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Testament: creation of the bible

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Back in 1988 Egyptologist John Romer wrote and presented a TV series for Channel 4 in Britain called Testament, a seven part, six hour series described as an investigation into the origins of the bible, both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old and New Testament. Romer is an archaeologist, so the series was clearly not about revelation, nor about faith, but about the physical origins of the books themselves, and the social, political and legal ideas that are evident in them. I had previously read the book issued with the series, and now I finally caught up with the video presentation. I had seen, and been impressed with, an earlier series by Romer called Ancient Lives, a kind of archaeological social history of ancient Egypt featuring some of the lesser people of that culture, who in some cases had more to tell than the pharaohs. I knew it was going to be a location shoot most of the time, with Romer letting the landscape tell a lot of the story.

It turned out to be a series that not only gave me a lot of information as to how these books had been formed by millennia of history, but one that suggested many ideas about each topic covered that had me thinking for days. Romer emphasised the fact he was presenting the views of the majority of archaeologists and biblical scholars. A quick check from time to time on Wikipedia bears this out. There was one instance where he advanced a theory of his own not supported then by the majority of scholars. It concerns the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I found his argument convincing.

His presentation may perhaps offend those Jews and Christians who believe that scripture is “the word of god” in a literal, unchanging, sense. The bible itself contradicts that literal view, telling of a god who first made personal contact with his people, speaking to Moses for example in a burning bush; then sent prophets to guide his erring people; and only later caused the book to be written, firstly by Ezra after the captivity in Babylon in 538 BC, apparently in a form different to the one we have now. My personal belief is that god can speak to you through the bible, but may choose any other medium.

The series is visually splendid, with some of the best cinematography of ancient sites I have seen. Some of the Egyptian monuments were breathtaking, and many paintings supremely beautiful. There are some shortcomings though. Firstly, the series is of such scope it inevitably falls between two chairs so to speak. Too general for the specialist interested in just one topic Romer covers, yet perhaps over familiar for those with a general interest in the subject. I noticed a sensitivity on Romer’s part not to go too far, especially in the second half, on Christianity, an awareness that many people believe as simple fact what he was not able to prove to be so with all the results of modern scholarship at his command. He was more at his ease in the earlier sections, where he could choose between rival scholarly theories, than he was in the second half, where he was obliged to summarise a mass of historical detail while remaining doggedly non controversial. It was an adroit performance.

What he did establish, for me at any rate, was the human nature of both church and scripture, how they evolved gradually over years, sometimes centuries, of confusion, controversy, and even accident. The truth of scripture may be from god, but its formation and transmission shows the unmistakable messy hand of human beings. The church structure of the two faiths strives to give an impression of monumentality, like the monuments of ancient Egypt. Both claim to have been founded by the one god, though, confusingly, in each case a different god. Yet Romer shows them to be human institutions, confused, self destructive, mistaken, inspired, admirable, and a refuge for the oppressed.

The series is a tour of four thousand years of history and belief, all contained within two books. Here is some software to help study the bible for those who want to see more exactly what Romer is talking about: Below are some notes on the episodes.

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The first episode was called “As It Was in the Beginning” (51m), about the journey of Abraham from Ur, and sets the scene of the biblical world. Ur was a powerful city state in Sumer (Iraq) of the third millennium BC on what was then the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as they emptied into the Persian Gulf. It was named after its chief temple, the house of Sin, Sin being the Sumerian god of the moon, one of the chief deities in the pantheon (the bible refers to Sumer as the land of Shinar, perhaps a pronunciation of Sin, though it seems to mean Babylon specifically in the context used). The people of Sumer were not semitic, though eventually surrounded by many semitic peoples. They laid the foundation for all the subsequent structures that make up civilisation as we know it: the city, law, writing, social classes, art, organised religion, and many inventions. I wondered momentarily if, as Abraham lived at Ur, he may have been one of the people of Sumer, not semitic. That would mean that the later Israelites adopted his story and incorporated it into their Tanakh, just as the later Christians incorporated the Tanakh into their Old Testament.

