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Thread: The Bible, in Order: but on whose orders? Some significant reorganizations of Scripture

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    The Bible, in Order: but on whose orders? Some significant reorganizations of Scripture

    This thread does not attempt to be a comprehensive guide to all of the books of the Bible, their composition, or the many, many competing canons that have existed over the centuries. Rather, it is a beginner's introduction to the creation of the "Good Book" and a discussion of why the order in which the Scriptures are presented might be important. Because the Bible is such a frequent and indeed unavoidable symbol in our society, I hope both religious and non-religious readers might find this thread interesting. I have no particular goals in terms of an ensuing discussion, but welcome your thoughts on any portion of the post that strikes you as interesting. I plan to present this in three segments: The Pre-Monarchic HS, the post-monarchic HS, and the New Testament.

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    Stage 1: The Pre-Monarchic HS

    The Hebrew Scriptures began their life not as a cohesive book, but as a mythos; an entirely oral and not very organized narrative tradition not dissimilar to those sacred narrative traditions found in nearly every tribal society of the world. At the time when the first sections of the HS were being composed, the religion we now call Judaism did not exist in any meaningful sense, and most of its theological and ritual hallmarks had yet to be invented. But the Hebrews, like everyone, had an interest in their own history and the nature of the cosmos around them. We cannot know very much about how these works were composed or performed, but we can assume certain things from observation of other oral traditions throughout history. Storytelling is often a specialization for which an individual is trained under apprenticeship, and it would be accurate to assume three things about the text in its early stages:

    1. It was oral, not written
    2. As such, it probably changed a little bit every timed it was performed
    3. But not as much as it would if it were performed today, in a literate society where oral storytelling is seen primarily as entertainment. Professional storytellers were skilled memorizers, easily outperforming any modern literate person at memory-related tasks, and any breaks from the received texts were probably conscious and intentional.

    We have nothing remotely approaching an autograph (original version) for the pre-Davidic Hebrew Scriptures. The earliest passages are scattered wildly throughout the currently existing books, and almost all have been considerably modified by later editors. In their original form, they probably were not told in any consistent order, but rather performed in conjunction with certain holidays or events, or when the storyteller felt that they were topical. Some examples of passages that many scholars consider to be very early are:

    1. The "Song of Deborah" (Judges, Chapter 5; and Judges in general is a treasure trove of earlier songs and stories)
    2. The "Song of the Sea" (Exodus, Chapter 15, credited to Moses and Miriam in the text though almost certainly not first performed by either character)
    3. The Book of Job in its totality is thought to predate much of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.

    The reasons why these are assumed to be older are partially linguistic (the words themselves stand out noticeably from the surrounding texts), partly formal (they have a noticeably different style and rhetoric than later compositions, indicative of primarily oral retelling), and partly historical (they seem to reflect a social reality noticeably different from the mostly urban and monarchic world in which the later books were written).

    By the time of the early monarchic period, an ethnic division (later a political division as well) had driven apart the Hebrew world into two significant strains, the northern tribes and the southern tribes. You can often evidence for this in the double telling of the earlier stories; there are often multiple versions of the same event, sometimes with noticeably differing details. This is not surprising, if you assume that these stories came from different oral traditions, combined at a later date. Some good examples of these retellings would be:

    The three creation stories at the head of the Book of Genesis.
    The two noticeably different accounts of how Saul, the first Hebrew monarch, came into his title, both preserved in the Books of Samuel.

    Experiencing these stories in the pre-state era was a very different experience than a modern book-reading. You would be dependent entirely on the authority of a living human being to be your source of information, so freedom of independent interpretation might be curtailed; on the other hand, the method of delivery might have been more conversational in nature depending on who was telling it.

    If you want a better sense of how the Scriptures were originally encountered, I strongly recommend starting your quest not with Genesis, easily one of the most heavily modified and "literarized" books, but rather with the song collection now known as the Book of Psalms. Choose a few chapters in whatever order... and read them aloud to someone else. Pay attention to the liner notes at the bottom of the page, which explain jokes, puns, and poetic features that are difficult to preserve in translation. Imagine yourself huddled around a winter fire in an agricultural but non-urban village square, listening as someone who is very well known to you - the head of your extended clan for instance, or the local healer and ritual leader - recites poetry that you have heard performed every year for as long as you remember, since you were a child. The mythos of your tribe, that albeit in an indirect and inherently non-scholarly way, presents throughout any given year an all-encompassing story of how your people came to be and what you owe to the local god or gods (the Hebrews were not yet uniformly monotheistic at this time). After you have mastered the Psalms, try one of the shorter (and older) narratives such as the Book of Ruth, or the Book of Tobit. Though in these cases, several interfering editors have greatly reshaped the order in which these stories are told, and with what narratives. I will discuss who some of these editors were, and why they are important, in the next section.

