We’re Thinking About: The Bible
Innocent as Serpents – A Very Early Detective Story

Priests of bel Penguin Crime mock cover

Tucked away in the additional chapters of Daniel (found either separately in the Apocrypha or in the main text in a Catholic Bible) is, to my knowledge, the first ever formal locked-room detective story.

Whilst exiled in Babylon, Daniel has risen through the ranks and become an advisor to the king, Cyrus. He refuses to worship Bel, one of the Babylonian gods that the king reveres. Every day, food is offered to the god – laid out in front of its idol – bushels of wheat, scores of sheep and gallons of wine. And, every night, the food is eaten – taken by the king to be proof that Bel is a living god, worthy of worship.

Living dangerously, when asked why he doesn’t also worship Bel, Daniel reaffirms that he only worships the “one true God who created all things”, and laughs in Cyrus’s face, mocking “the statue made of clay on the inside and bronze on the outside, that has never eaten anything”. Outraged by this blasphemy, the king summons the priests (all seventy of them) and demands to know what happens to the food, and a wager is set: the offering will be made as usual and the temple sealed in the presence of the king and if it has been eaten in the morning, Daniel will die, but if the food remains, the priests will gladly go to the same fate instead.

The king has the food set out before Bel but before the doors are sealed, Daniel has one request – in the presence of Cyrus alone, he scatters fine ashes all over the floor of the temple and then the doors are sealed and everyone retires to bed for the night.

In the morning, everybody gathers at the temple, the seals remain unbroken and when the doors are opened, the food has gone and Cyrus sings praises to Bel. It doesn’t look good for Daniel but again he laughs to the king’s face. “Look at the floor, whose footprints are these?” There in the ash on the floor are hundreds of footprints all around. Human footprints. Leading to a trapdoor used by the priests and their families to enter the temple in secret and feast every night.

The thoroughly discredited god and his temple are destroyed and the deceitful priests are taken away and summarily executed (as the evil-doers in classic detective novels often are). And Daniel lives to fight his God’s corner another day.
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This post originally appeared on my work’s Facebook page and included the following plug of the stock:

For discussion of the treatment of religion in more modern mystery novels, Peter Erb’s “Murder, Manners, and Mystery” (http://tinyurl.com/rrc-search-murder) is well worth a look.

We’re Thinking About: The Bible
Wind, Fire, and Hearing Strange Things: Pentecost

(Acts, Chapter Two)

I’m going to be looking at this story out of order since the feast of Pentecost will be this Sunday – normal service will be resumed next week, when I try and fit the Exodus into one post.

The first thing to mention is that there are two festivals, both known as Pentecost. At the time of the story below, the crowds gathered in Jerusalem were there to celebrate Shavu’ot, the Jewish Festival of Weeks (also known as Pentecost) which occurs fifty days after the Passover and celebrates the giving of The Torah. When the Christian church began memorialising the events below, they kept the name ‘Pentecost’ but the festival itself is very different – not least, because it celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit rather than the Books of Law.

Our story begins fifty days after the events of Easter weekend. The remaining disciples are meeting together in Jerusalem, following Jesus’s being taken back into Heaven – they have just elected a replacement for Judas Iscariot but are otherwise not up to much and are following Jesus’s instructions to “wait for what the Father promised.” It’s fair to say that they’re probably feeling a bit sorry for themselves – Jesus has been taken away from them for the second time in as many months, and there doesn’t seem to be much to hope for but they’re not so afraid that they’ve hidden themselves away from the world entirely.

Then, with a sound of rushing wind and the appearance of burning fires resting on them, everything changed! The Holy Spirit, the promised helper, arrived and they all started speaking in different languages as prompted by the Spirit. This hubbub was heard by the crowds gathered for Shavu’ot – devout Jews from all over the world (*1) – who came and heard what the disciples were saying, “each in their own language” – to much consternation and joking about them being already drunk.

Peter takes this opportunity to tell the crowd the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection, many of them become Christians and the Early Church is born – meeting together and growing in number in a state of harmony that seems too good to last. It is.

*1 – the tongue-twisting list of nations and races annually causes problems for people reading this passage in church…

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We’re Thinking About: The Bible
How Do You Read Yours?

