What Is The Literary Role Of The Bible?

Bible

King James Bible

In our secular age, some might think it surprising how much interest there still is in the Bible, as the celebrations in 2011 for the 4th centenary (400 years) of the King James Version (KJV), sometimes referred to as the Authorized Version (AV), clearly showed. Even those who do not believe in Christianity continue to be fascinated by the Bible’s presence.

The Bible in Western Culture

For believers, the Bible is often seen as inspired by God and having a high level of authority in matters of belief and practice. For non-believers, the Bible is a central document of western culture – it continues to interest many readers as a collection of major literary works. The history of these works, and of how they have been disseminated and interpreted, is a central part of the history of western literature.

A History of the Bible
A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book

John Barton

Who Were The Ancient Sumerians?

Sumerians

Sumerian History & Language

The Sumerians were a people of mysterious origins, who migrated south from the mountains in Turkey in prehistoric times and settled in the hot, fertile delta in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Around 5000-4000 BC the Sumerians began to master flood control and irrigation and built walled settlements.

Cuneiform tablet

Sumerian stories, first passed on via oral traditions, come to us today as texts pressed on clay tablets that date from 2100 BC, near the end of their history. They recorded their myths in a phonetic script they invented, called cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”).

One of the the oldest written languages on earth, Sumerian became the scientific, sacred, ceremonial, and literary language for the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and many other surrounding cultures for centuries, despite the fact that, to become fluent, one had to master its separate dialects for men and women.

Importance of Sumer

For subsequent cultures, Sumerian – the language and culture – was admired as the equivalent of Greek in Roman society or Latin in medieval Europe. Sumerians encouraged this practice with stories of the glories of their rulers and gods. Conquerors of Sumer borrowed Sumerian stories in creating their own myths. The Bible itself indicates the importance of Sumer – Abraham and Sarah trace their lineage back to Ur, the last capital of Sumer, from which they migrated westward to Canaan (Genesis 11:26-13:12).

Ziggurats

Ziggurat
Ziggurat at Ur (artist’s rendering)

The Sumerians built ziggurats to replicate their cosmic mountain, complete with paradise, linking the heavens with humanity. Rising from the river delta, ziggurats were rectangular towers, stepped to look like a mountain, with trees and shrines at every level. At the peak, one or more temples were constructed with a main sanctuary and multiple side rooms with altars for making sacrifices.

The temples were lavishly decorated, with vividly colored mosaics and frescoes showing the whole range of life-giving community activities, including planting, harvesting, herding, and processions to temples. Beautiful flowers, guardian animals such as leopards and bulls, and mythical beasts such as eagles with lion heads and bulls with human faces, adorned porticoes and sanctuaries. These centers for ritual, towering above the deltas, grew to contain housing for the community’s priests, artists, engineers, scribes, and other tradespeople.

Sumerian Myths

Sumerian stories and art celebrated the goodness of ordinary life in ways we can still understand, depicted as activities of paradise. Their myths tell of gods enjoying sexual pleasure, making music, dancing, traveling about having adventures, and encouraging fertility of the land.

The Sumerians told their stories of creation and paradise as a preface to their stories of their many gods. The prefaces were a literary formula such as “once upon a time when…” or “in the beginning when God created…” These recitations established the way the world was at its best, as a contrast to the stories they told of disasters, conflicts, violence, and war. Sumer became the lost primordial culture of West Asia. By the time Genesis was written, the Sumerians’ myths had been adapted and edited through more than 1,000 years of history in Canaan, where Abraham and Sarah, the legendary immigrants from Sumer had migrated.

Saving Paradise
Saving Paradise

Rita Nakashima Brock
and Rebecca Ann Parker

What Does It Mean To Believe?

The Leap of Belief 

In the modern West, belief has effectively become a synonym for opinion or judgment – a space of autonomy rather than a prescription for its exercise. And, because opinion or judgment is so essential to modern societies, to ask ‘What do you mean by believe?’ would abdicate the right of people to decide for themselves what belief is. Beliefs locate us in the world – they identify us as consumers, voters, and voluntary participants in civil society, identifying us in a vast, multidimensional matrix of free choice.

