Northern Caribbean University
Lecture Presented at the Theological Symposium of the
School of Religion and Theology
November 20, 2008
Theme: How the Bible Became a Book: Implications for the Church in the
West Indies Union
My presentations today will consist of three papers:
1) The Oral Tradition and the Historical Conditioning of the Bible Prophets: Implications
for the Church in the West Indies
2) The Fluidity of the Hebrew and Greek Manuscript Traditions: Evidence of Scripture as
Tradition and a Faith Document: Implications for the Church in the West Indies and,
3) The Fluidity of the Greek Manuscript Tradition: Evidence of Scripture as Tradition
and a Faith Document: Implications for the Church in the West Indies
In these three papers, I will communicate the point that the Bible became a book through
a number of processes. These processes involved oral transmission, the historical
conditioning of the Bible writers, initial multiple layering of written documents, multiple
divergent copying of the text, a canonical process, and finally the efforts of modern
textual scholars to produce coherent Hebrew and Greek versions. Admittedly, these
lectures focus more on the human side of the process. However, when the true human
dimension is realized, it accentuates the fact that indeed the only way in which we have a
Bible, is because a divine hand was involved in the process. Based on this trajectory a
number of implications for the church in the West Indies will be made.
Oral Tradition and the Historical Conditioning of the Bible Prophets: Implications
for the Church in the West Indies – Lecture 1
It is well established that the chief means of communication in ancient societies was oral,
that is, mouth to mouth communication.1
Before the invention of Gutenburg‟s printing
press in 1439 and even shortly thereafter, writing materials and the process of producing
a written document was an extremely expensive and elaborate venture. In the Middle
Ages it was more expensive to buy a complete Bible than it was to build a house. In
addition to the very expensive process of manuscript production, several studies have
now confirmed that the literacy rate in both the OT and NT eras was only 10 to 15
Thus, the interest in written documents would not have been paramount as most
people could not have appreciated them.
The limited appreciation for the written text was evident in the fact that ancient oral
cultures even resisted the phenomenon of a written document. That which was written
was not seen as authentic and as enduring as that which was spoken. Plato‟s resistance to
written documents is reflected in the following words:
Every serious man in dealing with really serious subjects carefully avoids
writing lest thereby he may possibly cast them as prey to the envy and
stupidity of the public.…Written words seem to talk to you as though
they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say,
Susan Niditch, Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature (Louisville: Westminster, John
Knox Press, 1996), 1-15.
Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford:
University Press, 2003), 203; Susan Niditch, Oral World and Written World: Ancient Israelite Literature
(Louisville: Westminster, John Knox Press, 1996), 39; William V. Harris Ancient Literacy
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1989), 22.
from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing
In the New Testament, John hinted at the preference for spoken communication when he
wrote, “Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and
ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made full”
(2 John12). See also, 3 John 13, 14.
The Bible is replete with evidence that an oral phenomenon was connected to its written
message. The pinnacle communication of the Old Testament, the giving of the law on
Mount Sinai, was first an oral encounter before it later became a written message: “And
God spoke all these words saying” (Exo 20:1, 2).2
The Law of Moses was to be “talked
about when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and
when you get up ” (Deut 11:19 NIV). Throughout scripture the formula, “The word of the
Lord,” frequently meant the spoken word, not a written document like the Bible itself.
See for example, Deut. 5:5, 22; Mic 1:1; Hag 1:1; Zech 1:1,7; Jer 4:2; Lk 5: 1; 8:11;
11:28; Acts 6:2; 4:29; 1Cor 14:36; 2 Cor 2:17.
It is more than obvious that the message of the Christ event was first communicated
orally as what later became the New Testament documents were written a generation or
more after the Christ event.1
Jesus himself testified to the dominance of this oral milieu.
A key communication of his was “The words that I have spoken to you (not written to
you) they are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Matthew records: “And after he sat down…he
opened his mouth and began to teach them saying” (Matt 5:1, 2). Interestingly, Jesus
As quoted in William Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge:
University Press, 2004),14.
Along the same vein, the Rabbis taught that the oral Torah was the final authority
above the written Torah, Ibid., 15.
never left a book with his followers, but he left the Holy Spirit which “Will teach you all
things that I have said”- not write to you (John 14:15- 18; 16: 7-11). However, before we
can fully appreciate the influence of the oral culture on the text of scripture, it is
imperative that we first rehearse a few characteristics of oral communication as it existed
in antiquity. This is germane to understanding the process of how the Bible became a
book. James Dunn in his book, The New Perspective on Jesus2
mentions a few of these
salient qualities. A summary of six major tenets will suffice:
1) Oral tradition, unlike a written text is not available at a later date for exact edition. It is
an event that happens and then it is gone. It may be repeated later, but because it was
spoken words initially it will not be repeated with one hundred percent exactitude.3
2) Oral tradition is characterized by “fixity and flexibility, stability and diversity.” In
keeping with the first characteristic, each time the story is retold its central kernel will be
repeated, accompanied by varying minor details.4
3) Oral tradition is performed for the specific needs of specific communities and is kept
alive by the leaders of the communities – its elders and teachers. In keeping with this,
Dunn observes that the performances were heard within the communities‟ “horizon of
” Consequently, the messages would be shaped thematically by the story-
teller so as to suit the expectations of his audience.6
In addition, precise details regarding
The gospels were written between the sixties and nineties AD
James Dunn, The New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest For the Historical
Jesus Missed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 46-54.
