Whose Bible is it Anyway?

This is the first of a series of blogs about the Bible and its relationship to the current Zionists whose claims are based on the Bible.

Who Wrote the Bible?

The books of the Bible were originally individual scrolls, made of parchment, papyrus, or occasionally of leather. Thus there were from 12 to 20 scrolls: one for the first five books of the Bible [Genesis through Deuteronomy, often referred to as the Torah or the Pentateuch], one for Isaiah, one for Jeremiah, one for Ezekiel, one for the Psalms, and so forth.

These scrolls were created from the centuries-old oral traditions that had been transmitted through male tribal elders, and most probably women, whose role it was to educate the young children. After the Babylonians conquered the area of Judea, destroyed the Temple, and forced the top tier of Israelites — doctors, priests, scribes, elders — off the land and into exile in Babylon, to maintain a unity of the faith, it became necessary to have written confirmation of the Israelite sacred history and Israel’s relationship with God. Somewhere in Babylon the first written biblical accounts were composed on scrolls that were not bound as one book until after the discovery of printing in the fifteenth century. Thus, the Bible as we know it was unknown among the Jews of ancient times.

Jumping from Scroll to Scroll

Reading with an eye to each narrative, one’s interpretation depends on where one stops reading the narrative of ancient Israel. We hold the single book in our hands; the ancients referred to particular scrolls to create their narratives. Take one example: the tomb of Abraham in Hebron was the first piece of land purchased from the Hittites by Abraham, owned by deed. The biblical account is quite specific:

Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants. So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre — both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field — was deeded to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron ) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site. (Gen 23:16-20).

We shall consider the veracity of these biblical stories and the characters themselves in another post. Let us say briefly that there is no proof from stelas, inscriptions, or histories of other cultures that confirm even scraps of the account within the Bible. The stories in Genesis were not even put into a narrative order for a minimum of a thousand years after the purported time of Abraham’s first hearing the command of YHWH. And the Exodus? The Egyptian rulers and scribes, who noted every development in every city and village, described every ship, every building they constructed, but never mention a slave revolt or a group of Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt and crossing the Sinai desert. If there had been more than a couple hundred slaves crossing the Sinai, someone from another group would have noticed.

Moses disobeys God and never gets to enter the Promised Land. Nor do those who followed him out of Egypt. Stop the dialogue there? Then there is nobody in the Promised Land except the Canaanite, Hittites, Moabites, and other ancient semi-nomadic tribes. No one alive today claims Moabite ancestors. Continue reading the narrative and accept that the Israelite peoples must wander for 40 years, and then, the second generation, post-Moses, go into the Promised Land.

Within the two scrolls of First and Second Samuel are found the stories of Saul’s fated kingship, and the kingship of God’s beoved David. The tumultuous world of Israel and Judea are found in the continuing story in First and Second Kings. Judea and Samaria! How often do we hear or read those place names, the real-estate mantra of today’s Orthodox settlers? They are the biblical lands that modern-day Israel claims as its own. Because the names they attached to the modern towns of the West Bank were mentioned in the Bible. Have the settlers read only “the good parts,” where Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and Judea, the Southern Kingdom, are described triumphantly as extensive kingdoms? In the translations one reads today, words like nation, boundaries, kingdom are used. But these are modern terms. There were no nations, although the Babylonians, the Selucids, the Greeks, and the Romans ruled empires. The Israelites were members of semi-nomadic tribes; each tribe had been given land for planting olives, fruits, and animal grazing.

As you will see below, the returning Judeans had a temple-state, whose laws were ordered by the High Priest. Babylon, and later Alexander the Great, and then the Romans continued to rule the Judeans and imposed hefty taxes upon them. Borders were porous, not mapped or defined, not defended by walls or soldiers, except in times of war.

It is time to question the biblical claims of the settlers, living in luxurious neighborhoods that mirror ones in the valley east of Los Angeles, red-tiled roofs, swimming pools, neatly tended flower beds. Stolen olive trees, ancient witnesses to the violence done to the land, are now re-rooted on this settler land, surrounded by circlets of well-watered grass and brilliant flowers.

The primary question: Do today’s Israelis have a right to re-create the biblical stories like an ongoing pageant with props including Abraham and Sarah’s tomb, the tomb of sweet, piteous Rachel, even the mountain where Moses received the Law from YHWH. 

Post-Exilic Biblical History as Told by Modern Historians

After about fifty years an edict of Cyrus the Great permitted those Judeans who had been deported from their former homeland to return and rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. After 23 years of construction and decoration, the restored shrine was dedicated to the worship of YHWH although the most sacred item of worship, the Ark of the Covenant, had disappeared forever. The Second Temple, like the First, was under the supervision of the Levites and other local priests. Daily sacrifices to YHWH were made in the morning and in the evening. A portion of the animal was given to God, who apparently was partial to the thigh, and the rest was aportioned to the Levite priest and to the family making the sacrifice. 

