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Ask a Theologian II

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, May 9, 2008.

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  1. Ziggy Stardust

    Ziggy Stardust New Englander

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    Hi!

    Do you have any idea what the earliest and latest verse in the Bible is? I'd like to know in what timespan it was written as a whole, including the old testament.
     
  2. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    The latest book of the New Testament to be written is generally thought to be 2 Peter, which may date from as late as the mid-second century.

    As for the oldest, that would be very hard to say even if I knew much about the Old Testament, which I don't. Most of those books went through different editions over a long period, perhaps over centuries, and incorporated older sources with similarly complex textual histories, and it's all terribly disputed. With some books, scholars basically have no clue. I have read that some of the psalms may be very ancient - perhaps even predating King David - so they might have a good chance of being the oldest part (but I couldn't tell you which psalms, and some of course are much later than that). Some of the material in the various bits of Wisdom literature such as Proverbs must be very ancient too, just from its form.
     
  3. Ziggy Stardust

    Ziggy Stardust New Englander

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    Indeed, I stumbled into the same problem trying to figure it out. So I thought I'd give you a shot. Figuratively speaking. So, I'll stick to: probably over a thousand years as an answer.

    Thanks :)
     
  4. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    While it may remain impossible to discern which verse is the oldest, I seem to recall that the earliest written versions date from the Babylonian exile - which gives a pretty accurate dating - as well as falsifying Moses as a possible actual author of the Pentateuch.
     
  5. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    That's just the Pentateuch though. I'm sure that other books of the Old Testament, or at least parts of other books, and indeed parts of the Pentateuch itself, are older than that.
     
  6. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    You seem keen on keeping it vague...

    According to the wikipedia entry on the Torah (the key Jewish texts, by the way) there are several authors to be distinguished:

    • The Jahwist (or J) - written c 950 BCE.[10] The southern kingdom's (i.e. Judah) interpretation. It is named according to the prolific use of the name "Yahweh" (or Jaweh, in German, the divine name or Tetragrammaton) in its text.
    • The Elohist (or E) - written c 850 BCE.[10] The northern kingdom's (i.e. Israel) interpretation. As above, it is named because of its preferred use of "Elohim" (Generic name any heathen god or deity in Hebrew).
    • The Deuteronomist (or D) - written c 650-621 BCE.[10] Dating specifically from the time of King Josiah of Judah and responsible for the book of Deuteronomy as well as Joshua and most of the subsequent books up to 2 Kings.
    • The Priestly source (or P) - written during or after the exile, c 550-400 BCE.[10] So named because of its focus on Levitical laws.
    The documentary hypothesis has been increasingly challenged since the 1970s, and alternative views now see the Torah as having been compiled from a multitude of small fragments rather than a handful of large coherent source texts,[33] or as having gradually accreted over many centuries and through many hands.[34] The shorthand Yahwist, Priestly and Deuteronomistic is still used nevertheless to characterise identifiable and differentiable content and style.
    The 19th century dating of the final form of Genesis and the Pentateuch to c. 500-450 BCE continues to be widely accepted irrespective of the model adopted,[35] although a minority of scholars known as biblical minimalists argue for a date largely or entirely within the last two centuries BCE.

    That, again, seems pretty straightforward to me.
     
  7. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    First, you know what I think about Wikipedia, especially on this sort of subject. Second, the Pentateuch is not necessarily the oldest part of the Old Testament. As I said, it's perfectly possible that parts of the Psalms are older even than J.

    Besides which, that entry surely makes it pretty clear that it's not straightforward, and that even the traditional J, E, D, and P are themselves probably not single sources but whole mish-mashes of sources or distinct texts. So while there's consensus that the Pentateuch as we know it dates to shortly after the Babylonian exile, I don't really see how any of this makes the question of what the oldest bit of it is (let alone the oldest bit of the whole Bible) "straightforward".
     
  8. Elrohir

    Elrohir RELATIONAL VALORIZATION

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    You're losing your job?
     
