James, Peter, John, and Jude weigh in

At this point, my straight-through reading of the Bible was beginning a dash toward the end. Just seven short letters by authors other than Paul and then into Revelation and then I’d be done.

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First is the letter to the brethren from James, who emphasizes the importance of faithful actions in all things.

As Robert Eisenman details, James was highly regarded as a religious figure, possibly even as a leader of the pietistic Essenes but certainly at the head of the church in Jerusalem. The only surviving contemporaneous historical reference to existence of Jesus come, in fact, when Josephus writes of him as the brother of James.

I’ve heard one friend say the prose of James flows naturally in Greek, and a Jewish colleague of my friend noted that apart from the passages about Jesus as Messiah, the text is solidly Jewish in its teaching, continuing largely in the Wisdom stream of the Hebrew Bible.

Some date of composition at 50 CE, making it the earliest book in the New Testament. Others place it as 65-85 CE, raising questions of its authorship.

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The first letter attributed to Peter is addressed to Christians suffering persecution, while the second — possibly the newest New Testament text — looks to the Day of the Lord, or Second Coming, and quotes freely from the letter of Jude.

First Peter is given the dates of 67-68 CE by some, while others place it at 75-90 CE. Its high standard of Greek points to Peter’s secretary Silvanus as the author.

Second Peter is believed to have been written in 68 CE or at late as 110 CE.

~*~

 

The three letters of John warn against false teachers and emphasize the necessity for love among the believers.

Their composition is often dated at 85 CE, although others place them at 90-110 CE.

~*~

Jude, meanwhile, is attributed to another brother of Jesus.

The tangles of Paul’s epistles

Only Jesus occupies more of the New Testament than Paul, who crucially redirects and recasts the Christian movement for gentile followers.

Moreover, his letters are unlike anything that’s previously appeared in the Bible. Each one is a stewpot of prophetic utterance, administrative decrees, definitions of what’s permitted and then also forbidden among the believers, personal encouragement, admonition, organizational minutia, qualifications of leadership, and insistence on the role of communities of faith — the church as a body of believers rather than a hierarchy.

 

The big mystery begins with the man himself. Who is Paul?

Some scholars have perceived two hands at work here — one boldly challenging societal norms, the other backpedaling to avoid arousing its wrath.

Other researchers question the authorship of some of the letters, even placing their composition to decades later than Paul.

Robert Eisenman, in James the Brother of Jesus, examines the history recorded by Josephus and notes in the events building up to the Great Revolt in 66 CE “the intermediary between this more accommodating ‘Peace’ coalition within the city and the Roman troops outside it was a mysterious Herodian (‘a relative of Agrippa’), whom Josephus identifies as ‘Saul’ or ‘Saulus.’ We have met this ‘Saulus’ before in his works, because in the Antiquities, after the stoning of James, Josephus pictures Saulus, his brother Costobarus, and another relative, Antipas, as leading a riot in Jerusalem.”

Eisenman examines how in the generations after the Maccabee victories many of its members married into the Herodian family, and for Paul to be among their descendants would explain his Roman citizenship, which would be hard for a Jew to obtain.

An interesting theory, though it’s hard to dovetail into the conventional timeline that places Paul’s birth in Tarsus, in Turkey, around 6 CE and his conversion experience on the way to Damascus around 33 to 36 CE. His visit to Jerusalem, with the famine relief offering, would come around 46 CE, and his confrontation with the council in Jerusalem at 49 CE.

He is identified as a Pharisee, but other than his view of Jesus as messiah, did that really change when he became a self-styled apostle?

Even though his letters occupy the second largest part of the New Testament — more than a fourth, with the gospels taking up more than two-fifths, and Acts, letters by other apostles, and Revelation filling less than a third of the remainder — Paul himself remains an enigma.

We can even point to his ambiguous sexuality, especially considering his preoccupation in opposing circumcision, which contrasts sharply to his out-and-out opposition to long hair on men, even before getting to the appearance of women. How do his views align with the ingrained Jewish male fertility cult, for that matter?

