About myself: I am nearly done with a Master's program in the Hebrew Bible (with emphases on ancient languages and ancient near eastern texts). My undergraduate education included study of the New Testament as well, and I can field questions about late Jewish and early Christian texts as well as earlier materials. I expect to go on to a Ph.D in different kinds of ideological criticism of ancient texts (feminist, gendered, social, etc.).

Listed in an order from most proficient to least proficient, I can read (or at least work with) texts in the following ancient languages: Hebrew, Syriac/Aramaic, New Testament Greek, Ugaritic, and Ge'ez/Ethiopic.

I am an agnostic, though I do belong to a religious community. For me, the study of the Bible is an academic exercise - whether I'm approaching the text with historical-critical or literary-critical eyes - and one that can inform (but is still separate from) my participation in and teaching in a religious community. I am more optimistic than most redditors on the the social value (or at least the potential value) of organized religion.

Why I'm doing this: I often become frustrated with the quality of the discussion about ancient texts of every sort on reddit. I hope to have the opportunity both to address general questions on what being a Bible scholar means, and to respond to specific questions about recent discoveries, current events, etc. that relate to the way people today read, interpret, and use ancient texts. I really don't want this to become a venue for r/atheism and I reserve the right to ignore inflammatory or inappropriate questions.

Objectivity is impossible (we all have biases we cannot avoid), but I will commit to being thoughtful, honest, and undogmatic. I will admit it when I do not know the answer to a question. I can also step beyond my own perspective to give a general idea of how secular scholars in general talk about things.

I hope the quality of my responses is enough proof for this.

Edit: Proof? Sorry about the quality of the picture. http://imgur.com/izUbK

Edit 2: Wow, this is fun. Thanks for all the questions. As you can tell, I'm not the fastest responder, but I'm trying to get to everybody.

Edit 3: I keep seeing posts that I know I responded to that don't have my response anymore. I don't know why.

Edit 4: Redditors, you have been lovely and very hospitable. I am sorry I haven't gotten to everybody, but I need a break. I may poke around and answer some outstanding questions tomorrow, but I've been staring at a screen for too long. Good night for now.

Edit 5: Never mind. After a nice rest, back for another hour or so before bed.

Comments: 522 • Responses: 83  • Date: 

Hojeekush97 karma

Hey there, and thanks for doing this AMA.

I'm an agnostic who reads different English translations of the bible because I find it interesting in a socio-anthropological sense.

Not being able to read hebrew or greek myself, I'm interested in your take on Genesis 6:1-4. Who do you think "the sons of god" were? I've read it suggested that Seth rebelled from God and joined Cain's people, or that it may have been angels who intermingled with humans to create the nephilim/giants/men of renown. The terms used vary so much from version to version.

I'd enjoy hearing an interpretation of this verse by someone with your education/knowledge and ability to read from texts much closer to the original writings.

Thanks again!

Bible_Student40 karma

De nada, Hojeekush. Upvoted because you don't deserve to be at 0.

I think Genesis 6:1-4 is a mythic fragment that found itself inserted at this point in the primeval history partly because it sort of makes sense following the Cain debacle (i.e., like you said, that it seems ominous that Seth's and Cain's families should intermarry), and partly because it's used as evidence that things were going awry in creation. Hence the flood that's about to happen.

The etymology of "nephilim" (fallen ones) is probably important here. Perhaps they were imagined to be disgraced lesser deities that had "fallen" from God's favor. There's no real consensus on this.

The subject of mythic fragments in Genesis is something that can be (and has been) discussed at considerable length.

runningcalf9 karma

What's your opinion on the idea that "Jewish God" represents an evolution from a city god?

eg: The Jewish people's beliefs grew out of an idea that their city god was more powerful than other gods, and this eventually turned into monotheism - and that's why there seem to be hints throughout the Torah that other gods exist in a very passing way.

Bible_Student13 karma

Though it's really hard to read the Bible in the order that it was written (since parts of different books were written at different times and various editing layers were added), if you read in a roughly chronological order, you will find a movement toward a universal/world god.

A universal god requires more global worldview than early peoples were capable of - the exile probably helped Jews with developing this view, as did their other interactions with foreigners.

But yeah, parts of the Bible do seem to assume that other deities exist, while others deny them altogether. Denying their existence altogether would seem to recquire that your god has the ability to be god everywhere to all people - not just in your village/nation.

Does this make sense? Something like what you've said is probably right.

Bible_Student13 karma

I'm sorry. I really did respond to your post, but it seems to have disappeared. Argh! Here's the jist of what I said before:

Genesis 6:1-4 is probably a mythic fragment that found its way into the primeval history that is Genesis 1-11. As such, it doesn't quite fit its context and is a little baffling. You're probably right - it may have something to do with Cain and Seth's lines mixing (which seems ominous). It is probably also meant as a symptom of things going wrong in the world (hence the Flood).

The nephilim are literally the "fallen ones." What exactly that means, I'm not sure. Possible minor deities cast out by God for some reason.

The heroes of old reminds me of Greek legends and may in fact be a related tradition, somehow.

Bible_Student29 karma

This makes me look silly now. I thought my earlier response had disappeared.

work-throwaway2 karma

liar... i bet you just want the extra upvotes...

Bible_Student2 karma

Yeah...'cause I really want all the upvotes I can get on this throwaway.

karmanaut41 karma

I hope the quality of my responses is enough proof for this.

Sorry, we don't accept this as proof. Please either post some proof publicly, or message the mods if you need to verify confidentially.

Bible_Student26 karma

I really am curious. What constitutes proof (without posting personal information). Struggling to keep up with responses - I'll return to this later.

PerfectFaro38 karma

How much of the Bible do you consider to be historical fact?

Bible_Student52 karma

Some. The historical books were not wholly made up - in some cases, they brush against other records we have of the time. However, they are a biased, deeply theological, and extremely selective in what and how they represent.

The primeval history (up to and including the "Conquest" of Canaan) probably has almost no basis in what actually happened. What is important is how the Israelites' history represents how they understood themselves and their origins (not to mention their constantly being conquered and oppressed).

The prophets write at a turbulent time in ancient Palestine. Probably they are responding (in their own theological way) to actual events. These mostly aren't narratives anyway).

