Bertil Albrektson is a very cool Bible scholar. A former professor of Old Testament Exegetics in Turku, Finland, he was on the most recent Swedish Bible translation commission despite being an atheist. His ground-breaking little 1967 book History and the Gods. An essay on the idea of historical events as divine manifestations in the ancient Near East and in Israel was recently re-issued, and I read it for the first time. Its basic message is that on two important points, Hebrew monotheism is not as dissimilar to other religions of the Ancient Near East as had previously been argued. Good stuff!

In the book, Albrektson alludes to an observation that was not original with him but which I really like a lot (and I paraphrase):

In the various Ancient Near Eastern religions (including the Hebrew brand), people tended to see great events as signs of how powerful their respective gods were. This thinking applied regardless of how things happened to turn out for the people themselves. If they had good harvests and made military conquests, they concluded “God is mighty – and pleased with us! Oh, how mighty is our God!” If they starved and got their asses kicked by invaders, they said “God is mighty – and angry with us! Oh, how mighty is our God!”

Comments

  1. #1 Birger Johansson
    April 28, 2011

    A couple of other books you might be interested in (NB- this is the American version of Amazon, for British, French or German readers, see the respective Amazon site)

    The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel http://www.amazon.com/Early-History-God-Biblical-Resource/dp/080283972X/ref=wl_it_dp_o?ie=UTF8&coliid=IL2R9AU3HJST5&colid=3ERH7ILHLJF9H

    Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel http://www.amazon.com/Did-God-Have-Wife-Archaeology/dp/0802863949/ref=pd_sim_b_2

  2. #2 Martin R
    April 28, 2011

    Tim Callahan’s Secret Origins of the Bible is a good read too.

    http://www.vof.se/folkvett/20044det-mytologiska-myllret-bakom-bibeln

  3. #3 Birger Johansson
    April 28, 2011

    BTW, if I remember correctly, the symbols for Yahweh’s onetime consort (the fertility goddess) happened to be the negative attributes of the story of Eden, like the snake.
    Of course this is no coincidence, since the priests who wrote down the late-version story -sometimes called “the Deuteronists”- were eager to erase all traces of the pre-Deuteronomy Jewish religion.
    Also, outlying cult centers were destroyed at the time the current version was written down, and sacrifices were only permitted in the temple in Jerusalem.
    — — — — — — —
    Gods as mafia bosses? With gods like that, the logical way to play it would be to avoid the notice of aforementioned gods altogether, rather like humans and elves in the Discworld novels, or -yes- the Elder Gods of Lovecraftian literature.

  4. #4 Phillip IV
    April 28, 2011

    Conan: What gods do you pray to?
    Subotai: I pray to the four winds… and you?
    Conan: To Crom… but I seldom pray to him, he doesn’t listen.

  5. #5 Richard D
    April 28, 2011

    This is only tangentially related but I find it amusing when atheist scholars of the Bible are met with utter incredulity by those who subscribe to Biblical religions.

    There was recently a (not brilliant but okay) programme on various Biblical themes by an atheist biblical scholar on the BBC. The reaction seems to have been.

    ‘Why choose an atheist? They surely cant be interested in any of this so surely it is just to annoy Christians’

    Which is bloody daft when you consider how important (for better or worse) that period is to our collective cultural history. I found my Biblical archaeology class one of the most interesting I ever took as an undergrad, this speaking as someone who otherwise took mostly evo-anth stuff.

  6. #6 Martin R
    April 28, 2011

    My daughter was surprised to find the Bible in our book case the other day. I explained that though no-one in the house takes it as “gospel truth”, it is a very interesting book that always comes in handy as a reference work. I mean, hey, bits of it are nearly 3000 years old!

  7. #7 Richard D
    April 28, 2011

    @ Martin

    Exactly, I mean what us northerly Europeans would give for such a document from that period, even one badly translated several times and with multiple authors and agendas.

    Brilliant bit of social history if you can work out how to read it properly. I got a lot of funny looks from colleagues when I say I took a biblical archaeology course but when you stop looking at it as a straight historical text and trying to directly match specific events to specific contexts, it is a valid discipline imo.

  8. #8 Martin R
    April 28, 2011

    It would be stupid and perverse to ignore those historical sources in the study of that period. And it would be stupid and perverse to maintain that they are mostly true in the absence of supporting evidence.

  9. #9 kevin
    April 28, 2011

    Amen, preach it brother Martin. Treat it calmly and rationally as a piece of historical evidence and it’s fascinating. Only a Swede could be so scrupulously dispassionate hahaha.

    Then there’s the entire discipline of Biblical Archaeology, a relic of nineteenth-century romanticism with all its debates framed in a quaint true/untrue style and in which, for decades, the route to academic credibility has been to attempt to disprove an ancient text. What a crock. The day I hear one of them actually use the modern language of best-possible-evidence I think I will swoon.