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Acts, from Jerusalem and the resurrect Jesus to Paul in captivity in Rome

The book known as the Acts of the Apostles was originally the second half of the gospel of Luke, and the text continues in the same viscerally charged vein.

My straight-through reading left me puzzled by the standard ordering of the gospels and what follows.

Richmond Lattimore rationally opens his translation with Mark, followed by Matthew. Doing so does diminish the transition in the Jewish viewpoint of Matthew, but does nod toward Mark’s more compact overview of the life of Jesus as a better introduction to all that will follow.

Moving John into the third spot would come at the cost of breaking the synoptic repetition, but it would allow Luke’s account to unfold more seamlessly, especially in the transition from the extraordinary events after the resurrection and leading to the introduction of Saul/Paul, who becomes the central figure in the remainder of the narrative.

Indeed, the title of the book is misleading, as others have noted. It’s essentially an argument that Saul/Paul, who never met Jesus is the flesh, is entitled to be considered one of the apostles — those sent forth as the emissaries of Jesus.

 

Acts also demotes the authority of Peter and James and the church council in Jerusalem, which insisted on observing Jewish practices of circumcision, kosher diet, and the like. The mantle is instead handed over to Paul, who had been their persecutor, and his Hellenic (uncircumcised, pork-eating) churches.

In the absence of an account of these events from sources in the church at Jerusalem — and the events following the destruction of the city in 70 CE — we’re left with a one-sided heroic portrayal of Paul and his companions.

We’re also left with a drastic turn in the emerging path of Christianity.

~*~

The text is full of action, murder and martyrdom, daring escapes, perilous storms at sea, and the road to Rome as it follows the resurrected Jesus to the Ascension and gift of Pentecost before shifting authority to Paul and the Gentiles.

~*~

One thing that jumped out at me in David Bauscher’s translation from Aramaic is the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, or Spirit of Holiness, in his terminology — especially its power dwelling within believers. This experience, rather than faith, legalistic practices, or custom — is the defining characteristic of Christianity in Paul’s churches.

I am intrigued by mention in 6:1-2, of the Hellenist disciples complaining “that their widows were disregarded in the daily ministry” of teaching and evangelizing, saying “It is not acceptable for us to forsake the word of God and to serve tables.” There is no clear statement of the outcome of this debate, but the implication is clear that women were, in some circles of the early church, clearly ministers.

There’s also a description, in chapter 10, of angels as men clothed in white, no mention of wings.

 

Despite Bauscher’s ongoing argument that Jews would strictly avoid anything Greek, he glides over one phrase in 27:14, “the wind of a hurricane … called ‘Typhoniqos Euroqlydon.'” Here’s something that’s clearly not Aramaic. Euroclydon is comprised of two Greek words, one meaning wave and the other southeast wind. In his extensive and often arcane notes, Bauscher makes no mention of its usage. To me, however, its appearance seriously undermines his contention of the purity of the Aramaic New Testament from outside influences.

The text ends with Paul living for two years, at his own expense, under house arrest in Rome.

~*~

Some give the date of composition as 64 CE, before Paul’s execution in Rome. Others place it as 95-100 CE.

John has Jesus expressing his own divinity

John presents Jesus from a much different perspective.

Instead of Nativity, he starts with a parallel to the very opening of the Bible, where God creates light and sees that it’s good.

John also invokes the ancient Greek philosophical concept of Logos, merges it with the light, and proclaims that they become flesh among us in the person of Jesus.

 

Logos, of course, presents a major difficulty for David Bauscher’s argument that observant Jews would have avoided anything Greek. My earlier encounters with the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha suggest otherwise, and I do want to know how much the concept of Sophia (Wisdom) overlaps Logos and at what points she differs.

Bauscher sticks with The Word in his translation, and instead of Christ, uses The Messiah.