From this time until the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70, Jerusalem had almost continuously the status of a holy city. Together with the territory immediately surrounding it, it constituted a temple-state. There were several such temple-states in the Persian and Graeco-Roman world; one of the best known (apart from Jerusalem itself) is Hierapolis in Syria, the city attached to the temple of Atargatis In these states the city existed to support the temple, and not vice versa. The laws of the state were in essence the laws of the temple; the state was governed internally by the temple priesthood. The prerogatives of the cult were protected by the imperial power, who owned the land, demanded material goods and money from the tribal vassals. 

Secular rule continued under the rule of each successive imperial power, with the day-to-day running of the temple-state was in the hands of the Levites, who did not have land apportioned to them in order to make their decisions appear just. The head of the state was the high priest, who was assisted by a council of seventy elders called the Sanhedrin.

Jerusalem’s “constitution” as a temple-state was drawn upon ancient precedent, found in the scrolls and imposed by imperial authority. The temple staff of priests and Levites was maintained by a ten percent tithe, paid by each male Jew in the empire, whether he lived in Judea or not. While Judea belonged to the empire of the Persians, and later to that of Alexander and his successors, the imperial interests were served by a governor appointed by the court,

Until 174 BC the high priesthood enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. The High Priest was a descendant of Zadok, chief priest in Solomon’s time. During the following years there was considerable interference with the priesthood and temple by the Seleucid dynasty; this reached its peak during the three years 167-164 BC, when the temple was turned over to the worship of Olympian Zeus. Later the priestly family of the Hasmoneans, who led the movement for religious and secular independence, assumed the high priesthood and exercised it until Judea fell to the Romans in 36 BC and was ruled in the Roman interest by the client king Herod the Great (37-4 BC). After that time the high priest was appointed either by members of the Herod family or by Roman governors. By this time the Empre was overtly corrupt; the priesthood was awarded to the Palestinian Jew who offered the highest gift of money to the Roman governor.

Settler History

If one accepts the above historical account, it becomes clear that the Israelites, Judeans, or the Jews, depending upon the historical period, never gained possession of the land of Israel again. If one insists upon believing that God gave the land to Israel in a covenant made with Abraham, well then the irascible God waited about two thousand years to return the land, one supposes, by floating the concept of a state of Israel in the minds of the Western powers who created the United Nations.

Comments

I really love this point: "In the translations one reads today, words like nation, boundaries, kingdom are used. But these are modern terms. There were no nations, although the Babylonians, the Selucids, the Greeks, and the Romans ruled empires."

I've had discussions with people arguing it is incorrect to apply the modern concept of nation-states to ancient history, but Zionist hardliners that believe the Bible to be literally true are incapable of comprehending this truth. I suppose they interpret the maps provided in the Bible as accurately depicting the ancient world.

I read your wonderful article on Zionist false claims & my heart breaks for Palestine and the mockery of Israeli settlements-I wish I could help u more but a few dollars every month is all I can do and invite all who can help Palestinians to do so, I need a mailing address to give to the Bank

Yes, it's perfectly clear from the content itself, that the first books of the Old Testament were written hundreds, if not thousands of years after the death of Moses. They also contain accounts of his death and burial, which is a difficult thing to write about yourself. It's just a tragedy that so much suffering and disaster has followed on from a blind belief in anonymous Iron Age inscriptions. "Israelis" who insist their people have lived there for 2000 years must answer the "grandfather;s grave" question. Any Palestinian can show you the graves of their forefathers; Israelis need to go to Lithuania, Latvi, Russia etc. Netanyahu's father was born in Poland, and Golda Meir was Russian. So much for a MIddle East heritage.

Thank you for bringing all this to light. I, like many born in the Christian faith, have been fed a racial fantasy belonging to a fictitious tribe that has existed only since the Reformation. The same fantasy that inspired the Nazi Master Race idea.

Not only are the Torah/Old Testament mostly tribal nonsense, leaving aside the pilfered origins of many contents; they are addressed to a long-extinct people--the Israelites. It took an exclusionist, revenchist religion of exiled "Jews" to reconstruct Torah fragments and mixed them with "ethnoverted" commentary. The violence in them is truly mind-boggling. I have never read a "sacred book" as dark as this! The contents of the Talmud are even more scandalous. Neither has a place in the modern world.

Ironically, the sacred text that may come closest to depicting real Jews is the New Testament. But Zionist Christians omit the bit about Jews actually rebelling against a dying religion.