The New Testament? Probably most of the characters were real people. The narrative portions are very literarily crafted, so there's some fictionalization going on there.

FavoritePokemon26 karma

Who is your favorite Pokemon?

Bible_Student57 karma


Magnum_Opus3 karma

I read through all of your replies and just thought 'she sounds so perfect', then I read this and oh man why are you bound to be nowhere near me. :(

I suppose I should at least ask you a question then, are you taken? do you ever get angry?

Bible_Student3 karma

You're sweet. And yes, I am taken. No, I don't often get angry. People would describe me as mild-mannered. :)

Magnum_Opus2 karma

Do you not feel that your aims in this AMA are impossible though? My academic background is in theology and the abrahamic faiths, but I lost interest because I could never find anyone who didn't have ulterior motives in some way. It was very frustrating knowing that whatever I said would have no bearing on whoever I talked with, because they just weren't willing to see through my perspective.

I always felt quite restrained in actually expressing myself academically in my work for fear that whoever marking it would be influenced negatively in marking my work by the nature of the work itself. Did/do you feel that you can take a truly critical approach in your work without the fear of being marked down for your ideas which might go against the marker's own views?

Bible_Student2 karma

I'm still an idealist, and while most of my professors have been more conservative than I am, they've mostly been supportive of my work - even if they don't accept my thesis or starting point.

[deleted]24 karma

Do the religious communities you belong to know that you're agnostic? I can't imagine that's particularly well received unless the community is highly "secular."

Bible_Student51 karma

Depends. Educated adults I respect and talk to often? Yes, I'm not ashamed of it. Little old ladies in their Sunday best or the kindergarten class? I don't go out of my way to bother them with it.

We're a very academic community (there are several colleges in town and a lot of students / professors attend, including representatives from several branches of the humanities who understand an "unknowable" sort of epistemology. That said, I'm usually called on to teach about academic or ethical matters - not to preach the Sunday morning sermon. Which is fine with me.

castlecraver21 karma

Did you consider yourself agnostic before studying the bible academically, or how has your scholarly work informed your personal beliefs?

Bible_Student40 karma

Good question. I was actually interested in going into ministry when I first began my study. Two years into it, I realized that I wouldn't be much of a minister and switched to a purely academic track.

I considered myself an atheist for the last half of my undergraduate and the first year or so of my graduate education. Since then I've accepted a less certain position (partly a result of my accepting a more postmodern view of knowledge).

As Wolfe says, "You can't go home again," and I certainly can't return to the way I believed or read the Bible as a teenager (nor do I want to).

1dontth1nks02 karma

i don't know if you're still around, but if you considered yourself an atheist (or really even an agnostic, which I don't necessarily place as a less certain position as regards any theistic religion) for the latter half of your undergraduate program - how did you finish it? will your PhD focus in different fields of biblical criticism or just ancient texts in general?

i understand "finding it interesting" - and I still do. But as someone who graduated with a degree in Biblical Texts and went on to pursue 24 hours of an MDiv Master's Degree before somewhat 'deconverting' and considering myself an agnostic atheist, trying to even finish my summer semester before halting the program all together was one of the most painful and difficult things I've ever had to do.

thanks for the AMA by the way. really appreciate it and had thought of doing one myself. much misinformation on each side.

Bible_Student3 karma

Hi, back for a bit longer.

I can empathize with your situation, friend. There are certainly reasons I am not slogging through an MDiv right now - I even managed to avoid the capstone ministry class my senior year of undergraduate, simply because I didn't think I could get through it.

However - even believing what I believe now (which isn't much) - I don't regret it. Many - if not most - of the best scholars either have no particular faith (I don't mean people like Bart Ehrman - I mean people who actually make an attempt to be neutral.) or they never reflect it in their speaking or writing. I've decided I can be one of these.

Though I don't think we did, we could have gone to the same school - just took somewhat different paths.

I wish there were other (and better, more experienced) experts in this field willing to invest a few hours on Reddit. I have trouble imagining a full professor finding it worth his or her time....but it'd be good.

TuckRaker21 karma

Question 1: Is it correct that Jesus never once said himself that he is the son of God?

Question 2: What are the biggest, most obvious contradictions that you are aware of in the text.

Bible_Student43 karma

He certainly avoided giving point-blank questions like that. Hence the Christological controversies of the early centuries. The ambiguous texts that the issue hinges upon act like a Rorschach test - they reflect what you already believe about it.

Well, King Saul dies in 2 different ways at the end of 1st Samuel. That's something. The Conquest of Canaan doesn't conform to what we known about Egypt and the archaelogy of that area....

Airazz11 karma

Talking about contradictions, what's the deal with Jews and Egypt? I've read in more than a few places that Jews were never actually there and there's absolutely no historical or archaeological record of them being there, even though egyptians were famous for documenting things. The only source is the bible.

Is that true?

Bible_Student13 karma

Right. There really isn't much to corroborate the Exodus from Egypt or the "conquest" of Canaan. It is interesting that they choose to remember themselves as slaves and Egypt, since that's a pretty humiliating origin story. Maybe they had some ancestors who spent some time lingering around the Nile Delta, maybe they moved as a group to take over part of Canaan. Probably a lot of them were Canaanite and just became a distinct group in Canaan.

captainhaddock6 karma

One of my favourite contradictions is the one about Goliath of Gath — killed by David in one passage, killed by Elhanan in another (probably the original). Samuel is kind of a mess like that, isn't it?

Bible_Student14 karma

Yeah, probably a number of sources knitted together to give King David credence (and vindicate him from being a regicide).

huzeyodaddy18 karma

Is it wildly inappropriate the way most atheists quote the parts of the bible (Old Testament, I think) where it explains how to sell your daughter, or why rape is okay if you marry her, or how rape is her fault for not yelling loud enough, etc. etc. Does the newer part of the bible (New testament maybe) do anything to recant or counter these writings? Or is it just a totally fucked document all the way through with respect to human rights?

Bible_Student50 karma

Well, just as atheists are selective in the texts they choose to taunt Christians with, Christians are selective in the texts they choose to listen to. And different Christians do this differently.