Even so, unlike the other gospels, John casts Jesus at the center of the cosmos. Jesus repeatedly speaks of himself, I AM THE LIVING GOD — all capital letters in Bauscher’s translation. The teachings of social action and justice that were previously at the center of his biography now shift toward the identity of Jesus and his followers’ relationship to him and the Holy One.

~*~

Because of its emphasis on the Holy Spirit — what Bauscher translates as The Spirit of Truth or The Spirit of Holiness — and its proclamations of an indwelling presence of Jesus (17:21-26, for example), John is sometimes called the Quaker Gospel. The very name of the Quaker denomination, Society of Friends, comes from 15:15: “No longer do I call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master does, but I have called you my friends, because all that I have heard from my Father, I have taught you.”

~*~

While the three synoptic gospels nod toward the heart of the Hebrew Bible by blending history and law-giving, John departs from all the other books. Nowhere else does a figure assert himself to be one with God. Hearing the voice of the Holy One is one thing, but to proclaim oneself to be one with God and the son of God is unique and startling.

~*~

Some give the date of composition as 85 CE. Others place it as 90-110 CE. Either way, it cam be up to a generation later than the other three gospels.

Luke as a visceral telling

Like most of the other translations I consulted, David Bauscher has the second verse of Luke referring to “eyewitnesses and servants of The Word,” which he alone capitalizes. In his notes, Bauscher explains that the spoken or written word does not have eyewitnesses or servants. Translations of the opening of the gospel of John, however, almost universally use the Word (capitalized) or the Greek original, Logos.

One thing clearly stated at the outset is that this book is not by a direct eyewitness. He appears to be a Hellenized Jew or a gentile converted by Paul. He’s also the author of Acts, and since Luke and Acts were originally a set, I read them together. I am, however, considering them in canonical order in this overview.

 

Luke feels more visceral, more emotionally invested, than the other gospels. It alone gives us the experience of Zachariah and Elizabeth as they learn they will finally become parents, and later events in circumcising their son, the one we know as John the Baptist. We have, too, Mary’s amazement and hymn of devotion (the Magnificat) when the angel Gabriel informs her of her pregnancy.

Ancient Greeks would have no trouble with a deity frolicking with a human — their myths are replete with such encounters. They’re difficulty would be in having the woman in question being such a commoner. Back to that element of scandal!

I’ve already compared the versions of the anointing of Jesus with ointment, and Luke’s account is far and away the most personal and, yes, erotic.

In chapter 16, we have the clearest expression of Sheol (hell) as a place of separation and flame, even before we get to more expressions of resurrection and eternity.

At the crucifixion, Luke alone has two others beside him on crosses and their exchange of emotional words.

Likewise, Luke alone has the two distraught companions on the road to Emmaus who are trying to make sense of the rumors of resurrection when Jesus joins them.

I’ll leave it to others to detail exactly what makes this gospel resonate so much in the muscles and the bones and the taste buds on the tongue, but it does. For starters, just look at the active verbs he uses.

The road to Emmaus. The text doesn’t say outright the two companions are both male. Some of us see them as a husband and wife.

 

Some give the date of composition as 63 CE (before Mark!). Others place it as 80-90 CE.

Mark as the action-oriented approach

Whether Mark is the source of Matthew and Luke (the other two synoptic gospels) or is their summary is beside the point in a straight-through reading. The question of why it’s here at all is puzzling.

It’s the most compact of the four gospels and the most action-oriented. It skips the Nativity entirely and opens with John the Baptist in the wilderness. The tone is reportorial, objective, in contrast to Matthew’s voice of a storyteller opining that the crowds were dumbfounded at the teaching or that the priests knew Jesus had spoken against them. Much of the book flatly quotes Jesus as he moves about the countryside.

 

Placed where it is, Mark seems to serve as a buffer between Matthew and the two later gospels. Yes, there are discrepancies among them in many details, as happens with eyewitnesses themselves or those who relate the events later. Mark holds us to the central plot, which the others then embellish.

But having four gospels, rather than one, also allows some of the more troubling evidence to be hidden in plain sight. I, for one, believe much of the vitality in the gospel story arises in its very scandalous nature. Jesus is conceived out of wedlock and is executed as a criminal. Let’s not sugarcoat those realities.

