Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Noah’s Flood

illustration-from-german-bible-by-anton-koberger-1483

In 1996, Old Testament scholar David Carr published the results of his study into the history of Genesis’s formation. This book, Reading the Fractures of Genesis, made significant progress in unravelling the mystery of how the Pentateuch was composed. I’d like to write a few articles about Carr’s model and how it applies to various passages, beginning with the flood.

It has been recognized by scholars since the 18th century that Genesis and the Pentateuch were composed from multiple sources. The dominant model that most are familiar with today is Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis (DH) from the late 19th century, which proposed four independent sources (J, E, D, and P) whose texts had been combined to form the Torah. Today, the original DH has been largely abandoned in favour of newer models, although many of its fundamental principles are still widely accepted.

Carr’s book gets back to basics and focuses solely on Genesis for developing his source theory. He draws attention to the presence of “fractures” or fault lines in the text of Genesis that cause problems for interpretation. According to another scholar — G.H. Hartman, whom Carr quotes — these fractures indicate “the tension that results between producing one authoritative account and respecting traditions characterized by a certain heterogeneity” (p. 11). In other words, Genesis attempts to create a unified story out of traditions that aren’t always in agreement, as demonstrated by clues throughout the text. Continue reading “Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Noah’s Flood”

Did Mark Invent the Sea of Galilee?

Backhuysen, Ludolf - Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee - 1695

Most of Mark’s Gospel prior to the passion narrative revolves around a body of water the author calls the Sea of Galilee. It is the geographical focal point where Jesus calls his disciples, preaches to the crowds, travels (by boat), and performs his miracles — including many that involve the sea itself. It is a dangerous body of water whose raging waves must be quelled by Jesus on one occasion to save his shipmates.

There is, in fact, no “sea” in the Galilee region of Palestine. There is a lake in the right location that matches the geographical description of Mark’s sea in many (thought not all) respects. But no ancient writer prior to Mark ever mentions a body of water called the Sea of Galilee, and some of the reasons Mark gives the sea such a prominent role are often overlooked. Continue reading “Did Mark Invent the Sea of Galilee?”

The Story of Balaam: How Biblical Tradition Turned a Prophet of God into an Arch-Heretic

John Linnell, The Prophet Balaam and the Angel, 1859

In 1967, inscriptions written on a crumbled plaster wall were discovered during the excavation of Tell Deir ‘Alla in Jordan. Dated to the early 8th century BCE and written in a local Canaanite dialect, the inscriptions drew great attention when their title, written in red ink, was translated and found to say “Text of Balaam son of Beor, seer of the gods.” This remarkable find provided independent attestation of local tradition about a seer named Balaam who was already well-known to us from the Bible, and deciphering the fragmentary texts has been an ongoing task of archaeologists and linguistic experts since then.

The biblical Balaam passages are not without their own difficulties. The main story of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 is contradicted by other brief references in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, as well as three mentions of him in the New Testament. The importance of Balaam to the development of Christian theology is also remarkable, as we shall see once we untangle the development of the Balaam legend. Continue reading “The Story of Balaam: How Biblical Tradition Turned a Prophet of God into an Arch-Heretic”

Jesus the Shapeshifter in Early Christian Tradition

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - MARCH 3, 2015: The mosaic of the arresting of Jesus in Gethsemane garden in The Church of All Nations (Basilica of the Agony) by Pietro D'Achiardi (1922 - 1924).

What did Jesus look like? That’s a question that no book in the New Testament seems interested in answering. Growing up around illustrated Bibles and Sunday school flannelgraphs that depicted the Saviour as a tall, handsome, bearded Caucasian figure with wavy, chestnut locks, it never occurred to me that the Gospels were devoid of any physical description.

Let’s consider some texts about other characters from the ancient Greco-Roman world. Here is how the appearance of Aesop is described in Life of Aesop:

He was truly horrible to behold: worthless, pot-bellied, slant-headed, snub-nosed, hunchbacked, leather-skinned, club-footed, knock-kneed, short-armed, sleepy-eyed, bushy-lipped – in short, an absolute miscreant.

