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Hebrew Bible/Old Testament

Was the King of Israel Called God??

Yesterday I showed that beings other than God could be called God in the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish literature.  It seems strange, but there it is.   I continue now with an especially important case in point: the king of Israel.  In this case there doesn't seem to be much ambiguity about the matter. Again, this is from my book How Jesus Became God. ****************************** Hebrew Bible scholar John Collins points out that the Israelite notion that the human king could be considered in some sense divine ultimately appears to derive from Egyptian ways of thinking about their king, the Pharaoh.[1]   Even in Egypt, where the king was God, it did not mean that the king was on a par with the great gods, any more than the Roman emperor was thought to be on a par with Jupiter or Mars.  But he was a God.   In Egyptian and Roman circles, there were levels of divinity.   So too, as we have seen, in Jewish circles.   Thus we find highly exalted terms used of the [...]

2021-01-18T09:29:03-05:00January 23rd, 2021|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Could Jews Consider Someone Other than God To Be God?

In order to explain how Jesus came to be seen as his followers as God – the first step to understanding where the doctrine of the Trinity came from – I have been discussing a widespread view in the Greek and Roman worlds, that other very special human beings were thought to have become divine, considered and worshiped as immortal gods, for example by being taken up to heaven at the end of their lives. You might well wonder, though, what “pagan” beliefs have to do with early Christian beliefs.  Jesus and his followers were Jews, so why would it be relevant what polytheists believed?  It’s a good question, but there’s also a good answer.  The belief that humans could be divine is found not only in ancient Greek and Roman circles (and Egyptian circles and others!), but also in Jewish. That may come as a surprise.  Jews who were monotheists thought that others could be God, along with the one God?  Uh, how does *that* work? As it turns out, you can find it [...]

2021-01-18T09:26:20-05:00January 21st, 2021|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Were Ancient Israelites Actually Monotheists?

The first thing to stress in considering the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is that even though the orthodox view (that is, the one that got declared “right”;  “Orthodoxy” literally means “right opinion”) claimed there were three persons in the godhead, there was only one God.  That is, Christians insisted they were monotheists.  No doubt they did so because they quite consciously came out of the Jewish tradition and wanted to retain its monotheistic emphasis.  But that in itself needs to be thought about for a minute. Just about everyone thinks that Jews are and always have been strictly monotheistic.  As it turns out, the matter is hotly debated and not all that simple.  There are indeed passages in the Hebrew Bible that stress there is only one God, most importantly in some parts of Isaiah, especially the parts called “Second Isaiah” (chapters 40-55); they are called this because this part of the book was not written by “Isaiah of Jerusalem,” the prophet of the 8th c. BCE, but by a later author with many [...]

2021-01-02T16:39:02-05:00January 12th, 2021|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Was The Messiah Supposed to Be Born of a Virgin?

Here in the lead-up to December 25, I am discussing some issues related to Jesus' birth.  As I mentioned in my previous post, in the entire New Testament, the story of the virgin birth is found only in Matthew and Luke.  Luke has a pretty straightforward explanation of why Jesus had to be born of a virgin: it's because he was (literally) the "Son of God."  That is, God is the one who got Mary pregnant, as the angel tells her at the Annunciation:  read Luke 1:31-35, and notice the angels' explanation: the Spirit of God will "come upon her ... SO THAT" the child born of her will be called "The Son of God." Matthew, though, has a different explanation.  For Matthew Jesus had to be born of a virgin because that is what was predicted in the Old Testament. This view fits in very well with Matthew's entire birth narrative of chapters 1-2.  Everything happens "to fulfill Scripture." Why was Jesus’ mother a virgin? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Isaiah [...]

Christianizing the Old Testament and the Museum of the Bible: Guest Post by Jill Hicks-Keeton

Here now is a final guest post on the Museum of the Bible by Jill Hicks-Keeton, one of the two editors of the recent book that contains a number of evaluative essays by a range of scholars.  Her title asks the driving question of her post and her first word answers it! Many thanks to Jill and her co-editor Cavan Concannon for providing these three posts.  If they have sparked your interest -- check out the book! Jill will be happy to respond to your comments and questions.   *************************************************************** Can the Bible Organize History? By Jill Hicks-Keeton No—but the Museum of the Bible makes an intrepid, though misguided, effort. By its very name, the Museum of the Bible must privilege certain literature: texts that became biblical. The institution is structurally organized around the category “Bible.” Yet, as readers of this blog will already know, none of the biblical writers thought they were writing something called Bible, as moderns know it today.[1] In my work analyzing the exhibits at the Museum of the Bible (MOTB), [...]