Modern Belief

To demand criteria for belief, to challenge the notion that all kinds of judgment and opinion are basically commensurate, would threaten an important mechanism by which modern people engage in the world. Modern belief is the sense that belief is synonymous with private judgment, and therefore modern people believe or disbelieve according to their own conception of whether a given proposition is credible.

Belief in Practice

As a matter of practice, some version of rationalism is at the heart of how many people claim to make their judgments, about religion as well as other things – they consider the evidence for or against a claim. And yet, while ‘reason’ may be a conventional component of modern belief, people are sovereign over the criteria of judgment as well as judgment itself, and their reasons are answerable to no one.

People who believe whatever a charismatic leader tells them, for instance, or who refuse to listen to new evidence that might change their minds, are not acting in accordance with most understandings of rationalism – but they would still claim to be using their judgment as independent finders of fact.

The Birth of Modern Belief
The Birth of Modern Belief

 Ethan H. Shagan

How Did Big Gods Transform Religion?

Local Gods 

Most of the spirits and deities of foraging and hunter-gatherer societies did not have moral concerns. Such gods may have wanted to be appeased with sacrifices and rituals, but they were typically unconcerned with moral transgressions, which preoccupy the Big Gods of major world religions.

Many of the local gods and spirits were not even fully omniscient to be good monitors of moral behavior – they perceived things within village boundaries and not beyond, and they could be manipulated by other rival gods. Religion’s early roots did not have a wide moral scope. Nevertheless, despite their relative infrequency in the supernatural scope of hunter-gatherer societies, powerful, omniscient, interventionist, morally concerned gods – Big Gods – managed to proliferate over time through cultural diffusion, population expansions, and conquest.

Advent of Big Gods

Prosocial religions, together with their Big Gods who watch, intervene, and demand hard-to-fake loyalty displays, facilitated the rise of cooperation in large groups of anonymous strangers. In turn, these expanding groups took their prosocial religious beliefs and practices with them, further enhancing large-scale cooperation in a runaway process of cultural evolution.

Religious intuitions developed (for example: mind and body separation, and the continued existence of mind after the body perishes), which support widely held religious beliefs and related practices, such as gods, spirits, and souls of various types and characteristics. Once that happened, the stage was set for rapid cultural evolution – nongenetic, socially transmitted changes in beliefs and behaviors – that eventually led to large societies with Big Gods.

Eight Principles of Big Gods

  1. Watched people are nice people.
  2. Religion is more in the situation that in the person.
  3. Hell is stronger than heaven.
  4. Trust people who trust in God.
  5. Religious actions speak louder than words.
  6. Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods.
  7. Big Gods for Big Groups.
  8. Religious groups cooperate in order to compete.

Big Gods
Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

Ara Norenzayan

Ancient Roman Logistics & Expenses

Ancient Rome

Military Considerations

Half Rome’s budget at end 4th century went to feeding & paying the army of about ½ million.

Logistics of army supply was the single most important element that linked the imperial provinces together, along with the need to feed the imperial capitals.

Imperial Tax System

Underpinning all these structures, and making them possible, was the imperial tax system, which was based above all on a land tax, assessed on acreage, through buttressed by a much lighter tax on merchants and artisans.

High taxes were needed for several reasons:

  • To pay the salaries of soldiers, bureaucrats and messengers.
  • To feed the capitals of the empire.
  • To fund the enormous scale of Roman public buildings and state wealth. 
  • To connect the different parts of the empire together physically, as grain in ships moved northwards from Africa, Sicily and Egypt, and olive oil moved out of Africa, the Aegean and Syria. The movement of goods was essentially Mediterranean-based, as it was far easier and cheaper to transport in bulk by water than by land.

The Inheritance of Rome
The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000

Chris Wickham