But Abraham must have been a semite. They were largely nomads in the second millennium, and Abraham’s story looks like the life of a nomad, not a journey with a specific destination as it would have been for a citizen of Ur. The story really begins with Terah, Abraham’s father, who left the region of Ur looking for better pastures, looking for what he described as a land of milk and honey. Terah and his tribal group travelled the length of the Euphrates, then crossed westward to southern Turkey, where they settled in a town called Haran, the name of Abraham’s brother. They were looking for the land of Canaan on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, although describing that country as a land of milk and honey would have surprised the local inhabitants. Their journey forms an arc around the central Arabian desert, then not traversable. When they arrived and found the land barren, they pressed on, past Sinai to Egypt, then, as always, the real land of milk and honey in the ancient world.

Romer notes that Abraham and his tribal group are said to travel on camels, an animal introduced into the area about 600 BC. Yet Abraham is also said to have lived in the second millennium BC. This is a sign the stories were descended through generations of oral story telling. Oral accounts, tales, are much more effective ways of binding a people together than written accounts, which are limited to the literate. Oral accounts engage the emotions as well as the intellect. The story would have been handed down to the time when it would have seemed obvious that Abraham would have travelled by camel. Perhaps at that stage they were first written down.

Wherever he travelled Abraham would have found traces of the civilisation of Sumer and its influence. This is seen in the stories incorporated in the book of Genesis. Romer says the story of creation in Genesis echoes closely the Sumerian version of the creation story, the days of creation in Genesis reflecting the generations of gods in the earlier Sumerian account. We know from the Epic of Gilgamesh that the story of Noah and the flood was also derived from Sumerian sources.  Romer shows a carving of a Sumerian god bestowing a tablet on which are engraved the laws the people must follow, in the same format as the Ten Commandments that Moses later received. It is worth noting again. This was the most influential culture in world history, and permeates all others. We are all children of Sumer.

Egypt was different. Egypt was the land of stillness and order, of eternity, the land of milk and honey. The awe and isolation of Pharaoh and of the Egyptian gods must have impressed the tribe of Abraham immensely. Romer says that there is no evidence at all for the existence of the Israelites in Egypt, nor of their exodus at the hands of Ramses II. He doesn’t say it is false, just that there is no evidence. The tribe of Abraham was still not a people, but a tribal group unified by kinship lines. They spent some time in Egypt but did not settle there and left no trace. But they were impressed by the structures built for eternity, and some of this grandeur can be seen in aspects of Yahweh. The bible story in which pharaoh himself and his army pursue the Israelites as though they were a major foreign power like the Hittites is obviously inflationary.

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What these Israelites actually did was to move back into Canaan, where they took refuge in the hillsides above the cities, and raided the dominant non semitic Philistine settlements on the coast. The Philistines had come down earlier from the north and dispossessed the Canaanites, then invaded Egypt successfully: the Egyptians knew them as Hyksos. It was only at this time, the beginning of the Iron Age, that the tribe of Abraham invoked the idea of a Covenant with their tribal god, Romer says. The creation of a Hebrew god, a jealous god, a god who moved with his people, was a primitive idea more usual in the age of hunter-gatherers before the formation of the first cities and their temples, and natural for the nomadic group of tribesmen the people of Abraham still were.

The story of the people now known as the tribe of Israel, Abraham’s son, is told by Romer in his second episode, “Chronicles and Kings”  (52m). The period is the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age, about 1200 BC. To the north a group of Bronze Age warriors from Greece were busy raiding Asia Minor and the remnants of the great Hittite empire. About the time the bible stories were first written down, not told, between 700 and 600 BC, a writer in western Turkey known as Homer wrote down the stories of the Greek raids on a town called Troy. It was the same process as occurred in Canaan. The creation of heroic myth to help form a sense of solidarity among the people who before then had been dispersed into small tribal groups but were now aware of a common culture. This seems a convincing theory of Romer’s, as it brings the process the Israelites were experiencing into a relationship with other peoples in the same area.