For now, look at the story of Jesus’ being anointed with costly oil. Spread across the four books, it’s easy to think there were actually two different women, with this action happening twice.

Read carefully, though, and connect the lines. I’m using David Bauscher’s translation here.

In Matthew 26, “A woman came near to him [Jesus] who had with her a vase of oil of sweet spices, very expensive, and she poured it on Yeshua’s head as he reclined.” Other versions use alabaster box, jar, flask, or the like. The disciples begin arguing about the waste of money.

In Mark 14, it’s an “alabaster vase of oil of the best spikenard, very expensive, and she opened it and poured it on Yeshua’s head. The disciples put its price at 3oo denarii.” (That’s thirty pieces of silver, or 300 times a laborer’s daily wage, as I find online. In other words, nearly a year’s wages.) Short, to the point, reporting.

Luke 7 places the event much earlier than the days leading up to Palm Sunday. Here “one of the Pharisees came asking him to eat with him and he entered the Pharisee’s house and he reclined. And a sinner woman who was in the city, when she knew that he was staying in the Pharisee’s house, she took an alabaster vase of ointment. And she stood behind him at his feet, and she was weeping and she began washing his feet with her tears and wiping them with the hair of her head. And she was kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment.”

The man hosting Jesus then says, “If this man were a Prophet, he would have known who she is and what her reputation is, for she is a sinner woman who touched him.” The KJV terms it, “what manner of woman she is,” or as the Eastern Orthodox Holy Tuesday service clearly identifies her, a harlot, who then sings the deeply emotional Hymn of Kassiane.

“Sinner woman,” of course, is purely editorial, in contrast to Mark.

John 12 thickens the plot. In Matthew and Mark, the feast happens at the house of Simon (Shimeon the Potter, in Bauscher’s translation) in Bethany, a rather disreputable town, as you’ll find explained elsewhere. In Luke, it’s at the house of a Pharisee, no town named — and Mary Magdalene is one of the women named in the next chapter, perhaps to throw us off scent. In John, however, we’re also in Bethany, and Lazarus, newly resurrected from the dead, is one of the guests. His sister Martha is serving the dinner.

“But Maryam [Mary] took an alabaster vase of ointment of the best Indian spikenard, very expensive, and she anointed the feet of Yeshua and wiped his feet with her hair and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”

In John 11:2, the scene is introduced, “This Maryam was the one who had had anointed the feet of Yeshua with ointment and wiped them with her hair, whose brother Lazar was sick.” John then digresses before retelling the event is greater detail.

Yes, that’s Mary, the sister who elsewhere creates a scandal by being present in the room with the men while Martha alone is preparing the meal (Luke 10 and John 11). Connect the dots. Is this the occasion where Martha is rebuked? Martha would certainly have stronger reasons for objecting to her sister’s presence with the men if they’re fallen women. Remember, in this culture a woman shouldn’t even be in the room with men, except to serve.

John adds one more detail linking this account to that in Mark: “And Yehuda Scariota [Judas Iscariot], one of the disciples who was about to betray him, said: ‘Why was not this oil sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?'” The detail links the story back to Mark, and thus to Matthew as well. One event.

So prostitution as their profession is why Mary and Martha are not married and are apparently living instead with their brother? Why Martha is independent enough to rebuke Jesus just pages earlier, as well? Why Mary/Maryam can afford such costly ointment?

The story of the woman anointing Jesus is an example of one of the challenges to reading the New Testament straight-through. A Concordance — essentially an index of words in their phrases in the Bible, much like an index to their locations — helps in putting the fuller story and its implications together.

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Attributing the source of this gospel to Mark, a companion of Peter, places the book in the Jewish council of Christians, rather than Paul’s gentiles. It lends credence, too, to those who give the date of composition as 66 CE or others who place it as 68-70 CE, in the traumatic days leading up to the fall of Jerusalem.

