Today’s post excerpted from the “Bible” entry in The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker.
The greatest mistake of religious authorities in the western world was their view of the Bible as intrinsically different from other ancient scriptures, in that it was dictated word for word by God, not collected slowly, rewritten and mis-written, revised and worked over by human beings for a long time. The notion that the Bible did not evolve haphazardly, like most other holy writings of the same period, [persists] up to the present day, even among people who should [know] better.
According to the prevailing myth of biblical origins, the Old Testament was supposed to have been translated from Hebrew to Greek by seventy-two translators sent to Ptolemy by Eleazar, a Jewish high priest, in the 3rd century B.C., hence its name, Septuagint. Ptolemy locked the scholars in individual cells on the island Pharos, where each one made his own Greek version in exactly seventy-two days. Each translation agreed exactly, in every word, with the other seventy-one translations.
Of course this never happened. The Bible’s real history was far less tidy. A collection appeared in the first century B.C. and again in the first century A.D. to be accepted by the Jews of the Diaspora as sacred, and passed on to Christians. In both Jewish and Christian hands the papyri underwent many changes. In the 4th century A.D., St. Jerome collected some Hebrew manuscripts and edited them to produce the Latin Vulgate, a Bible of considerable inaccuracy, differing markedly from Jerome’s stem texts.
The King James Bible relied mostly on a Greek text collected and edited by Erasmus in the 16th century, which in turn relied on a Byzantine collection assembled gradually at Constantinople between the 4th and 8th centuries. A few older texts have been discovered: the Codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Vaticanus, the Codes Alexandrinus, and the Chester Beatty papyri. All are fragmentary; all differ from one another and from the King James version. There are no known portions of the Bible older than the 4th century A.D.
Traditionally, the church forbade not only research but even reading of the Bible by laymen. Throughout the Middle Ages, possession of a Bible written in the vernacular was a crime punished by burning at the stake. With the Reformation came Bible-reading in search of a new basis for faith; but in the process were found many new grounds for skepticism.
Richard Simon’s 17th-century Critical History of the Old Testament exhibited the now well-known internal evidence that the books of Moses were not written by Moses but were compiled by many hands at a much later date. Bishop Bossuet pronounced this work of scholarship “a mass of impieties,” drove its author out of the Oratory, and ordered the entire first edition burned. Dr. Alexander Geddes, a Catholic scholar, translated the Old Testament in 1792 with a critical volume proving that the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses, nor at any time prior to the reign of David. He was denounced as a “would-be corrector of the Holy Ghost.”
As the years passed, it became increasingly clear that the Holy Ghost needed correcting. Seven clerical scholars published Essays and Reviews in 1860, defining the new science of Bible criticism. They were denounced, and two were suspended from office; but they took their case to court, and won. In 1869 Kuenen’s The Religion of Israel established Bible criticism as a valid field of investigation. He was followed by many others in Holland, Germany, and France. In 1889 the book of biblical essays called Lux Mundi gave up all pretense of the scriptures’ historicity or divine inspiration, admitting that the Bible is a confused mass of myth, legend, and garbled history, often contradicting provable facts.
When the theologians began to give in, they complained that viewing the Bible as myth would destroy the whole structure that their livelihood and self-respect depended on. After David Straus’s Leben Jesu disposed of the historicity of the Gospel stories, and Renan’s Vie de Jesus showed that the Gospels cannot be taken as literal truth but only as romantic symbolism, the Rev. Maurice Jones [author of The New Testament in the Twentieth Century, 1934] exclaimed, “if the Christ-Myth theory is true, and if Jesus never lived, the whole civilized world has for close upon two thousand years lain under the spell of a lie.” The Archbishop of Canterbury found it impossible to deny the Bible’s apparent lies, and began to backtrack with his plaintive question, “May not the Holy Spirit make use of myth and legend?”
Obviously the Bible was full of myths and legends, but most orthodox theologians had no idea of their meaning. One reason was that they didn’t study the corresponding myths and legends of other cultures – ancient paganism, modern mysticism, the non-Christian beliefs of people both civilized and uncivilized through the rest of the world.
Some of the miracles attributed to biblical heroes were copied from older myths of the Goddess. Joshua’s arrest of the sun was formerly credited to priestesses of Isis, Hecate, and the Thessalian Great Mother, who were said to stop heavenly bodies in their courses, and lengthen the night or day at will. Moses’s flowering rod, river of blood, and tablets of the law were all symbols of the ancient Goddess. His miracle of drawing water from a rock was first performed by Mother Rhea after she gave birth to Zeus, and by Atalanta with the help of Artemis. His miracle of drying up waters to travel dry-shod was earlier performed by Isis, or Hathor, on her way to Byblos.
Erroneous but traditional views of Bible origins and meanings are doggedly preserved by male chauvinists in particular, since the canonical books were deliberately selected and edited to wipe out all feminine images of divinity and sanction religious suppression of women.
Scholars have found in the Bible’s numerous layers of additions and corrections a substrate of the former Semitic matriarchy, such as the Book of Ruth with its matrilineal and matrilocal marriage customs, and the Book of Judges with its feminine government of Israel (Judges 4:4). In several books the word translated “God” is really a feminine plural, “Goddesses,” especially in reference to the matriarchal functions of lawgiving, avenging crimes, and bestowing the imperium of leadership.
One of the erroneous notions that still keep Christian women shackled to their Bible-based “inferior” image is the notion that Christianity was founded on the New Testament, when in fact the early churches had no Gospels but rather created and produced their own. Not only did churchmen falsely pretend an apostolic origin for their scriptures; they also weeded out all references to female authority or participation in Christian origins. Only the forbidden Gnostic Gospels retained hints that Jesus had 12 female disciples corresponding to the 12 male disciples, or that Mary Magdalene was the leader of them all. Even women’s scholarship was denied. St. Jerome openly admitted that his co-authors of the Vulgate were two learned women; but later scholars erased the women’s names and substituted the words “venerable brothers.”
Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) said there is no escape from the Bible’s “degrading teaching” as to the position of women, and advised women to boycott churches. “It is not commendable for women to get up fairs and donation parties for churches in which the gifted of their sex may neither pray, preach, share in the offices and honors, nor have a voice in the business affairs, creeds and discipline, and from whose altars come forth Biblical interpretations in favor of woman’s subjection.”