  9. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    While the first is beside the issue (unless you can demonstrate wikipedia is at fault here - which I reckon you can't or you would have done so already), so is the second (unless - the same caveat applies), as clear estimates of dates of origin are given. Something which you might have done, but ominously omitted. As the question was about which are the oldest verses in the bible (neigh impossible to answer, as we seem to agree), I thought some clarification as to actual dating of actual written texts might be in order. I don't really see why you should have a problem with that. To sum up: giving accurate - albeit estimated - dates of origin seems pretty straightforward to me - with or without parentheses.
     
  10. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    Might help if you weren't using dates so old, though. AFAIK the documentary hypothesis in its original Wellhausenian form isn't accepted uncritically anymore, and last semester I had a Judaism-centered course wherein the professor - citing numbers, IIRC, from one of Richard Friedman's books - gave different dates for J and E (around the period of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom) and altered the concept behind D significantly. According to her - and confirmed, by the way, from one of the articles that Wikipedia page cites - there's not really a whole lot of consensus on dating J and P, which are the two traditions/authors most widely accepted from the hypothesis' original form. Hardly straightforward.

    I mean, it's kinda like me citing Tarn on Bactria...sure it might be a start, but it's not really all that accurate or representative of modern scholarship. And it still doesn't really have any bearing on other parts of the Tanakh which may predate the Torah anyway. I can't imagine that at least parts of the Ketuvim weren't composed prior to the Babylonian exile like Song of Songs and Psalms. Weren't some of the Proverbs ripped/adapted from some pre-1000 BC Egyptian text, too?
     
  11. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    Which is why I suggested focusing on actual written versions might be more helpful. I merely quoted from wiki as, indeed, it is very helpful for non-specialist's initial research; specialists/experts should ofcourse not need to use it. (BTW, thanks for the update.)
     
  12. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I'm on a temporary research contract - it runs out today. There is another research position which I may be able to secure, but it's entirely dependent upon that project getting funding, and they don't yet know if they will get it.
     
  13. pau17

    pau17 Chieftain

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    Not exactly a theology question, but when you write a book as an academic in this type of field, how much of it is out of your existing stock of knowledge, and how much digging and amassing do you have to do? Do you reach a level of agility with the knowledge in order to write the book that you will then lose a hold of after? When does one feel they've got what it takes to write a book?
     
  14. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    It's mainly digging and amassing, unfortunately, at least at the academic level. I think normally the way it works is, your own expertise in the field may give you the basic idea for the book or article, and a sense of what you need to research. But then you'll have to go and do all that research to actually write the stuff, and most of the finished text will be based on that. Ideally one would restrict one's scholarly activities to only a few narrowly defined fields, so that after publishing one piece of research in a field, one would then build on it and do more in that field - thereby keeping the knowledge alive in your head and not forgetting it all.

    Let me give you an example from my own experience. I did some research into early modern sceptics and their theories of intentionality. This was originally going to be part of a chapter of my PhD thesis, but it never got included, for reasons of space and focus. It later occurred to me that some of the ideas I'd encountered in the early modern sceptics were similar to ideas that were more famously articulated by Berkeley. So I re-read Berkeley and found what I thought was a gap in his argument - a gap which could be filled by inserting some of the arguments I had found in the sceptical authors. So this seemed like a promising avenue of enquiry. I did a lot of much more extensive research into the sceptics, including unearthing some very obscure volumes, and tracing the history of the argument I was interested in, and how different authors framed it. I also discovered what I thought was an interesting use of the same argument in Malebranche, but he used it in a non-sceptical way. This was striking because it tied in very neatly with the way I was interpreting Berkeley. I looked up the more obscure Berkeley texts to see the different ways in which he tackled this issue - this was new research for me because I am not a Berkeley scholar. I also investigated the purely historical question of which of these earlier authors Berkeley might have been familiar with - checking the published accounts of his library contents, looking up a contemporary translation of Malebranche to see if it included the relevant section, and so on. Also, of course, I read a lot of secondary literature on all this stuff - mainly on Berkeley, because there is a lot on him but very little secondary literature on the sceptics (some of the authors I read seem to have no secondary literature at all, making them excellent territory for future research, but also rather intimidating to face without any guidebook, so to speak). So I ended up with an article that looked like this: first, I presented an analysis of Berkeley's argument, showing that something was missing. I explained what was missing and what form this missing argument might take. Then (the body of the article) I presented a survey of the sceptical authors I had been investigating, showing how they had formulated an argument of precisely this form, and explaining the views that became widespread as a result. Then I looked at Malebranche and showed how he also used the argument, but subverted it to serve a non-sceptical purpose. Finally, I showed how Berkeley did something similar, and considered how he might have acquired this way of thinking from the earlier authors, and why he might have failed to make it explicit in his published work. So I think that's a fairly typical way of going about writing an original piece of research: as you can see, the initial idea comes from general reading or general knowledge or just out of earlier research (or it may come from reading something that someone else has written, and realising that they're wrong - a splendid feeling!), but pretty much everything that makes it into the publication itself is going to come from the hard donkeywork.

