It’s time to wrap up our discussion of the Hebrew Bible. While there is no doubt a great deal more I could write, my mission in doing this series of posts is not to study any particular author or work in detail. Rather, it is more of a reading journal to share my reflections on how the Great Books apply to my own writing and, hopefully, get some of my fellow writers interested in studying classics. I think four posts on the Hebrew Bible is enough for that purpose.
Before I go on I should admit that I only read 26 of the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible this time around. One reason was that these are the 26 book directly referenced in Jack Miles’ God: A Biography, which I was reading concurrently. Partly it is because I have read the remaining books before and am eager to get back to the Greek classics. The main reason though, is that all the rest of the books are prophetic works, and I tend to find prophecy hard reading.
Modern literature doesn’t have any direct parallel to the biblical genre of prophecy. The closest thing would probably be those glossy hardbacks written by “experts” predicting financial doom. I don’t tend to enjoy those either, because the writing tends to be poor, the advice is often self-contradictory and, if you pick one up from twenty years ago, you find out that few of the predictions actually happened.
Biblical prophecy is like that, except that the source of the revealed knowledge is supposed to be God, instead of some proprietary computer model or insider knowledge. The writing style is often grating–Jack Miles refers to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as “the manic, the depressive, and the psychotic” prophets, respectively. Because most of the books are collections of different speeches to different groups, the same book will often contradict itself several times. It doesn’t help that some of the books were written by multiple authors. Isaiah, for instance, was probably penned by at least three writers. And then, the fatal problem: many of the prophecies never came to pass.
The basic premise of most of the prophets was that if Israel didn’t straighten out and stop sinning, God would wipe out the country. Afterwards, however, a remnant of the people would survive and be rewarded for their holiness. Well, the destruction certainly happened, several times. The reward, at least in terms that would fulfill the prophecies, hasn’t happened yet.
Of course, Christians see themselves as the remnant, the coming of Jesus as fulfilling many of the prophecies, and their reward in terms of an afterlife and/or a coming kingdom of God on Earth. Muslims also find meaning in the prophecies, although they assert that the words of Mohamed, the final prophet, were necessary to make sense of everything. I don’t wish to detour too far into comparative eschatology, however, so let us stay within the context of Judaism and within the biblical period. Reading the prophetic books, it really seems that the predictions were meant literally and were expected to happen quite soon, within a few generations at most. Most of them didn’t, and Israel slowly lost interest in prophecy as a genre.
And yet, quite a few prophetic books ended up in the Hebrew Bible, and hence to the Christian Old Testament. While the prophetic movement lasted, it deeply affected Jewish thought and history. But I still find the prophetic books a tough read.
This brings us round to the issue of a canon. I’ve already written about the purposes of the Torah and the historical books, but why were other books included in the “official” Hebrew Bible? Why does it include so many prophecies that didn’t quite come true, a books of folk wisdom (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), a temple hymnal (Psalms), or secular historical fiction (Esther) and love poetry (Song of Songs)?
In the days of scrolls, the cannon was not as important. Scrolls were expensive, so people usually only bought the ones they liked or thought were important. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most intact library we know of from the period. That collection includes several apocryphal works but omits the book of Esther. Once the various books in the tradition began to be bond together into a single bible codex, though, the issue of what to put in and what to leave out became critical, since it would shape religious thought for the next two millennia (and counting). We must wonder what criteria these ancient anthologists used, and what philosophical platforms they were trying to support.
Jewish canonization is interesting to us from a standpoint of studying the Hebrew Bible. Canonization in general is a critical issue in any study of the Great Books. Which books are Great, and why? In my own Great Books study I am mostly sticking to Mortimer Adler’s list. Adler’s criteria for a great book were that it had to be influential, you had to be able to read it over and over and get something new from it each time, and it had to be applicable to many times and places. This sounds good in theory, yet other Great Books collections, such as the Harvard Classics, apply similar criteria and come up with very different lists. If I Googled for an hour, I bet I could find fifty different reading lists which each contained someone’s idea of Great Books.
Luckily for me, I don’t need to buy all the Great Books in a single set, such as Adler’s Great Books of the Western World. Rather, my situation is more like the Essenes as they collected the Dead Sea Scrolls. Between free e-books from Project Gutenberg and used paperback classics, I have the freedom to collect and study the works that appeal to me, while still getting the ones that appear on most of the lists.