Last Friday, I talked a little about some of the different genres to be found in the Bible – and I think that this is something that is very important to bear in mind when reading it, otherwise you can end up asking why the poet thought his girlfriend looked quite as strange as shown in the illustration.

There are two extremes within Christian interpretation of the Bible:
– that every word is the literal word of God, historically accurate from start to finish
– and that pretty much everything in it should be read allegorically

Both of these are overly simplistic ways of looking at it and come with their own problems – such as a head on collision with scientific evidence (I was told once that if I didn’t believe in a six-day creation then I “wasn’t a proper Christian”), or such a divergence from accepted Christian belief as to be unrecognisable at times. In between which are many mainstream ways of reading the Bible, none of which can claim to be “the one true way” (but sometimes do) and all with something to offer the interested reader.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a conservative view of the scriptures and the practical consequences of this interpretation, and the week after that, doing the same for a more liberal view.

In the meantime, the RRC has hundreds of biblical commentaries to help you think a bit more deeply – search our catalogue for more information.

We’d love to hear what your views are and where you’re coming from in the comments below…

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We’re Thinking About: The Bible
All in the Family – Abraham to Joseph

The first of the dynastic epics I mentioned on Friday begins in Genesis, chapter 12. God speaks to a man named Abram, and tells him to leave his home and family behind him and to set off into the unknown – “to the land I will show you”. And Abram does it, having his name changed along the way…

The next 38 chapters tell the story of the first three generations of Abram’s family – his children, Isaac & Ishmael, his grand children, Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s many children. Along the way, we encounter (in no particular order) tales of romance, hospitality, betrayal, murder, revenge, scheming & swindling, incest, jealousy, sibling rivalry, politics, prophecy and prostitution.

Looking at that list, I find myself surprised at just how much is packed in, the extreme highs and lows the protagonists reach. But, despite their best efforts at screwing everything up, God can be found working in the background to bring about the “blessing of all the families of the earth”. As one of the characters says at the climax of his portion of the story, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”

Genesis ends with the death of this hero and sets up the next book in the series, which begins, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

It’s a very human story, but the overall narrative is one of God’s faithfulness to Abram and his family through the many ups and downs. In the RRC stock it can be found in the many translations of the Bible, in very broad brush-strokes in the “Great Family” Godly Play set, and in a variety of DVD versions.

What’s your favourite story from this bit of Genesis? And is there anything that you’ve found yourself surprised by?

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We’re Thinking About: The Bible
Apocalypse When?

A (very) brief guide to genre in the Bible

It’s fairly safe to say that these days “Apocalypse” is generally understood to mean “the end of the world in a ‘four horsemen’ kind of way” when all it used to mean was “that which is revealed” and was a specifically Jewish form of writing involving obscure symbols and catastrophic imagery – a form of writing that appears in several books of the Bible, notably Daniel, Mark’s Gospel and, perhaps most famously, The Revelation (or Apocalypse) of St John. These can be interpreted in a variety of ways – from a coded commentary on the political situation of the time to foretellings of the end of the world and, although their outlandish imagery may be superficially attractive to first time readers, their impenetrability is likely to be more off-putting in the longer term.

It’s just as well that the remaining books of the Bible contain material that’s a little more accessible – in a variety of genres.

Formally, these are: Epistle, Gospel, Historical & Narrative, Law, Poetry, Prophecy, and Wisdom.

Epistle is just an old word meaning “letter” and in the Bible are written to churches and individuals as a means of encouragement and instruction; the Gospels contain the story of Jesus’ life, covering events from four distinct perspectives; the Historical and Narrative books tell the story God’s relationship with humanity through the ages; the books of Law, Poetry and Wisdom contain rules for living, poetry, and proverbs & teaching, respectively; Prophecy doesn’t just refer to foretelling the future, although that may well be an element of it, but is usually the revealing of what’s on God’s mind in relation to the (usually) political & social events of the time.
Less formally, there’s probably a little bit of something for everybody – love poetry(*), rags to riches stories(*1), sprawling dynastic and family epics(*2), violent superhero-style tales(*3), science-fictiony oddness(*4), broad comedy(*5), and discussion of the meaning of life (*6) – and that’s just in the Old Testament.