How Accurate are our Copies of the Hebrew Bible?

After my recent posts on the Dead Sea Scrolls a number of readers have asked me about the surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible.  Is it true that Jewish scribes didn’t make copying errors and intentional alterations in the copies of the Hebrew Bible they produced, unlike the Christian scribes who made thousands?  How many manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible do we have?  How have the Dead Sea Scrolls affected our understanding of Jewish copying practices? All terrific questions – both interesting and important.  I give an explanation of the situation in the second edition of my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.  Here it is:   ************************************************************************* THE TEXT OF THE HEBREW BIBLE We have seen that the earliest writings of the Hebrew Bible were probably produced during the eighth century B.C.E. This is the date of the oldest prophets such as Amos and Isaiah of Jerusalem. When an ancient author produced a book, he obviously wrote it out by hand. And if anyone wanted a copy, he had to copy it [...]

2020-07-01T19:21:25-04:00July 1st, 2020|Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

The Importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Understanding Jesus: Readers’ Mailbag

A few posts ago I discussed, very briefly, the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I received a number of questions about the post, one in particular with some frequency: how did the discovery of the Scrolls contribute to our understanding of Jesus and early Christianity?  For me as a NT scholar, it is obviously an unusually important question. Let me stress that the Scrolls are *mainly* important for understanding early Judaism, and only secondarily for understanding early Christianity.  But with that said, they are *really* important for Christianity as well, though not in ways you might suspect (especially if you acquire all your historical knowledge from random searches on the Internet!). As it turns out, I received virtually this same question seven years ago on the blog, and here is how I addressed it there.   Question: Can you write a post on how the Dead Sea Scrolls advance our understanding of the birth of Christianity?   Response: This is a question that can be answered in one sentence, or in a very long and dense book [...]

What Are The Dead Sea Scrolls?

Here's a topic I haven't discussed in a while!  Just about every thinking human being in our context has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even if they have no clue what the scrolls are, what they contain, and how they were found.  And it's no surprise they've heard of them.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are by virtual consensus the most significant manuscript discovery of the twentieth century, of major importance for understanding Judaism at the time of Jesus and, in some respects, the teachings of Jesus himself. Here is what I say about the scrolls in my New Testament textbook.  I begin by talking about the Jewish group widely thought to have been responsible for producing, using, and eventually hiding the scrolls -- which remained hidden from 70 CE until 1947!  The group is called the Essenes.   **************************************************   The Essenes are the one Jewish sect not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament.  Ironically, they are also the group about which we are best informed.  This is because ... THE REST OF THIS POST [...]

Readers Mailbag: Does Isaiah 53 Predict the Death and Resurrection of Jesus?

I would like to get back into the practice of devoting one post a week to answering questions raised by blog members.  I have a fairly long list of good questions I haven’t been able to get to, so why not just go through them week by week?  If you have any pressing questions that are particularly intriguing or perplexing for you about the NT or early Christianity or any related topic, let me know as a comment on a post (any post will do, whether relevant or not).  If it’s not something I can address or that I can answer in a line or two, I’ll let you know.  Otherwise, I can add it to the list! At the top of my current list is the following.   QUESTION: I wonder if you could talk about Isaiah 53 which I think is also a later insert by the scribes trying to justify what they had done to Jesus.   RESPONSE: Ah, now *this* is a passage that students bring up every time I teach [...]

Is There Any Point To Life? More on Ecclesiastes

I have been talking about the distinctive views of the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the real gems of the Hebrew Bible, a book that refuses to accept easy answers or blithe truisms about life, but faces reality head on.   No matter what we do or how we try to explain it away, life is short.  Very very short.  The author of course had no conception of what we know now about time in relation to lifespan.  What would he say if he knew that the world (what we would call the universe -- something about which also he had no knowledge) was not a few thousand years old but 13.8 billion? My guess is that he would say the same thing he already does, but possibly with a few more explanation points.   Given how incredibly brief our life is, even if we live to "old" age -- what's the point of it?  Is there a point?   I think there is.  And I find not just value but also hope in his reflections.   Here is [...]