Matthew as a big turning point in the collection

Encountered from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha of the previous centuries, Matthew comes as a stunning break. Even when the text continues earlier themes of corrupt priests and governing officials or of the persecution of prophets, there’s no precedent for the authority of the revolutionary voice that emerges here. While promising to follow the law of the Covenant to the letter, Jesus nevertheless interprets its intent in ways that challenge the very limitations that are conventionally imposed. Apart from a quick overview of the Nativity and flight to Egypt and then the crucifixion and resurrection, I felt surprisingly little history or biography in this book. Instead, it focuses largely on Jesus’ original, often contrarian, teaching itself, with his exhortations to do the seemingly impossible or impractical as an embodiment of faith, along with the instructions he delivered in his itinerant ministry of preaching and healing.

Indeed, is anyone before Jesus in the Bible so focused on teaching? Or of addressing the people, rather than the governing circle and priesthood? Well, we do have Moses in the desert. And then?

Many of the radical standards of personal conduct Jesus teaches will challenge existing political, economic, and social norms. They still do, in our own time.

Here we are introduced to a concept of the Holy One that differs sharply from those of the earlier scriptures — a Heavenly Father. It’s also a much warmer, more intimate father-son relationship than we previously seen. I’m wondering if any previous father-son bond, in Scripture or in ancient literature, is portrayed having such affection. And, yes, it further conceptualizes the infinite deity in male appearance.

This gospel, as is often noted, was directed at a Jewish audience, as evidenced by the long genealogy in the opening chapter, soon followed by the treachery of the Roman tyrant Herod. We’ve already encountered repeated genealogies in the Hebrew Bible, and from Maccabees, especially, we know of the brutality of the Roman overlords.

What’s the point of naming the thirty-nine generations, by the way, if Jesus isn’t the son of Joseph? (Add to that, if you want, the twenty-six ancestors from Adam to Abraham named in Chronicles.) To me, the passage that follows, “Before they would have a conjugal relation she was found pregnant from The Spirit of Holiness” (1:18), now seems to be a later editorial insertion, one that points the text in an alternative direction.

Something that did connect with me in this reading is the fact that the gospel was likely written at least 30 years after the crucifixion, which suggests that the passages attributed to Jesus about the upcoming events of betrayal, execution, and resurrection at Calvary may have been added to cast the history in a meaningful context. Some give the date of composition as early as 67 CE, during the Great Revolt and contemporaneous with Mark. Others place it as 80-90 CE, or later.

From a storytelling point of view, using the future tense for past actions is brilliant, one I now know was used in earlier Biblical books, including Daniel; it’s especially effective when we’ve assumed it’s a contemporaneous account rather than a posthumous reworking aimed at a Jewish audience.

For me, this takes nothing away from the breathtaking visions of the Beatitudes, parables, and his close teaching of disciples.

His instructions raise the demands of the Covenant in new ways, pressing its core intent rather than the letter of its limitations. It’s easy to sense he’s asking his followers to do the impossible. And it’s both intoxicating and intimidating.

Here we are also introduced to the parables as instruments of instruction. They go beyond riddles, which have definable answers, and instead confound easy interpretation. In that way, they’re more like the koans in Zen Buddhism. They’re to take root somewhere deep in the body and daily action.

~*~

One thing I found in online sampling of other translations from Aramaic is the usage of the word “Allah” rather than its synonym “God.” I wish David Bauscher had stuck with this. Too often we are left feeling that Muslims are worshiping a different deity, an impression some authorities may have been deliberately fostered.

Or is Allah itself a variant of Abba, or Daddy?

If Bauscher wants his readers to get closer to the milieu and language of Jesus, this seems a fitting concession.

The long shadow of Jerome’s Vulgate

One awareness I carried into the reading was that during the first centuries of Christianity, Jesus was not universally defined as God incarnate. That point became a requisite point of faith in the creed adopted at the Nicene Council in 325 CE and led to the excommunication of perhaps half of the worldwide church. The conflict and its consequences are detailed in Richard E. Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome.