  10. #10 Birger Johansson
    April 28, 2011

    “Secret Origins of the Bible” -Swedish comments.
    “Om det hade gått bättre för hettiterna, minoerna, kananéerna, Isis-kulten eller gnostikerna så hade kanske Bibeln haft ett helt annat innehåll”

    I am all in favour of Minoan bare-chested ladies and acrobatic somersaults over the backs of the sacred bulls as expression of The True Faith.
    — — — — — — — — — —

    (OT) This is probably related to shamanistic-style belief, but interesting because of the age of the rock art (an intriguing dating problem in itself). “The ‘Great bubalus’ in ancient African rock art”

    http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2011/04/great_bubalus_rock_art.php

    I would rather worship bovines like these. Cattle seldom inflict disasters when they are angry, with the possible exception of Gary Larson’s giant cows.
    — — — — — — —

    Unsymphatic gods, unsymphatic bureaucrats http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/2989.html The Paradox Department of Death! Fhtagn!

  11. #11 Richard D
    April 28, 2011

    @kevin

    Then there’s the entire discipline of Biblical Archaeology, a relic of nineteenth-century romanticism with all its debates framed in a quaint true/untrue style and in which, for decades, the route to academic credibility has been to attempt to disprove an ancient text. What a crock.

    Yes that is a crock. Then again, when done in terms of looking at the material culture of the period, as a means to understand the context in which the Bible was written (which was my experience of Biblical archaeology), it is really rather good.

    The people doing that sort of thing perhaps need a new name for their discipline I guess.

  12. #12 Sigmund
    April 29, 2011

    I think you’ll find that in the biblical age God had a lot more time on his hands which caused him to sometimes take things to extremes (like, say, drowning everything on the Earth, or killing the Egyptian children). These days, however, he is rather busy all the time, mainly in helping American football teams to win league matches, or helping R and B musicians win grammies – so no plagues or floods for us. Perhaps we should stop making fun of those Americans when they thank God for personally helping them make a touchdown or score a basket – they might be doing us all a favor by diverting God from his old habits!

  13. #13 Birger Johansson
    April 29, 2011

    The Caananite approach -”The Lord Is Great Because He Saves/Kills Us!” would not have been a success in Australia, since nature there tries to kill humans *all the time*! Who would want a god that is uninterested in saving his worshippers?
    — — — —

    Re@ 12: Yes, old Yahveh is distracted all the time.
    Fragment of a poem by a Swedish journalist at the beginning of WWI:
    “Gott strafe England” och “God save the King”,
    Gud hit och Gud dit och Gud och allting…”
    — — — — — — —

    Albrektson -”son of Albrekt/Alberich”. I do not remember Wagner well, but wasn’t Alberich also a bit of a dick? And don’t get me started on Wotan.

  14. #14 Birger Johansson
    April 29, 2011

    “The people doing that sort of thing perhaps need a new name for their discipline I guess.”

    Something more inclusive -for instance, if Irish archaeologists are investigating if there are physical remains that may give support to parts of the oral traditions about Irish bronze/iron age events the name of the discipline should refer to their work as well.
    “Schliemann archaeology”? The Iliad was, after all, originally inspired by an oral tradition…

    — — — — — — — —
    (OT) “Guided evolution” http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2230#comic

  15. #15 Richard D
    April 30, 2011

    @14

    No because Schliemann was directly trying to attribute things he found to parts of a text and also was doing it fraudulently.

    Whereas, the better parts of Biblical archaeology try to understand the societies in which that particular document was written as a means to properly understand something that for better or worse has had a massive impact upon a great many people. It makes no claim on how genuine or ‘true’ events therein are. At least that was my experience of studying it.

    I think that is a pretty interesting area of archaeology. Don’t get me wrong it is no where near as interesting as lower pal archaeology, but significant nonetheless,

  16. #16 ginarex
    May 16, 2011

    From a lengthy online essay (www.ginarex-angerbydesign.blogspot.com) regarding the negative consequences of Old Testament monotheism on modern survival: In the beginning of civilization (the migration of humans into cities due to the development of agriculture) human resources were conscripted to aggrandize a single Top Male: call him Pharaoh, King of Kings, Master of the Universe – God. The male hierarchy of ministers, priests, bureaucrats and soldiers was dedicated to the immortality of one male. In the eastern Mediterranean region, not only the pharaohs achieved this (imaginary) immortality, but males in general conferred power on themselves in the immortal status of a monotheistic God. The quest to achieve ultimate power on this scale has been the goal of every Top Male since. The quality of the lives of women, children, lesser males and foreigners has been dictated by this system, which persists in modern societies, both in out-and-out dictatorships, in monarchy, or cloaked by the ideals of representative government.
    ( * Stone Age as used in this essay refers to social, not material culture)

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