Ibid., 51. Emphasis made by Dunn.
Dunn, Perspective, 48.
For example, Matthew who wrote to a Jewish audience spoke of “The Kingdom of heaven” in contrast to
Mark who wrote to a Roman audience and spoke more of “The kingdom of God.” The respective phrases
would be more palatable to each audience. It represented their horizon of expectation as to exactly what
they perceived Jesus would have said. While the phrase may be different, the content of the concepts is the
the original story needs not be given each time the story was repeated as the audience
would have already been familiar with the details. Allusions would be sufficient to re-
invoke the full message of the story.
4) The events rehearsed by oral communication would be done in blocks of teachings,
instead of in individual elements of instruction1
5) The oral message while distinguishable from the written message was not separate
from it. According to Doyne Dawson, “The notion of a „book‟ implied not so much a
fixed text as an oral presentation.2
” The written text in the words of Dunn was “frozen
orality.” That is, as a written document it was intended to be an oral medium. As
Ehrman and others observe, reading a book in antiquity meant hearing it read.3
Consequently, reading was always done aloud even when done alone by oneself.1
6) In keeping with number five above, the oral message exists parallel to, and in
competition with the written text. Thus the written text was sometimes edited to
synchronize with, or deviate from the respected oral tradition.
These characteristics of oral influence are obvious on the varied accounts of the
same stories and incidents that are found in both the Old and New Testament. Perhaps a
brief review of a story from the gospels will illustrate the point. The healing of the
centurion‟s slave/son is recorded in Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10 and John 4:46-54. A
close reading of all three accounts reveals that indeed, this is the same story because the
core is the same. However, from these three accounts, the only safe conclusion one can
James 12 Dunn, Perspective, 49, 50.
Doyne 13 Dawson, Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1992), 89; as quoted in Niditch, Oral World, 41.
Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco:
Harper, 2005), 41, 42.
arrive at, is that, a centurion had someone close to him who was sick, the centurion
appealed to Jesus for help and Jesus responded by healing the individual. I will now
highlight some of the major differences between the accounts to make the points.
In Matthew and Luke the event took place in Capernaum, but in John it occurred in Cana
in Galilee (Matt 8:5; Lk 7:1; John 4:46, 47). In Matthew and Luke, the father is a
centurion (Ekatonta,rcou), in John, he is a noble man (basiliko.j). In Matthew, the sick
person is consistently called a paidas which can mean son or slave (6, 8,13); in Luke he
is a doulos (slave) and paidas- son or slave (verses 3, 7). In John, the sick person is a
vios- son or paidas- son/slave (verses 46, 47, 49, 51, 53). Most translators translate these
words as „servant‟. The different words used for the same person help to illustrate the
point that initially it was not a fixed written document but rather a spoken source that laid
behind the written account.
In Matthew and John it was the centurion who approached Jesus directly and asked for
help (Matt 8:5; John 4:47). In Luke, he sent the Jewish elders to beg Jesus for help (Lk.
7:3). Luke‟s account relates a long speech by the elders extolling the worthiness of the
centurion for this miracle (verses 4, 5). Neither Matthew nor John carry this speech. In
Matthew (verse 8), the centurion himself told Jesus that he was not worthy to have Jesus
come into his house. However in Luke (verse 6, 7) he sent friends to deliver this message
to Jesus while Jesus was en route to his house. Mathew‟s version has an extended speech
about the eternal destiny which is not found in Luke. In John‟s version of the story, Jesus
speaks about signs and wonders, (v 48). This speech is absent from the accounts in
Matthew and Luke. Also in Matthew, the noble man‟s request is granted immediately
(8:13). However, in John while he was on his way home, his slaves met him and
informed him that his son was healed from the previous day (4:51, 52).
John‟s version written approximately 25 years after Matthew‟s and Luke‟s, is so different
from that of Matthew and Luke that one wonders if it is the same story. Not only do the
three accounts differ in major points, but the words used to describe the same event are in
many cases different Greek words. All this as Dunn and others observed, testify to the
existence of an oral tradition undergirding the written text.1
A cursory comparison of just about any story in the gospels will reveal diversity
both in details and major points. For example, according to Mark 14:12; 15:25, Jesus
was crucified at nine a.m. the day after the Passover; but according to John he was
crucified on the day of the Passover sometime after 12 p.m. (John 19:14-31). Writing of
the encounter with the demonic, Matthew records that Jesus and his disciples met two
demon possessed men among the tombs (Matt 8:28). However, according to Mark and
Luke they met only one demonic among the tombs (Mk. 5:2-3; Lk. 8: 26). In Matthew,
Jesus preached a sermon on the mount (Matt 5:1). But in Luke the same sermon is
preached on a plain (Lk. 6:17). The wording of the beatitude and the Lord‟s prayer are
also quite different in the gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matt. 5-3-11; 6:5-13; Lk. 6:20-
26; Lk 11:2-4). In Luke 24:4, the women saw two angels at Jesus‟ tomb, in Matthew
28:2-5 they saw only one. After his resurrection Jesus told his disciples to meet him in
two different places at the same time. According to Matthew 28:10 and Mark 14:27, they
Ibid. See also, Dunn Jesus, Christianity in the Making: Jesus Remembered vol. 1. (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 192-253.