For example, Christians who have absolutely no problem with homosexuality would either ignore texts from both the Old and the New Testaments that condemn it, or choose to believe A) that it was a cultural thing or B) the principle of God's love overrules the letter of the law.

I mentioned somewhere on here that the Bible can be dangerous. It can. In the hands of some people, it is incredible destructive to peoples' lives. However, there are ways to redeem it, to make it serve the community.

In Matthew's sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus does "re-write" the law on some points, he just doesn't do it comprehensively. Someone could (and people have) take this principle and extend it to other things as well.

suupaahiiroo16 karma

What's the most interesting hapax legomenon in Hebrew bible texts that you know of?

Bible_Student21 karma

(For the uninitiated in the room, a hapax legomenon is a word that only appears in one context within a canon of literature, and as such can be hard to translate.)

I've always been fond of 'anak (אֲנָךְ) in Amos 7:7.

gingerkid12349 karma

I also read the bible in Hebrew, and another cool one is "abrekh" in Genesis 41:43. Its meaning is somewhat up in the air, since it appears to be a loanword from Egyptian.

Bible_Student9 karma

Yeah, there's a number of Egyptian loanwords in the Joseph story.

whynottryagain15 karma

Are there other gospels/texts not included in today's modern bibles that you feel should be included? If so, why? If not, why not?

Bible_Student21 karma

Part of the reason I enjoy studying the Bible (that I don't get from other ancient texts) is that these texts have generated (and continue to generate communities). They have incredible power to influence people - and as such can be dangerous, destruction, but potentially wonderful.

If you consider adding a text that was only rediscovered in the 20th century (and hasn't been a part of a community for 1500 years), then it hasn't had that historical, diachronous presence. It's still interesting for historical reasons, but doesn't have the weight of tradition lending it power.

My husband is fascinated with this idea - what if we discovered an authentic letter of Paul that was lost (and were sure it was indeed his) - could we add to the New Testament? I think not, for the reasons I mention here.

SativaLush13 karma

Who is Cain's wife? I have always been confused by this!

Bible_Student29 karma

You're assuming Cain was a historical figure (an assumption I do not share). The question for me is: who does the text assume Cain married? I think that the text does not believe (at that point in Genesis) that Adam and Eve and their children are the only people in the world. Cain married someone else whom he found in his travels.

drumdude6568 karma

What/Who was Cain if not a historical figure? I read once that the story of Cain and Able is an allegorical description of the Agricultural Revolution. In your opinion, is this a valid?

Bible_Student20 karma

Maybe. I've heard that also. Shepherds and farmers often historically have reasons to be at odds with each other. Cain is a character in a story describing the first murder...it's a story related to law (how to treat murderers - exile or execution?) and one that's probably meant to say something about the human moral condition.

sveccha3 karma

The Sumerian poem about Enten and Emesh seems illuminating to me in this regard. The farmer 'wins' the God's favor in the Mesopotamian version whereas the one practicing animal husbandry wins among the Hebrews - nomadic herders. So in a way couldn't it be seen as a retelling of the agricultural revolution allegory meant to glorify the relevant culture?

Bible_Student7 karma

Sure. People use myths and stories to cement values they already hold.

bast5812 karma

What is your opinion of Paul and his writings? He seems quite the fanatic to me. What do you think about what he has to say about women? I would also be interested in what you have to say regarding Jesus and his sexuality...was he a virgin or not?

Bible_Student27 karma

I don't much care for Paul, for the same reason that I'm not comfortable with contemporary fanatics either. He is too dismissive of women for my taste, and too much of a legalist.

I don't know if Jesus was a virgin or not, but it doesn't matter to me either. The kinds of questions I would ask about that point would be, "Why was it so important for certain early Christian communities that Jesus not have sex? Why do others take an opposite approach?" And so on.

byte-smasher7 karma

What is the proper thing to say to those that claim to follow Jesus and not Paul, but actually reflect mostly Paul's doctrines in their philosophy?

Bible_Student7 karma

As one of my teachers said in undergraduate, everyone has their "canon within the canon." Some people really like Paul. Some find all the direction they need in the Gospels. As a church organizer, it's understandable that Paul had so much influence in the structures of the early church - it'd be hard to found an organization given only the teachings of Jesus. Jesus wasn't big on doctrine.

Olrock1210 karma

Question about "hell". My understanding of hell has been seen as a place of separation from god, whereas the lake of fire is reserved for those who directly serve the beast, and the beast itself. Is my understanding correct, and is there anything else you can say about hell?

Bible_Student30 karma

There's "nothing" in the Hebrew Bible about hell. Yes, there's Sheol, but that's really not hell. They didn't even believe in an afterlife until at least the 4th century BCE or so.

There's not a great deal in the New Testament either. Most of the substance we have in Christian traditions about hell come from other sources - commentators trying to make sense of the texts they had, authors producing new texts elaborating on what they thought it meant. This collection of texts (which should probably include Dante's Inferno) has led to what Christians now generally think of as hell.

I wouldn't lean too much on Revelation, btw. It's an apocalypse, and apocalypse's are not a genre you want to put much weight on.

Froghurt9 karma

They didn't even believe in an afterlife until at least the 4th century BCE or so.

I'm confused. I thought the promise of eternal happiness/damnation was exactly the reason most people chose to practice a religion. What made the early Jews believe then?

Bible_Student31 karma

Living a good life under God's protection and blessing. Believing that your family/tribe/people would survive and that your sons and grandsons would also be content and have their own land.

Olrock122 karma

Ok, so in that same vein, is revelations regarded as allegorical or symbolic by scholars who also practice Christianity? As in events to take place over thousands of years that aren't literal?

Bible_Student10 karma

Short and true answer: "Yes." But "scholars who also practice Christianity" is a pretty diverse group, some of whom probably don't deserve to be called scholars, and others of which are quite good. Most people I would consider "real scholars" don't put much weight in prophecies about a literal end-times. And I can't imagine a real scholar who wouldn't think that the Revelation of John describes events occurring back in the 2nd century (not our future).

lipperman932 karma

why is nothing in quotations?

Bible_Student2 karma

Because some people read things into to the comments on Sheol.

busfullofchinks10 karma

What do you think about /r/atheism? Mostly the people in it.

