Friday, 31 July 2009


Archbishop Ussher of Armagh (Ireland) did some serious academic work in 1650 to work out the date of creation. He compared the then available evidence of Assyrians to create a chronology of known history, and then Biblical evidence to get back to creation in Genesis chapter one. This was a sincere attempt to make sense of known evidence, including the Bible's own chronology of the early patriarchs. His conclusion was that Jesus was born in 4BC, creation was 4000 years earlier on the evening before 23 October 4004 BC, and than King Solomon was at 3000 BC, half way between creation and the present day. We smile today with our knowledge of the great antiquity of the earth and its creatures - but this view was considered true for many years, was taught to me as a child, and is still accepted by some who dismiss evolution and science as fallacy.
This blog is called 4004BCE to ask a range of questions about the Bible and how we view it. I am not a believer, but a critic - but I am not hostile as some are and I genuinely want to know what the Bible writers were really trying to say, even if I then disagree with it.

Old Testament Study

The conference of the Society for Old Testament Study took place this week. The topic was the extent to which the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible gives us a defensible history of Israel. The general conclusions are that the Bible writers have their doctrine, ideology and theology and cheerfully rewrote history. If we are lucky, we might get a glipse of something 'truthful' (or example, king David probably was a minor warlord; but the story of his major conquests and empire are later fantasies. The Bible writers were mostly writing around 500-300 BCE and were fabricating their past history. They had emerged from exile and disaster and been sent to Palestine and were determined to forge themselves into one people. The twelve tribes comes from this time, a mighty fiction of national unity tracing the origins of this mixed group back to a single ancestor, Abraham. Before you dismiss me as a crank, this is the accepted view of scholarship, including Christian and Jewish worshippers. I explored this twenty years ago with a number of scholars, in Creating the Old Testament: The Emergence of the Hebrew Bible. Those ideas are now mainstream. It places Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon on a similar level to Robin Hood. It sounds negative, but actually it is positive, as the truth usually is. Once we understand what the writers meant, we can get on withour own lives free of deception.

Decolonizing God

Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire by Mark G Brett (2008, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press which is an imprint of the Department of Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield). Volume 16 of the series The Bible in the Modern World, editor Cheryl Exum.
How the Bible should be viewed in the light of the work of missionaries who sought to supplant and replace ancestral spiritualities. The author is Professor of Hebrew Bible, Melbourne, Australia and Policy Officer at Native Title Services, Victoria.

Post-colonial study examines a range of issues, fields and knowledge from the understanding that savage things happened in the name of empire. The Australian Aboriginees did not culturally benefit from being colonized by white settlers. They were shot, raped, fenced out and fenced in. Their bones, and their ancestors' bones, ended up in white museums. Aboriginal children were seized and given a 'Christian' upbringing and education in boarding schools to break their cultural ties. How might we view the Bible and use of the Bible in that context, as a weapon of cultural war. Is the Biblical message more or less spiritual than the aboriginal spirituality? Are Bible myths more powerful, and is Bible redemption and salvation more credible? The reality was that religion, health, education and food handouts came as a package - to accept one you accepted all. How are Aboriginal descendants today to relate to the savagery performed on their spiritual traditions?

Readers need to understand Bible criticism and scholarship to appreciate the complex argument. This example is from chapter 3, on reverence of ancestors. In Aboriginee culture, the chain of continuity through ancestors is paramount. How does that link with the new faith missionaries are bringing? Or is a cultural dictator seeking to destroy past traditions? In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) ancestral reverence is sealed through memorial pillars. Worship of their God, Yahweh, was carried out anywhere appropriate. Other ancestral deities such as Elyon and even the plural elohim (the spirits of ancestors) were incorporated into Yahweh worship. Two kings, Hezekiah and Josiah, tried to reform religion to centralise worship in Jerusalem for tax purposes, and to outlaw most ancestral practices. Products of this period was Deuteronomy, which also contained a savage instruction to wage holy war/genocide (Deut 20) against some neighbouring tribes, and the "Deuteronomic" history corpus including the books of Samuel and Kings, which furthered the group message.

This new ideology was imposed on the local people (we do not know with what effect) whose ancestral spirituality was therefore condemned as heresy and heathernism. This message became the message of missionaries towards ancestral spirituality everywhere.
We need today to reverse that process and give some respect again to these ancestors and their spirituality, within of course the framework of rationality that helps it makes sense to us today.