In the beginning and in the second beginning

In the beginning and in the second beginning

And so we begin our overview of the Bible. For the next six or seven weeks we will be looking at the structure of this book, which is central to our faith. This is of course too short a time to cover everything about it, but my hope is to give you a taste of some of the thinking of scholars about how and when the Bible was written, by whom and for what reasons. We will look at some issues of translation and the challenges posed for Biblical scholarship by the fact that we do not have a verified original copy. And most of all, my hope is to deepen our understanding of the role that Scripture plays in our life of faith.

A logical place to begin would seem to be at the beginning, with the book of Genesis, except that is not the beginning, or at least it is not the oldest book of the Bible. Exodus, which we find in the number two position, is actually older. By looking at the language used, the fragments of text from ancient times and other sources scholars are pretty well agreed that the stories in the book of Exodus evolved before those in Genesis.

Next week we will look more closely at Exodus and the story of the founding of the nation of Israel. Today we look at Genesis, focusing on the stories it contains about the creation of humankind. Yes there are two stories here, as Bari and I tried to illustrate through telling them in two different ways. Scholars are pretty well agreed that there were at least three or four different writers of the first five books of the Bible. The way that Bari told the story was intended to point to its origin as an oral tradition that was first written down nearly 700 years before Christ’s birth. Its origin was perhaps hundreds of years before that.

As Bari told the story of the creation of humankind she evoked the image of a wise elder seated around a campfire in the middle of the desert responding to the child’s question ‘where did we come from?’ The answer is quite simple – God made us, or as the Hebrew texts have it “Yahweh” made us.

The other version of the creation of humankind is a much more structured telling of the story. It is set in the midst of a formal pattern that describes God as creating the world and the cosmos and humankind in six days. Humankind, you will notice is the last item on the divine shopping list.  What is significant for our purposes today is that in this telling of the story the Hebrew word “Elohim” is what gets translated as God.

So, in the first story Yahweh is the creator, in the other it is Elohim who creates. This is one of the clues that scholars pick up on in trying to sift out who wrote different parts of the Bible. And there is general consensus that where God is referred to as Yahweh it is a different person writing than in those passages where God is referred to as Elohim.

I need to stop here for a moment and note that when I say there were two different persons writing, that is a shorthand way of referring to what was much more likely the case, which is that there were two different groups of people writing the two versions of the story. We can do no more than engage in supposition here for no copy of the author’s notes has survived over the 2700 years since the first versions of the Hebrew Bible were written down. But given what we do know about the way in which religious scholarship was carried out in those days it seems likely that rather than being written by one energetic individual these ancient texts were the result of drafts and commentaries and revisions circulated among a group of scribes. The process is rather like the way that the Supreme Court, made up of nine judges, creates its collective reasons for judgment when it decides a legal case.

The two writers of these two stories are referred to as the Yahwist and the Priestly writers. We call the writer of the older version the Yahwist because he refers to God that way. I say he because it is most likely the author was a male, this was a patriarchal society after all, however, some feminist interpreters of scripture have recently made the intriguing case that this author was female. If that is the case it casts a new light on the way we understand this version of the creation story.

The Priestly writer differs from the Yahwist not only in how he refers to God, but also in the intention with which he is writing. The Yahwist is writing down stories that were first told around campfires in the desert. There is a casualness in their phrasing and a meandering quality to the narrative. They are folk tales intended to create a sense of community amongst disparate nomads wandering in the desert. These stories tell the people that they are connected, by pointing to a shared ancestry and a shared God.

The Priestly writer has crafted and shaped the stories much more deliberately. We recall that the passage I read today is part of a long list of things that God created. On the first day God created heaven and earth. Although, if you forgive another aside, it is not so much that God created as that God separated. On the first day God separates light from dark. On the second God separates waters above from waters below. On the third day God separates land from water. Only once things have been organized on a macro scale does God begin the serious work of creating plants, fish, animals and finally humans.