Romer emphasises that the process resulting in the bible stories is not history, then an unknown discipline, and, with the exception of Thucydides in the fourth century BC, not practised until the days of the Roman Empire. The stories were heroic myth, stories told to explain cultic practices and affirm kinship and descent, a common process among most of the ancient peoples of the Iron Age. The relationship with actual events is a complex one. There are real events mixed with myth and legend, and all exaggerated to give prestige to the heroic ancestors. David’s city of Jerusalem has been excavated, for example. It proved to be a small hillside fort housing a few hundred people, and its size, and the scale of David’s conquest, have been much enhanced in the stories. Michael Wood found the same to be true about the conquest of Troy (In Search of the Trojan  War, broadcast 1985).  Little trace has been found for the existence of the Israelites at this early stage by archaeologists, so it can be surmised that small tribal groups who travelled north from Ur then on to Canaan and Egypt absorbed the customs and stories of Sumer, Canaan, Egypt and the Philistines, and then ascribed them to their own heroic ancestors as they created the epic of their people.

“By the rivers of Babylon
we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion”.

All the above is surmise to archaeologists, based on biblical stories but little other real evidence. What archaeologists do know is that the Assyrians expanded to the Mediterranean coast from the ninth century BC, and by the sixth century had been defeated and replaced as the dominant power by the Babylonians. In the process the Israelites, along with other peoples in the region, had been defeated and sent into slavery. This was the point, Romer tells us, when the Covenant with Yahweh had been destroyed, the chosen people sent into slavery, many of them turned to foreign gods and foreign ways, their very language becoming forgotten, this was the time when the bible we know started to be written down. The idea was a gradual one, first to preserve existing writings from neglect, then to understand what had happened (remember god had promised the Israelites they would rule over all other peoples), and only belatedly, to form a centre which all Israelites could rally around should they be given another chance by god. The bible gives the stories of the heroic ancestors, but also defines exactly what it was to be an Israelite, what constituted one, how one conformed to the faith. It was written when it looked like the faith was no more, and it was written in grief. The chief writer seems to have been the priest called Ezra. The first independent traces of the Israelite peoples, and the first fragments of the written bible, both date to a time just over a century prior to the war Athens and her allies fought with the great Persian empire. Up to now the Israelites had been a nomadic people leaving little or no archaeological trace. Their real achievement had been the creation of a series of heroic epic tales almost unparalleled in world literature.

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Romer’s third episode is called “Mightier Than the Sword”  (52m). It is the story of the Israelite remnant’s return to Jerusalem under the more tolerant reign of the Persians, who had defeated the Babylonians in 537 BC according to the bible. There were only 40,000. The remnant, the majority of the exiles, were “lost”, or integrated into Persian culture.  It’s thought this is the period of the formulation of the books of the law.  The word Judaism was first used at this period. With so many Jews now belonging to Persian and Greek religions the definition of what constituted a Jew had to be made. So the books of the law and the rituals came to be written. Many Jews lived under foreign cultures. They read the scriptures in Greek, for example the translation made in Alexandria by 130 BC called the Septuagint. Translations of other scriptures were made at the same time, but haven’t survived. Jews needed guidance in how to conform to foreign law while still observing their own Jewish one. This did not prove to be easy, and the Jews, who had rebuilt Jerusalem and, with the help of Herod the Great, the temple, rebelled again and again. They found the observance of foreign ritual offensive.

By the time of Herod the Romans were dominant in the area. Unlike the Persians they were not tolerant at all. Not conforming to Roman law was treason, and the punishment was death. Earlier, the Maccabees, a dynasty of priests who became kings, rebelled against the Seleucid empire which had inherited part of Alexander the Great’s empire. The Maccabees were finally crushed, not by the Seleucid kings, but by Pompey the Great in 63 BC. But the Jews never learned how to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s. They continued to revolt, until Emperor Vespasian sent his son Titus to “pacify” the area in 70 AD. His mandate: to destroy Jerusalem and the Jewish people, leaving not a stone upon a stone, not a living man to tell the tale.

