Episode 12: Bible Study 101

This week’s segment is inspired by the all-too-common occurrence of self-identifying Satanists attempting to “debunk” Christianity with incorrect or misunderstood claims about the biblical texts. It is entirely irrelevant to me if someone opposes Christianity or not (or any other religion), but time and again, usually on the interwebz, people in various Satanic forums make statements about Christianity that reveal their own ignorance of the subject. They rant against Christianity or proudly proclaim to have burned a bible! My response is always the same: did you burn the bible fearing its contents, did you feel lured to salvation, were its ideas appealing? No? Then treat it as if it were any other religious book; a neutral text, but one capable of providing useful information. To be blunt: if Christianity makes you that angry, it has power over you, and your draw to Satanism is reactionary, not proactive.

Remember, “Satanism demands study, not worship,” and it behooves us all to understand the historical facts of any particular religion.

Because this information is important, a listener requested the segment be summarized here for future reference, and I have obliged. This blog post is thus a primer for studying the biblical texts. The following is but a small fraction of overly simplistic information about the biblical texts. See the source references for more detail and study. (As always, you can listen to my stand-alone segment here, or the entire 9sense podcast.)

First, some basics: the current biblical text is comprised of two main parts, the Old Testament and New Testament. The Old Testament, though, is not the most accurate name. The Old Testament books are the sacred scriptures of Judaism, and the Hebrew (more accurate) name is Tanakh or Hebrew Bible.

Papyrus scroll, 10th century b.c.e

The Tanakh/Hebrew Bible is, first and foremost, a compilation. It is an anthology of separate texts written over the span of almost 1000 years, totalling 24 “books.” They are grouped into subcategories of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. It is not strict historiography, but instead a literary and theological treatise for the ancient Israelites. The original language is mostly Hebrew, but, as with most ancient documents, have been translated and transcribed into various languages at different times. Each particular translation or transcription can alter a text in great or small ways, as it will incorporate and reflect the lingua franca of the time it was translated or transcribed. Even the original Hebrew meaning may not be known for certain, as ancient Hebrew is different than modern Hebrew. Imagine how Shakespearean language sounds to contemporary anglophone ears, and multiply that by 3000 years.

The next important term is “canon.” A canonical text is a text recognized as authoritative by the religious leaders. Sometimes authoritative texts are disputed, and the Hebrew texts are no exception. The 24 books of the Tanakh were recognized as canon by the Jews in Palestine (I’m using the name for the territory at the time), but, as Jews had been exiled more than once from their territory, Jews in the Diaspora in Egypt had other books, appendixes, and commentary. This grouping of texts is known at the “apocrypha.” Today, interestingly, a Catholic and Orthodox Christian bible will contain these apocryphal texts, but not a Protestant one (Protestant Christianity is all non-Catholic or Orthodox Christianity).

Canonization of any particular religious text is usually after a long period of growth and development, with multiple circulating texts being used by various people, until an authoritative voice compiles the desired texts, and declares them “canon.” As already stated, often the canonical selection is disputed, and that is precisely what we have for followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

First, Jesus was Jewish. He is a Jew living in a Jewish community (under Roman rule), addressing Jewish issues. This is an important factor for biblical development: the early Jesus movement was not necessarily a separate movement from Judaism, as, at the time of Jesus, there were multiple Judaisms (indeed, as there were also multiple Christianities, both then and now). Because Christians self-understand Jesus as the Messiah that was foretold in the Tanakh, the Tanakh is included in Christian bibles (renamed the Old Testament).

The New Testament is also an anthology of texts (27 books), comprised of the 4 Gospels, Acts, the Epistles (letters), and Revelation (also called the Apocalypse of John). The 4 gospels at the beginning are not the earliest. Saul/Paul of Tarsus’ 1st letter to the Thessalonians is actually the earliest Christian text we currently have, dated about 60 c.e. Paul’s letters are addressing communities he visited and preached to: he worked alongside them speaking about Jesus’ message. The letters discuss how these communities should live, given that Paul thought Jesus would return soon. Paul’s letters demonstrate that he is working it out, considering different ideas, and trying to get a hold on the information he has. Remember, Paul is also a Jew, a Jew entirely without the 2000 years of Christianity to inform his interpretation. He does not have any text, nor has he met Jesus. But he is literate (extremely rare in the ancient world, though quite common among Jews), and educated (as evidence by his prose style, he was likely trained in classical rhetoric, writing in ancient Greek). He has heard about this guy Jesus, and is traveling around preaching about him to people in cities such as Thessalonica and Corinth. The letters are  responses to queries and attempts to reaffirm his authoritative claims once he has moved on to other cities. The content varies as his audience changes; he addresses Jews and Pagans (polytheistic non-Jews) alike.

