As I have mentioned before, I have started a small business on the side, Bart Ehrman Professional Services (BEPS). At this point it involves booking speaking engagements, providing consultations with authors of various kinds, and online courses. The online courses, of course, are a way of disseminating knowledge about the Bible, the historical Jesus, the history of Christianity, and so on.
BEPS is a separate commercial endeavor for me and I am diligently keeping it distinct from the blog, except to announce what I’m up to there for blog members who might be interested. You can also learn more about it on my website, www.bartehrman.com
This past month I produced a six-lecture course called “In the Beginning: Myth, Legend, and History in the Book of Genesis.” This is the first of possibly many courses in a long series called “How Scholars Read the Bible.” The entire series will be devoted to showing what critical scholars think, believe, and argue about the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, but also to show why they think what they do.
The courses are designed for laypeople who might be interested in knowing about why scholars maintain, for example, that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses but represents a combination of four (or more) sources produced at different times by different authors; that the “exodus” of the children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt did not really happen (at least as described in the book of Exodus); that the Psalms were not really written by David, that Isaiah is three books combined into one; that the Gospels are often not historically reliable; that Jesus was an apocalypticist expecting the imminent end of history as we know it; that some of the letters claiming to be written by Paul were actually written by others who were claiming to be Paul; and – and I will be covering lots of topics over lots of courses.
With that as the plan, how could I not start the series with Genesis, the beginning of the Bible that describes the beginning of all things? In this post and the next I’ll be summarizing what I cover in the Genesis course with a brief synopsis of each lecture.
Lecture One: Introduction to the Pentateuch
This first lecture explains what the Pentateuch is and why it poses such difficulties for critical scholars of the Bible. I begin by stressing that the greatest discovery of modern biblical scholarship is not archaeological but textual: once scholars took very seriously that the Bible is not a single book with One Ultimate Author, it changed everything about how it was to be read and understood.
The word “Pentateuch” literally means “the five scrolls” and refers to the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – sometimes also called the “Torah” (or the “Law,” that is, “the Law of Moses”). Traditionally these books were ascribed to Moses, the key figure starting in Exodus all the way to the end of Deuteronomy.
But scholars have long recognized that the books could not have been written in the time of Moses (in the 13th century BCE) and were in fact not produced by a single author at all; they are a compilation of sources written in different places and times, all of them centuries after the events they narrate.
There are significant problems for readers posed by the Pentateuch and indeed all the books of the Hebrew Bible. There are places where we cannot know what the Hebrew actually means, or how to translate it; there are clear contradictions among the accounts; the narratives contain “anachronisms” (mentioning places that did yet not exist during the time the narrative was set and events that had not yet occurred); and some of the most important narratives relate incidents that could not have happened given what we know about other facts of history.
Such problems begin at the very outset of the Pentateuch, in the creation stories of Genesis. So that is where we go in the next lecture.
Lecture Two: The Creation Stories of Genesis
This lecture addresses a number of the difficulties that arise in the critical study of Genesis. The problems begin right off the bat – not just in the first chapter but in the first verse. Although the verse was traditionally translated something like “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void…,” scholars now recognize that it is being better rendered something like “When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth the earth was formless and void.” Why does it matter? The translation actually changes everything: the traditional rendering indicates that God created everything out of nothing; the other shows that there were things already existing before the creation (e.g., a formless earth and water). So where did they come from?
The problems go from there. Most commonly noted is that the creation stories in chapters 1 and 2 appear in fact to be different stories that actually contradict one another including the sequence in which things were created (were animals before humans, for example, or the human before the animals?).
I go on to show just why neither account can pass muster as a scientific account of what actually happened, despite valiant attempts to make them “work.” In Genesis 1, how can there be light on earth long before there is a sun, moon, and stars? Or how can plants exist without a sun (photosynthesis?!). And in Genesis 2, how could humans appear before plants or animals, and how could every living creature appear as a full-blown species (evolution?!).
It would be a serious mistake, however, to write creation accounts off and ignore them. They are terrifically intriguing stories about how the world and humans came into being. When they are understood as “myths” rather than historical or scientific accounts, their meaning comes to life. Ancient myths can be highly significant even for those of us living today, as I show at the end of the lecture.