Sunday, 7 December 2008

The Word of God?

The Word of God is synonymous with the Bible for most Christians today, but that isn’t how it began. As William Schniedewind demonstrates in How the Bible Became a Book, in the biblical literature prior to Chronicles “the word of Yahweh” has little or nothing to do with written documents. Neither is the expression “the word of the Lord” used to refer to the Ten Commandments or the Law of Moses. The term instead applies to the oral proclamation of the prophets.

An intriguing illustration of this can be found in Jeremiah 8:7-9. The text speaks of those who have rejected the word of the Lord (v.9) in the same breath as “the lying pen of the scribes” (v.8). Jeremiah was bemoaning the fruits of literacy: authority was shifting from oral tradition to the written word. Where should authority lie, with the text or teacher? Schniedewind observes: "Once authority resides in the text, the teacher can be dismissed..." It is only in the late book of Chronicles that torah is understood as the written word rather than the oral word spoken through the prophets.

Even the word “prophecy” (nevu’ah) is a late innovation. It hadn’t been needed until the textualization process was well advanced, but once the word of Yahweh was understood as corresponding to the Pentateuch, a new term was needed for the proclamation of the prophets.

The growing authority of the text, which advanced along with the growth of literacy, put paid to the ability of opinionated individuals to rise up and speak as God’s mouthpiece: the prophets disappear from Israel. Their niche is filled in part by apocalyptic speculation with a focus on the future rather than the needs of the moment. Amos’ cry for justice in the here-and-now is drowned out by Daniel’s lurid fantasies of the future.

The word of the Lord is still spoken by troublesome individuals who speak fearlessly, but rarely by religious professionals: priest and prophet rarely complement each other. Interestingly, Jesus was remembered “as one having authority”, not like the scribes of his day (Matthew 7:28). In fact, it’s remarkable how little exegesis Jesus seemed to bother with. Needless to say, he wasn’t popular with the clergy of his day either. In Matthew's "great commission" (28:18-20) Jesus passes his authority on to his disciples, he does not infuse it into a text. Even Paul, that prolific letter writer, stresses that he was called to preach: he makes no claims for his writings.

To tie oneself up in knots over the interpretation of obscure passages has nothing in common with the genius of Israel’s faith in its formative period, or of Jesus for that matter. That’s not to say that scholars shouldn’t dig deep to understand them, or that Christians shouldn’t respect them as markers on the road taken and a source for reflection and inspiration. But to regard them with idolatrous “bible-believing” superstition - in effect a paper pope - is likely to miss the whole point. If we’re busy attempting to distill precise doctrine from ancient text, chances are we’ll miss hearing the authentic word of the Lord that engages us in everyday life.

This post can also be found on WordPress while I decide whether to migrate across or stay here on Blogspot.


  1. That's exactly right Gavin. Once the God of Israel, or any culture puts their mythologies down in print, it is subject to arguement and endless disection. The docuements become the most overstudied things on the planet.

    This is, however, how Julian James concluded humans opened another door to a higher consciousness besides that of the Bi-Cameral mind that previously heard the voice of God literally in the mind and simply did what it said. The OT is full of such examples. No introspection, no suspicion, no questioning. Just obedience to the King, Priest or General.

    Unconscious minds as we know them can build pyramids. Maybe that's what it takes!

    The written word opens up the mind to all sorts of thought and questioning since one has the text over and over before them. It also transfers the gods to paper and the world of religion we see today is the result.

    You are right. The word of God were words, not texts. The difference is profound, to me.

  2. Lots of implications here.

    About ten thousand years ago, something happened with mankind. Man's intelligence took a quantum leap forward. Some who have studied this phenomenon suggest that it was at that specific point that man had developed the ability to record and accumulate his thoughts and experiences. Of course, there is also the bi-cameral mind phenomenon, a possible factor which has been postulated as being responsible for the quantum leap, as well.

    The topic of "The Word of God" is interesting due in part to all of the possible implications. I know some twentieth century preachers who felt exactly as did the prophets to whom the original post alluded. It must have been frustrating.

    The only modern day parallel of which I am aware revolves around the experience of the American Negro. Enslaved for centuries, and being kept illiterate by the white man, the African American could only preserve his history through the spoken word. This obviously differed from the "official version" recorded by his literate captor. We began to find this out as the Civil Rights movement unfolded. It even extended into the early parts of the twentieth century, as the accomplishments of brilliant blacks in many fields were suppressed in favor of majority achievers.

    I submit that most literate people will have the same difficulty with the oral history of the prophets as they do with the orally transmitted history of the African American. How does one determine accuracy? And, what of the written traditions which were repeated for decades or centuries as oral traditions prior to having been recorded?

    You can examine the alleged books of Moses and make several suppositions. One would be that Moses, or whoever else the author was (some speculate Ezra the Scribe), had other reference works on which to draw, and that these documents (Y and E?) were destroyed, or lost to antiquity. Another would be that Moses based his writings on the oral traditions of the Israelites, who amazingly seem to have undergone many of the same experiences as our modern African Americans.

    One key difference between the teachings of Jesus and Moses, and the recordings of the same, is that less time elapsed between the events, and the records purporting to describe them. Yet, certain preachers have assigned greater credibility to the writings of the Israelites prior to Jesus.

    Where does that leave us? How can one make life's most important decisions based on critical analysis and speculation? I don't believe that this can be resolved from a critical or physical approach. One might very well conclude that the only logical way to make any kind of determination at all would be to take the whole thing for a test drive. It's the only way one would know.