were to meet him in Galilee; but according to Luke 24:49 they were to meet him in
A comparison of the following stories: the stilling of the storm (Matt 8: 23-27; Mark
4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25); the dispute about greatness ( Matthew 18: 1-5; Mark 9:33-37,
Luke 9:46-48); the healing of the possessed boy ( Matt 17:14-18; Mk 9: 14-27, Lk 9:37-
43); the three accounts of Saul‟s conversion (Acts (9:1-22; 22:1-21; 26:9-23); the
accounts of the Lord‟s supper in the Gospels and Paul ( Matt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk
22:17-20; 1Cor 11:23-26) among many other accounts throughout the New Testament, all
show tremendous variations. These variations register the fact that the Bible on its way to
becoming a book, first existed in an oral form and was subsequently written down.
ORAL INFLUENCE: THE HISTORICAL CONDITIONING OF THE PROPHETS
The fact that an oral culture influenced the text of scripture is in itself evidence that the
Bible writers were historically conditioned. By historically conditioned, I mean that they
shared aspects of the oral/written worldview of their time, and this understanding was
communicated in the written messages of scripture. While this fact is not new to any
exegete of scripture, the implications of this fact are a bit more thorny and are often
overlooked particularly by non-theologians. One beneficial implication of this fact is that
whenever we read a particular portion of scripture, we must first ask ourselves: “Is this
objective truth/reality or is this simple reality as the author understood reality in the oral
world of his time? A few examples will explicate the point.
1. Biblical Cosmology
Cosmology has to do with how people perceive the arrangement, shape and creation of
the physical world - the cosmos. The presentation of biblical cosmology is a typical
illustration of the historical conditioning of the Bible prophets. In many ancient cultures
that predated that of Israel, for example, the Sumerians, the Egyptians and the
Babylonians, the earth was perceived as emerging out of waters, flat, resting on pillars
and having a nether world underneath that served as the abode of evil and of the dead.
This sky as we now know it, was understood to be a solid dome in which the sun, moon
and stars were set. This solid dome (Hebrew, raqi‘a, Latin, firmamentum, hence our
English firmament) prevented the waters of the primeval ocean above the sky from
inundating the earth.1
Connected to this solid dome were the storehouses of hail, snow, and rain. The dome also
had inbuilt in it, the “windows of heaven,” through which the rain, snow and hail could
be poured upon the earth. Diagrams 1, 2 and 3 below, illustrate some of these
cosmologies. It should also be noted that in most if not all cosmologies of the ancient
world, the earth was first submerged in a watery chaos before the heaven separated this
water and allowed the earth to emerge. Thus, there were waters above the earth and
waters below the earth. Even a cursory reading of the Genesis creation story and several
John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the
Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 169. Seely
concludes: “Astonishing as it may seem to the modern mind, with very rare exceptions
the idea that the sky is not solid is a distinctly modern one. Historical evidence shows that
virtually everyone in the ancient world believed in a solid firmament.” P. Seely, “The
Firmament and the Water Above In Part I: The Meaning of raqu ‘a in Genesis 1:6-8,”
Westminster Theological Journal 53(1991):236, as quoted in Ibid.
others places in the Old Testament reveals that the Bible authors shared this cosmological
worldview. With respect to the separation of waters, Genesis 1:6, 7 reads:
Let there be a firmament1
in the midst of the waters and let them separate the
waters from the waters. God made the firmament and separated the waters which
were below the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament, and
it was so.
On the same issue, the Psalmist declared: “Praise him, highest heavens and waters that
are above the heavens … He established them [above the heavens] forever and ever” (Ps.
148:4-5). The book of Job speaks of: “The water skins of the heavens” (Job 38:13); and
Jeremiah asserts: “When God utters his voice there is a tumult of waters in the heavens
That the Bible writers considered the earth to be immovable and resting upon pillars is
evidenced in Ps.104: 3-5. It reads, “He (God) lays the beams of the upper chambers in
the waters... He makes the clouds his chariots… He established the earth upon its
foundations so that it will not totter forever and ever.” In Job 26:11, it is recorded “The
pillars of the heavens tremble and are amazed at his rebuke.” In 2 Sam 22:8, we read
“The foundations of the heaven tremble.” (See also, Job 38:4).
