Tuesday after Pentecost 5
July 3, 2012
The Lord be with you
We are considering how a certain set of Jewish documents, which were written before Jesus was born, came to be recognized by Christians as the inspired and authoritative word of God. This is the second post on the topic. For our purposes, we will divide time into pre-exile and post-exile segments. This is in reference to the Babylonian captivity of the Old Testament people of God. (Though there is debate about exactly what year the captivity began, typically sometime around 587 bc is accepted.)
Prior to the Babylonian captivity the Hebrews spoke and wrote in Hebrew. Those books that were written prior to the Babylonian captivity were, therefore, written in Hebrew. Many, but not all, post-exile writings were in Hebrew also. The Hebrew’s text is actually most of the Old Testament. (Historians actually call this the Neo-Babylonian Empire, but only history buffs know that.)
Babylon was the empire that replaced the Assyrian Empire as the world superpower. The Assyrians were an exceptionally cruel empire. Among other things, they are the ones who first crucified people. They conquered and deported the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Those Hebrews had basically abandoned God. The Assyrians spread the Israelites out over the Assyrian Empire and the deportees assimilated, losing their identity as Hebrews. Today they are often referred to as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
Some of the Hebrews in the Northern Kingdom were not happy with the pagan practices of the majority. They took seriously the words of the prophets God had sent to Israel. They wanted to worship God in the way God had prescribed and live in harmony with God’s revealed word. So they migrated to the Southern Kingdom of Judea prior to the fall of Israel to the Assyrians. Some of them brought with them copies of the writings of the prophets and, historical documents, which provided source information for books like 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles.
When Babylon conquered the Jews, they deported them and destroyed Solomon’s Temple. However, instead of spreading them throughout the empire as the Assyrians did with the Israelites, they kept them separated from the rest of the people. The Babylonian Empire’s time as the world superpower was short (from an historical point of view). The Medo-Persian Empire (often simply called the Persian Empire) soon rose and conquered the Babylonians. After 70 years in captivity, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland and were charged by the Persian King Cyrus with the rebuilding of the temple. (The term “Jews” comes from the name “Judea.” Technically the citizens of the northern kingdom were Israelites, not Jews. Today the terms are practically used interchangeably. The term “Hebrews” refers to both the northern and southern kingdoms.)
During the captivity many of the Hebrews began using a cognate language called today “Biblical Aramaic.” Portions of Daniel and Ezra, books from this time period, are written in this language. There are a few, very small, other examples. Another language that creeps in is Chaldean. It is also a cognate language of Hebrew.
When the Persians let the Jews return home, not all of them did so. Many had made a good life for themselves. The Persians allowed them to worship God according to their consciences and observe their religion, so the pressure to return just wasn’t there. These Jews became known as the Diaspora.
The average man in the street eventually lost a good command of Hebrew and so the Rabbis provided translations into the common language (Aramaic). These surviving translations are called today “targumim” (singular: “targum”). The targumin were spoken paraphrases, explanations, and expansions of the Old Testament and today provide a valuable witness to what was accepted as the word of God at this time.
In the 300s bc, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire (and more). Though his empire broke apart with his death, the successor kingdoms were thoroughly Greek in their culture. This brought the Jews under Greek cultural influence. While the Jews in Palestine maintained the Hebrew language in their worship life, the Jews of the Diaspora adapted again, using the Greek language. (The Palestinian Jews also learned Greek as that was the language that could be understood anywhere you went and was the language of commerce, replacing Aramaic. The Palestinian Jews now typically knew three languages: Hebrew for worship; Aramaic for home life; Greek for business.)
In Egypt, there was a large population of Jews who didn’t know Hebrew. According to tradition, for them Ptolemy II sponsored a translation into Greek of the first five books of the Bible (the books of Moses). This happened in the 3rd century bc. Over the subsequent century or so, the other books were also translated, being completed well over a hundred years before Jesus was born. This translation is called the Septuagint, based on the story of how the Pentateuch was translated.
“King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.”
Septuagint means “70.” (I guess they rounded off the number of translators.) This translation is often abbreviated simply as LXX. The LXX became the scriptures of the Jews of the Diaspora. It contained significant material that was not originally written in Hebrew, and not commonly used as scripture by the Jews in Palestine. These books and portions of books have been called apocryphal, or deutero-canonical, depending on whom you talk to. They include books like 1 & 2 Maccabees, Baruch and Judith.
Finally, there is a whole segment of books written after the Jews returned from exile and into the early Christian era called Pseudepigrapha. The name refers to the fact that the authors of these books give a false name for the authorship of the book. They select some notable person from the past and pretend that that person actually wrote the book. While these books provide valuable insight into the religious mindset of the author and the time period they were written, they were never seriously considered as scripture by anyone in the ancient/classical world.
So everything that has been, or is, considered “Old Testament Scripture” by Christians today was written at least 100 years before Jesus was born.
In the next post we will consider how these books came to be accepted as scripture by Christians, and how it is that different Christian traditions differ on which of these books should be included in the Old Testament. Until then, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
Blessings in Christ
Pastor John Rickert