13 January 2013


Ronald Hendel. Lives of Great Religious Books: The Book of Genesis. Princeton University Press, 2013

John J. Collins. Lives of Great Religious Books: The Dead Sea Scrolls. Princeton University Press, 2013

Hendel observes that a book like Genesis has a “life and afterlife”, the life being the time of its composition, and the afterlife being its interpretation and adaptation into culture. The Book of Genesis is certainly alive, and not just among fundamentalist bible-bashers: the author points out that it is often alluded to in modern marketing, with ‘Jacobs Ladder’ an up-scale exercise machine, whilst 'Adam and Eve' is the name of a sex toy company.  🔻

He might have mentioned that even atheists do this sort of thing: Richard Dawkins entitled a book on the history of life River out of Eden.

Tradition says that Genesis was written by Moses, but modern scholarship considers it to be a compilation of works from about the tenth to the sixth centuries BC. Chapter 48 was the first to be written, and the Garden of Eden story in chapters 2 and 3 preceded, in date of composition, the story of the Six Days of Creation in chapter 1. On the other hand, some narratives, notably the story of the flood, are also known from Babylonian versions perhaps a thousand years older. But originally it was all intended to be taken literally.

Hendel dates the beginning of interpretation from the fifth century BC, when Ezra read the Torah to the people “and the Levites caused the people to understand the law”. (Nehemiah 8:7) This might simply mean, however, that they translated it into Aramaic, which had supplanted Hebrew as the spoken language. On the other hand, the surviving translations of the Old Testament into Aramaic, known as Targums, are creative rather than literal. Genesis 49:1 says: “And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.” Probably ‘last days’ originally meant ‘the days to come in your lives’, but the Targum rendered this as: “Gather together and I will tell you the concealed secrets, the hidden ends, the giving of the rewards of the just, and the punishment of the wicked, and what the happiness of Eden is.”

But reading Genesis impartially created problems of its own: “Why are humans and animals created twice? Who are the other people that Cain is afraid will kill him? (Surely not Adam and Eve, his father and mother.) Who was Cain’s wife? (Was she his sister?) How many animals came to Noah in the ark – two of each animal or seven pairs of the clean animals and one pair of the unclean animals? Died Methuselah drown in the Flood? Why was Hagar expelled twice? Why was Beersheba founded twice? Why did Jacob name Bethel twice?”

The current opinion is that the events that apparently occurred twice in Genesis are due to clumsy editing: in particular, there were originally two or even three different versions of some of the same legend, which the editor combined without a strict regard for consistency. But that conclusion was reached in the nineteenth century, after many centuries in which it was held that the Bible could not err.

In the King James Bible, Genesis 49:10 reads:
“The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
Until Shiloh come.”

The last line is enigmatic. In fact, it is due to misreading the archaic Hebrew, in which two words had been run together. It actually meant:

“So that tribute may come to him.”

A bigger problem was that, even by the time of Ezra, there had ceased to be a king in Judah, which was puzzling to those who though that this verse was divinely inspired. The favourite interpretation was there would come a future king from the tribe of Judah, and this led to the concept of the Messiah, which means ‘anointed one’ (anointing was part of the coronation ceremony). ‘Shiloh’ was a code word for this king.

After the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Jews came under Greek influence, in particular Plato’s theory of ideals, that this world is imperfect, but that there is also a perfect realm. When Genesis was translated into Greek, this new version incorporated some Platonic terminology, though Hendel likens this to “a Shakespeare play set in a rocket ship”. These ideas influenced Christian thinking. Abraham had two sons, Isaac by his wife Sarah, and Ishmael (now supposed to be the ancestor of the Arabs) by his bondmaiden Hagar. In the New Testament, Galatians 4:24-26: “Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants, the one from mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with the children But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” The Jerusalem ‘above’ is the perfect Jerusalem, depicted in the Book of Revelation as descending to earth to replace the imperfect Jerusalem.

The Roman church added new interpretations, of course. In Latin, the word malum means both evil and apple, and since the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was considered to be evil, it followed that it must have been an apple, a notion that persists to this day. Augustine maintained that both literal and figurative meanings were true: the four rivers of Eden are literally the four rivers that water the Garden of Eden - despite the fact that the geography given in Genesis 2 is impossible – but they are also the four Gospels.

So popular did figural explanations became that the twelfth-century French rabbi Rashi wanted ‘a return to the plain sense’, and by now this was ‘a revolutionary claim’. He was followed by Martin Luther in his Lectures on Genesis, who in particular ridiculed the Catholic view that: “God made two large luminaries, the sun and the moon. The sun is the papal office, from which the imperial majesty derives its light, just as the moon does from the sun.” The instigator of the Reformation thought this to be “audacious insolence and such villainous desire for power!”

So far as is known, the first person to challenge not only the allegoric but the literal sense of Genesis was Spinoza in the seventeenth century. He observed that Genesis 12:6 says, of the time of Abraham: “And the Canaanite was then in the land.” He pointed out that the Canaanites were still in the land in Moses’ day, so that this passage could not have been written by him, as until then had been universally accepted.