The concept of windows and celestial chambers in the sky is also shared by the
Bible writers. In the flood story, the windows of heaven were opened and water poured
The word Firmament is from the Latin - firmamentum which translates the Hebrew
raqia, a word that signifies a solid dome, to spread, to stamp or beat out (Exo 39:3; Jer
10:9). Isaiah writes in 40:22, “God sits upon the circle (dome) of the earth. He stretches
out the heavens like a curtain, spread them out like a tent to dwell in.” Here the solid
nature of the firmament is alluded to.
through them upon the earth (Gen 7: 11). In Mal 3:10, the windows can still be opened to
pour out blessings for faithful tithe paying. In Ps.104:13 and Ps.33:7, God stores water in
the upper chambers above the earth from which he can water the mountains. In Job
38:22, the question is asked, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you
seen the storehouses of the hail which I have reserved for the time of distress….?”
While most Christians today affirm that God is the creator of the universe, I strongly
doubt if there are any Christian who still believe that the earth is flat, the sky is a solid
dome, and that the earth is resting on pillars. Christians today certainly do not believe that
there is an ocean of water above the earth that is held in place by the solid visible blue
sky. Neither do Christians believe that there is a nether world below the earth where the
dead reside. However, for prophets like Moses, David, Malachi and others, this was
concrete reality. Indeed they were conditioned by their time and as such, scripture bears
evidence of development.
2. Everything Good and Bad Was Done by God
Another element of historical conditioning of the prophets was the shared belief that
everything good and bad was done by Yahweh. As many Old Testament scholars point
out, the evil personality Satan did not exist in the early Old Testament scriptures.1
all ancient cultures that believe that the gods were responsible for every action that
affected human existence, the prophets of the Bible also attributed all actions to Yahweh
Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan Satan (New York: Random House, 1995), 39-41. Neil Forsyth,
observes: “In the collection of documents known to Christians as the Old Testament, the word Satan never
appears … as the name of the adversary …rather, when the Satan appears in the Old Testament, he is a
including evil actions. Thus the prophet Isaiah attested: “I form light and I create
darkness, I make peace and create evil, I the Lord do all these things” (Isa 45:7 KJV).
In keeping with this notion, the writer of Samuel wrote: “Now the Spirit of the
Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit from God terrorized him.” Saul‟s servants then
said to him, “Behold now an evil spirit from God is terrorizing you” (1 Sam 16: 14, 15).
In another place he wrote “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul mightily … and he
became very angry” (1 Sam 11:6). In 1 Sam 18:12 the author continued: “The next day
an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved in the midst of the house
while David was playing the harp…and a spear was in Saul‟s hand. And he hurled the
spear for he thought, I will pin David to the wall.” Whereas everything good and bad was
understood to have originated from God then the evil spirit could only have come from
It was always the Lord [or Pharaoh], never Satan, who hardened Pharaoh‟s heart (Exo
4.21; 7.3, 22 Exo 4.21; 7.3, 22; 8.15, 32). When Sampson disobeyed, it was not because
of his own wayward attitude, but because the Lord had so ordained it (Judges 14:4, 19,
20) In 2Kings 3, the kings of Israel, Judah and Edom combined forces to fight against
the Moabites. After marching for seven days, the three armies ran out of water. The three
kings immediately concluded that God had brought them into the predicament so that
they would be defeated by the Moabites. King Jehoram of Israel insisted, “Alas for the
Lord has called these three king to give them into the hand of Moab” (verse 10 and 13). It
turned out that was not the case.
member of the heavenly court, albeit with unusual tasks.” Neil Forsyth The Old Enemy: Satan and the
Combat Myth (Princeton: University Press, 1987), 107, as quoted in Ibid.
So historically conditioned were the prophets of the Bible in this concept of God being
the source of all evil that on one occasion, Michaiah, a prophet of Yahweh received a
vision from God in which God as the source of evil was confirmed. In 1 Kings 22: 19-23
Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting
on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on
his left. And the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead
and going to his death there? One suggested this and another that. Finally a spirit
came forward, stood before the Lord and said, „I will entice him.‟ “By what
means,” the Lord asked. “I will go and be a LYING SPIRIT in the mouths of all
his prophets,” he said. You will succeed in enticing him, said the Lord, „Go and
do it.‟ “So now the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets
of yours.” The Lord has decreed disaster upon you. NIV.
Again, Christians today would not believe that lying, deception and evil were directly
inspired by God. We subscribe more to the later revelation by James which teaches: “Let
no one say when he is tempted I am being tempted by God. For God cannot be tempted
by evil, and he himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1: 13). This belief of James was
not the case for most of the prophets of the Old Testament who were historically
conditioned to the contrary, on this issue. Again, we see the historical conditioning of the
Bible prophets that influenced them to share aspects of the world view of their time.