Bible_Student36 karma

Well, I occasionally respond to things there - mostly recent discoveries (like that papyrus fragment a couple of months) and issues I find interesting. Mostly I find it depressing ill-informed, even as it really is socially fascinating. Sometimes I try to make an informed comment...and get downvoted to hell for it, more often than not. This AMA is my alternative to getting buried over there, but also getting the desire to share what I know off my chest.

I've often considered writing an article about the rhetoric of r/atheism and the internet's attitude towards religion/Christianity in general.

bottleofink7 karma

Do you ever come hang out in /r/Christianity or /r/Judaism?

Bible_Student5 karma

No, actually.

rpcrazy10 karma

What the oldest version of the bible we have? How heavily edited has it become since then?

What's your opinion of the dead sea scrolls?

Bible_Student25 karma

The Septuagint (the 3rd century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) is the oldest translation of the Bible from Hebrew - the Septuagint we have access to today probably hasn't changed that much (Jews were good at passing down texts without changing them).

The Dead Sea Scrolls are awesome. In some cases, they confirm the Septuagint as probably older than the Masoretic Text (the Hebrew text preserved by medieval Jews), in some cases they're almost exactly the same as the Masoretic text.

How edited? Some. Some scribes had theological baggage and felt like they had to change things (assuming that they were wrong). When New Testament scholars have to choose between two manuscripts and one has a very nice, clean theological point and one is a bit troubling, they assume that the troubling one is more likely to be real.

ilmryr_maori9 karma

What is the oldest document you have studied and how old was it?

Bible_Student21 karma

Gilgamesh (in some form) is maybe 4000 years old. A lot of people here have read it, though. Lately, I've been spending time with Ugaritic myths like the Baal Cycle, which probably has some version of it going back at least that far.

The problem is, every text is probably based on an earlier text (or oral tradition), which we no longer have. 1000-500 BCE is my favorite range of texts.

TexasDex6 karma

Have you ever handled actual original documents? What is the oldest paper (or other written material) you've ever seen or handled in person?

Bible_Student12 karma

I've seen and read things from behind glass or on a table (without breathing on them). Oldest for that would be 6th century CE. I've also read scans of texts going back 2000 years - Dead Sea Scrolls. It's a lot easier to get scans than access to actually manuscripts.

suupaahiiroo4 karma

I don't know where you're from, but I nevertheless highly the Chester Beatty Library, a Dublin based museum. They've got amazing manuscripts. I myself was just speechless at some Greek New Testament papyri from the 2nd century AD. The fact that those texts were written so close to Jesus Christ's own lifetime is just mindblowing.

Bible_Student4 karma

Unfortunately, I don't live in Dublin. I've read scans and transliterations of the C.-B. papyri. We are fortunate that they survived the centuries.

hediedofbarrelfever5 karma

What do you make of all the similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Book of Genesis? Do they come from the same story, perhaps a real natural disaster that took place? Don't Great Flood myths exist in cultures all around the world?

Bible_Student16 karma

I'd like to restrict my answer to just Flood stories within the world known to residents of the Ancient Near East. Yes, there are flood stories outside of this circle...but some of them are pretty different. I don't believe in a worldwide flood and I don't believe in a collective consciousness fueling our world myths.

Yes, there could have been a serious flood that gave rise to these myths. The people of Mesopotamia lived at the mercy of the rivers and a bad year could have permanently scarred their consciousness.

Utnapishtim and his flood in Gilgamesh is quite obviously Noah in a different and earlier form. The story gains a new context (and a somewhat different literary and theological weight) in Genesis, but it's definitely reworked from earlier material.

AAAmad8 karma

I have always wondered this, but why are there so many different versions of the bible? and why can't there just be one correct one for everyone to follow?

Bible_Student21 karma

Well, first, to read the Bible, most people need a translation. That requires at least one version in each major language.

Secondly, language changes. A Bible translated in 1611 is hard to read. Heck, a Bible translated in 1980 will be hard to read someday. So every now and then, you need an update. That's, say, a version every other generation. At minimum. (Also, the new version has to take into account new discoveries or changes in the way scholars think a text is understood best.)

Thirdly, every translation (and this goes for any text, not just the Bible) is necessarily an interpretation. There isn't a word-for-word one-to-one equivalence for switching between, say, English and Spanish. This is why the New International Version and the Nueva Version Internacional are slightly different. Related to this, people disagree on how to interpret a text and how to reflect this interpretation in translation.

Catholics have different needs for a translation than protestants, and Jews again have a valid need to produce a translation appropriate to their religious communities.

Without going into reading levels, the difference between a paraphrase and a literal rendering, or the other factors involved...I'll just say that there are good reasons.

CountGrasshopper8 karma

Hey, in /r/Christianity we were discussing the meaning of Ham uncovering his father's nakedness. I was taught that this was a euphemism for "fucked his mom," others said it was a euphemism for "fucked his dad", and some said it was literal. Which is most likely the intended meaning of the text and, if the maternal incest interpretation is valid, is it possible that this is where Canaan came from?

Bible_Student4 karma

The only thing I'm sure of is that he deeply shamed his father and acted in an unfilial way. Possibly sexually. The castration option that Branmuffin mentions is a bit out there, but it certainly is dramatic.

prstele017 karma

What do you tell people when they assert that the bible is a source for ethical and moral standards that should be followed today?

Bible_Student21 karma

I understand human need for an authority. But I would urge them to consider multiple authorities (that hold each other in check), including tradition, experience, and reason. Also, they need to consider that any serious ethical system needs some kind of hierarchy - i.e., some laws and principles are trumped by others.

For example, the rabbis decided you can break the Sabbath to save a life.

prstele0110 karma

Very interesting you say this. As someone working at a Methodist church, they teach that the 4 foundations of Wesleyan Methodism (meaning the 4 ways through which we find "God" are:

1) Scripture

2) Tradition

3) Reason/Common Sense

4) Scripture

Bible_Student10 karma

Though I now belong to a different denomination, I belonged to a UMC in high school. I appreciate their "4 pillars of wisdom." I also like their mostly liberal views of social issues.

Fobulush7 karma

How much of the spirit of the underlying text has been changed due to mistranslations over the generations? Can you point to some obvious examples?

What, would you say, are the best translations of religious texts?