    Writing a book, as opposed to an article, normally comes at the end of a period of research in which you've published a few articles already, mastered the field, and generally developed a sufficiently sustained argument that it can hold up over the length of a book. Of course most people's first experience of this sort of thing is writing their doctoral thesis, for which they have a lot of support, so knowing whether you have what it takes isn't really a practical problem (although it may be a very big emotional problem). The trend in academia these days is very much towards articles rather than books, to the extent that some US universities have basically abolished the traditional PhD thesis in favour of a series of shorter pieces, which the student can aim to publish just as articles.
     
  15. pau17

    pau17 Chieftain

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    Extremely informative--thanks!
     
  16. ParkCungHee

    ParkCungHee Chieftain

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    Now, if we're going on topics which you seem to have some expertise, if not necessarily theological topics, I'd like to ask you about writing books.

    I'm a history Major, graduating in 3 months, going on to a MA program, and intending on a PHD program. At some point I really hope to be able to write a book. I've attempted to do such things for my own amusement/practice before, but they all collapsed because of the same problem: Organization.

    I'd either write a general narrative first, and then expand on certain sections, or start with certain section and try and string them into a narrative, but I'd always want to go back and elaborate/edit something with a new citation/bit of trivia that I've dug up on the matter.

    What I want to know, since you obviously have a knack for writing academic books, what is your process for doing them? Do you plan out chapters in advance? Do you have some sort of organization system for when you find relevant information, but are not writing at the moment?
     
  17. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I don't mind answering tangential questions of this kind, so that's fine.

    First, most of my books aren't strictly speaking academic: they are on academic subjects, but for general readers. There are only two full-length things I've written which would be aimed at an academic readership: one is an encyclopaedia, and the other is my PhD thesis, which I haven't had published yet (although some bits have been turned into articles). I'm also going to be editing a volume of papers for an academic press, so that will be properly academic, but editing such a book is very different from writing one. I think that writing something like an academic monograph will necessarily be somewhat different from writing (say) an introduction to or overview of a subject, simply because of the different kind of research you'd need to do - as my answer to the previous question should make clear.

    But that said, I think that the skills involved in writing are pretty much the same no matter what you're writing (sticking within a non-fiction, vaguely academic field, at any rate). And you're right to identity organisation as the big problem that everyone faces. It's all very well have lots of stuff to write about, but what order does it go in? The first thing to realise is that there is almost never a single right answer to this. There are reasons compelling you to organise it this way, and reasons for organising it the other way, and you have to just try to judge which way is most successful.

    As an illustration, the last book I did was on the history of the early church, and the final chapters described (among other things) the Arian controversy and the increasing measures taken by the state against paganism. Now these are very different subjects, and it made sense to treat them separately, even in different chapters. But at the same time, they were historically very closely interwoven: for example, Julian's decree that exiled bishops could return home played a key role in the development of the Arian controversy, but it occurred as part of his strategy to favour paganism over Christianity. To keep the two subjects separate seemed to require describing the imperial succession twice, since emperors meddled in both areas. But to mix them would have been to make a very complicated narrative. In the end I had to compromise. The first part of the Arian controversy is told by itself, and the second part is interspersed with the account of the paganism issue. There is still some repetition but it is acceptable. This kind of thing is very difficult and sometimes you just have to shuffle material around until it reads relatively smoothly, and that of course takes a lot of time as well. In fact, rewriting takes longer than writing. And I, at least, spend a lot more time cutting words out than I do putting them in in the first place. This is a truly horrendous activity but it has to be done.