Due to the vastness of the subject, far more has had to be left out than could be put in There is no mention, for instance, of how the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews thought that Melchizedek in Genesis 14 foreshadowed Christ, or how in the twelfth century Maimonides tried to reconcile Genesis with Aristotelian philosophy; whilst the Kabbalists, who developed many strange mystical interpretations of the book, receive just half a sentence. I would like to have seen something about its effect upon modern Christian fundamentalists, such as those who climb Mount Ararat looking for Noah’s Ark.

Three retellings of Genesis were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are the subject of another volume in this series. Most have only survived in fragments: fortunately the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch have also survived in complete copies in Ethiopic; but we shall probably never have more than a small amount of the Genesis Apocryphon. (The latter is sometimes cited by Ancient Astronaut authors, because in one of the surviving portions, the patriarch Lamech asks his wife Bathenosh if their child is really his, whereupon she denies that the father was a ‘Son of Heaven’, taken to mean an extraterrestrial, who were then it seems routinely supposed to beget children upon earthwomen.)

Most people will have heard how, from 1947 onwards, a large number of parchment scrolls were found concealed in isolated caves near the Dead Sea. They were mostly in Hebrew, though there was also some in Greek and Aramaic, and proved to be around two thousand years old, preserved by the exceptionally dry air. The first were sold to a local antiquities dealer named Kando, but ended up in different repositories. Some were acquired by a Syrian Metropolitan who took them to the United States, and advertised them for sale in the Wall Street Journal. They were purchased for $250,000 by a banker who returned them to Palestine, where a special ‘Shrine of the Book’ was established for them in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

After the Six-Day war of 1967, during which the Israelis had taken control of all Jerusalem, archaeologist Yigael Yadin and a group of intelligence officers located Kando in Bethlehem, and after an ‘unpleasant’ interrogation, they took possession of what became known as the Temple Scroll. Those which did not come into the possession of the Israeli government were assigned to an international team, who accepted the demand of the Jordanians – who had legal control over these scrolls – that they employ no Jews. Some of the texts had been published by 1950, but owing to delays, the reasons for which are not clear, many would not appear for decades. No doubt part of the problem is that of the question of ownership (worth a fortune), and academic precedence, these having produced lawsuits and threats of lawsuits.

These documents understandably attracted world wide fascination. What is in them? There are copies of all of the books of the Old Testament (except Esther, which possibly had not been written at the time the scrolls were deposited), but they have only minor differences from the traditional (Massoretic) version: for instance, Isaiah 52:4 differs in the scroll by just one letter, and though a single letter can affect the meaning – as in “The camel is the ship of the dessert” – these issues are generally only of interest to textual analysts. Other books, such as Jubilees and the others cited above, are non-canonical, but were probably nonetheless widely distributed.

Perhaps the most interesting are those termed ‘sectarian’, that is, of a Jewish organization that had broken with mainstream Judaism. These include the ‘Community Rule’ and the ‘Damascus Document’, disciplinary manuals which were evidently composed for a semi-monastic religious body. It would appear that, among other differences from the orthodoxy of the time, they observed a solar rather than a lunar calendar.

Not far from the caves are the foundations of large building, with many graves adjacent to it. This is widely supposed to have been the headquarters of the sect, though others consider it to have been built as a fort. Several Greek and Latin writers mention a religious body known as the Essenes, whose beliefs and practices appear to have been much the same as those of the scroll sect, although the scrolls do not use the word Essene. The Roman senator Pliny – who did not necessarily know what he was talking about – said that they lived on the western side of the Dead Sea. Neither the association of the scrolls with the ruined building, nor with the Essenes, are universally accepted, but they are thought to be the most plausible possibilities.

As Collins points out, if one includes the small fragments, then there are the remains of some 1,000 manuscripts, an incredibly large library for its time. Instead, he suggests that “these scrolls represent many libraries, but sectarian libraries; the libraries of many settlements of the sect or movement. At the time of the war against Rome, members of the sect from various communities fled to the wilderness, and sought refuge with their brethren. They would have brought their scrolls with them. Hence the multiplicity of rules with minor variations, and the great variety of scribes attested by the handwriting.”

In the 1980s there was an exhibition at Leamington Spa Town Hall on ‘The History of the Bible’ (or some such title), which was evidently organized by an evangelical group It began with innocuous facsimiles of early Bibles, but if you followed the displays in the intended order you found that there was a progressively strong religious message, ending by informing you that the dead will all be resurrected, probably fairly soon. Somewhere in the middle of this were photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the caves where they were discovered, which were supposed to prove that the Bible is true.

By contrast John Allegro, who had studied and indeed published many of the original scrolls, thought that they proved that Jesus Christ never existed. Somewhere in between these viewpoints was that of Robert Eisenmann, who said that they showed that early Christianity was ‘xenophobic and militant’. Despite these attempts to show that they shed light upon Christian origins, the only supposed direct Christian reference is a Greek scroll which has been alleged to be from the Gospel of Mark, but in fact just one word of it can be read, kai, meaning ‘and’. Basically, people read into them the things that they want to believe. -- Gareth J. Medway

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