Bible_Student16 karma

To answer your second question first he KJV is beautiful on a literary level and deserves to be studied because of this. However, I do not recommend it to most people without a serious caveat: it doesn't use the best Greek manuscripts that we have access to today. I would say the NRSV or the TNIV are the best for people who read at at least a 6th grade level, because they use a full range of manuscripts and they used gender-inclusive language.

I have a feeling I'll be answering your first question several times today, but here goes: for the Hebrew Bible, it is a reality that the text used by most Jews and Christians today is the Masoretic Text virtually the same as it existed at the end of the first millennium of the common era (AD). However, the Dead Sea Scrolls are an earlier witness to parts of this text - and they do occaionally depart from the Masoretic Text.

HOWEVER, the Septuagint, the 3rd century BC Greek translation from Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible is a yet older witness to the MT. I would guess that it is the same as the MT about 95% of the time - sometimes it is different in a word or two, sometimes the author didn't understand the Hebrew very well, sometimes it's obvious they weren't reading the same text...sometimes it is several verses longer than the Hebrew.

The New Testament is different. There exist many more divergent manuscripts. In most cases, it's only a word or two - in some cases, it's whole verses. The ending of Mark is the most famous - there are 3 or 4 different readings found for the last 8-10 verses of that book, and since it's the earliest of the Gospels that's pretty significant.

Tell you what. I need to move on, but I'm sure I'll be answering several aspects of this question again.

funiguy2477 karma

My question is surronding the book of Job, were the prologue and epilogue added later to the originial text? I ask this because it makes the story much more different, and in my opinion better had they not been added.


Bible_Student13 karma

Probably. The prose encaps that frame the story were probably added to give the poetry context (and the poetry was probably edited some to make it make sense with these).

The ending, incidentally, was probably added later than the beginning - it's too much of a cop-out that Job should get everything back.

Cupcakeeater1237 karma

How has studying this affected your faith?

Bible_Student13 karma

Since I've answered this elsewhere, in short: lost it, then got a little bit of it back. Happy now.

Porknog7 karma

What are the job options like for someone with a doctorate in Bible knowledge?

Bible_Student11 karma

Teaching classes in texts or ancient languages. Obviously, like other obscure programs, these are the sorts of things that get the axe when the economy goes south. However, there is a fair amount of popular-level interest in the Bible these days (even if most of it is hostile).

In short, I hope to get a job when I finish (I do teach undergraduate parttime now), but nothing is certain.

THE_TIMES6 karma

Hey, as someone studying ancient Greek and interested in this sort of stuff, this is relevant to my interests.

How do you feel about mis-translation issues that have to massive theological changes in the way people think about the Bible, I'm thinking of the infamous issues of the virgin birth being mistranslated and it the word for virgin really being maiden ?

Have you done much on the apocrypha and rabbinic literature, all the stuff about enoch turning into metatron and the cherumbins seems pretty interesting ?

Bible_Student11 karma

On the translation of theological significant texts...I find it fascinating to compare the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) with any Christian-oriented Bible translation, especially Isaiah (a book that's often used to support "prophecies" about Jesus. The virgin/maiden thing is a good example - Jews and Christians have been arguing about that one for 1800 years now.

Most Bible translation committees these days are fairly diverse and attempt to be theologically unbiased...however, true objectivity is impossible, and a Bible that didn't sound like an earlier translation would not sell in a Christian-oriented market.

I love reading rabbinical commentary. I collect Midrashim and I enjoy reading the Talmud. I have not, however, gotten much into medieval mystic texts. I don't much care for mysticism in general - too confusing!

gingerkid12346 karma

Jew here. I'm curious about a few things based on this response:

  1. Do you have any thoughts on big translation disputes? Jewish vs. Christian, various Christian denominations, etc.
  2. What Jewish translation(s) do you look at? Does JPS mean 1917 JPS or nJPS? Have you looked at Fox's Torah translation?
  3. What sort of Rabbinic commentary do you read?

Bible_Student7 karma

1.-2. I assume that every translation has its theological biases. I sometimes find the JPS (1985) reading odd, but I appreciate its difference from all of the other translations. I like the NRSV because it's not hyper-literal, it uses good manuscripts, and it uses gender-inclusive language.

I like browsing Midrash Rabbah for comments related to a specific text (which is all we have in English at my library - I can't read rabbinic Hebrew well enough). I like collections like those by Wiesel that pick out interesting midrashim and comment on them. Post-Shoah Jewish commentary is also intriguing to me.

gingerkid12343 karma

1.-2. I assume that every translation has its theological biases. I sometimes find the JPS (1985) reading odd, but I appreciate its difference from all of the other translations. I like the NRSV because it's not hyper-literal, it uses good manuscripts, and it uses gender-inclusive language.

But on specific questions of what the bible means, do you have an opinion either way?

I like browsing Midrash Rabbah for comments related to a specific text (which is all we have in English at my library - I can't read rabbinic Hebrew well enough). I like collections like those by Wiesel that pick out interesting midrashim and comment on them. Post-Shoah Jewish commentary is also intriguing to me.

Interesting, thanks. Some really different translations you may wanna check out if you haven't are Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah and Fox's Torah translation. The former translates with what it thinks the text means, not what it says, based on various Jewish commentaries. The latter is hyper-literal but is a nice read, which is does by ignoring grammar.

Do you know of any good (ideally online) resources for learning Aramaic? I've been meaning to work on mine for a while.

Bible_Student2 karma

What the Bible means...one reason I make such a point of saying "Hebrew Bible" instead of "Old Testament" is not only to avoid denigrating the text as inferior or outdated - it's also because reading the Hebrew Bible (as a self-enclosed canon in its own right) is a very different experience from reading the entire Christian Bible. Translation matters less than how you see the narrative as working as a whole.

If you already know some Aramaic, check out this site for texts to practice on. A lot of the texts use the Hebrew alphabet, others use Syriac script.

bubblygurl5 karma

Are muslims just completely off the mark when they say that Jesus is a prophet and he never claimed divinity for himself ? EDIT : i mean from a biblical point of view, what do you make of the many statements muslims bring from the bible to back up their claim ?

