Make your own free website on

MacNeill Lay School of Theology
The Bible Through Time
©Ray Hobbs 2000


1. Road map and sign posts.
2. The Old Testament looks at itself.


Welcome to the third course in the series offered by the MacNeill Lay School of Theology. Below is an outline of our journey, take it as a kind of road map to the next six weeks. We shall follow it, and take some small detours along the way. I hope you enjoy the trip!
The brief comments added in italics after each description below refers to music. Music is not only a product of its time, but also a mirror into the mind of the time. It can tell us much about the contexts of our journey. Samples of this music will be played.

Week 1 (October 4)

The road map and sign posts.
How does the Old Testament interpret itself? This an important question. Biblical tradition is not static, but dynamic. Older traditions and ideas are re-examined, sometimes changed in the interests and in the light of new experiences of God. The most obvious example of this is the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. But the Old Testament is continually trying to understand its past and its traditions.
(Ancient Hurrian Psalm in honour of the goddess Nikal - ca. 1800-1500 BCE)

Week 2 (October 11)

The New Testament, of course, is primarily a reinterpretation of the Old Testament in the light of the coming of Jesus. How does it do this? As background for the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old, we shall survey two dominant contemporary traditions. They are the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jewish, and the Palestinian (Aramaic-speaking) traditions, represented in Philo of Alexandria, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Week 3 (October 18)

From the Fathers to Fragmentation - Patristics to the Reformation (passing through the Renaissance). The ‘Fathers’ were several writers from the first three centuries of the Christian church who wrote for various reasons, to offer teaching on Christian doctrine, to condemn heresies, to persuade non-Christians. By the time of the Reformation the organizational structure that can be taken for granted in the earlier and medieval periods, is gone. The Reformation was in reality one facet of the enormous social revolution across Europe. One important aspect of this revolution was that more and more people learned how to read. This is an enormous sweep across one thousand years with glimpses at the early formulation of ‘Theology’ in the first centuries of Christian history, the ‘heresies’ which formed in reaction, and the revolution in Europe known as the Reformation.
(Gregorian Chant to Pergolesi - Unison to discord)

Week 4 (October 25)

Let’s be reasonable. After the 18th century, things would never be the same again! Rationalism, the application of human reason to knowledge becomes the order of the day. Remember Rene Descartes’ famous saying, ‘I think, therefore I am’? This has profound implications for the way we see, and understand things, especially the things of God. Not only could the ‘common person’ read, but that same person was also given the opportunity to think, and to express thought publicly. In an age of unbelievable change at all levels of life between the middle of the 18th and the end of the 19th centuries, how did the Bible fare? How did the church react?
(Rousseau, Mozart and Wagner)

Week 5 (November 1)

The Bible in a secular context. Although our measurement of time, as in centuries and millennia, are artificial, the changes which happen at their turns effect us all. The end of the ‘Victorian era’ saw a rise of skepticism and near-cynicism, which was exemplified by the experience of and reaction to the First World War. In the century that followed the Bible has been increasingly owned by scholars and students who have little or no commitment to a life of faith. By the middle of the century secular ‘Religious Studies’ became a dominant reality. Yet they offer us new insights into the nature of the Bible. What are these insights? How are they motivated? How do we wend our way through the climate of fragmentation that seems to affect all of our living? How do we react to the fragmentation of the Bible’s role in society?
(Late Romantics to Disharmony)

Week 6 (November 8)

‘Egyptian Gold’ (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, XL, 60) This phrase was used by Augustine to describe the numerous secular aids that existed to the understanding of the Scriptures in his day. It is no less true today. We shall look at ways of integration and understanding the modern world offers.
(Gorecki, Taverner - rediscovery, reintegration).


Now to some more detail. Here I want to provide an historical framework for our journey. It is a brief, but important sketch of the influences on Biblical interpretation. This interpretation, we must remind ourselves, did not happen in a vacuum. I offer several important sign posts. They are not a complete set, but like their originals they will prove helpful.

1. Biblical History
The closing of the Old Testament period was influenced by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. In effect, what we know of ‘Israel’ was a community in exile, or under colonial rule throughout the time of the compilation of the Bible. The loss of the land had a propound influence in the reinterpretation of Old Israelite traditions out of which came the Old Testament. The loss of the first generation of disciples, and the move to a ‘Gentile’ Christianity had a similar effect on the development of the New Testament.