The Pauline letters are thus integral to the development of Christianity, for the simple reason that they survived.

Not all the epistles were authored by Paul, as there are several of the letters called “pseudo-Pauline.” That is, letters signed as Paul but not written by him. In the ancient world, it was not uncommon to sign a document under your mentor’s name. Greek philosophers also practiced this, as it meant you were part of a particular school of thought. Paul’s confirmed letters assume the world would change dramatically any time now and thus everyone should prepare themselves for Jesus’ return. For example, he states that unmarried people should remain unmarried: there is no need to raise a family if we are all about to be reborn into eternal life when God establishes his Kingdom on earth. A few generations later, when Jesus has not yet come back, the communities have to address certain issues, and have begun to develop a clerical authority, and mandates for communal longevity.

The New Testament process of canonization took about 300 years, and was disputed by various authorities. Christianity also had multiple circulating texts, some of which were excluded from the current canon. The current compilation of 27 books was first suggested by Athanasius of Alexandria, a powerful bishop in Egypt (~367 c.e.), though other theological authorities controverted the canon. Fearing accusations of heresy, some of the non-canonical texts were hidden for 1600 years, and found only in 1945. This group of documents are called the Nag Hammadi library, and they portray Jesus in contrasting ways to canonical texts. They were rejected precisely because they were not on-message.

Nag Hammadi Codex, in Coptic

It bears remembering that the process of transcribing and translating the texts is widespread. For example, we have 5000 Greek copies of the New Testament, and no 2 are alike.

As an aside to the biblical texts, Christianity does not rise as a singular, powerful monolith, that emerges as the state religion and then oppresses everyone. That is an incorrect and horribly flawed view of history. Consider instead that it was an obscure Jewish sect in the far off troublesome province of Judea in the massive Roman Empire, a place where Roman miscreants were stationed as punishment. The Jews were always causing trouble (resisting Roman rules, refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor), and the Jesus movement was but one among many thorns in the Romans’ side. Once the Jesus-followers become their own thing, they are eventually called “Christians.” It remained illegal to be a Christian for the first three centuries.They were considered a “cult” in many ways, as they did bizarre things like meet among their dead (in the catacombs, because assembly was illegal), and were accused of being cannibals (because they “ate” and “drank” the body and blood of Christ). Constantine did not convert to Christianity (as most people believe), but he did issue an edict for Christian decriminalization.

Another important set of documents are called the “pseudepigrapha.” These texts are both Jewish and Christian, and though they never became canon, they were clearly used as authoritative by some communities at some times. They tend to be texts that offer commentary on the current canonical texts. For example, the book of Enoch, a Jewish text from the 1st century, contains the story of angels that came from heaven to mate with human women, giving them tools and makeup. This text gets reinterpreted by medieval Christian theologians as Satan’s origin story, and folded into Satan’s narrative (the source text, however, does not mention Satan at all). A colleague of mine described pseudepigrapha as “fan fiction,” and it can be useful to think of them that way.

Both Christians and Jews produced massive amounts of influential texts, which are often dealing directly with Jewish and Christian narratives. They interpret, expound on, and supplement the canon with various stories and commentary.

Biblical texts are still going through processes of translation. You can obtain translations from Cherokee to Kurdish, Icelandic to Urdu. The King James version reflects medieval European dynamics, the New International Version is the most currently accessible to modern readers. All have their own context and method of interpretation.

Hence, a “true” meaning of any biblical textual analysis is not the goal of scholars, but instead they consider the linguistic (original language, translations), literary (form, prose, style), compositional (who put together a particular canon, and why?), comparative (other documents at the time), archeological (the physical properties of the codex, on what kind of paper, using which kind of ink, written with what kind of instrument?), historical (facts that can be corroborated), and socio-political (the motives and agenda of the author, their intended audience, addressing which contemporary issues) properties of each book for a better understanding of their source and influence.

One final note on the documents themselves: as already stated, most people in the ancient world are not literate. This means that texts can be considered as a sacred object whose special contents can be accessed only by skilled magicians (learned and elite theologians) capable of deciphering (reading) the strange and mysterious hieroglyphs (alphabet). Because materials (papyrus, ink) are so rare and expensive, if something was considered important enough to write down it was considered especially powerful knowledge. Knowledge accessible to only a select few, and transmitted by those in power.

Primary sources:

Early Jewish Writings 

Early Christian Writings listed by date.

Nag Hammadi Library

Bible Gateway available in various translations and languages.

Secondary sources:

Bible Brisket. Excellent summary of the biblical compositional history, complete with flowchart.

Reading the Old Testament, by Barry L. Bandstra

The New Testament: Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writingsby Bart D. Ehrman.

As always, you can listen to my stand-alone segment here, or the entire 9sense podcast.

Original air-date: August 16th, 2015.