3. Genocidal War of Conquest and Human Sacrifice
A very potent element that reflected historical conditioning was the „wars of Yahweh‟
concept in the Old Testament. As Martin Smith so carefully documents,
Yahweh/Elohim, is portrayed in the Old Testament as having many of the qualities of
Baal, El, Astarte, and other divinities of the Ancient Near East. In fact, in Deuteronomy
32:8, 9, Yahweh is portrayed as being one of the sons of El. El, as is well known, was the
chief God of the Canaanite and Ugaritic pantheon.1
When the Most High (elyon) gave to the nations their inheritance
When he separated humanity, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of divine beings, for Yahweh‟s portion is his
people, Jacob his allotted heritage2
This is the most ancient and authentic reading of Duet. 32:8, 9 as recorded in the Dead
Sea Scrolls (4QDeut), but which has been changed by the Masoretic text and hence not
reflected in our English Bibles3
One of the common attributes of Yahweh and the other divine beings of the Ancient
Near East is the quality of the warrior God. Thus like Baal, Anat, or El, Yahweh/ Elohim
is also a warrior/storm god who also leads his people into battles to destroy other peoples
(Psa 50: 1-3; Joel 3:9,17; Zach 4: 4; Isa 66:18-21; Psa 18). He is the God of host, that is,
of armies (Deut 33:2; Josh 5:14; Psa 68:17; 24:10; 46:7-11; 89:8). It is no surprise
therefore, that Yahweh is understood to have commissioned Israel to destroy the
David Russell Tasker, The Fatherhood of God: An Exegetical-theological Study from
the Hebrew Scriptures in light of Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Ph. D dissertation,
Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, 2001), 86, 87, 288, 289. Walton, Ancient
Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 96.
As translated by Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and other Deities in
Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 32. It is an accepted dictum in the field
of Textual Criticism that the older and more difficult reading is the more likely original.
In this case the older and more difficult reading is “myhla ynb “sons of God” as
attested by the Qumran text 4QDeutj
some LXX manuscripts (848, 106c). Having the
reading myhla ynb it can be easily understood why a scribe would want to change it to
lae(r"f.yI ynEïB so as to take away the obvious polytheistic implication of the text.
However, it would not be likely for a scribe to create a polytheistic text by changing
lae(r"f.yI ynEïB to myhla ynb. Thus Tov categorizes the Masoretic reading lae(r"f.yI ynEïB.
“sons of Israel” as example of Anti-Polytheistic alteration by the scribes of the Masoretic
text. See Immanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress
Press, 2001), 269.
See Tom Stark, The Human Face of God: What Scripture Reveal When it Gets God Wrong and Why
Inerrancy Tries to Hide It (Wipf and Stock: Eugene, 2011), 70-74.
Canaanites. Most modern readers of the Bible seem unaware that similar commissions
were given by other deities to annihilate other peoples. The Moabite Stone,1
Chronicles of Nabonidus,2
The Sennacherib‟s Inscription and The Code of Hammurabi3
are some of the ancient attestations of divine commissions by the gods to destroy other
nations. The Moabite Stone is worth noting. It reads:
I am Mesha, son of Chemosh, King of Moab… and Chemosh [i.e., the god] said
to me, “Go and take Nebo from Israel!” So I went by night and fought against it
… taking it and slaying all seven thousand men, boys, women, girls and maid
servants, for I have devoted them to destruction for the god Ashtar Chemosh …
and the king of Israel had built Jahaz and dwelt there … but Chemosh drove them
out before me… and Chemosh said to me, “Go down fight against Hauronen. And
I went down and I fought against the town and I took it, and Chemosh dwelt there
in my time.4
The prologue to the code of Hammurabi states:
At that time Anum and Enlil named me to promote the welfare of the people, me
Hammurabi, the devoted god fearing prince, to cause justice to prevail in the land,
to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak and
raise the sun over the black headed people.5
In Israel‟s case, directly linked with the commission to destroy the other nations was also
the commission to devote these nations to Yahweh, that is, to offer them up as a sacrifice
to Yahweh- human sacrifice if you please.
You shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword,
utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword.
Then you shall gather all the booty into the middle of its open square and burn the
city and all its booty with fire as a WHOLE BURNT OFFERING TO THE LORD
James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Text Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd
(Princeton: University Press, 1969), 320. See also, D.D. Luckenbill, The Annals of
Sennacherib (Chicago: University Press, 1924) 83: 44-45; 48; 53,-54; 138:44-45.
Ibid., 163, 164.
Ibid., 320, see also 262; 562, 563.
Ibid., 164. According to Pritchard, “Black headed people,” was a late Sumerian
expression for men in general, Ibid.
YOUR GOD. Nothing that is put under the ban (~r<xe_h herem) shall cling to your
hand … (Deut 13:15-18). See also, 2:34; 7:2; Lev 27:28, 29; Num 21:2-3;
Josh 6:17; 7:1; 1Sam 15:37; Judges 21:10, 11.
In Leviticus chapter 27:28, 29 we read:
But nothing that a man owns and devotes (herem) to the Lord-whether man or
animal of family land - may be sold or redeemed; everything so devoted (herem)
is most holy to the Lord. No person devoted (herem) for destruction (yaherem )
may be ransomed; he must be put to death.”
The word translated “devoted”- in some of these texts, is the Hebrew ~r<xe_h – herem.
Herem means “to offer,” and carry the connotation of sacrifice being offered to the god.
Jephthah certainly understood God as holding him to the vow of sacrificing his own
daughter. Consequently “he did to her what he had vowed,” namely, sacrifice her as a
burnt offering (Judges 11:31, 39).
Historically conditioned by the worldview of his time, Ezekiel also strongly suggested
that God allowed Israel to practice human sacrifice as punishment.
“Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they
could not have life; and I defiled them through the very gifts in making them offer
by fire all their firstborn, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know
that I am Yahweh.1
I let them become defiled through their gifts- the sacrifice of
every first born – that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am
the Lord (Ezk 20:25, 26).
Please note, I am not saying that God objectively demanded human sacrifice of his
people. My point is, being conditioned by the worldview of their time, Israel understood
Yahweh in this manner. It would appear that at a later date in their history, Israel
dropped this belief of human sacrifice.1
However, the understanding that they were given
the commission to devote the Canaanites to God by utterly destroying them, even the
innocent babies, was the basic cultural worldview of their day. It was not a practice
Translation by Mark Smith, The Early History of God, 210, 202.
unique to Israel. Certainly, the overall thrust of scripture indicates that God does not
desire human sacrifice or the destruction of innocent people (Ezk 18:14-24; Jonah1-4;
Matt 5:38-48; Rom 12). We today should look back on such recordings in scripture, not
as the objective intent of God, but as the conditioning of the prophets in keeping with the
worldview of their time. Their understanding of God was refracted through the lens of the
Again, in the process of the formulation of its contents, the Bible
experienced historical conditioning.
It should be noted that the prophet Jeremiah countered this notion of human sacrifice by
stating that God never asked them to sacrifice their children (Jer 7:21-22).
It is paradoxical that God first informed Abraham that through his seed all the nations of
the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18) and then repeatedly stated that the
innocent shall not suffer for the sins of the guilty (Deut 24:16; Ezk 18:14-24). If indeed,
the innocent should not suffer for the guilty, then it becomes very incomprehensible how
God could have instructed Israel to destroy innocent Canaanite babies who never had a
chance to accept or reject him. Furthermore, how were the Canaanites to be blessed by
Israel, if upon Israel‟s first contact with them they were to be destroyed? I think is it
more reasonable to believe that God promised them the land, and they understood based
upon their culture that they should capture it through warfare.
It is also instructive to note, that the commission was not given to destroy the great world
powers like Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon, but only the relatively small Canaanite tribes
within Palestine. In addition, the notion that the Canaanites were disobedient and hence
warranted destruction, must also be seen as part of Israel‟s historical conditioning. That
is, as the way they understood God to have been communicating to them and not as an
objective communication from God. The reason being, if disobedience was the motive for
the Canaanite‟s destruction, then Israel should not have been destroyed by other nations
when they, Israel, were obedient to God as happened in the case of post-Babylonian
captivity. It is well known that this latter dilemma gave birth to the phenomenon of
Apocalyptism in the intertestamental era.
Furthermore, why would God destroy the Canaanites when the Canaanites and Israel
shared many beliefs and practices in common? The notion that God had reached out to
them is not valid on a number of grounds: 1) Reaching out is not simply informing
someone of different beliefs, but it is teaching them and waiting patiently until
convictions occur. 2) Yahweh was only one of the many gods around, and while the
nations may not have worshipped Yahweh, they would not have rejected him either, if he
had manifested himself among them in signs and wonders. Remember, their gods also
“worked” miracles for them. 3) Israel for most of its history, believed in many gods, yet
God held on to them for thousands of years. Why not do the same for the other nations?
Another element that reflects historical conditioning of the prophets is the culture of
slavery that pervades the entire Bible and is said to have been commissioned by God. In
Lev 25:44 we read:
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; and from
them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents
living among you and members of their clans born in your country and they will
become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property
and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelite
As the issue of slavery in scripture and also in the ancient world is well known, I will
only enumerate a few elements of slavery as presented by the prophets of the Bible:
i) Slaves were human property (Lev 25:44).
ii) The destiny and dignity of slaves in the Bible, laid in the hands of the slave master, not
in the slaves personal volition (Exo. 21:1-10).
iii) Israelite slaves were to be set free in the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, but not
necessarily the non-Israelite slave (Lev 25:39-46).
iv) Israel was to buy slaves from surrounding nations but not from their fellow Israelites
(Lev 25: 39-46).
4) Since God is omniscient he would have seen beforehand, that Israel would never fully
carry out the “command” to destroy all the other nations. Therefore why commission so
much destruction to no final benefit for anyone? Certainly God does have common
sense. Again I think the weight of evidence indicate that the destruction of the
Canaanites was how Israel understood God as they were conditioned by their worldview,
not that it was how God objectively communicated. Their understanding of God was
refracted through the lens of the culture of their time.
v) It is claimed by some scholars1
that although the message of the New Testament
writers eventually resulted in the mitigation of slavery in the Roman world, they never
counseled against the abolition of slavery. Rather they encouraged the members of the
early church who were slaves to be the best slaves. Paul, for example, returned Onesimus
to a life of slavery (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; Phil 10-25).2
vi) While slavery in the ancient world was not as brutal as slavery in recent history,
slavery in Israel was also very unpleasant (Exo 21:7-11)
vii) While the overall thrust of scripture condemns slavery, there is no passage that
explicitly denounces slavery.