Bible_Student9 karma

There are many parts of the Bible that I believe most Muslims would be comfortable with affirming: the power and majesty of God and the message of many of the implied authors/prophets in the Hebrew Bible. When it comes to the story of Jesus and Mary, there are parts they would agree with, and parts they would not (perhaps they would say that Christians "corrupted" these parts).

The Qur'an and the New Testament have very different starting assumptions about the nature of God. Islam developed theologically under the influence of Christianity and sometimes reacted strongly against it. The exact role/purpose/nature/divinity(or lack thereof) of Jesus is a point on which they reacted strongly.

gsthomas5 karma

What did happen to the yahwist?

Bible_Student10 karma

He died. A long time ago.

[deleted]2 karma

haha. It seems like you are more interested in modern types critical interpretation but where do you stand on source criticism and does that impact the way in which you interpret the text?

Bible_Student3 karma

Some form of the Documentary Hypothesis is probably a good way of explaining the shape and texture of the Pentateuch. My favorites are the Deuteronomist and P - I get impatient with people trying to untangle E and J, and I don't always agree with how they parse it out.

MasterFaptician5 karma

How do you predict religious practice will change, if at all. over the next 20 years?

Bible_Student9 karma

I expect there will be some kind of pendulum response to what appears as an extremely hostile take on organized religion among the 15-30 year-olds of today. That is, I expect there will be an opposite (if not equal) reaction.

I am not a modernist. I do not think science can replace the role that religious thought plays in human society. I would like to see some compromise among the leaders in the major world religions today - a willingness to communicate, not just to argue.

It will be something to see how increasing pluralistic nations like the USA account for our increasing religious diversity in the decades to come. I sincerely hope we will elect a non-Christian president at some point in the next 10 years, but that may not happen.

frostsprinkles4 karma

This may be too broad, but what are your thoughts on the existence of Jesus? I vaguely know of some arguments about it - I have heard some stating that a Jesus may have existed but not the one portrayed in the bible, or that the Jesus in the bible is based on multiple people, or that there just isn’t actual proof. So I guess more specifically, how reliable of a source do you consider the bible to be for proving Jesus’ existence, and if not, do you know of/have you studied other sources that are? Also, as you mentioned in your post, do you know how secular scholars tend to think on this issue?

Bible_Student11 karma

I think Jesus was a historical person, mostly because I suspect that Paul and the other founders of Christianity would not have created something out of thin air, since someone would have called them out on it. It's simpler to suggest that Jesus existed, but was nothing like the Gospels describe him. Or something in between.

Even Bart Ehrman - who has no reason to throw Christianity a bone - thinks he existed.

To try to answer your middle question - the New Testament's just about all we have to go on from that time about Jesus. We don't have his report card or his execution record or anything like that. I guess I'll just say again that it's complicated to explain the existence of the New Testament if there is no historical person at all.

Job6014 karma

I'm a (atheist/agnostic) doctoral student in a slightly different area of religious studies, but I passed a PhD exam in New Testament. Bible_Student's answers in general have been really excellent. You are making our field look good!

The commenters who suggest that there's a scholarly debate about the historical existence of Jesus have been misled. There is a strong consensus that Jesus existed, for the reason Bible_Student gives here. There is simply no other good explanation for why the texts of the New Testament exist in the form that they do. The question is not whether or not the existence of Jesus can be proven, but whether or not any alternative explanation for the nature of the received New Testament is plausible.

The gospels are theological polemics, not histories, and they have been narrativized and fictionalized, but they are far easier to understand as a reflection of some underlying historical reality than they are as a complete fiction.

The inconsistencies and difficulties that the atheist community on reddit love to point out are, in a way, evidence of the historical underpinnings of Jesus. The many difficult parables and apothegms, the sayings which seem to reflect a different context than the one in which the gospel authors have placed them, the stories which appear to be attempts to valorize or attack particular figures in the early Church -- all are signs that the audience for the gospels was aware through oral tradition of the activity of a historical Jesus, activity which needed to be synthesized into a coherent message and cleaned up to fit into contemporary theology. Simply put, if Jesus was entirely fictional, his words in the church's founding documents would make more sense.

Bible_Student2 karma

Hi Job601. Thanks for your approval and your thoughtful post. In retrospect, I do wish I'd recruited one of my NT or Second Temple colleagues to go in with me on this. Maybe next time.

Gravy-Leg__4 karma

What's your favorite book of the bible and why?

Bible_Student19 karma

I love Job. I love his anger, his defiance (chutzpah!), his courage in standing up to God. I appreciate the author's willingness to venture into uncertain territory - to question certainties (for the same reason, I also like Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes).

I also like Isaiah, mostly because it is a beautiful book with a fascinating historical background. Also, I am writing my thesis on one aspect of it.

Badger684 karma

Do you have any insight into the truth of those who claim that anti-homosexual teachings in the bible are mistranslations from recent centuries and would not have been seen as such in historical times?

Bible_Student12 karma

I would like that easy way out, because I do not agree with the way the Bible is used to limit peoples' liberties. But since I'm sworn to be honest here, no, I don't think that's an option...

I did like one semi-scholarly article I read on the subject once. Let me see if I can make this make sense: homosexual relationships - as they are understand today by many people (as a legitimate alternative to heterosexual relationships) - were not a part of Paul's (to take one example) worldview. He could not have conceived of gay marriage as we understand it today - he only saw something unnatural (and to a Jew, something wrong because it would allow for no children).

But no. I will come out and say, "this text is not one that we need to hold as valid today," but I can't say, "this was not the original text." Because there's no reason to believe that.

bary873 karma

Is there any truth to the claim that references to reincarnation were removed from the Bible?

Bible_Student8 karma

No, reincarnation was never (to my knowledge) a part of the worldview of either the Ancient Near East or the Hellenistic Levant.

hail2bot3 karma

Hi thanks for doing this AMA!

I recently read The Epic of Gilgamesh, and have read The Richest Man in Babylon. I would love to read more literature from ancient Mesopotamia. What books or authors can your recommend?

Bible_Student3 karma

You might check out Kirta and Aqhat (available online, I believe - fun narrative books, though a bit west of Mesopotamia proper). Even further west, there are some truly enjoyable Egyptian stories/poems: check out The Two Brothers and note the similiarities between this and the biblical story of Joseph.

cerebrum3 karma

What religious community do you belong to?