2020-04-20T08:48:11-04:00April 20th, 2020|Afterlife, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

What Is The Meaning of Life? The Book of Ecclesiastes

In my previous post I pointed to the "Wisdom" literature of the Old Testament (usually said to comprise Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes), suggesting that this is a good time for all of us to ingest some wisdom from those who went before.  The book of Ecclesiastes has long been my favorite in the Old Testament.  It seems so modern in so many ways.  Even though written over 2000 years ago, it considers ageless questions about what the *point* of it all is. If you don't know it, it's worth reading; it won't take long.   If you do know it, it's worth reading again.   To provide some orientation to the overall theme of the book, here is what I say about it in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction,  (I begin with the final paragraph from the last post) ******************************************************************** Of the Wisdom books found in the Hebrew Bible, one, the book of Proverbs may be considered a representative of what we might call “positive wisdom.”  This is the more typical form of [...]

2020-04-19T12:02:37-04:00April 19th, 2020|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

A Good Time for Wisdom!

We are living in a time of virtually unparalleled crisis, and it is forcing us not only to cope with tragedy -- either our own or that of so many millions of others -- but also to make sense of it and figure it out.  It is easy to come up with simple Pollyanna views that don't take seriously the trauma, and to cite religious mantras that try to make it sound like it is all right, when in fact it is not.  And the reality is, most people very much *don't* want to go down the rabbit hole of deep reflection. I certainly, absolutely, do not think this is a time for despair and complete despondency.  But I do think it is a time for thoughtful reflection, on the state of the world, on our values and priorities as a human race, a nation, a locality, and individuals.  Being in isolation for a couple of months can certainly provide us some opportunity to think about our world, our lives, our own goals and objectives, [...]

Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell

This post is free for anyone who wants to look.  Every week on the blog I post five times, dealing with all sorts of issues connected with the New Testament and early Christianity.  Interested?  Why not join?  It doesn't cost much, you get tons for your money, and every nickel you pay goes to deserving charities.   I’m excited about my next book, being published on March 31, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.   It’s already getting good reviews in the trade journals, the publications that announce which books are soon to come out and have experts review them in advance, so that book sellers, book stores, libraries, and so on know whether they want to buy them, and for book sellers and stores, in what quantities.  So that’s all good. A while back I decided to try to encapsulate the essence of the book in a short essay, a kind of 2000 word summary of what it’s all about and why it matters.   I will give it here, over the course of [...]

An Older Manuscript Controversy about the Dead Sea Scrolls

I've been thinking about controversies over ancient Christian and Jewish manuscripts lately, in connection with the (false) claim that a First Century copy of Mark had been discovered.  Browsing around on the blog I saw that I dealt with a completely different manuscript controversy on the blog many years ago, involving the Dead Sea Scrolls. I had forgotten all about it.  This one involved a court case and jail time!   Here's what I said:   ************************************************************** A few years ago I was asked to give a speech at a museum in Raleigh NC in connection with an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls that had been long in the works and had finally become a reality. I will be the first to admit, I'm not the first person you should think of to give a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s not my field of scholarship. But the lecture was to be one of a series of lectures, and the other lecturers actually were experts, including my colleague Jodi Magness, a world-class archaeologist who [...]

2020-04-02T14:34:37-04:00December 4th, 2019|Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Are Same-Sex Relations Condemned in the Old Testament?

When people want to show that the Bible condemns same-sex relations – either to justify depriving LGBTQ people of civil rights, to condemn them morally, to preclude them from serving in church offices, or even to participate at all in faith communities (or for any other reason) – there are a few passages that typically get cited, usually with vigor. I should stress that there are only a few passages that get cited, since out of the entire Bible – thirty-nine books in the Old Testament, twenty-seven in the New – there are in fact very few that appear to relate to the matter directly.  I stress both the adverb “directly” and the verb “appear.” In terms of “directly: It is possible to take thousands of passage that have nothing to do with same-sex relations and say that they are definitive for them (as in the phrase that was already worn out decades ago: Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve). In terms of “appear”: virtually all of the passages that do seem to deal [...]