Consider what today we glibly call the "Hebrew" language. Though adapted to Jewish ritual, there is nothing Jewish about its origins. It's a mishmash of local, widely spoken dialects adopted by foreign (by the Bible's account) bloodthirsty invaders in a distant past. What "Hebrew" once existed in ancient times is now lost.

The Jews of antiquity, no less than so-called the Israelites from which they claim descendence, occupied patches of land in Palestine, and very incompetently at that. I suspect the fading of Palestine from Jewish memory has more to do with the failure of "whoever" to build a lasting civilized presence in the region--two thousand years ago and counting!

Strange how the "international community" stood by at the UN in 1948. A state built on the destrruction of another people. Modern-day Jews have no demonstrible historical, genetic, cultural, spiritual or even religious links to Palestine.

But, as a young Zionist friend on campus where I got my PhD used tell me, what a wonderful Israeli dish hommos is!

I just wanted to laud Ms. Bach for the main gist of her argument; namely, that we tend to read modern concepts or race, nationhood and territoriality into ancient issues and events, whatever their mythical character. Historians call this anachronism. It lies at the root of the crisis triggered by the creatin of Israel. It has to do with our inability to understand the present in the light of what we really know about the past.

This is a very familiar way of trying to deny the right of the Jews to the original Land of Israel of which the borders have been changed by empires/invaders (numerous I might say and thus numerous times) and consequently are not exactly known today. In other words: the history of the Jews. Which is something different than what some ultranationalist settlers claim let alone their behavior. Which is in contradiction with mulitiple and numerous Torah directives and derived from it Halachah (Jewish law i.e. criminal, agricultural, law of war, civil, law of ethics a.o.) The state of Israel's borders have been redefined as Iraq's, Lebanon, Syria and other countries in and outside the Middle East.
Not the crimes including the ones at the inception of the state of this state of Israel get criticized but its very existence simply gets denied and dangerously: by means of: the Bible. Which one? The Christian mistranslated one or the original Hebrew one. But there is so much more in what is called Tenach Bach has no clue of. Just literal tidbits of her choosing which conveniently underscore the gist of her intended goal she must have had when embarking on writing this piece. One example of mistranslation: in the beginning. In Hebrew it says: in a beginning. It never speaks of an apple nor is the name Chava Eve. And one can go on and on. Resheet can mean beginning, but has also other including mystical meanings and the layers of interpretation are far removed from the telltale book most people today think the "Bible" to be; in their ignorance I may add. But the Bible is in itself a term which denotes different things in different religions.
Reminder: voted in by the UN in 1948 which conveniently gets forgotten by people who want to hide their anti-Jewishness and willful denial of the Jews having their own state at all, behind the fact that Israel commits crimes vis-a-vis the Palestinians since its inception.

Abigail, there are many differences in biblical versions. We do not have an original collection of scrolls that would have been the first written Hebrew Bible. The first Bible we have is the Greek version, called the Septuagint, that was subsequently translated back into classical Hebrew in the eighth century CE. I did not discuss Genesis 2-3, but you are correct. The actual fruit is not mentioned in the Septuagint, or had been forgotten in the centuries of oral transmission. The Vulgate, the first translation that you refer to as “Christian” in the fourth century AD, may have set up the confusion: the Latin noun malum means evil; another noun with a long mark over the a means apple. That was probably where the apple notion became common use after the Reformation, when the Bible was translated into the language of its believers.

The history of the Jews is a different concept from the biblical documents that retell the stories of ancient Israel’s relationship with YHWH.

I'm confused by how this challenges the Zionist narrative. You acknowledge that the Israelites/Judeans/Jews lived in the land for 1000 years (interrupted by a 50-year Babylonian exile), with the last Jewish king (not counting the Herodians) deposed in 36 BC. And yes, the Jews endured 2000 of exile and persecution before the "irascible" God allowed them to return to their homeland. Zionists agree with all of this; it's even reflected in Israel's national anthem.

First of all the exile by Nebuchadnezzar was 70 years and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans forcing the Jewish people into their longest exile was in 70 C.E. What is so obvious here is that zionism which is a political movement is interchangeble with Judaism. This is disingenious but does not surprise me since this way people can easily discredit the Jews as people, their history as fiction and any right to exist as a people within their land as nonsensical myth. Why not say that of other people? It itches with some. Zionism has nothing, nothing to do with Judaism. It apparently takes some to wanting that either as a lack of knowledge or to suit their own minds for their own ulterior motives. Now Bach is the new guru to hide behind and take her writings as point of departure.