The Jews knew the Romans were coming. Some of them made a bid to preserve their most precious possessions. They went out into the desert outside the walls to cliffs near the Dead Sea and secured a large number of scriptures and temple vessels of precious metals deep in caves there. The scrolls survived until the 1940s, when shepherds who had been using them for fuel finally thought to sell them to antiquities dealers, and they made their way to museums for examination by scholars. These so called “Dead Sea Scrolls” were attributed to a Jewish sect called the Essenes, about whom nothing is known. This is because they contain a large number of non canonical scriptures, some of which refer to a Judaism we are not familiar with at all. Some dated to the second century BC seem to foreshadow with uncanny exactness the teachings of Jesus Christ. A nearby fort was said to house a community of Essene “monks”, and a room in the fort was said to be a “scriptorium” where the scrolls were written. Romer points out that all this is speculation, a story to explain the heterodox nature of some scriptures found. He says there is a simpler explanation. There is no evidence to connect the fort with either the Essenes or the scrolls. But there is evidence that inhabitants of Jerusalem did attempt to preserve their precious scriptures from Roman destruction. The diversity of the scrolls’ contents, says Romer, simply reflects the fact that the bible had not yet taken shape. Judaism was still defining itself, and there existed many, sometimes conflicting, sects. We know about the Essenes, the Zealots, the Sadducees, the Pharisees. There were probably others. The Roman destruction, like the Babylonian captivity, caused the Jews to define themselves more exactly. In particular, with the total abolition of the temple, the Jews were no longer a religion of the temple, which housed the Ark of the Covenant. They were the people of the book. And the book began to be formed into the one we know. Scholars worked out a canon, rejecting some works as heretical, some as merely non canonical, editing parts together, including some commentary as canonical, relegating other to Mishnah. The process continued until the second century AD.

Of interest to Christians is that the Romans also destroyed the sect of Jewish Christians who had followed Jesus while he lived and who were still living in Jerusalem, and with them, the tradition of Jesus’ teaching was also destroyed. We know they had disputes with Paul of Tarsus, who was preaching a radical new doctrine of the meaning of Jesus’ death to communities in Greece which was sacrilegious to Jews. After 70 AD the churches founded by Paul were all that was left of first century Christianity.

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The series’ fourth episode is “Gospel Truth?” (52m). It deals with the rise of Christianity and the establishment of the new testament canon. On the existence and life of Jesus Romer has little to say. There is no surviving evidence of his existence. As he was a humble fisherman from Galilee you would not expect there to be any. Romer points out the unrealistic and unscientific expectations of Christian archaeologists, but concedes that Jesus must have been a real person to have had such a strong and lasting effect on later times. This of course is not a viable conclusion. People themselves don’t have an effect on later times, but the ideas they stand for. The idea of Jesus was powerful. History is full of powerful and influential ideas, such as gods. In Jesus’ time the gods Mithras and Isis were more influential than Jesus. Thousands of people died for the sake of the idea Paradise or Heaven. So the fact that Christianity prevailed does not make Jesus real except as an object of faith.

Romer points out that Christianity originated in several churches, or communities of belief, and was not an organised church until at least the second century. Scriptures were written for each of these churches, and often contradicted one another. At one stage there was a real threat the churches would forget their common faith in arguments over abstruse theological details. Many churches were really secret societies. Some were formed by thinkers we call gnostics, holders of secret knowledge. There was no unity of their beliefs, which were often an amalgam of Greek philosophy and Christian faith, and sometimes ideas from other religions as well. Up to 100 years after Jesus’ death no-one had any clear idea of what the life and death of Jesus had meant. The most pervasive idea was Paul’s, of the Resurrection. Many of these early churches were not compliant to Roman rule, and were persecuted. As the Jews had earlier found, there is nothing like persecution to make you define what you stand for, and for what you are capable of dying for if needs be.