    However, you very much do have to have a plan before you start. This is true not only from the point of view of writing the project but also from the even more pragmatic point of view of publishing it. I wouldn't recommend writing a book of this kind until you have a contract to publish it (unless you're just doing it purely for fun without an eye to publication), because any publisher who is interested in it will have a particular way of doing it that they want to do. What I mean is, a publisher may wish to produce a book on a certain subject, pitched at a certain readership, of a certain length, covering certain topics. If that is similar to what you're interested in, then you're in luck. You can write a proposal for such a book without great difficulty, and then if the publisher agrees, you can set about writing it. But if you write a book first and then pitch it about, the chances of finding a publisher who want to publish precisely that book are very small.

    The way publishing works is this: it all begins with the proposal. Either you write a proposal for something you want to do and send it to every publisher who might be interested, or, if you're lucky and you are already known to a publisher, you might meet with them and discuss what projects you might both be interested in, and they ask you to write a proposal. Either way, you have to write a proposal. That proposal must include information such as a proposed list of chapters, word length, prospective audience, description of already existing rival titles, and so on. It may also include a sample chapter. Then the publisher agrees to it, you sign a contract, and it's time to start writing. Or they don't agree to it and you must refine it.

    The way I got into publishing was that I had an idea for a book, so I wrote a proposal and some sample material and sent it to every publisher I could think of. I then got a vast number of rejections - from those that bothered to reply at all - but one publisher was interested in a quite different sort of book but thought I might be good at doing it. So I wrote a proposal for that, and they requested changes, and this went back and forth for quite a while until finally I got rather sick of it (they were not the most efficient publisher) and I took the revised proposal and sent that all round the houses again. This time two publishers liked it and I ended up with two contracts, because they wanted sufficiently different variations on the original idea. Only after all of this (which took about eighteen months altogether) did I actually begin writing the book. The first publisher liked what I did, and all the books I've done for them since have been ones that they initially proposed to me, although I still had to write proposals and get them approved. With the other publisher, I've only just finished that book - it took eight years! That was rather extreme, but writing is a very, very time-consuming business (I've spent the last couple of weeks merely compiling the index to the eight-year book, and that's not a task for the faint of heart). My main publisher recently proposed a new idea to me but I had to turn it down this time because I just can't guarantee the time to work on it: if I have that much time, I should be devoting it to articles.

    Having a proposal is necessary not only to get a publishing contract but also to have a good sense of how the book is to be set out and organised. With some projects, most of the organisational work is done at the proposal stage rather than the actual writing - indeed the writing is almost fairly mechanical, just a matter of filling in the material that the proposal anticipates. Of course you always find that changes are required, but the more work you put into the proposal stage the less hassle it is organising the actual writing. I still always write far too much and end up having to cut lots of it out though - I'm not very good at sticking to work limits on the first draft.

    As for noticing stuff that might be useful in future projects, I don't have any system beyond just remembering it.

    If you're keen to write then I definitely encourage you to do so, and it's very important to keep practising because writing really does improve with practice. Mine has, at least. It does also force you to develop good habits of organisation and motivation which, if you do a PhD, will stand you in very good stead there. As I say, what you should do first is develop a good proposal and send it to all the publishers who might be interested in it. Make sure that they all do publish that kind of book, though. The biggest mistake that people make when trying to publish things (and this applies to academic articles too) is to send them to publishers who simply don't publish that kind of thing.
     
  18. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

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    Some more theology: a Dutch feminine Catholic theologian 'revealed' in her oration that the phrase 'God created the heaven and the earth'from Genesis should actually be 'God divided/separated the heaven and the earth' (based on the original word bara). Also, she noted a mention of gods (plural) therein (not the phrase, but Genesis). Reactions diversed from 'blasphemy' (from staunch Protestant believers) to 'nothing new' (fellow theologians).

    What's your take on this? If this is the (or a more) correct translation, why then do bible translations follow such a traditional phrase? Is this a matter of religious doctrine prevailing over theology?
     
  19. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    It's not that simple. The word in question is Elohim, which is plural in form (roughly equivalent to "gods"). But in the Old Testament, it is usually paired with verbs that are singular in form, suggesting that although it is plural, it is being used as if it were singular. I suppose a rough equivalent in English might be something like "spectacles" or "trousers" - a plural word used to refer to a single thing. I understand that there are other examples of words with plural form but singular meaning in Hebrew.