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    Veteran Member Sarpedon's Avatar
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    Good summary.

    Would you please clarify whether you are using "Pre-Davidic" as a historical term because it is traditional, or because you believe the man actually existed?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sarpedon View Post
    Good summary.

    Would you please clarify whether you are using "Pre-Davidic" as a historical term because it is traditional, or because you believe the man actually existed?
    If there's doubt, let's call it historical.

    It is certainly a historical fact that Judah was the seat of a monarchy, which in ensuing generations customarily named itself the House of David.

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    Veteran Member Sarpedon's Avatar
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    It is certainly a historical fact that Judah was the seat of a monarchy, which in ensuing generations customarily named itself the House of David.
    That is correct.

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    Stage 2: The Post-Monarchic HS

    At some point in time, the Hebrew Scriptures are a disorganized oral tradition with no inherent structure or organization. By the time the Qumran assemblage was created (by the stashing of documents in hidden caves during the Jewish Revolt in 68-70 CE) a canon had clearly begun to form, with a collection of scrolls whose titles will be familiar to most modern readers and whose contents though not spot on are markedly similar to the texts now reverenced by the Jewish people today. What happened in between these two points? A ton of history, seemingly, but there is an inherent challenge here as our most significant source for that history are the scrolls themselves, and as we will see below, there are reasons to be suspicious of bias in how that history is presented. Yet we have only hints of what was happening in Judea and Israel via other historical sources. Archaeology has begun to fill in some of these gaps, but is usually better at answering questions of economy and lifestyle than, say, names and dates. So what can we deduce from the text? Some important questions must first be raised.

    How were these documents organized? During the time that this canon was being codified, we are still well ahead of the time of the codex, ie, the "book" with which you are familiar. These were starting to circulate by the time of the revolt, but because the Qumran collection matches the content of the LXX (more on this document in a sec) the general feeling is that the books themselves were largely complete by the time anyone started publishing them as codices. In visualizing how these documents would have been encountered, you should still be thinking in terms of oral presentation; in local communities, a meeting house called a בית כנסת (synagogue) acted as a nexus for both community life and religious services for those too far away to attend rituals at the Jerusalem temple. As before, the documents would be encountered throughout the year, but instead of relying on the memory of a storyteller, communities are beginning to rely on the educated, literate landowning males of the community to read the scriptures to them from a scriptorium of scrolls kept by the meeting house. A small community probably did not possess a full copy of all the books now known as the HS, indeed archaeologically speaking such scriptoria have been nearly absent, one reason the Qumran collection caused such a stir. Prominent members of the community would read from these scrolls to an all-male audience, and local scholars known as Pharisees would interpret their meaning and answer questions. Due to the nature of the storage of these scriptoria, they cannot have been organized in sequential order as they are now. But, their contents were solidifying; by the Greco-Roman period, the scrolls being read were in something close to their modern contents, and some rules were forming about what might be read when. The Scriptures were and are organized into three basic categories:

    I. The Torah
    By far the most consistent part of the HS, this comprises of five books also known as the Pentateuch. Few significant deviations have been found for any of these texts, and they are frequently cited as source by the other two collections, so their contents almost certainly solidified first. When is not clear, though this must have occurred after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel as their texts have been incorporated synthetically into this "final draft", so sometime after 722 BCE, probably solidified not terribly long afterward. These books are Genesis (the origin myths of the twelve tribes) Exodus (An account of the departure from Egypt and the creation of a system of common law) Numbers (a more detailed book of law contextualized with account of the period of exile) Deuteronomy (The most detailed account of the Law), and Leviticus (A book explaining mostly ritual law, intended to be read by and for the priesthood in Jerusalem). "Torah" came to be used not just to refer to the books themselves but to the entire way of life - a distinctly Jewish way of life - presumably described within them.
    II. The Prophets (Nevi'im)
    These books describe the careers of about 17 notable prophets, all of whom lived during or after the period during which Judah was a monarchic state. Probably collected by the same group of interpreters who composed the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy, these are the richest source of historical detail but betray a heavily monarchic and priestly bias on that history. These prophets' careers both strongly influenced secular political life and responded to the events of their time, but we have only this collection to inform us of their perspectives, and at many points they are transparently being used as mouthpieces for much later ideas. There are a number of popular strategies for dividing these up - "Former" and "Latter" Prophets for Jewish scholars, "Major" and "Minor" prophets for Christians, but in both cases, these divisions are probably of medieval origin. It is likely that individual communities at the time when the canon was forming only held some of these scrolls and likely had their own strategies for organizing them. The books of the prophets included: Joshua, Judges, The Book of Samuel & The Book of Kings (both subdivided in two by modern arrangements but not in antiquity), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
    III. The Writings (Ketuvim)
    The most variable grouping; it consists of various texts not included in the above group and constituted something of a miscellaneous category. Unlike the other two sections, none of the Ketuvim works claim to have divine inspiration through a prophet, but rather derive from folk sources and courtly records. It is also one of the most diverse categories, containing both some of the earliest texts (such as Job, mentioned above) and some of the latest (such as Daniel, which is a post-Alexandrian work). You see significant differences between regional collections here as well, with some books (like Daniel, frequently) often missing altogether even from much later, post-Christian collections. Only in this section are female point-of-view characters found (Esther and Ruth respectively) or feminine depictions of God (in Psalms and Proverbs). The Ketuvim include at a maximum the books of Psalms and Proverbs (always found first in any ordered collection), Job, Kohelet (Christian: "Ecclesiastes"), Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, the Song of Songs (aka "Song of Solomon"), the Book of Ezra (containing also the book of Nehemiah as divided in modern editions) and the book of Chronicles (an essentially secular historical account also subdivided into two in modern times but not in antiquity).