And so the idea of a common organisation took shape, based on the way the Roman imperial administration had been organised by Diocletian. The idea of a canon of scripture took shape, to make order from the chaos of many people’s variant beliefs. Bishop Irenaeus in Lyons spent his life vigorously combating what he thought heretical beliefs. The canon was formed not on scientific grounds. Irenaeus thought the number four was a basic force in the creation of the universe, and so there should be four gospels. He picked four which were associated with four disciples of Jesus, though we know now they were written anonymously 100 years after those disciples had died. They may have contained material from an earlier oral tradition however. No concordance was attempted however, and the four gospels still contain incompatible elements one to another. Many of the other books accepted into the canon likewise were written later than the alleged authors’ own time, including many of the letters ascribed to Paul. Most of the new testaments is of unknown provenance. That was not the point. Acceptance of this canon became the definition of what made a Christian, and helped unify the Christian church.

ikons for Macquarie University exhibition

Episode five is called “Thine Is the Kingdom”  (52m) and deals with the single most important event in the history of Christianity, the establishment of the church as the state religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine. This was formally recognised in 325 at the Council of Nicaea, where a common creed, the Nicene Creed, was worked out by Christian bishops. This ensured the church survived as a monolithic structure, rather than being torn apart by factional disputes as had happened earlier. Constantine had to fight hard to unify the empire under his rule, and had earlier granted an amnesty to Christians, who had been persecuted and penalised by earlier emperors. At one stage it was touch and go if Constantine would prevail, and he needed all the friends he could get. He was only declared Emperor in 324. He reigned for a period of 14 years.

Constantine was careful to reserve to himself a supremacy over both state and church, and, Romer says, encouraged a division of power by fostering theological debate which prevented any church leader claiming temporal power. Constantine himself worshipped the state gods of Rome and the sun god Apollo, but converted to Christianity on his deathbed in 337 AD. As it happened he became a convert to Nestorian Christianity which was later declared heretical in 431 AD (Nestorius wanted to abolish the title Mary Mother of God which he thought venerated Mary as a goddess).

Six years after he was made Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium on the Hellespont, renamed in his honour Constantinople. This proved to be influential in the history of Christianity. The monolithic structure of empire he had created was a model emulated by the bishop of Rome when that city, and the western half of the empire, had been detached from the eastern half through the conquests of the Goths and Visigoths. The Roman church was one of the few remaining surviving institutions. When it combined with the  king of the Franks, Charlemagne, in 800, Christendom, the temporal power of the church on earth, was born. Constantine also created the concept of the Holy Land, and built the church of the Holy Sepulchre on the alleged site of Cavalry and the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Romer takes us on a tour of the church, and establishes the fact the site was originally a cemetery outside the walls, though whose we of course don’t know. Ancient tombs were nicknamed “ovens” Romer show us, as they looked just like that, built in series to a set width and height so that the body could be slid in and the entrance sealed with a stone. These stones would have been about 2.5 foot by 3.5 foot, not the size I imagined for a tomb I thought of as a chamber in which the mourners could stand upright. The question of “who moved the stone” has a different import when you consider the smaller size it really was.

The second half of this episode concerns the life of Saint Jerome, who translated the Old Testament from Hebrew and the New Testament from Greek, both into Latin, the first versions made in that language from the original languages. This book became one of the most influential ever  written in western Europe. Known as the “Vulgate” bible, it spread to every country and was studied by every churchman. It was a  long time before anyone could claim Jerome’s knowledge of the original languages of the bible. Martin Luther used it as an aid when he translated the Hebrew Old Testament into German. The Vulgate perpetuated the concept of the Virgin Mary, both in Isaiah’s prophecy and Matthew’s quotation of it: Hebrew alma, Greek parthenos, Latin virgo. This was, and is, taken to mean Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth, and that birth a miracle. This was a misconception likely to be made by an unmarried male, a priest, not by a woman. The word is used in Hebrew and in Greek to signify a young woman of an age to be married (nubile) who of course is a virgin until she conceives a child. Of the goddess Athene it is used to proclaim her holiness. Nothing more is meant by these words. Yet early bible commentators tortured themselves to explain how a virgin could conceive. Any woman could tell them They all do.