Was it God‟s intent that his people kept slaves? Or was it his people‟s understanding of
God that allowed them to keep slaves? Why would God deliver them from slavery in
Egypt and shortly thereafter commission them to keep slaves? Again, we should
remember that in the world of the Old Testament, all actions good and bad, were
commissioned by God. In the ancient world, the words “and God said,” or “Thus says the
Lord,” was a common formula used to legitimize or authenticate any communication
believed to be Godly, or coming from an authority figure. In light of all these factors, I
think it is more reasonable to accept that the practice of slavery as done by God‟s people,
was another example of their understanding of God being refracted through the lens of
On slavery in the first century see, S. Scott Bartley, ΜΑΛΛΟΝ ΧΡΗΑΙ First Century
Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7: 21, Ph.D. dissertation, Boston: Harvard
University 1971; Edgar Goodspeed, “Paul and Slavery,” Journal of Biblical Literature 11
Paul for example, gave slaves a new perspective. They were no longer things (1 Cor 7:
20-24). In Christ they were freemen. They were now to submit to their masters, not
because they were slaves of men, but because they were slaves of Christ (Eph 6:5-9; Col
3:22-25; 1 Peter 2:18-20). Their masters were now accountable to God (Col 4:1; Eph
the general culture of the Ancient Near East. Therefore, an integral part of the process of
how the Bible came about, is the fact that the writers were historically conditioned and
as such their messages should first be analyzed to determine if they constituted objective
truth for all times, or simply a reflection of the worldview of their time.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CHURCH IN THE WEST INDIES
From the above analysis I would like to raise three implications for the church in the
1. Response to Crime and Violence
The West Indies is currently being ravaged by crime and violence. Jamaica is now the
number one murder capital of the world. Other Caribbean Islands seem to be picking up
the trend. Sadly there are many West Indian Christians of various denominations who do
not feel any deep passion to take urgent and decisive action against this violence.1
Underlying their inaction is the belief that God is punishing the world for its wickedness
therefore this violence will and must exist. The rationale is, if God was actively engaged
in destroying the Canaanites for their wickedness, then it can be understood how he
would allow evil to prevail in today‟s world.
It should not be forgotten that the Western slave trade and the continued dehumanization
of blacks in the post-slavery period was buttressed by the Bible, particularly in the
biblical examples of God‟s supposed enslavement and destruction of the Canaanites.
Now the children of the slaves like their slave masters, have been desensitized to a new
6:9). In light of Christ, there was now to be mutual respect and accountability between
slaves and masters. Such reformulation of the practice of slavery led to its demise.
type of violence (crime and injustice in the society) because like their slave masters,
centuries earlier, they fail to recognize the historical limitations of some of the narratives
of the Bible. An improper understanding of these Biblical narratives can truly hamper or
retard the Caribbean church from being actively involved in addressing the crime and
violence of our region.
2. The Death Penalty
In reaction to the crime and violence many in the West Indian church membership and
leaders are now calling for the death penalty. They see the death penalty as legitimate
because God in their reasoning, commissioned death for the ungodly in the OT. However,
if it is understood that the commands to annihilate the Canaanites by offering them as a
sacrifice, was the prophets‟ interpretation of God‟s communication, and not the objective
command of God, then there is no basis in the Bible upon which to advocate the death
The burden of the New Testament is that, whereas the entire Bible is fulfilled in Christ,
the Christ event becomes the interpretive and definitive lens through which all of God‟s
prior revelation must be understood. Jesus‟ own statement is that we should love the
enemy, and do good even to those who persecute us (Matt 5:38-48). Again, the overall
thrust of the scriptures is preservation of life even that of the murderer (Lev 19:18; Matt
5-7; Rom 12, etc.). If the church in the Caribbean wishes to advocate the death penalty, it
should do so from grounds other than the Bible, because the Bible correctly understood
through the lens of the Christ event does not support capital punishment.
And even among those who take action do so on a micro-level, avoiding the macro- level that involves the
political process where policies are enacted.
Furthermore, a focus on capital punishment as a means of stemming violence in the
Caribbean is a focus in the wrong direction which we cannot afford. The fact is,
executing one person has no power to change the thinking and attitude of other person.
(A person is not deterred by the threat of being hanged when he decides to kill). The
entire New Testament particularly the teaching of Paul, is very categorical that the law
and its might, cannot change the behavior of human beings. Real change can only be
effectuated by a person, and that person is Jesus Christ. Whereas Jesus is interested in all
dimensions of the individual, then the church needs to advocate radical spiritual, social,
economical, and political changes in our region. Unless such happens, things will only
get worse. In addition, the poor investigative and trial machinery that exists in most of
the Caribbean should deter everyone from advocating capital punishment as the risk of
executing innocent victims is too great.