Though the actual existence of Aesop is dubious, character descriptions are an important part of a biographical text¹, and the appearance of Aesop helps convey his character as a “mad wise man”.

Diogenes Laertius describes Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, as follows in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers:

Zeno…had a wry neck, says Timotheus of Athens in his book On Lives. Moreover, Apollonius of Tyre says he was lean, fairly tall, and swarthy—hence some one called him an Egyptian vine-branch, according to Chrysippus in the first book of his Proverbs. He had thick legs; he was flabby and delicate. Hence Persaeus in his Convivial Reminiscences relates that he declined most invitations to dinner. They say he was fond of eating green figs and of basking in the sun.

Alexander the Great is described thusly in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander:

The statues that gave the best representation of Alexander’s person were those of Lysippus…, those peculiarities which many of his successors afterwards and his friends used to affect to imitate, the inclination of his head a little on one side towards his left shoulder, and his melting eye, having been expressed by this artist with great exactness. But Apelles, who drew him with thunderbolts in his hand, made his complexion browner and darker than it was naturally; for he was fair and of a light colour, passing into ruddiness in his face and upon his breast.

Perhaps the closest thing we get to a character description in the Gospels is Matthew’s introduction of John the Baptist:

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matt. 3:4)

However, there are certain Gospel passages related to Jesus’ appearance that fostered an interesting belief among early Christians: Jesus was a shapeshifter. Continue reading “Jesus the Shapeshifter in Early Christian Tradition”

Behold Your Gods, O Israel — The Golden Calves of Aaron and Jeroboam

Gerrit de Wet - The Adoration of the Golden Calf - first half of 17th century

No scene in the Old Testament characterizes the Israelites’ frequent apostasy more vividly than the Golden Calf incident in Exodus. Like so many other biblical stories, however, this tale reveals a complicated history of development and other problems that render its intent ambiguous.

The Golden Calf story does not stand in isolation, for 1 Kings tells a very similar story about the creation of two golden calves by king Jeroboam, and there are additional references to the golden calves in Hosea, Psalms, Deuteronomy, and elsewhere. The two incidents appear to be related, but how exactly?

The situation becomes more complicated still when we bringing historical and archaeological evidence. Having skimmed several dozen books and articles that discuss the golden calves of Exodus and 1 Kings, I will attempt to summarize the most widespread academic views. Continue reading “Behold Your Gods, O Israel — The Golden Calves of Aaron and Jeroboam”

Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a Fable about the Afterlife?

De rijke man en de arme Lazarus by Jacopo da Ponte, 16th century

Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is remarkable for several reasons. It is the only Gospel parable in which a character is named. It seemingly has no parallel in the other Synoptics. It is often thought to be based on a pagan folktale. And it presents a view of the afterlife that is utterly unique in the Bible.

Figuring out the author’s intent with this parable has been a challenge, and many differing opinions have been offered. I’d like to look at some of the sources Luke may have drawn upon, and what message I think the parable is intended to convey. There are also some connections with the other Gospels that might get overlooked by most readers. Continue reading “Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a Fable about the Afterlife?”

The Origins of Yahweh and the Revived Kenite Hypothesis

Moses and the Burning Bush (Byzantine Mosaic) Cropped

The God of Israel is referred to by a number of names in the Old Testament. The two most significant are “El” (with its variants) and “Yahweh”. Thanks in large part to the religious libraries uncovered among the ruins of Ugarit, a Bronze Age city-state to the north of Israel, we now know a great deal about El as a distinct Canaanite deity who was regarded as the most high god in Ugarit, as he would be later in Israel.

It is generally understood that the cults dedicated to Yahweh and El originated independently of each other before their eventual merger — a process still not completed when much of the Old Testament was written. But determining how Yahweh came to be the patron deity of Israel and Judah is not so simple. The lack of archaeological evidence has required Bible scholars to rely mostly on the text of the Bible itself.