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Episode six is divided into two parts, looking at firstly the eastern empire, then the western empire. It is called “The Power and the Glory”  (52m). In Constantinople Justinian sought to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory. He did succeed for a while in bringing the western half  under imperial control again, thanks to the military genius of his general Belisarius. Yet it was a short lived achievement. Justinian is chiefly remembered for the revision and codification of Roman law he ordered made, which had an effect reaching right down to the present. In 537 Justinian ordered the building of Hagia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom, the Logos identified in John’s Gospel with God the Son. Romer takes us on an extended tour of the building, and calls it the most beautiful building ever constructed in human history. I was convinced. Throughout there are paintings of Justinian, and Romer points out the iconography of the emperor. He is the earthly representative of god in heaven, and all the power and majesty of god is shown as manifesting on earth through the emperor. Justinian ruled through the power of god, and it is in this time artists also created the image of god pantokrator, god almighty, lord of hosts, who in some sense reflected the physical might and majesty of the emperor. This idea travelled to the west, and is the origin, Romer says, of the divine right of kings adhered to by monarchs of the nation states of 16th and 17th century western Europe. Unfortunately Justinian’s attempt to rebuild the empire failed. There was an outbreak of bubonic plague in the 540s. Justinian himself caught the plague but survived. His empress Theodora died shortly afterwards. Although he lived another 20 years, the energy had gone from Justinian’s administration. Ultimately , the empire was doomed, though it did not fall to the neighbouring Turkish power until 1453. Hagia Sophia was made into a mosque, Mehmed II admitting it was indeed a dwelling place of god. Earlier Constantinople had been sacked by the Venetians and French on the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Romer does not attempt to cover the period of the Crusades, a time in which the western Christians sailed to save the Holy Land from the Infidel, but became confused because the eastern Christians had formed alliances with the Muslims from Arabia and in some cases shared a lifestyle with them. It was the Turks who were much more fundamentalist, and also a great military empire which defeated all the western forces and became ultimately the Ottoman Empire which “died” and whose death became one of the causes of WWI. In the sacks of 1204 and 1453 some imagine the whole of surviving classical literature was destroyed, leaving only the scanty fragments we possess today.  There may have been other scriptures of Jesus’ time which were destroyed in fires and lootings.

The second part of this episode looks at the remarkable story of Irish Catholicism, which derived its roots from Alexandria, and, in a time when the western empire was in ruins, including the city and church of Rome, preserved the learning of scripture and classical civilisation. From Saint Patrick in the fifth century, Columba the following century who was active in Scotland and Northumberland, and Columbanus, who travelled through Gaul, Irish monks spread the faith, once the faith of the now vanished Roman Empire in the west. The Irish church produced a number of illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells of about 800, a Gospel book which reproduces the four gospels from the Vulgate version of Jerome. Romer examines several such manuscripts. The colours and gilding of the lettering is as fresh as when first painted. They are indeed among the most beautiful books ever made. Kells was plundered several times by Vikings, but they seem to have ignored the Gospel book despite its gold enhancements. Other similar books are the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Armagh. Romer points out that all through the Dark Ages, for which records are non existent, the fame and prestige of the great Roman Empire remained potent in western Europe. Because it had become a Christian Empire, the faith was associated with veneration for classical learning and culture, civilisation itself, and a massive effort was made in monasteries in Britain and the rest of Europe, by generations of nameless monks, to preserve what they could. What ensured were masterpieces of calligraphy such as the Book of Kells. Gradually, the power of Rome revived, and it became, as it was once, the centre of civilisation in the west, though the Franks and Goths who occupied it were far from noble classical Romans of the past. It was there Charlemagne went to be crowned in 800 AD.