Relevance for Prophetic Authority
The preceding discussion concerning oral tradition/historical conditioning of the Bible
prophets is particularly relevant to the Seventh-day Adventist church of the Caribbean. It
is of particular importance, in that, it can assist the SDA church to make a proper use of
the writings of its prophetess, Ellen White. An acceptance of historical conditioning of
Bible prophets opens one to appreciate the fact that Ellen White was also historically
conditioned. Thus, as the Bible writers were limited in some of their theological
understanding, she too had limitations in some of her theological understanding.1
The fact that Ellen White and the other pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist church
experienced limitation and growth, led one of the church‟s leading historian, George
Knight to remark that “Most of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventism would not be
able to join the church today if they had to subscribe to the current denomination‟s
Fundamental Beliefs.” “Adventist and Change,” Ministry, (October 1993): 10. He went
on to illustrate the fact that Ellen White made mistakes and grew in her understanding of
truth. Some of the examples he gave include the fact that: 1) For a while she ate pork 2)
She at one time, believed the Sabbath lasted from six p.m. on Friday to six p.m. on
Saturdays, and, 4) Between the 1840‟s and 1850‟s she believed in the shut door theory.
(This was the belief that probation for humanity was closed during this period and no
more sinners could be saved. In fact, the young Adventist church during this time was
known as the Sabbath and Shut Door Believers.)
Knight further observed “While she could categorically claim in 1850 that “We
have the truth, we know it; praise the Lord.” She could also claim 53 years later that,
“There will be a development of the understanding, for truth is capable of constant
expansion … Our exploration of truth is yet incomplete. We have gathered up only a few
rays of light.” She earlier noted that “Present truth for one generation might not be
present truth or a test for other generations.” Ibid., 14.
One should not be led to believe that all the theological limitations of Ellen White were
edited from her writings before her death. To begin with, the Fred Veltman study
commissioned by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist confirms what has
been well known for decades among SDA scholars, namely, the fact that her use of
scripture was homiletical and not exegetical and that she borrowed extensively from
many other authors of her time. See, Fred Veltman, The Desire of Ages Project: The
Conclusions, Part 2, Ministry, (December 1990): 11-12; Idem, Fred Veltman, The Desire
of Ages Project: The Data, Part 1, Ministry, (October, 1990): 4-7; As such, she
interpreted the same text or passage in several different ways depending on the situation.
she was addressing. In other words, one cannot necessarily look to her writings to
uncover what the Bible meant in its primary historical context. The white Estate
concluded that Ellen White rarely attempted to do exegesis. See, Ministry, December
1990, p.17. See also, Jon Paulien, The Deep Things of God, (Review and Herald, 2004,
72. Less than one percent of the time does she attempt to answer the question “What was
the biblical writer trying to say?” Ibid., 72. Studies by Hans K. LaRondelle and Donald
Casebolt, among others, reveal that Ellen White‟s interpretation in the Great Controversy
of the cosmic signs in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Revelation 12, simply reflected the
understanding of her time and really cannot stand up to exegetical scrutiny. See, Hans K.
Larondale, “The Application of Cosmic Signs in the Advent Tradition,” Ministry
(September, 1998): 25-27; Donald Casebolt, “Is Ellen White‟s Interpretation of Biblical
Prophecy Final?” Spectrum 12 (1982): 2-9. Several other examples could be cited to
prove the point that Ellen White‟s understanding of scripture like those of the Bible
writers was historically conditioned. Probably Veltman‟s conclusion on Ellen White‟s
sources and her use of these is sufficient: “Ellen White‟s sources had previously used
each other in the same way that she later used them. At times, the parallels between the
sources were so strong that we had difficulty deciding which one Ellen White was using.”
Veltman, “Conclusions,” 14. Her tremendous contribution to the church and to the world
is safeguarded when this fact is recognized. Failure to recognize this is to jeopardize her
influence in general.
However, recognizing these limitations in no way disqualify her from being a prophetess
as recognizing the theological limitations of the Bible prophets do not disqualify them
from being prophets. Accepting the fact that a prophet does have limitations, one need
not dismiss Ellen White when he/she becomes aware of her limitations. Also, admitting
her limitations will assist the SDA Church in the West Indies and other divisions, not to
stifle theological inquiry simply because Ellen White has made a pronouncement on a
particular issue. In other words, we are free to disagree with her without being seen as
disloyal or unspiritual. A healthy, balanced approach to Ellen White is a priceless gift to
the SDA church. This can be maintained as the historical conditioning of prophets are
We cannot avoid the question as to whether or not God dictated Biblical Cosmology with
its flat earth, its solid dome-- raqi‘a- or with its primeval ocean above this dome. We
cannot avoid the question as to whether or not a kind, loving God is directly responsible
for evil in the world. We cannot avoid the question of whether or not God commissioned
genocidal wars and human sacrifice, or that he commissioned Israel to enslave others but
not the fellow Israelites. All these things were not simply said to be allowed by God, but
more importantly to be directly commissioned by God. However, based on the overall
thrust of scripture, particularly as seen through the Christ event, I feel more comfortable
to conclude that these messages, said to be coming directly from God, are products of the
historical conditioning of the prophets as derived from their oral and written culture.
Failure to do so presents us with a more dire option. An option of the nature that left the
church‟s conscience bound to kill Giordano Bruno and imprison Galileo because they
dared to contradict the explicit statement of scripture that the earth was flat, resting upon
its foundations and could not be moved (Ps.104: 3-5). Indeed, recognizing that the Bible
became a book in an oral culture and that the authors were historically conditioned is an
integral part of a sane approach to scripture.
Diagram 1: Babylonian Cosmology: Adopted from Sumerian Cosmology