Why Women Are To Be Subservient to Men

This past Friday I gave a talk at a Pride Event in Chapel Hill, in connection with our Homecoming for alumni interested in LGBTQ issues (we beat Duke the next day in one of the weirdest final five minutes of a football game I’ve ever seen).   The title of the talk was “Sex and Gender in the Bible” and the overarching questions were “what does the Bible actually say?” and “how much of it is relevant to a modern situation?” The questions matter because the Bible, in many ways and in many passages, does not actually say what people think it says, and the reason for raising the question of relevance is not exactly what most people imagine (though it’s related). I had planned for the talk to focus on “homosexuality” and “same-sex relations” (which are the same thing) in the Bible, but I started out by explaining the biblical view(s) of the relationship of the genders, since the question of same-sex sex is closely related to it, in ways most people do not know [...]

Who Wrote the Pentateuch? The JEDP Hypothesis

In response to my recent posts about the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Bible, especially in the opening five books, the “Pentateuch” (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) I have had several members of the blog ask about the “Documentary Hypothesis” which postulates that one reason for the discrepancies is that whoever published these five books was not a single author (Moses or anyone else) but an editor who combined earlier sources of information together, without smoothing out their differences. Like just about all scholars of the Bible, I agree with the basic premise of the documentary hypothesis, though these days most real experts think it is much more complicated than what we present to our first-year students.  If you’re interested in a bird’s eye view of it, I have a discussion in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.  If you want an intriguing full presentation written for lay folk, in a convincing fashion, see Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible. The traditional form of the documentary hypothesis was most famously promoted [...]

2020-04-02T14:41:39-04:00October 6th, 2019|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

If the Old Testament is Not Accurate — Where Did Israel Come From?

Yesterday I argued that the Old Testament account found of the "Conquest of Canaan," as found in the book of Joshua, cannot be historically accurate.  This is one of those matters that matter.   As we all know full well, the dispute over the land has been going on for millennia, and continues to create trauma and disaster, war and suffering, all the time -- no matter which side you stand on.  And please, in your comments, do not make polemical political remarks that are hostile to those who disagree with your position; there are huge problems everywhere you look.... Our question here, for the purposes of this blog, right now, is not about legitimacy -- who should own what, and on what grounds? -- but history.  If Israel was not in fact a pre-existing entity that emerged out of Egypt at the Exodus and then entered the land God had promised the ancestors, wiping out the native population to take over what by divine right was theirs -- then where then did Israel come from?  [...]

2020-04-02T14:41:54-04:00October 1st, 2019|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Did The Israelites Really Conquer Canaan?

A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of a thread on historical problems with the Hebrew Bible, and somehow ancient forgery intervened -- as it does, I suppose -- and I got sidetracked.  But I have a couple of more posts on the topic, that are complete "stand-alones" (you don't need to see what I earlier said to make sense of these) (though hey, why not take a glance?). In this post: after the exodus in the book of, well, Exodus, and the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, in Exodus, Leviticus, (Numbers), and Deuteronomy, comes the stories of the Israelites taking over the Promised Land (promised by God to Abraham, the father of the nation), by wiping out all the Canaanites who were already there, as found in the book of Joshua -- one of the great books of the Hebrew Bible. Extermination of indiginous populations is not exactly the political policy most of us advocate these days (well, at least not me), but those were different contexts [...]

2020-04-02T14:42:02-04:00September 30th, 2019|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Did the Exodus Happen?

In response to a question from years ago about the problems posed to critical scholars by the Hebrew Bible I have so far provided two posts, one involving the surviving manuscripts (do we know what the authors originally said?) and the other with apparent discrepancies (where accounts appear to be at odds with one another).   I will now provide a couple of posts dealing with the equally big problem that the Hebrew Bible narrates events that probably did not take place, at least as described. Today I will provide a chunk from my forthcoming book on the Bible about the exodus event under Moses, in which Moses led the children of Israel out from their slavery in Egypt and a great miracle transpired at the parting of the Sea of Reeds (traditionally called the Red Sea), where the children of Israel were allowed to cross on dry land before the waters rushed back destroying Pharaoh's entire army (as narrated in Exodus 14).  It's an absolutely amazing, terrific story.  But it does not appear to [...]

2020-04-02T14:44:10-04:00September 13th, 2019|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|
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