a vision of redemption — a way to reverse the fall and set the world right again.


As an example, she turns to Marxism.  Regarding creation, Marxists believe matter itself is the creative power.  The fall, according to Marx, was the creation of private property, bringing about all the evils of exploitation and of class struggle.  Redemption, for Marxists, involves destroying private ownership of property.  This explains why Marxism has such widespread influence today even though it never produces the classless society it claims.  It taps into a deep religious hunger for redemption.


The second example comes from New Age thought.  The origin of all things is a universal, spiritual essence.  The source of evil and suffering is our sense of individuality, and we solve the problem by being reunited with this essence.


This is the first part of Total Truth.  Pearcey has shed light on the secular/sacred dichotomy that restricts Christianity to the realm of religious truth, which creates double minds and fragmented lives.  She tries to overcome this by training Christians to come up with a biblically based worldview using the structural elements of creation, fall, and redemption.

I’ll look at Part Two of her book, which zeroes in on creation with a focus on Darwinian evolution. In the meantime, I hope we all think about how we can live whole lives, having brought Christianity into both the public and the private aspects of our existence.


Total Truth–Part 2

I’m working my way through Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey because it is so useful to both Christians and non-Christians today.  In our western world it is not considered polite to mix public and private, secular and sacred areas. This division keeps Christianity from having as big an impact as it could have.  This is a second blog on the book with more to come because we all need to be reminded of the total truth that Christianity claims (and represents in my view).


Pearcey says the tragedy of the two-story split is that the things that matter most in life (dignity, freedom, personal identity, ultimate purpose) have been cast into the upper story with no grounding in accepted definitions of knowledge.  The bottom story is reserved for reason, scientific knowledge, facts, rationality.  But no one can live in that lower story because it takes all the joy and beauty out of life.


Pearcey wants all aspects of life to be injected with a Christian worldview perspective.  To do this, she says we must ask three sets of questions:

Creation: how was this aspect of the world originally created?  What was its original nature and purpose?

Fall: how has it been twisted and distorted by the fall?  How has it been corrupted by false worldviews?

Redemption: how can we bring this aspect of the world under the lordship of Christ, restoring it to its original, created purpose?


One example she uses appeals to me since that’s where I work everyday as a teacher — education.  Creation says that children are created in the image of God.  Education should seek to address all aspects of the human person.  Yet the biblical view of human nature is realistic enough because of the fall to remind us that children are prone to sin and in need of moral and intellectual direction.  Children are not naturally innocent and shouldn’t be allowed to come up with their own morality.  Finally, redemption means that education should help equip students to take up vocations to bring about a better world.


Total Truth–Part 1

I was just thinking about a powerful and provocative book by Nancy Pearcey called Total Truth (2004).  I looked at my notes about it and wanted to share it here. The book discusses the split between the sacred and the secular in today’s society—a major problem.  Does God belong in the public square in areas of politics, business, law, and education?  Or is religion strictly a private matter?  Secular thinkers have ruled Christian principles out of bounds in the public arena.  According to Pearcey, we need to unify our fragmented lives and understand there is such a thing as total truth that applies all across society, not just in religious matters..  This is a worldview book, dealing with the importance of how we see and understand the world.  In the next few blogs, I would like to mention some of the highlights of this book.


She says the first step to form a Christian worldview is to overcome a sharp divide in our society between the public and private.  We are told there is a public sphere which is scientific and value-free.  It is made up of facts and scientific knowledge.  It is rational and verifiable.  It is objective and universally valid.  Then we are told that there is a private sphere made up of personal preferences, values, individual choices that are full of subjective feelings.  It’s nonrational and noncognitive.  This divide is the single most potent weapon to delegitimize the biblical perspective in the public square today.  Most secularists consign religion to the value sphere, treating it as if it has no relevance to the public realm.


Pearcey believes Christians have to find a way to overcome this dichotomy.  She turns to a classic book called The Christian Mind by Harry Blamires, in which the author claimed there is no longer a Christian mind.  He meant there was no shared, biblically based set of assumptions on subjects like law, education, economics, politics, science, or the arts. Christians follow the Bible and pray, but outside of church they succumb to secularism.  We need to understand that Christianity gives truth about the whole of reality.  She warns of a particular danger here — if Christians do not consciously develop a biblical approach to all aspects of their lives,  they will unconsciously absorb some other philosophical approaches.


Pearcey offers three examples of how Christians need to influence their culture based on a worldview that sees the value of Christianity in all aspects of life.  Her first case involves the way Christians are taking over philosophy departments and universities across the country.  Why is this happening?  Largely because of the work of one Christian philosopher – Alvin Plantinga.  He writes well and has shown that Christians are capable of using their work to influence society, in this case academia.  Another example is the work of David Larson, who turned around the medical community on the subject of religion and health.  His studies found that religious beliefs actually correlate with better mental health, in contrast to Freud, who had said belief in God was a neurosis.  The final example is Marvin Olasky, a former Marxist who analyzed American welfare policy.  He discovered that churches didn’t just hand out money to the poor.  Instead, they helped people change their lives, focusing on job training and education.  Churches required that the poor do some useful work, giving them a chance to rebuild their dignity by making a worthwhile contribution to society.  On the other hand, government aid to the poor actually makes things worse by rewarding antisocial and dysfunctional patterns.  It was Olasky who came up with the term “compassionate conservatism.” This concept resonated with George W. Bush, who attempted to make changes in dealing with the poor based on this concept.  So these three examples illustrate the way people’s Christian beliefs can go beyond the private realm to make positive changes in the public sphere.