    Now some people argue that the plural form of "Elohim" is significant and reflects some kind of less than strict monotheism. And in support of this they point to some passages where other words are used that seem to indicate plurality in the divine - most notably Genesis 1:26. But these are few and far between. Although there are disagreements about this sort of thing, I think the most common view is that the plurality of "Elohim" is not, in itself, enough to justify translating it in the plural, and that the usual "God" reflects the intended sense most accurately.
     
  20. MagisterCultuum

    MagisterCultuum Great Sage

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    From what I've read, a more accurate translation would be "In the beginning of God's forming of the heavens and the earth, the earth indeed existed without form and void..."

    (Verses should not be taken out of context and viewed as distinct sentences. Most sentences in the bible are a whole chapter in length in the original languages. English doesn't handle such run-on sentences very well, but recent translations especially don't even try. Breaking up chapters into lots of little sentences can make it hard to discern the real meaning.

    I prefer reading the Vulgate over English translations mostly because Latin grammar allows it to preserve the style of run-on sentences rather well. Latin Grammar is also extremely similar to that of the Koine Greek of the New Testament, probably because Classical Latin was essentially a constructed language devised by Greek grammarians. That doesn't help as much in making the parts translated from Hebrew or Aramaic more accurate, but those had been translated into the Greek Septuagint already. The Vulgate is based both on the Septuagint and Hebrew texts older than those that Jews use. The New Testament authors always used the Septuagint whenever quoting the old testament. There are some who claim that the Septuagint may even be more accurate than Hebrew texts, considering that it was translated into a language with vowels long before the Masorites interpolated vowels into the Hebrew text, and because of purported miracles like how supposedly 70 great Hebrew scholars worked independently on the translation and somehow their texts did not differ from each other by a single letter. It used to be thought that the Septuagint may have relied largely on the Samaritan Torah, but the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls showed that where the Greek and Samaritan texts agreed with each other and disagreed with the Masorites then older Jewish texts agreed with the Samaritans too.)




    The use of a "plural of majesty" in the word Elohim is often likened to the "royal we" or to how the plural second person pronoun is used in French when talking to a single individual of greater age or rank. There is apparently no evidence of the plural of majesty being used until the 4th century AD though.


    It should be noted that Elohim is the word for God used when the bible first declares that God is One. In the few cases when it is used with a plural verb, it often has a singular adjective. In the rest, it is usually not an Israelite speaking but one of their polytheistic neighbors.


    Some have tried to argue that it is both singular and plural in that it indicates the Trinity. This seems to have been quite a popular argument in late antiquity, but it seems no modern scholar takes it seriously.


    I'm not sure of the validity of this, but I once read that the plural of the masculine "El" ("god," "strong one") should really be "Elim" and that "Elohim" seems to be a masculine plural formed from the feminine form of the word, Eloh, instead of using the normal feminine plural, "Elot." That source hypothesized that this was done because Hebrew cannot handle neuter nouns but they wanted to emphasize that God has no gender. This may be similar to how the Koran is purposefully inconsistent with its pronouns when speaking of the divine.


    Some argue that Elohim is actually the Dual form instead of either Singular or Plural. While grammatical duals typically refer to things of only 2 in number, Hebrew use of them is rather odd and was quite restricted even in ancient times. It can be expanded to things of more than 2 in number, especially things like scissors, pants, or eye glasses that are plural but always go together and can be treated like one object or don't make sense to use in the singular form. Modern Hebrew used the dual when speaking of legs, even if these are the legs of a four footed creature instead of a human. Water is frequently Dual, especially in the bible, as it is seen as many raindrops that have merged and can no longer be distinguished from each other.



    I've also heard that sometimes plurals in Hebrew can be used to indicate superlatives. "El" doesn't exactly mean "god" as we would think of it but rather "mighty one," which can sometimes refer to human kings or champions with no supernatural abilities. Thus, "Elohim" may best be translated as "The Almighty One."

    (From what I've heard Hebrew normally expresses Superlatives by saying them three times in a row, and Comparatives by saying them twice. This may be preserved in books written in Greek too. When the bible calls us to be "holy holy" it means we should become holier, and when it described God as "holy holy holy" it means that he is the most holy.)
     
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