2. The End of ‘Biblical History’
In the first three to four centuries of the Christian (or Common) Era several important things took place. Palestinian Christianity effectively vanished. The church moved to a ‘western’ orientation. The church eventually split between east and west.
Other influences were the ‘Christianizing’ of the Roman empire, the rise of Islam, the growth of monasticism which redefined the nature of the Christian life, the development of a hierarchical structure of the church which mirrored the Byzantine political structures. The rise of ‘heresy’.

3. The Medieval Period
Islam now is firmly established as a dominant religious and political force in the world. Was it pro- or anti-Christian? The west becomes isolated, and we enter what some historians call the ‘Dark Ages’. There is a general decline of western technology, science and a concentration of intellectual life in the church. This is accompanied by the rise of a militant Christianity in the form of successive Crusades to the Holy Land. Judaism, along with other so-called ‘aberrations’, becomes a pariah in Europe.

4. Renaissance and Reformation
The end of the Middle Ages sees Europe enter on to an amazing period known as the Renaissance. There is great economic development with the invention of the iron plough; travel and communication enlarges one’s world; trade creates the new ‘middle class’ who become the arbiters of taste and fashion, and social values; religious interests of this period are more individualistic; intellectual interests are fueled by a rediscovery of Greek philosophy and art (thanks in no small measure to Arabic scholars). All of this leads to great political shifts. Writers like Macchiavelli, Grotius, Erasmus analyze political systems. If political systems can be objectified and analyzed, they can also be criticized. This was beginning to happen.

5. The Enlightenment
This period, beginning towards the end of the 17th century and lasting through the 18th was a time of intense artistic, literary and intellectual activity. Spinoza, and Hobbes openly criticize the political systems, and their theological foundations - the Bible. This becomes towards its end the ‘Age of Revolution’ (E. Hobsbawm), as in America and France. It is an age without kings, and in which ‘the people’ become a dominant political factor. Dominant in the consciousness of writers, poets at the end of this period are the dark satanic mills (Blake) of the Industrial Revolution, which changed the face of the world forever.

6. 19th Century Optimism (some would call it Arrogance)
If the previous period is the ‘Age of Revolution’, this century is the ‘Age of Empire’. It is also the age of increased mass communication in print and later, electronically. The chroniclers of events are no longer observers but also participants. It is an age in which mass travel becomes possible, and thereby the ‘education by experience’ of numerous middle class folk. Enormous discovery of the natural world is witnessed and publicized. It is an age of nationalism, expansion and prosperity (for some).

7. The Shifts in the 20th century
The effect of the First World War on 19th optimism cannot be underestimated. It shattered it. This, coupled with the growth of wealth, democracy, literacy and scientific and technological advance, led to a growing ‘secularization’ of life and thought. Yet, paradoxically, this was also a time of great religious fervour, missionary activity and growth.

8. Late 20th century Legacy
At the beginning of the 21st century several observations can be made on general social and cultural values, especially in the west. Isolationism, fueled by a strong sense of individual entitlement is seen. A form of modern tribalism, in which the small, intimate group become more important than the dominant corporation or political parties. In values there is a relativism which threatens common foundations of living together. Yet, at the same time there is a search for common ground, common knowledge, and ways of community. All of these are searching for a more central place for the personal.

We cannot view the reading of the Bible through time apart from these, and many other influences. There are intellectual influences, social influences and political influences which we must heed. But there are also the personal and the societal needs which much be acknowledged in these contexts.


1. Here we can only skip over the surface. Our starting point is the Exile of Judah into Babylon in 586 BCE. Its effect was devastating on the leaders of the people. The Land, the King, the Temple, Jerusalem, and indeed the cream of the People were all objects or symbols of covenant, the relationship with God. In the Exile all of these had been lost.
In the ancient Near East (ANE) when this happened, as it often did, nations and their religions disappeared or were absorbed by a conquering people. But with this people this did not happen. So three questions need asking:
a. How did ‘Israel’ survive?
b. How did it understand its past?
c. How did it understand its destiny?

2. In answer to the first, there is a vibrant reinterpretation of the concept ‘Israel’. It is no longer simply the name of their ancestor, Jacob (Gen. 35.9-15), it is no longer a collection of tribes (Joshua 1.2), it is no longer the name of the northern nation, in distinction from Judah (1 Kings 12.16), it is broadened to include the religious community of faith around the covenant (Zephaniah 3.14, Isaiah 43.1 etc.). This is very important to show the living nature of their traditions. They are not static, but dynamic.

