Hebrew Bible

A really old debate is back: Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles?

A really old debate is back: Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Do the Old and New Testaments belong together?

(Commenting from a stance critical toward Christians, Norman adds that ignorance of history underlies their “comfortable view that the Bible is one and that there is no problem between the Old and New Testaments.”)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This classic and complex theme is erupting anew thanks to a U.S. Protestant megachurch pastor cited below. Also, churches have long faced strife over the authority and interpretation of the Old Testament due to the now-disputed teaching (that was carried over into the New Testament) against homosexual relations.

In this “Religion Q & A” item (your new postings via the Website always welcome!!), Norman accurately calls attention to some history. The status of the Old Testament became a pressing issue the church needed to decide in the 2nd Century A.D. Marcion of Pontus, among others, drew a radical distinction between what he saw as the problematic Yahweh of the Old Testament versus the loving God and Father of Jesus Christ in writings that were to form the New Testament.

The church declared Marcion a heretic and consolidated for all time that the Old Testament is part of its Bible alongside the New Testament books, authoritative Scripture for Christians as well as Jews.

Norman further observes that influential 20th Century liberal Protestant thinkers in Germany such as Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann echoed Marcion by downplaying the spiritual worth of the Old Testament. He says they “unknowingly contributed to the rise” of the so-called German Christians with their “non- and anti-Jewish” version of the faith. This movement pretty much gained control over Protestantism and accommodated the blatantly anti-Semitic Nazi rulers. Theologians like “neo-orthodox” titan Karl Barth courageously defied this unbiblical heresy in the great Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934).

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An issue lurking in some news stories: In Old Testament, was God guilty of 'genocide'?

An issue lurking in some news stories: In Old Testament, was God guilty of 'genocide'?

The Religion Guy poses this complex historical question himself instead of the customary answer to an item posted via “Send Your Questions In” -- new submissions very much welcomed.

There’s been important debate on this issue recently, and a new book proposes sweeping reinterpretation of the Old Testament depiction of Israel’s “Conquest” of the Holy Land under Joshua. More on that below.

Richard Dawkins, a fervent foe of religion, indicts the biblical God for inciting “genocide” in the Bible’s conquest passages and verses like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 that direct believers to wipe out neighboring populations. Many U.S. Jews and Christians frankly admit this material is troubling.

Let’s begin with three standard Jewish commentaries on those Deuteronomy verses.

“Pentateuch & Haftorahs,” a classic Orthodox compilation by J.H. Hertz, Britain’s longtime chief rabbi, observes that Joshua informed Canaanites before the invasion so they could flee bloodshed, offered peace to all, and only waged combat if they insisted on it. (That was relatively humane for violent times 3,000 years ago.)

The quest for a homeland, the commentary observes, is part of all human history including most European nations. Israel added to that the “ethical justification” of countering Canaan’s “depravity,” for instance human sacrifice. Moreover, “the whole moral and spiritual future of mankind was involved.”

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Why do Jewish and Christian Bibles put the books in a different order?

Why do Jewish and Christian Bibles put the books in a different order?

GORDON’S QUESTION:

Why is there a different order of the books of the Hebrew Bible in Jewish and Christian editions?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

As we’ll see, there’s revived debate about this. For starters, one key fact is that the contrasting lists did not result from conflict between Judaism and Christianity but rather the varied sequences used by Jews.

Overview: The Jewish Bible and Protestant Old Testament have the same contents, but list the books in different order. Catholicism’s ordering is similar to Protestants’ but its “canon” (recognized Scriptures) includes “deuterocanonical” books not found in the Jewish and Protestant Bibles, while the Orthodox add further deuterocanonical materials.

Jews organized the biblical books into categories in this order: (1) Law, or Torah, the first five books with specially revered status. (2) Prophets or Nevi’im, a confusing label since this sections begins with books of history, followed by prophets ending with Malachi. (3) Writings or Kethuyim, a variegated collection dominated by the Psalms, including books accepted as Jewish Scripture later than the Law and Prophets. The initials T, N, and K produce the acronym Tanakh that Jews use for the Bible.

With ordering, the chief issue is where to fit Chronicles (or 1 and 2 Chronicles) and whether it properly concludes the Hebrew Bible. Chronicles, which repeats much of the history covered in the colorful Samuel (or 1 and 2 Samuel) and Kings (or 1 and 2 Kings) was compiled round 400 B.C.E., many centuries after the events.