8 William-Tyndale-Bible

The final episode was called “Paradise Lost”  (52m). I found it one of the most complex episodes, as it dealt with the move in the west from faith to reason, sacred to secular. It surveys the move from natural experience of the world, as ancient and medieval people had known it, to mediated experience, awareness through the use of media such as books, scientific instruments, TV and video, computers. From a world where the existence of god is self evident in the miracle of creation and the ordered progress from earth to heaven for the virtuous, hell for the wicked; to a world where things can be analysed, proven, and disproven. Yet the conflict is not as extreme as it seems.

Romer points out the medieval idea of hell, with its horrific tortures for those who defy god, was actualised by the Inquisition and the secular authorities who punished those who first thought for themselves and failed to conform. It was an ordered universe with god at the top, and it was easy to see dissident behaviour as destructive of that order, and ultimately an offence against god deserving of the most extreme punishment. Burning at the stake, hanging, drawing and quartering, being beaten to death, boiled in oil and so on.

The first dissident was the poet Petrarch, a gentle man who loved books and collected lots of them, mainly classical authors whose work he helped preserve. He sounds innocuous enough. But many of his books contained faulty or corrupted texts, and Petrarch thought to compare editions, suggest emendations, and adopt a critical attitude to  the texts, and he was among the first in modern times to do so, in 1336. What if people did the same to the bible, for example if they wished to translate it? Jerome had been accepted, and he was a saint. But others might disrupt the fine balance that kept god on his throne in heaven and earthly kings on theirs. So translations of the bible into vernacular languages were forbidden by the church. It was the word of god, and as such, could only be read in Latin (not even in Hebrew or Greek). Many disagreed, and as it happens, their disagreement had a lot to do with the first stirring of national identity, the move away from the universal state formed by the church. Enter Martin Luther, a man who dared to create his own theology, about the working of grace, and in the process both published a German national bible, and successfully defied the pope by gaining the support of German lords who were ambitious of freeing their states from papal dominance.

William Tyndale was not so fortunate. A disciple of Luther, and a fervent believer in the right of every man and woman to read a vernacular bible, Tyndale was one of the greatest writers of English prose, a man whose accomplishment in prose was equivalent to William Shakespeare’s in poetry. He is one of the most read authors in English literature, though few know his name. His translation of the bible was the foundation of the King James revised version, which was mostly a reprint of Tyndale’s bible with additions and revisions by other hands. Tyndale was executed for publishing his bible, strangled before being executed as a traitor in 1536. Tyndale’s prose was the first great work of modern English literature and had an enormous influence on the structure and vocabulary of the modern English language.

Romer points out that the age of reason and the scientific revolution after all did and do the same job as religion. They explain the scope, order and purpose of the universe, enable us to comprehend it and our place in it. Neither explanation may be correct, but as long as we feel secure with it, or have faith in it, we don’t really care. Developments such as the search for the historical Jesus or the archaeology of the Old Testament are parallel to, but in some way irrelevant to the workings of faith. For the faithful, evolutionary theories can enhance the story of Adam and Eve by creating a whole new apprehension of the workings of god the creator; Adam and Eve, if given their original mythic force, can enlighten us more than their interpretation as historic events of 4004 BC.

Myself, I wonder why we need the idea of heaven to encourage us to do good works, or the fear of hell to avoid bad deeds. It seems an accountant’s idea of morality. And sometimes god seems eerily similar to secular powers. But we all need faith. It’s wired in to our metabolism. So there will always be a bible, or upanishads, or avesta, or quran, or torah, or the tao. Proof we all have a little of the divine, even if we’re not quite sure what that really is.

So that was Testament, a survey of four thousand years of world history in the Middle East and Europe, and the story of a book, of two books, which changed history, not once, but many times. What a strange species human beings are.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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This entry was posted on Monday, 23 September, 2013 by in films and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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