3. In answer to the second question things get a little more complex. Jeremiah, the prophet, advised the people at a time of crisis to search the ancient paths (Jer. 6.16). But how were they to do this? Two other questions come to mind. In this searching and reinterpretation of their past:
a. Do later books actually quote from earlier ones?
b. Do later writers radically reinterpret past religious traditions?
Many Biblical scholars believe that there was an intense re-examination and reinterpretation of the past, and we can look only at a few examples of a complex and fascination phenomenon. It is clear that by the post-exilic period, older books were being quoted and interpreted in the light of the new circumstances.

4. Faced with the collapse of all they held dear, the ancient Judaeans must have asked themselves the following questions:
a. Why did this (the Exile) happen?
b. Where did we go wrong?
c. How can we correct our mistakes?
In passing, note how many questions the prophet ‘Malachi’ asks his audience (Mal. 1.1, 6; 2.10, 17). Since many of the prophets either lived through the disaster of the Exile (e.g. Jeremiah) or helped in the reconstruction (e.g. Ezekiel) we shall concentrate on them, although this reinterpretation is much more widespread than this.

5. Jeremiah is a good example of this ‘inner biblical interpretation’. Note the following passages:
a. Jer. 2.1-3 - the Exodus is appealed to.
b. Jer. 7 - Jeremiah preaches about the Temple
c. Jer. 19-23 - Jeremiah preaches about kings
d. Jer. 2-6 - Jeremiah preaches about Jerusalem
e. Jer. 4.23ff - Jeremiah preaches about the land
All of these items are part of the traditions of salvation and deliverance for Israel/Judah. Jeremiah makes them subjects of judgment. This is an amazing and radical reinterpretation of the past.
A clue to why he does this is found in Jer. 16.14-15, and its duplicate Jer. 23.7-8. They are worth quoting in full.

Jer. 16:14 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said,
“As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,”
Jer. 16:15 but “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north
and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their
own land that I gave to their ancestors.

Jer. 23:7 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said,
“As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,”
Jer. 23:8 but “As the LORD lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel
out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.”
Then they shall live in their own land.

6. Activity of God in the lives of the community of faith is the clue to their understanding of themselves, and of their God. This is a dynamic religion, not a static one. This is certainly picked up most dramatically by Ezekiel. Look at Ezekiel chs. 6-7. There is a constant refrain in these chapters, which are commentaries on the Exile. The refrain is That you (they) may know that I am the Lord (see 6.10, 13, 14; 7.4, 9, 27) Ezekiel is stating that the disaster of the Exile happened so that they may know more about the nature of God. A profound statement, and a profound insight. It is an important understanding of God’s presence with the people. In the traditions thus far, it is usually the enemies of Israel who are defeated. Now it is the people of God, at God’s initiative.
Theologically, this is a giant step. The anger of God is a delicate topic to deal with, but as Abraham Heschel states, ‘the anger of God means the end of indifference.’ (A. Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 2, p. 64). He also goes on to say that no word is God’s last word, (ibid ).

7. Both of these prophets, and other writers build on this foundation of God’s activity, and look toward the future, using the past. Isaiah 40-55 speaks often of the new thing which God is doing, and he links it up with the notion of Creation. Many later prophets concentrate not on the tearing down of the community of disbelief, but of building up the community of faith and trust (see especially Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).

8. But there are other aspects of the reinterpretation of the past, and the documents of the past. There are legal changes which are made, for example, in the laws in inheritance. See Numbers 27.1-7, 36.1-4. The role of the ‘stranger’ is changed (Exodus 23.31 and Deuteronomy 14.21). The laws on murder, which are highly complex, shows shifts and changes in interpretation.

9. A reading of Haggai will show a knowledge of Amos, a reading of Malachi will show a knowledge of Jeremiah. Daniel goes to great lengths to interpret for his readers Jeremiah’s reference to ‘seventy years’.

In summary, what this all means is that the Old Testament reflects the dynamic faith of a people always learning more about their God and about themselves. It is continually generating new ways of understanding God, and new forms of expression., Some scholars believe that the traditional method of interpretation, known as Midrash - from the Hebrew word ‘to seek out’ - begins already in the pages of the Old Testament. Above are just a few examples of this interpretive process. As the hymn states, New occasions teach new duties...