Even though the books of the New Testament were written long before that council, none have survived in their original language or earliest translations. Whether they were written in Greek, as is almost universally accepted, or in Aramaic, what we have is by way of the Latin translation by Jerome — the Vulgate Bible, completed in 405 CE.

Jerome was tasked with more than merely translating into Latin. He apparently rewrote, “corrected,” and outright censored passages.

As Robert Eisenman explains in James the Brother of Jesus: “To show that it is not simply the modern reader who might have difficulty with these passages, one has only to look at the extant correspondence between Jerome and Augustine … in the early 400s CE. Augustine, who is a younger teacher, queries the older and respected scholar Jerome, who has spent much of his adult life inspecting and collecting biblical manuscripts in Bethlehem in Palestine. …

“At first Augustine could get not satisfactory response from the older scholar. Finally, Jerome, long-suffering, does answer him, asking him ‘not to challenge an old man … who asks only to remain silent,” and basically counseling him not to trouble himself over problems that were divisive and could not be solved in any case.”

 

Quite simply, to be considered the more authoritative versions, our Greek and Aramaic New Testaments would have crucial points of conflict with the Vulgate. Otherwise, they are back translations from the Latin, a language not known for its philosophical nuance.

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Choosing a New Testament … so I took one translated from Aramaic

In my straight-through reading of the Bible, I desired to encounter the narrative with a sense of hearing the story for the first time, again. That led me to select less familiar translations, beginning with Everett Fox’s Five Books of Moses, and moving on largely through the New Jerusalem Bible rather than those more closely aligned with the King James (Revised Standard, New Revised Standard, New International, especially).

With the New Testament, I was leaning toward The Four Gospels and the Revelation: Newly Translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore, in part for its possibilities free from doctrinal lenses. As a Greek scholar who claimed no religious faith, he was simply surprised to discover how naturally the Gospels flowed when he began translating them. He simply wanted to see how the texts stood on their own.

But then I chanced upon a more controversial choice, a translation drawn from Aramaic, the tongue of Jesus and his contemporaries and, thus, some insist, must have been the language in which the New Testament was written. Aramaic is, by the way, a close relation to Hebrew, unlike Greek.

 

Few Biblical scholars agree, but the advocates of the Aramaic Peshitta New Testament present their cause passionately and that, in turn, makes for some lively reading.

It’s a fascinating argument, even before getting to their contention that the oldest existing Aramaic New Testament is the original text, the source for the earliest Greek versions. A more pressing problem to my eyes is the fact that the oldest surviving complete New Testament comes from the early eighth century CE, and only manuscript fragments survive from before that. We have no way of knowing how much St. Jerome recomposed or censored in creating the officially approved Vulgate translation in Latin in the fourth century.

In other words, the New Testament would have been translated into Latin, edited or revised, and then translated back into Greek and Aramaic. It’s safe to assume much was lost in even the most faithful translation, and that’s before we get to deliberate changes made to support one side of the theological debates over the others. If we ever discover the books in versions before Jerome’s editing, the impact could rock conventional Christianity to the core.

The most readily available translation from Aramaic I located in print is a small-press offering from Australia by Glenn David Bauscher, a pastor in Glens Falls, New York, trained at Bob Jones University, and father of 12 homeschooled children. His theological convictions come through clearly enough in the extensive notes, and while he and I diverge on doctrine, his rugged independence is refreshing, especially after the smoothness of conventional committee-based versions in wide circulation. The faction of Aramaic advocates, for that matter, appears to be small and widely opinionated in their challenges to or in support of Bauscher.

 

How different is this Aramaic approach? Consider that the word “Christ” never appears in Bauscher’s New Testament, fitting with a common understanding of Christ as a Greek word for Messiah. What Bauscher uses instead is Yeshua The Messiah or simply The Messiah. In contrast, when reading translations from Greek, I often stop at a mention of Christ to ask whether this instance must necessarily be viewed as an aspect of the person of Jesus or as something larger — aka, the Logos or the Holy Spirit. In effect, Bauscher backs away from the ancient Greek philosophical body of Logos teaching and its many potential applications to understanding and doctrine. As he repeatedly argues, Jews wanted nothing to do with Greek thought or culture, a stand that leaves me wondering about all those Hellenized Jews we’ve already encountered.