This focus on separating things is more evidence that this is the priestly writer at work because the priests of Israel when they were creating this text 500 or more years before Jesus wanted to emphasise that God’s design was to separate things. The chaos that God encounters in the very first verse needs to be ordered before creation can really begin. Similarly, the nation of Israel could only begin once the people were organized, which is the first task of the law – it separates Israel from its neighbours by prescribing how the people shall behave, and most importantly how they shall behave toward what they understand to be the one true God.

The primary feature of the priestly writer, however, is his use of formal narrative structures. Putting things in lists. Attempting to be comprehensive, to include all categories of creatures and plants. This is a more legalistic mindset than that of the Yahwist. If the older story was first heard around a campfire we can imagine this version first being read aloud as part of a worship service or as a proclamation in the Hall of Assembly or the Palace of the King.

There are other features of the language that suggest to scholars that there are two different voices here, but those require a parsing of the Hebrew which I am not competent to provide to you, except for one particular. I mentioned that the Priestly writer refers to God as Elohim, not Yahweh. Elohim is a plural word so it would be more accurate to translate it as “Gods” – “when Gods were creating the heavens and the earth.” Some scholars suggest that the plural points to a God who is both male and female.

Let me leave our look at these two passages here and go on to address a question that may have arisen for you as I’ve been speaking. If several different writers wrote the Bible, where does that leave the notion that this is the word of God. When we refer to scripture as God’s word doesn’t that mean that God wrote it?  Certainly that is how some people hear that affirmation.

Scholars have to acknowledge that there is a speculative or probabilistic character to their work. While I am presenting what I understand to be widely shared academic understandings, there is no universal agreement. If the Bible were indeed the word of God, meaning written by God, all this scholarship would be mere wind and noise. However, there is no original text of the Bible, there are only fragments of varying degrees of antiquity until we get to the first, more or less, complete Hebrew text that has survived into the present. And that text was created around 300 years after Jesus’ death. That text, the Masoretic text, was created with some input from even more ancient Hebrew texts, which are now lost, but it was primarily drawing on a Greek Translation of the Old Testament completed some 200 years before Jesus’ birth.

In other words we have no written original text signed by the finger of God. What we have is a Hebrew translation of a Greek translation of Hebrew originals that are now lost. And these works span at least 500 years.

It’s a little misleading for me to refer to these texts as the Old Testament. Firstly because the Jews, whose book it is after all, don’t call it that. Secondly because while there is a large degree of coherence in terms of the books contained in various versions of the Old Testament there are variations. Some books contained in the older versions of the Hebrew Scriptures did not make it into subsequent versions. There are irresolvable doubts about what is to be counted as Scripture simply because of the difficulties that arise when a text is handed down, sometimes in oral form, over centuries. The original texts, whatever shape they took, have been destroyed. Fragments of all of the books of the Old Testament were discovered in 1948 with the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, even those, ancient as they are, cannot be certified as ‘original’.

Once we determine what documents are to be counted as Biblical, what books make up the collection and which of the competing versions are to be taken as closest to the lost authentic originals, further doubt about original meaning arises with the fact that we have no complete copies in the original language. What we have are translations or even translations of translations.

While scholars do not generally subscribe to the idea that God was directly responsible for even the most ancient texts, their work is nonetheless important to those people who do, because what scholars are seeking to do is to discern what those lost ancient texts said and to convey them in our modern languages in a way that reflects across time and cultures the intention of the original authors, divine or otherwise.

Jews traditionally ascribe authorship of the first five books of the bible not to God but to Moses. There is little scholarly support for this idea of a single author, nonetheless it is instructive to us to be reminded that divine authorship is not a belief held by the religious community who’s Scriptures we are investigating.

In my view the evidence is persuasive that there were many authors and that they were recounting their experiences of God or the stories that had been passed down to them about their ancestors’ experiences of God. They were not transcribing divine dictation. What is significant for us, I believe, is the meaning that these stories, and this book, have for our faith. And that is something we will continue to explore in weeks to come.

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