Spring Branches (credit JAT 2015).  Ancient myths about trees of power, knowledge, healing, hidden things, and creation pop up in cultures all over the world.

Spring Branches (credit JAT 2015). Ancient myths about trees of power, knowledge, healing, hidden things, and creation pop up in cultures all over the world.

It’s hard to argue with the reality that the Book of Genesis has had a profound influence on the growth of three major world religions. It’s a powerful tale that evokes intense emotions. It’s been retold over and over to breathless new audiences. Its images appear in great masterworks of art. If its authors were here today, they’d be very proud.

Of course, I’m one of the small minority of people of faith who read Genesis using the standard tools of socio-historical criticism (form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, social-scientific context) and end up concluding two things: (1) that Genesis is entirely a work of fiction and (2) that Genesis was written much later than most of the historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew canon.

Let me be clear: I believe the Book of Genesis is NOT the inspired word of God. I believe it is a myth. A work of fiction. An intentional piece of writing that’s entirely made up. A book that has much more in common with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings than with other Hebrew works such as Ezra-Nehemiah or Leviticus.

When I was doing research for my Master’s research essay (short thesis), I came across the most wonderful book in the university library. I was actually looking for a different book, which I couldn’t seem to find, when suddenly my eyes fell upon a strange title: Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus.* Say who? (For those who are interested, the full bibliographic data is below).

Russel Gmirkin, the author of this admittedly highly academic book, uses careful research into early sources to suggest quite convincingly that the first part of Genesis (chapters 1-11) couldn’t have been written before 278 BCE. He also shows why it’s likely that Genesis was first written in Alexandria, Egypt — not, as you’d expect, in the land of Judah.

Meanwhile, it’s no coincidence at all that another important work known to scholars as the Septuagint was also written at almost exactly the same time (c. 275 BCE) in exactly the same place (Alexandria, Egypt). What is the Septuagint? The Septuagint is the oldest known collection of Hebrew scriptures — an early version of the “Old Testament” (as Christians call it). But it’s not written in Hebrew. It’s written in Greek.

Much to the embarrassment of orthodox Jewish and Christian scholars, until the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 at Qumran (south of Jerusalem), scholars hadn’t found any pre-Common-Era versions of the Jewish Bible written in Hebrew** (or any major chunks of the Jewish Bible, for that matter). The next-oldest-known copy of the Torah (the Masoretic Aleppo Codex) dates from the 10th century CE — a mere 1,000 years ago or so!

Until the late 20th century, then, everyone — even Jewish scholars — had been relying on various ancient translations of the Hebrew texts as they tried to reconstruct the process of canonization of the Jewish Bible. They had to rely on ancient translations because they didn’t have any actual ancient Hebrew manuscripts to study. Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars now have much more material to work with, but it’s important to note that among the hundreds of scrolls found at Qumran, almost all contain only a single “book” (such as the Book of Genesis or the Book of Exodus).

Almost all of the 24 “books” that are found today in the Hebrew Scriptures have been recovered individually at Qumran (proving their early origins). But many other kinds of texts have been found there, too — non-canonical works that bear little resemblance to today’s Rabbinic Judaism. And, despite everyone’s curiosity, it seems there’s no evidence in the Qumran material for the existence of a fixed canon in the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE (in Judean Qumran, at least). There’s no Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Septuagint to be found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. No big honkin’ “Old Testament” to lug around and quote from (though, to be realistic, and fair to the scribes of the Qumran community, there’s only so much text that can fit onto a single papyrus scroll.) Scholars found many Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls at Qumran, but no relatively stable canonical list to define and shape them. Meanwhile, the Septuagint was already “a going concern” in Greek-speaking Jewish communities outside Judea (these communities are called the Diaspora). One of the biggest of these Diaspora Jewish communities happened to be centred in . . . Alexandria, Egypt.

This is important because the evidence available to us suggests very strongly that sometime around 275 BCE (in the early Hellenistic period that followed Alexander the Great’s conquest of vast territories, including Egypt), a group of scholars got together in Alexandria, Egypt, and assembled a collection of pre-existing theological writings into a “canon.” They decided on a list of scrolls or “books” that belonged together as part of this canon. The Alexandrian scholars certainly didn’t write all the scrolls or “books” themselves. They merely collected together some scrolls that had been written by earlier Jewish thinkers, probably several centuries prior to their collation in the Septuagint.

These earlier scrolls had something important to say about God, in the view of the Alexandrian scholars. But when these assorted teachings were put together, they made a mish-mash. The collection was disjointed — really just a bunch of prophecies and histories strung together. They didn’t make much sense when read one after the other on their own. So the scholars had to do quite a bit of editing and rewriting to tie everything together (redaction). Then they added their own contribution: they wrote an introduction to the collection — a myth that would tie together all the earlier prophecies into a cohesive theological book that would make sense (well, sort of).

Enter the highly influential book of Genesis, cut from whole cloth, written at the same time in both Greek and Hebrew versions, and placed at the very beginning of the collection to serve as a theological “preface” for everything else that would follow.

To be sure, many elements of Genesis can be traced to Ancient Near East sources (elements such as the Flood narratives), but all this proves is that the authors knew their sources and wanted to draw on them. It’s part and parcel of theological writing: you always try to draw on earlier sources in order to establish your own authority.

Unless, of course, you’re Jesus.

*Russel E. Gmirkin. Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 433 and Copenhagen International Series 15 (New York: T & T Clark, 2006).

** The books that have been included in the Septuagint for at least 2,000 years were not all accepted into the tri-partite Jewish canon when rabbinic scholars in the late 1st century CE made some final decisions about which books to include in the Jewish canon. Jewish scholars, followed later by Protestant theologians, decided to exclude from the canon such Apocryphal books as “The Wisdom of Solomon” and “The Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach.” (The latter book is usually just called “Sirach” — the Jesus referred to in the full title is not that Jesus, but an earlier man who had the same name.) The Septuagint, though modified many times over the centuries, is still the official Old Testament of the Roman Catholic Church.

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