Perhaps my point was not clear.  The Israelites lived in the land of Israel, although we have no historical verification of the size of David’s jerusalem or Solomon’s “empire,” it was probably simiar to the later temple state, not a vast holding, such as exists in teh Zionist imagination.  Post exilic Judeans:  , Cyrus permitted the Judeans who wanted to to return to Jerusalem.  But they were still under the rule of the Babylonians. Many remained in Babylon. 

If living in the land is sufficient, then the Palestinians who have been denied by he state of Israel their claims to land, because of lack of legal deeds, would surely be judged by the same criteria: they lived on the land.

That's fair - both Palestinians and Jews have valid claims to the land.

An important thing to remember is that this whole landmass is Arabia. What we now call Israel is a pinprick in a speck on a patch of a small area - within Arabia. The ancient divisions were tribal, not national. To argue that because someone lived somewhere at some time in history it's their land, would mean the UK giving up the British Isles to Italy, as rightfully part of the Roman Empire.

Thank you for this article. Two other things worth mentioning:
1. Not only Abraham, but right up to the Israelite Kingdom, there is no external evidence. There is no archeological evidence for the Conquest of the 'Promised Land'. On the contrary there is cultural continuity from Canaan to the Kingdom of David.
2. Shlomo Sands in 'The Invention of the Jewish People' is clear that the modern Jews are largely descended from converts in the medieval kingdom Khazaria around the modern Ukraine.

Tune in next week for my consideration of the characters Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and some women )  And then there will be one on Covenant.  And any suggestions for biblical discussion in terms of its standard Orthodox Jewish interpretations that have political reprecussions for the land of Israel and Palestine.

 

Thank you for mentioning Shlomo Sands.  I love Shlomo Sands’ book.  I read it like a novel. Could not put it down.  So reassuring to read a book written by a Jewish scholar who believes lots of what I believe.   And his new book which will be available in November is about the INVENTION of the LAND OF ISRAEL— will certainly be reviewed by SOMEONE at EI. 

Let’s keep this discussion going.

The book should be called "The Invention of Shlomo Sands"!

I highly recommend reading Shlomo Sand's "The Invention of the Jewish People", the English translation, 2010 (?) from the German, the title of which was "How and When Was the Jewish People Invented?" Sand is an Israeli, and a University History Professor in Israel.

Fascinating article! I think it's especially important to remember that there were no modern nations in biblical times. Another book I'd like to recommend is "Come out, my People! God's call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond." in it, Mr Howard-Brook explains that the Bible we have today contains two competing narratives; one in service to Empire, and one opposing Empire. The Temple generally served Empire, and this narrative is the one that feeds into Zionism, both Christian and Jewish. He also states that "the people of the land" lived continuously in Palestine/Israel for thousands of years. They were oppressed by Empires and city-states; thus the freedom narratives like the flight from Egypt. Pharaoh is Solomon!

Good article. I'll look forward to follow-ups.

Dr. Bach writes: "Somewhere in Babylon the first written biblical accounts were composed on scrolls that were not bound as one book until after the discovery of printing in the fifteenth century. Thus, the Bible as we know it was unknown among the Jews of ancient times." Except Josephus famously described the biblical canon just under two thousand years ago, not "in the fifteenth century". His is not the first account. The various canons of course have been edited, rearranged and such in the many centuries since they became canonical, but that statement is completely absurd and completely incorrect (unless I'm misunderstanding the phrase). Further, it was the priestly, lettered and political castes, those exiled to Babylon, to whom such things mattered, not the peasant caste who (like most peasant castes until holy texts were translated into the vulgar along with mass literacy campaigns) had little interaction with religious cosmologies. Modern Jews claim descent from the priestly caste exiled to Babylon, not to the peasant caste of which modern Jews know nothing (Palestinians narrative lineage from both).

Dr. Bach writes: "It is time to question the biblical claims of the settlers." Countless Palestinian, Israeli and other historians, archaeologists, cultural critics have long supplied definitive proof. Nur Masalha, Gabriel Piterburg, Ze'ev Herzog, Israel Finkelstein, Shlomo Sand, Joseph Massad and numerous others have done this over and over again. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be done again of course, but the author cannot pretend that this starts with her critique. Herzog's "Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho" in 1999 was a short, popular piece that summarized biblical and archaeological scholarship, all of which had by then disproved significant portions of the history presented in the bible. The others have done so in far more depth and sophistication.

Dr. Bach writes: "Borders were porous, not mapped or defined, not defended by walls or soldiers, except in times of war." This is also something only true for the peasant castes. The priestly and political castes regularly lived in wall city-states. Google 'Jebos' for one a fortified, walled city on the present day site of Jerusalem's Old City that pre-dates the Israelites, one of which walls remain. Peasant castes might remain largely undisturbed, flee to shatter zones, be annihilated or become nomadic when rulers changed (or when regimes became too oppressive).