Writing, the recording of symbols (shapes) on various media (surfaces), whether paper, rock, clay, tanned animal skin (leather), papyrus or electronic device, to preserve and transmit message and meaning, goes back to ancient Sumer, around 3400 B.C., in Mesopotamia. “The oldest written documents … are mainly concerned with local agricultural and commercial transactions, and not easily interpreted.”1 Also, earlier forms of recording (c. 8000 B.C.), using tokens of sundry shape to keep count of goods, had to do with commerce. Thus ancient writing and proto-writing were involved with economics, accounting for commodities necessary for survival and subsistence. Writing is part of the foundation of human culture and civilization.
By 3000 B.C., as writing changed to reflect spoken language, the names of individuals appear, often incorporating the name of a deity and also references to temple, after-life and prayer. Religious ideas and practices are expressed in extant cuneiform inscriptions from Mesopotamia and in Egyptian hieroglyphics from about 2750 B.C.
The Bible is first a religious document, a collection of books from different eras, with diverse themes and forms, that concerns theism. It contains traditions extending back to the ancient Near East, around 2000 B.C.
And Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai the wife of Abram, and they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan. But when they arrived in Haran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran. (Gen 11:31-32)
Realizing the complexity of the Bible, people have used all tools available, historical, linguistic, literary, to name a few, to understand it. This is the function of criticism in Bible study and it has led to a professional corps of academics doing Bible research objectively, with secular purpose of rational discernment.
Synagogue and Church
Judaism and Christianity are two religions existing for millennia, composed of worldwide distribution of believers, that hold Bible as sacred scripture. Believers study Bible from viewpoint of faith, of varying degrees and kinds, to enhance or improve their faith and so better themselves. Between the religious/spiritual goals of Bible study among believers and the scientific objectives of academic Bible study, conflicts arise. Such conflicts, e.g., regarding dating of events, should not be brushed aside, but probed to determine what issues are at stake.
Background of Bible in ancient Near East shows importance of criticism in interpretation, for we would not be able to read Bible without discovery, conservation and comparison of ancient manuscripts, i.e., text criticism, to establish a proper text and language study to understand and translate its writings. Historical criticism, making use of tools from archaeology, anthropology, sociology, shows how Biblical books differ from other writings of olden times and attempts to disclose the facts beneath Biblical claims. “It is therefore no good ignoring the results of criticism; they should be either accepted or challenged.”2 Dialog between critical methods and faith in God is required for fullest understanding.
- William Hallo, William Simpson, The Ancient Near East: A History (Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1998), pp. 25-26
- Gordon Wenham, ‘History & the Old Testament’ in Colin Brown (ed.), History, Criticism & Faith (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1977), p. 49