Bible_Student8 karma

I attend a (refreshingly progressive) Church of Christ, mostly because my husband works there and because a lot of my fellow students and professors go there. When we move, however, I'll probably switch over to a Methodist or Episcopalian church.

BobbyPeru3 karma

What does the bible say about the afterlife (if anything) - specifically heaven and hell, and the devil and his pitchfork?

Bible_Student12 karma

Virtually nothing in the Hebrew Bible, precious little in the New Testament. Most of our hell imagery comes from non-biblical sources.

BobbyPeru2 karma

I've read the bible cover to cover twice, and I wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything.


Bible_Student2 karma


taxrevenueiscrack3 karma

Very cool insight. I am envisioning you opening a very thick leather bound book for govt officials while saying "the arch of the convenant, here is a picture, right here"...............

Bible_Student7 karma

You joke, but my advising professor - who specializes in Hebrew Bible and social justice - actually was called to Washington, D.C. (along with 20 other Bible scholars and religious leaders) to advise the government on the history and culture of the Middle East.

Suprek3 karma

Which English translation of the bible is your favorite (KJV, NKJV, ESV, NIV, the Message, etc.)? Why is it your favorite?

Bible_Student11 karma

I like the NRSV for my own study and with educated people. It's written at a reasonably high level and it uses gender-inclusive language. The NIV/TNIV are pretty good too. If I'm working with children or adults that don't read at a high level, maybe a paraphrase like the Message or the CEB.

tuuky3 karma

You refer to Jesus many times here as a real person, by my (layman) understanding is that most scholars do not agree on whether he really existed. Bart Ehrman makes a pretty good argument for his existence, but it seems to go against the grain. How is he viewed in the scholarly circles and what is the consensus, if any, on Jesus' existence? Thanks for your time.

Bible_Student15 karma

Within the narrative of the Gospels, he is a character, therefore I will speak of his character positively. I do actually think that he was a historical figure, although whether he actually said or did anything in the Gospels is an entirely different question.

Ah....Bart Ehrman. You know, I actually like Bart Ehrman and have communicated with him in the past. He's a nice person. If I can say one unkind thing about him, however, it would be that I find his way of presenting things in popular-level books about the Bible a little unethical sometimes (i.e., he uses the authority of his knowledge and reputation a little heavy-handedly).

I personally haven't read or heard many real scholars who actually maintain that there was no historical Jesus at all. Then again, I mostly hang out in Assyrian and Hebrew Bible sections at conferences.

MixedMMA3213 karma

What is your take on Psalms 83:18?

Bible_Student9 karma

It's a verse in an imprecatory (=cursing) prayer against the psalm-writer's enemies. This a common kind of prayer among the psalms. You might think of it as a plea for justice against the psalmist's oppressors OR you could think of it as a spiteful and too-angry call for vengeance.

That in verse 18 the psalmist imagines God's superiority (over other gods and by association the nations believing in other gods) is a not-unexpected ending. It is unusual universal in its scope and may perhaps be a bit later than other psalms.

kingofharts2 karma

Have you ever been troubled by lord Raglans hero pattern regarding the historical accuracy of Jesus life?

Bible_Student5 karma

I haven't read that, but I know what you're talking about. No, it doesn't bother me, personally. When I was religious enough to care about it, that sort of thing would have communicated to that God's deeper purpose has infilitrated human story-telling throughout all time.

Now that I am entirely comfortable with the Bible as a literary composition, I would accept it as a combination of A) cross-contamination, or sharing stories and B) coincidence (there are common story-types - like trickster stories - that arise independently of each other in world myth and fables).

thoroughbred_ofsin2 karma

I'm in the midst of writing a thesis centered about the effects that religion has had upon the advancement of biotechnology within women's health and childcare, and would be really interested to hear your take on the matter. Ultimately, were the two topics interrelated in US politics?

Bible_Student2 karma

That is a good question and one I'm not competent to answer. That said, the Christian worldview in the United States sometimes impedes scientific and social progression - the issue I'm most immediately cognizant of is ecology - evangelical Christians had a reputation in the latter half of the 20th century for allowing their view of the earth as "theirs to possess" and "about to be destroyed in Armageddon" to prevent them from taking a long view of caring for the environment.

Fortunately, that has been changing since the late 80s, and there are now various Christian theologies of environmentalism.

Beyond a casual newspaper reader's awareness of the contraceptive debate of last year, I really can't comment on your subject. If I wanted to, I could make an argument from the Bible that making women's health care widely available is a matter of social justice, and therefore relates to what the Israelite prophets had to say about caring for the oppressed, but any liberal Christian could make that argument about any social or economic issue.


Froghurt2 karma

Apologies in advance if these are stupid questions, even though I was raised christian, I've been agnostic ever since I was actually able to make the decision and haven't studied religion thoroughly since then.

  1. I think most historians agree that Jesus is a historical figure. But what about Moses? Is there any proof for his existence, other than him being mentioned in the Bible and Quran?

  2. I've often heard the gospels in the Bible were "selected" by some, and other gospels (like some in the dead see scrolls) got left out. How much of that is true? Who selected them?

  3. I've often heard Christianity has a rather strong link with Ethiopia, and by your knowledge of the language this seems to be true. What exactly is the link?

Thanks in advance.

Bible_Student7 karma

1- I don't know if Moses existed. If I had to bet my life, I'd say probably not. However, it is a little odd than an Israelite hero should have an Egyptian name and may point to at least some sort of connection between Israel's ancestors and Egypt.

2-The NT is not my area of expertise, but I'll try to give an answer: by the end of the 2nd century, the so-called orthodox had basically decided that there were four Gospels. Not more, not fewer. Some groups considered heretics only used 1. These four were probably those that had gained the widest usage in Christian communities. There was probably some strong-arming by orthodox leaders to push out heretical versions and to edit the good ones a bit.

Pardon, but it wouldn't make sense to have "Gospels" in the Dead Sea Scrolls. You may be thinking of the Nag Hammadi texts. Some of those are very weird.