    Note that although modern Christians also use a three-group system for organization, they are not the same groups. The Torah is the Torah, but different canons have mixed and matched the other two categories in many different configurations.

    There are a few things to note about this collection. It spans a considerable amount of time and geographic space, even by conservative estimates, and had hundreds of different authors. It was mostly written within the ancient kingdoms of Judea and Israel, but not exclusively. It is mostly written in Hebrew, though there are a few exceptions and borrow-words in the later books. Its order was almost certainly not recognizably the same as that which is now in use, and it is likely that certain regimes of organization have passed from historical memory. So for instance, there is a ritual cycle known as the Hamesh Megillot, or Five Scrolls, which dictates a five-book set to be read throughout the year on certain Jewish holidays, making a miniature quasi-canon of the books of Ecclesiastes, Esther, the Song of Songs, Ruth, and the Lamentations. As such, is is certain that at least these five were certain to be part of any canon by the time the modern Jewish holiday cycle had come into being (ie by the end of the 2nd century CE) and it may be that their association with each other and with the various holidays is much older, though interestingly Esther is missing from the Qumran collection.

    So how did we come to our current understanding of their order? One more document is worth discussing: the Septuagint, or LXX. Composed over a period of about a century between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, this was by far the most widely distributed translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Koine Greek language. At the time, Koine was rapidly becoming the lingua franca of the entire Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and within a few generations, the LXX seems to have superseded the Hebrew-language version as the medium through which most Diasporic Jews encountered the Scriptures. This is significant because the LXX was often published as a codex, like the Christian Bible was eventually to be, and a customary ordering system began to dominate. The attitude surrounding this text was heavily influential, because rather than a loose collection of texts, it was often referred to as a single work ("The Scriptures") and had been composed all at once with the explicit intention of creating an official Greek Canon. Its name means "The Seventy", a reference to the myth of its creation. This story, almost certainly apocryphal, states that seventy learned scholars worked independently to produce the translation. When they compared notes, they found that God had miraculously guided them to produce the exact same canon. This was a sign that the translation had both the endorsement of God and was safely reliable for Greek-speaking Jews to rely on. We really see the origins of the idea of a divinely inspired canon here. When the Hebrew Scriptures are referenced in the NT, the version being referenced is always the Septuagint, not any Hebrew version or collection.

    In the next section, I will critically compare the LXX to the Christian canon, and discuss the social and political implications of the choices Christians made as they re-organized Jewish history to their own ends.

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    Looking forward to it.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Learner View Post
    Looking forward to it.

    I am too. This is very interesting.

    One question - what is your source material for these explanations?

    Ruth

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ruth Harris View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Learner View Post
    Looking forward to it.

    I am too. This is very interesting.

    One question - what is your source material for these explanations?

    Ruth
    Quite a hodgepodge; if there is interest, perhaps an appendix post will follow with a bibliography.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Ruth Harris View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Learner View Post
    Looking forward to it.

    I am too. This is very interesting.

    One question - what is your source material for these explanations?

    Ruth
    Quite a hodgepodge; if there is interest, perhaps an appendix post will follow with a bibliography.
    Mark me as interested. I am always looking for good reference material, and this looks like it might have some.

    Ruth

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