Unlike Samuel and Kings, the Harper Study Bible observes, Chronicles omits most “references to the defects and the sins of David and Solomon,” emphasizes “the Temple and the Davidic line,” virtually ignores the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and warns and encourages future generations.

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Attention New York Times copy desk: It's time to buy more reference Bibles (and use them)

Attention New York Times copy desk: It's time to buy more reference Bibles (and use them)

Truth be told, the Bible is a very complicated book. It also doesn't help that there are many different versions of it.

Why bring this up? Well, it's time to look at another error about the Bible found in a story published in The New York Times. Another error? Click here for some background.

This one isn't quite as spectacular as the famous case in which the Gray Lady published a piece on tourism in Jerusalem that originally contained this rather infamous sentence:

 "Nearby, the vast Church of the Holy Sepulcher marking the site where many Christians believe that Jesus is buried, usually packed with pilgrims, was echoing and empty."

That one still amazes me, every time that I read it. This error led to a piece at The Federalist by M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway with this memorable headline: "Will Someone Explain Christianity To The New York Times?"

That error was rather low-hanging fruit, as these things go. Surely there are professionals at the copy desk of the world's most powerful newspaper who have heard that millions and millions of traditional Christians believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?

This time around we are dealing with something that is more complicated. To be honest, if I was reading really fast I might have missed this one myself, and my own Christian tradition's version of the Bible is linked to this error.

So what do we have here? Well, it's a nice, friendly piece about some very bright New Yorkers, with this headline: "Testament to Their Marriage: Couple Compete in Worldwide Bible Contest." Try to spot the error as you read this overture, in context:

A question in the lightning round seemed to make Yair Shahak think twice.
The question was, “Who struck the Philistines until his hand grew tired and stuck to the sword?”

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Dry bones transformed and other visions: What do Jews believe about life after death?

Dry bones transformed and other visions: What do Jews believe about life after death?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

The Hebrew Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. When did this belief come into being among the Israelites, and why?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This is an appropriate follow-up to our December 1 answer to Paula concerning “what does Christianity say happens to believers after death?”

True, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (or for Christians the Old Testament) has no explicit and detailed concept of the afterlife such as we have in the New Testament. This whole topic has been considerably more central and developed in Christianity than in Judaism. However, Jewish authors offer a more complex scenario than that Jewish Scripture “makes no mention of an afterlife.” They observe that while most biblical references are vague, we see an evolution in belief. Some particulars:

Frequent references in Genesis, followed by the Psalms and the prophets, say that the dead abide in a shadowy state called sheol. Such passages as Ecclesiastes 9:5, Job 14:21, and Psalm 88:11-12 indicate that this involves no conscious existence.

On the other hand, the Bible depicts forms of life beyond death in Genesis 5:24 (Enoch taken directly to God), 2 Kings 2:11 (the same with Elijah), 1 Samuel 2:6 (God “brings down to sheol and raises up”), Psalm 49:15 (“God will ransom my soul from the power of sheol, for he will receive me”), and Saul’s notable conversation with the deceased Samuel in 1 Samuel 28.

Also, sages interpreted the prophet Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision in chapter 37 as depicting a communal afterlife for Israel, and the Talmud saw Isaiah 60:21 (“they shall possess the land forever”) in terms of bodily resurrection.

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Was the Bible’s Abraham a real person or only a fictional character?

Was the Bible’s Abraham a real person or only a fictional character?

MARK’S QUESTION:

Liberal biblical scholars say Abraham never lived and was a literary invention of “priestly” writers in exile in Babylon. Since we have no archaeological data on him, how do we know he really lived?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The patriarch Abraham is all-important as the revered founding forefather and exemplar of faith in the one God, this not only for Jews and Christians but Muslims, whose Quran parallels some of the biblical account on him in Genesis 11–25. Islam believes Abraham was a prophet in the line that concluded with Muhammad. He is also Muhammad’s ancestor, just as the New Testament lists Abraham in the genealogy of Jesus.