3-Yes, Ethiopia became a Christian nation relatively early in the Common Era. They also had some kind of relationship with Judaism and that definitely influenced their theology and ritual (their churches look like the Temple and often have pictures from the Hebrew Bible). They have, I think, the biggest canon (i.e., the most books in "their" Bible) than any other branch of the Church. They also claim to be descended from King Solomon.

rageofliquid2 karma

Talking snake in Genesis/Satan (Ha-Satan I believe)/Lucifer. Would I be correct to assume you see these as three different entities? A talking snake, an agent of God, and a foreign King in that order? And what is the common scholarly view on those three?

Bible_Student5 karma

The Snake of Genesis, the Satan of Job and the Lucifer of Isaiah? Yes to all three: snake, agent, king, at least in their original contexts. Not much scholarly controversy on those matters.

Obviously, later interpretation has made them into something quite different - Satan almost becomes a god in certain versions of Christianity.

MixedMMA3212 karma

How do you feel about the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures?

Bible_Student2 karma

I've looked at it before. Not being a Jehovah's Witness (or someone interesting in debating with a JW), I have had no reason to spend much time with it. I expect it suits their community in a unique way.

gbradham2 karma

Have you studied the Book of Mormon or other religious texts at all?

Bible_Student7 karma

I've read parts of the Book of Mormon and the Qur'an. I enjoy reading later Jewish literature and theology. Zorastrian texts (such as they are) are intriguing. I'm afraid I don't know nearly enough about eastern religions, and have not spent much time with their texts.

LongDistanceJamz2 karma

Who are your favorite scholars? What are your thoughts on the loosely affiliated individuals involved in expounding the new perspective on Paul -- particularly Wright?

Bible_Student4 karma

For a more theological and postmodern take, I'm fond of Walter Brueggemann (actually got his autograph last year - really nice man).

Julia O'Brien is my favorite scholarly-scholar right now. I enjoy her feminist commentary on the prophets.

I don't do much theology, nor have I read anything on Paul recently, I'm afraid. I'm assuming you're talking about N.T. Wright, but I'm afraid I haven't read anything by him for years.

bojasaurus_rex2 karma

Do you believe that the book of Daniel was written before Alexander the Great was born?

Bible_Student9 karma

Maybe. The Hebrew/Aramaic parts anyway, not the Greek.

paulinsky2 karma

I had to take an intro bible study course which was required by my catholic university (I'm a science major), but the instructor (He had his PhD) said that Moses probably crossed the Reed Sea not the Red sea. Is this correct?

Bible_Student2 karma

Correct. Yam Suph means "Reed Sea." The "Red Sea" is the Septuagint's mistake, which latter translators followed for some reason. Of course, we don't know what body of water the "Reed Sea" refers to...

CaptJakeSparrow2 karma

I know I'm way late to the party, but if you're still checking...

I read one of Bart Ehrman's books (can't remember which one), and he concluded that Peter could not have written the books he has been attributed to. His reasoning was something along the lines of Peter being born in a small, remote fishing village, and the possibility of him having the knowledge and skills to write something like that are just too slim. I would like to know your thoughts.

Bible_Student3 karma

Ehrman likely have a point there. If he's right, then Peter's letters would have been written by someone else, then attributed to him to gain credibility.

It's not a new idea. Ehrman's just one person's who's recently brought it to the public consciousness.

kaiser69andi2 karma

Ok so Im Not sure if you're the guy for this but my pastor said that god loves you regardless if youre a sinner or a saint. So my question is, what's the point of being a saint.

Bible_Student9 karma

That'd be a question for an actual minister, but I like ethics as a side topic: because being a decent person contributes to a stable society?

Estamio22 karma

Why do you think the number Seven was selected as the 'special number'?

Bible_Student3 karma

Anything I could respond with would absolutely be a guess. It might have something to do with the reality that a 7-day week goes way back (I don't know how far back) in Mesopotamia.

BryndenBFish2 karma

Thanks for the AMA. I've enjoyed your responses so far. My question is more a technical one, but I'd enjoy reading your response. Which side of the synoptic problem debate do you fall on? Are you a general proponent of the two-source hypothesis, Augustinian Hypothesis or the newish Four Document Hypothesis in determining the basis for the synoptic gospels? Follow-up: What makes the theory you subscribe to convincing? Thanks again!

Bible_Student2 karma

You're welcome. I'm afraid this is where the "Bible Scholar" must be only a "Hebrew Bible Scholar" and we need a New Testament expert in the room. I haven't taken a class in the Gospels since I was a sophomore in undergraduate and I am not conversant in the state of the debate of the synoptic problem.

I really would like to make a better response, but the honest answer is that I've spent far more time on the Documentary Hypothesis (regarding the Pentateuch) than that related to your question.

CarlofTime1 karma

I'm writing a comic book which I'll be proposing to investors in about 2 months and I really want to have the lore down. It specifically has a lot to do with Religion and how it worked it's way through history, with a bunch of artist flair (of course) and fiction.

What would you suggest, to someone interested, would be the best place to find a concise summary of the worlds religions and the basic tenants of those religions? (Preferably one source where I could browse through them) :D

Also, thanks for doing this. AMA's are beast.

Bible_Student5 karma

Sounds like a good project.

I'd try to avoid any site or source that was at all polemic or evangelistic - try to find something neutral. If that's not possible, try to find a sampling of members a given religion speaking for themselves about their religion (like personal blogs) - outsider perspectives are often not all that good.

Start with the standby wikipedia (sorry, lame I know). Consider posting your query to the major subreddits concerned with each religion. Remember that within any religion, you are going to find an incredible variety of perspectives. I could no more speak for all of Christianity than my former Arabic teacher could speak for all of Isalm.

Yeah, this is tough. I've been typing constantly for I don't know how long, and lunch is a long-forgotten thought.

Good luck with the book!

Logical_Primate0 karma

The bible says Jesus feed 5,000 people with two loves of bread and one fish. My question is was if there really was 5,000 people feed. In Jesus' time I don't believe, in my very humble amateur knowledge, they used base 10 math. So they would not have the exact number 5,000. So what number was originally written down in Greek?

Bible_Student3 karma

It's obviously an approximation. The Greek word for 5,000 is πεντακισχίλιοι, which is basically "five times a thousand." The New Testament always spells out numbers.