Common Thoughts (A Genesis Review 1)

Beginning notes . . . When I began writing this section of Common Thoughts it turned into a “Genesis Review.” It’s not a commentary on Genesis, just notes of interest answering two questions: What, no Bible? and What, no religion? We moderns mostly know God through the Bible. Not exclusively, but mostly. The majority of mankind’s history is sans Bible. Moreover, until Moses there was no definition or practice of what we would call religion around Yahweh God. How did we do without both religion and the Bible? Genesis answers both those questions and I didn’t intend taking so many pages to find a comfortable answer as this turned out but I didn’t find a place to stop. Remember, it’s not a commentary and there will be questions raised as you read Genesis that I don’t even consider. Well, I did consider them, I just left them unasked because I was using Genesis for one sole purpose: What, no Bible! What, no religion!

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Can the first three chapters of Genesis be both allegorical and historical? If there is one thing we know about God he gives us paradoxes to work through: poor will gain the world; to live is to die; first will be last. What would otherwise appear to be contradictions are contraries. A contrary looks like a contradiction except there are extenuating factors that makes it something more than seen, a third truth not obvious at first that blends two seemingly contradictory truths into one. So yes, they can be.

We have built into our being a need to know, absolutely know. Imagine you wake up from a coma and you have total amnesia. You don’t know who you are, where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going. You are in every way a blank page that you must fill with information. The mind cannot handle a blank page, it must have information on it. Not just information but trustworthy information.

I’m going to use this number and it doesn’t represent exactness but makes the point: it was 2,500 years before anything was written down about God. The very first direct writing from God we find in Exodus 24:12: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them.” Can you imagine two thousand five hundred years of no written word from God? How did all those people from Adam and Eve to Abraham to Isaac and Jacob and all the thousands of people associated with them know what truth was, what they were to believe, how they were to act without black and white writing to anchor truth on?

This question was in my mind for the longest of time and no one wanted to answer it. The first typeset and printed copy of the complete Bible (Old and New Testament) didn’t happen until the 1450s when Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press in Mainz, Germany. Actually, in the middle 800s the Chinese invented woodcut printing though it would be almost as laborious as hand printing.

As for what we know as the Bible, the Hebrew canon of books (what Christians call the Old Testament) was formed around 250 AD. The New Testament canon wasn’t formed until 393 AD (The Council of Hippo) and 397 AD (The Council of Carthage). The two main translations were the Septuagint (translating the Hebrew into Greek) and the Latin Vulgate. Of course, these were all hand copied so there wasn’t a whole lot of them for people to read and they weren’t available for the lay people until the mechanical printing press was capable of mass producing them. One of the valuable contributions of Martin Luther and the Protestants was that the Bible would be published in the language of the people so everyone could read it. So we average citizens of the world didn’t have a book to tell us the truth of God and life until the late 1500s.

Let’s calculate this: We have 2,500 years from Adam and Eve to Moses; 1,390 years from Moses to Jesus; 1,500 years to Martin Luther and the printing of the Bible for all to read for themselves. That’s 5,390 years mankind didn’t have God’s words gathered together in 1,200 pages, or 870+ thousand words. In comparison the Encyclopedia Britannica that covers something about everything has around 44 million words. Get the picture?

Don’t construe anything I write here as suggesting the Bible is not an important book. Indeed, it is the most important book we have. Also, don’t construe anything I write here to suggest the Bible is not words from God.

It’s been my observation over my lifetime that we Christians have become addicted to the physical Bible. Make note that I use the term “physical” Bible. My question all my life has been what about those 5,390 years when people didn’t have the Bible? How did they know truth or what God wanted from them?

A shortened story:

Out of the primal goo of earth evolved eventually a humanoid, or something like that. Through trial and error and a whole bunch of time (like millions of years) this humanoid, or something like that, developed a voice box so that they could make sounds. At first it was only grunts and no one understood what was being said. And then time gave them cause to modulate those sounds and language began through modulated grunts. Of course, I’m curious about what they were thinking and how grunts were meaningful thoughts in their minds. Then mystery of all mysteries these humanoids, or something like that, realized that symbols could annotate their grunts and they began drawing pictures on cave walls and this humanoid, or something like that, would point at the picture of the deer he drew on the wall and grunt until others understood this particular modulated grunt meant deer. And it went up from there. This supposedly happened around 3,200 BC, or BCE if you’re modern (meaning let’s get religion out of our dates).

Around 2,500 BCE in the Sumerian Empire (Mesopotamia) we have the first writing, meaning we also have a language beyond grunts. Then somewhere between 2,150 to 1,400 BCE we have the Epic of Gilgamesh. This early writing was called cuneiformand consisted of making specific marks in wet clay with a reed implement. Other things used to write on were clay, papyrus, wood, slate and parchment (prepared animal skins) have all been used.

A best answer for when Genesis was written is in the 1400’s BC. What we call the “canon”, or closed selection of “books” (22 in number at that time) included in the Jewish Bible happened sometime between 140-40 BCE. Some believe it wasn’t officially adopted until the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD. In the third century BCE the Hebrew text was translated into Greek called the Septuagint because Greek was the common language and many Jews living in Egypt only spoke Greek. Origin (185-254 CE, or AD) reworked the Greek translation correcting copyist errors. As stated earlier, the New Testament canon wasn’t established until the late 390s CE or AD. In AD 400, because the Roman church was dominant and Latin was the language of the educated, Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to translate the Septuagint into Latin which we know as the Latin Vulgate Bible, still used in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1384 John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, but this, of course was handwritten and not readily available. In 1525 William Tyndale translated the New Testament into English and was the first English version printed and distributed (sold) to common folk, and, of course, Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German and German Bibles were distributed through what would become Germany. In 1611 England’s King James commissioned a translation referred to at first as the Authorized Version, then known as the King James Version.

Since 1815 the Bible has been the bestselling book and by 2018 an estimated 5 billion copies have been printed. This is just a rough calculation but approximately three-quarters of the history of man was without a Jewish/Christian Bible, the one that is written about Yahweh who created everything; a book that tells us he wanted us to reign with Him; our failure to keep to the rules; and the way back to God.

If I go back to Genesis, Chapter 1, what do I learn of significance that has ultimate meaning to who I am, where I am, what I can do:

  • In the beginning God . . .
  • God created the heavens and the earth
  • Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness
  • So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them
  • And the Lord God commanded the man, saying . . .
  • Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.
  • And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day
  • Then to the woman He [God] said . . .
  • Then to Adam He [God] said . . .
  • Therefore the Lord God sent him [actually both Adam and Eve] out of the garden of Eden to till [the man] the ground from which he was taken.

What’s not in those first three chapters of Genesis?. Religion. A book of religious rites. The ten facts I put down are not about religion, they are declarative statements. We look on them as theology, the study of God. Yes, there’s truth to this, but that’s us looking back at the written words from Moses at least 2,500 years after supposedly Adam and Eve exit the Garden of Eden. But even then I don’t believe it was God’s intention for this to be theology. Little is said, but it is enough for practical purposes. What practical purposes?

Before I answer that last question let me set the broad scene. One of my favorite theologians is Paul Tillich. I own and read his three volumes on Systematic Theology. Paul, like every theologian, sat before a writing pad (today a computer) and detailed who God was, at least as he thought it through. Unexpressed, but in the back of our mind, we think of the Bible in that way, that at a specific date history ended for all practical purposes and everything that could be known about God was known and we looked at everything through eyes of theology, the Bible a systematic theology.