For Orthodox Judaism, traditional Christianity, and the entirety of Islam, it’s unthinkable that Abraham would have been a fictional character. The stakes are high for the Bible, which presents the Abraham material in extensive narrative history, not obvious mythology. Even scholars who see Genesis 1-10 as mythological may think actual history begins with the patriarchs while, as Mark states, liberal religious and secular scholars question his existence.

In pondering such questions, the archaeologist’s well-worn maxim is that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Yes, no texts about Abraham apart from the Bible survived. The “Aburahana” in Egyptian texts from 1900 BC(E) is thought to be someone else. But that doesn’t prove he never lived. Remains from such a long-ago epoch are necessarily scattershot, even for grand potentates with court scribes much less Abraham, a relatively obscure figure during his lifetime and a semi-nomad who moved among locations.

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Next in the Sexual Revolution news: movement to legalize polygamy and 'polyamory'

Next in the Sexual Revolution news: movement to legalize polygamy and 'polyamory'

It didn’t take long. 

Four days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal 5-4 decision to legalize gay marriage nationwide, a Montana threesome applied for a polygamous marriage license. If denied, the trio intends to file suit to topple the law against bigamy. Husband Nathan Collier was featured on “Sister Wives,” so “reality TV” now meets legal and political reality.

More significant was a July 21 op-ed piece in The New York Times, that influential arbiter of acceptable discourse and the future agenda for America's cultural left. University of Chicago law professor William Baude, a “contributing opinion writer” for the paper, wrote, “If there is no magic power in opposite sexes when it comes to marriage, is there any magic power in the number two?” To him, “there is a very good argument” that “polyamorous relationships should be next.”

Baude was a former clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts, who warned against precisely that possibility in his opinion for the court’s four dissenters. Baude observes that tacticians needed to downplay the polygamy aspect that could have harmed the same-sex marriage cause, but with the Supreme Court victory this next step can be proposed candidly.

The savvy Washington Post had a solid polygamy analysis soon after the Court’s ruling.

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Which Old Testament laws actually apply to non-Jews?

Which Old Testament laws actually apply to non-Jews?

VALERIE’S QUESTION:

Do God’s laws apply to Gentiles, including foods that should not be eaten, i.e. pigs, fish without scales?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Valerie raises a broad topic but focuses on the ritually prohibited foods in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) as listed in Leviticus 11 and  Deuteronomy 14.

For traditional Jews, kosher observance involves both obedience to God and identity with their people and heritage across thousands of years. However, Judaism does not call upon non-Jews (“Gentiles”) to do the same (more below on what behavior it does expect). In addition to the listings, biblical commandments against eating blood lead to kosher slaughtering methods and draining and salting of meats. Also, the biblical law against boiling a goat in mother’s milk was later extended to bar meals that mix meat and dairy products.

Christianity from the start did not apply these food laws to Gentiles, as shown in two key New Testament passages. It’s generally assumed that Jesus, as a faithful Jew, would have observed the common dietary practices. However, in the Gospel of Mark 7:14-19, Jesus teaches, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” Here Jesus is making a general point about the sinfulness of the human heart, but Mark adds an editorial comment on one way the earliest Christians understood his words: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”

Jesus’ implicit message turns explicit in the Book of Acts chapter 10, which depicts the Christian conversion of the Roman soldier Cornelius.

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Are tattoos OK for Jews and Christians? What does the Bible say?

Are tattoos OK for Jews and Christians? What does the Bible say?

JACOB’S QUESTION:

Christians and Jews -- Is it OK for them to get tattoos?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Quick summary: Many if not most Jews say no (as do Muslims). With Christians, it’s complicated.

There are obvious pros and cons with getting a tattoo because it’s a social signifier and permanently so, unlike hair styles, attire, and other expressions of individuality. But as a religious matter the issue is whether to observe the Bible’s commandment in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead, or tattoo any marks upon you. I am the LORD” (New Revised Standard Version).

The Hebrew verb here is ambiguous but New York University’s Baruch Levine says it’s “clear in context” that it means tattooing.

Indeed, as Charles Erdman of Princeton Theological Seminary observed, tattooing was common “among all the nations of antiquity” so the ban clearly set apart worshippers of the Bible’s one God against surrounding “pagans.” Note the adjacent biblical laws against flesh-gashing rituals, witchcraft, wizards, and mediums seeking contact with the dead.

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