The theory known as the Kenite hypothesis is one that has been around since the 19th century, initially proposed by the theologian F. W. Ghillany in 1862. According to this view, Yahweh was originally the God of the Kenite tribe prior to the Israelite settlement of Canaan. The Kenite hypothesis lost momentum as modern biblical studies undermined some of its key premises, but it seems to be making a comeback thanks to newer findings and a reassessment of the biblical texts. Continue reading “The Origins of Yahweh and the Revived Kenite Hypothesis”

Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

Govert Flinck, Aankondiging aan de herders (Angels announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds), 1639

The nativity of Jesus is such a beloved tale, it’s hard to read it critically without feeling a twinge of guilt, as though I am betraying something sacred and magical in my desire to see where the story comes from and how it’s put together. And yet, it’s not the text itself I defy by scrutinizing the Bible, so much as the myth our culture has created in place of what the text actually says.

When I wrote about Matthew’s nativity story a year ago, I tried to emphasize that, despite its reverence for the Bible, Christianity shows remarkable disregard for the actual details as written. Whether we admit it or not, it is clear from our actions that we understand the Christmas story as a malleable, adaptable legend and not as a fixed historical event.

Purely by coincidence, the nearby preschool my two boys attend here in Japan is a Christian institution, and their annual Christmas recital always includes a nativity play, acted out by the oldest class. This year’s performance was a blend of the stories found in Matthew and Luke, with elements freely modified or omitted as the director saw fit. King Herod — played by my six-year-old, who wore a golden crown obviously modeled after the British crown jewels, Anglican cross included (what a wonderful anachronism!) — heard about the messiah’s birth before the magi ever arrived. No slaughter of innocents was shown, and the family of Jesus had no need to flee to Egypt. The angels sang, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Of course, the Bible tells no story resembling this or any other church nativity play I’ve ever seen. Matthew’s story of the star, the magi, and the flight to Egypt is entirely different from Luke’s tale, which I’m looking at in detail today. Once again, I am indebted to the writings of David Friedrich Strauss — one of the first Protestant theologians to read the Gospels critically — and the renowned Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown. Continue reading “Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”

The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery

Mosaic of the Drunkenness of Noah, Basilica di San Marco, Venice, 1215-35 (cropped)

One of many puzzling passages that anyone reading the Bible from the beginning is soon confronted with is a story in which the flood hero Noah gets drunk and falls asleep naked—and which concludes with Noah placing a curse on his grandson Canaan. Since this passage was brought up by a commenter recently, I thought I’d look into it more closely.

Part of the reason, no doubt, for the impression of strangeness it leaves on readers is that it is (understandably) almost never preached on in church and may surprise those who remember the tale of Noah in children’s storybook terms, full of cuddly animals and pretty rainbows. When Aronofsky’s film Noah came out in 2014, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show aired a segment poking fun at religious viewers who were irked by the inclusion of a scene in which the titular character got drunk—and who were apparently oblivious to the existence of that very story in Genesis 9. In fact, during pre-release screenings of Noah to Christian audiences, viewers who didn’t realize the story was biblical reacted so negatively to the drunkenness scene that Paramount Pictures considered cutting it.

There was, however, a time when churchgoers might have been more familiar with Noah’s wine-imbibing ways, since the so-called “curse of Ham” that resulted was often invoked to show that enslavement and marginalization of Africans had been God’s divine will from the dawn of humanity. But more on that later. Let’s see what the text itself has to say. Continue reading “The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery”

The Development of the Lord’s Prayer

Pater Noster (15th century French Book of Hours) 2

It’s time for another look at the Synoptic Problem. This time I’m interested in a very well-known piece of text called the Lord’s Prayer or Pater Noster, which is how it begins in the liturgical Latin version.

Recitation of the Lord’s Prayer from the King James Bible was a daily ritual at my childhood school, so it is something I know by heart like perhaps the majority of Christians over the past two thousand years. It is precisely this familiarity that makes the textual development of the prayer difficult to analyze, since scribes had a strong tendency to correct the version in front of them with the version they knew from memory. Thus, the version we find in Luke 11 of the late Greek Textus Receptus — and in English versions that are based on this text, like the King James — is nearly identical to that found in Matthew 6. But it was not always so. Continue reading “The Development of the Lord’s Prayer”