People of the Book (2)

August 21, 2016

I’ve read the Bible several times; basically, the Old Testament is the Jewish scriptures, the ‘old dispensation’ that was superseded by the advent of Christ. It’s a curious hotch-potch of very different things, and is also pretty violent in places. I have always liked the stories I first came across when very young, the stories that, sadly, children do not seem to meet any more at school, from the five books of Moses: Adam and Eve and all the subsequent tales, Noah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and lots more. And if you wonder why children should meet these stories, it’s because they are part of our cultural heritage and historical past: though we may no longer be a Christian country, those beliefs and stories have inescapably shaped our world, and we need to know them.

But then, there’s the strangeness of Leviticus, with all the minutiae of Jewish ritual observances, and all the marauding and battles and infighting in the books of Samuel and Kings and elsewhere, which I find very tedious and tiresome and not very edifying at all.

The prophets I find weird, basically, full of gloom, warnings and threats, admonishing wayward people in a very similar manner to some of the rather hectoring passages in the Qur’an; basically telling people that if you don’t do what you are told, you will meet a sticky end. Thus have people been oppressed by religion through the ages…

For me, the best parts of the Old Testament are the various Wisdom books, which are confusingly known by a variety of different names, and some of which are also excluded from the Old Testament by Protestants and Anglicans, and labelled apocryphal, whatever that bizarre judgement and appellation might actually mean. But certain of the books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are philosophical, reflective and capable of speaking to us across many centuries; the Psalms are often beautiful, poetic although somewhat repetitive: when I studied the poetry of Walt Whitman at university, I learned that his poetry is modelled on the Hebrew poetic style, which involves repetition which isn’t quite repetition: something is changed, modified and perhaps extended as part of the repeating, so that there is a gradual, accretive effect. It can be tiresome, but when it works it is quite beautiful, in a way totally unlike our Western styles of versification.

In some ways I find it curious the way that the New Testament is tagged onto the end of the Old. I know it’s meant to be the fulfilment of many of the earlier prophecies, an extension or replacement for what went before, and so we need to know what there was before. There is such a difference in tone and also in structure. There are five narrative books – the Gospels and Acts, then all the epistles to the new churches, then the weirdness of the Revelation, and that’s it. And by and large it’s free from violence and warfare, apart from the Revelation.

Raised a Catholic, I know the gospels pretty well, at least in terms of the stories. Coming back to them many years later, I notice how they have different foci: one presents Jesus as a worker of wonders and miracles, another emphasises his teachings and preachings, another reminds us as often as he can how Jesus is fulfilling all those Old Testament prophecies. So we get several different portraits of the man. There is overlap and difference, and, if one digs into detail in the way Geza Vermes does, for instance, then there are also plenty of contradictions and inconsistencies. And yet, there is clearly a very powerful story, of a thinker who offered a different way of living, and of looking at the world and life, a teacher with something revolutionary to say to people, who offered hope then and for many continues to do so now… and then there is the story of what happened after his death. I have to say that I cannot believe in a virgin birth or a resurrection from the dead, but that lack of belief does not diminish for me the power of the ideas and the message.

Unravelling the truth about what really happened is very difficult because so little was written, and a long time after the events; we have no way of knowing what was suppressed or destroyed. Clearly his followers thought his message was worth keeping alive; when we get onto St Paul and his epistles, I do begin to wonder: here’s an interloper almost, someone who wasn’t there and who never knew Jesus and yet who issues all sorts of edicts and instructions, who interprets and glosses, for his own purposes; I’ve always been uneasy with almost all he wrote, and that’s without looking at the misogyny. And the Revelation is just seriously bonkers; for my money it makes most of Hunter S Thompson’s wilder ravings seem positively normal and balanced… All in all the Bible is a curious book to place at the centre of a religion; I find the Catholic balance between scripture and tradition, or the Quaker one between scripture and the workings of the Spirit rather more convincing and comforting…

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