Others see the root of Christ as “anointed,” the way a king is anointed with oil, which gives an alternative understanding of Jesus as a spiritual king of Judea. Does this in some way diverge from the definitions of Messiah? Does it make for a more political interpretation, then and now?

Robert Eisenman (in James the Brother of Jesus) notes yet another possibility when the historian “Josephus employs the adjective in Greek, ‘chrestos,’ to describe Agrippa I’s character” — a word “which means in Greek gentle-tempered, generous, Righteous, or kindly.” This hardly encompasses either of the Messiah or anointed dimensions, as far as I perceive. Such are the consequences of our choices in translation.

One of the fascinating aspects of Bauscher’s publication is the close comparison of alphabetic strokes in Aramaic and often Greek to illustrate ways a misreading in translation could occur or to support his word choice. As one who is relearning Spanish, I am deeply impressed by the diligence required to explore ancient languages in such nuanced detail.

Geneva Bible, the choice of early Calvinists

 

One of the surprises I encountered in this straight-through reading comes in realizing just how compact the New Testament is in comparison to what comes before it. The New Testament comprises less than a fifth of the Bible. It’s shorter than the Psalms combined with the Five Books of Moses!

It should surprise no one that Christian worship typically emphasizes the New Testament, often with a gospel reading which, in some traditions, is accompanied by a selection from one of the epistles. To that may be added an Old Testament passage. The resulting impression is that the New Testament is as big as the earlier Scriptures, which is far from the actual case.

 

Takeaways from the Jewish scriptures

Here’s what I see as the Big Picture in the Hebrew Bible and the accompanying Apocrypha.

The centrality of the Covenant: In this revolutionary social ordering, the descendants of Jacob are (1) an entire people (2) bound by a code of conduct and ethics (3) in relationship with a supreme deity that evolves from the foremost of many lesser gods into a monotheistic faith, and (4) even the rulers are subject to this authority and its conditions.

Unending hostilities: In establishing and maintaining a society where they may openly uphold this Covenant relationship, they face armed invasion from rival tribes and neighboring sheiks and monarchs. Even in rare periods of external peace, internal opposition arises. Ultimately, they cannot match the military might of empire armies and are defeated.

The cohesive kingdom of the twelve tribes is of much briefer duration/reality than it appears in the Jewish mindset: According to Scripture, the united monarchy spans the reigns of only King David and King Solomon, roughly seven decades or so. The identity as Jews comes after its collapse, into Judah, to the south, and the less observant but larger Israel, to the north. Yet the restoration of the nation in its full glory remains the hope of Zion.

The Babylonian exile looms larger in the Jewish experience than I had suspected: My impression had been that the exile was a blip in the larger Biblical tome. The captivity of Judah occupies roughly the same span as the glory years of the united monarchy, yet gives rise to the captivity. While Daniel and Esther are devoted exclusively to exile, the thrust of the Biblical arch from Kings into Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and the Twelve also engage this catastrophe, as do the Maccabees in their later, parallel oppression. The history of their Egyptian slavery and Exodus also no doubt plays out in relation to this. More centrally, the Babylonian captivity lays the foundation for the survival of Judaism in the eventual two millennia of Diaspora.

Historical accuracy fades to mythological truth: Archaeological evidence and factual discrepancies support a reading of these texts based on their underlying drama and psychological realities, rather than historical and geographical precision. Poetic license is expected.

Women are largely excluded from the dialogue: It’s the missing dimension.

The work is left unfinished:  The Holocaust, especially, looms large over the canon.

Sistine Chapel ceiling 1508: The Expulsion of Adam And Eve from the Garden of Eden, painting by Michelangelo Buonarroti