Is there anything else you think I should have mentioned?

(*)Song of Songs
(*1)Joseph (in Genesis), David (in 1&2 Samuel), Ruth (in Ruth), for example
(*2)the last three quarters of Genesis & from 1 Samuel through to the end of 2 Kings
(*3)Judges (see http://www.timbo-baggins.co.uk/?p=1421)
(*4)The beginning of Ezekiel
(*5)Jonah
(*6)Ecclesiastes & Job

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We’re Thinking About: The Bible
Creation and Fall

(Genesis 1-3)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

In the beginning, God created everything, and it was good, then people came along and screwed it up by eating an apple after being tempted by the devil in the Garden of Eden and were then banished…

There are a couple of things about the version I’ve just described – it combines two separate stories, found one after the other in the first three chapters of Genesis, and one or two details that simply aren’t to be found in the Bible.

The second and third chapters of Genesis contain a story that differs in some major details from that found in the first chapter. Why do you think they were both included? What do they tell us side by side that an amalgamation of the two wouldn’t?

We aren’t told what the fruit that Adam and Eve ate was, other than it being the “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil”. It’s likely that we’ve come to think of it as an apple because of the recognisability of apples as fruit and their use in much of the early biblical art. Does calling the fottokogae an apple change the tone of the story to something that *feels* more like a simple folk tale (with prohibitions and punishments) than something revealing deeper truths about ourselves and the way the world is?

And the tempter in the garden? Just a talking snake; the devil doesn’t show up in person until much later on.
_____________________

For further consideration:
The Creation is a key concept in a Christian understanding of the world and God’s relationship with it – how does your understanding of this story affect your understanding of God?

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We’re Thinking About: The Bible
Different Translations


Most of us don’t speak Ancient Hebrew or Koine Greek and so need a little help when reading the Bible. This is where translations, of which there are many, come in…

Did you know that, prior to the turn of the Sixteenth Century, the Bible was read almost exclusively in Latin and any translations were mostly of the Latin text (itself a translation)? William Tyndale is credited with the first translation into English of the Bible from the original languages, and its mass-dissemination through the new medium of print. It’s one of the things that got him executed!

Today, Bible translation into English is a much less perilous pursuit and there are many, many translations to choose from. These can broadly be split into three types: Word for Word (Literal), Thought for Thought (Dynamic Equivalence), and Paraphrase – all of which have different aims and objectives.

Word for Word translations, such as the English Standard Version and the King James Version, attempt to follow the original language as literally as possible so that readers know what the original texts actually say, sometimes at the expense of readability.

Thought for Thought translations, such as the New International Version and the Contemporary English Version, are less literal, looking to balance accuracy with readability – looking at the meaning of phrases and sentences as a whole, which can lead to the original meaning of the words themselves being lost.

Paraphrases, such as The Message and The Living Bible, go even further, sometimes straying quite considerably from the original text but are very easy to read.

The RRC has examples of each type in stock, and several (such as the New Revised Standard Version) that fall between two types, in addition to children’s Bibles, comic book versions and audio recordings. Why not come along and have a look for yourself?

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We’re Thinking About: The Bible
What Is the Bible?

Christians believe that the Bible reveals the story of God’s relationship with humanity throughout the ages – from the beginning of all things to a foretelling of the end of the world as we know it and the new world that will follow. It is a collection of books and letters, containing various genres of literature, and was originally written in Hebrew and Greek between about 1200 BCE (BC) and 100 CE (AD), although there is disagreement as to the exact dating.

There’s even more disagreement about what the Bible actually is – from its authorship – who wrote what, inerrancy – its reliability in a historical sense, and even its contents – different traditions’ Bibles contain slightly different sets of books, and that’s before we get to the thorny issue of interpretation.
We’ll be looking at some of these controversies in the coming weeks and hopefully having a little bit of fun along the way. In the meantime, the “Buck Denver Asks: What’s in the Bible?” series of DVDs (available at both sites, and narrated by a very personable puppet) will give you a summary walk through, from Genesis to Revelation…

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New series of posts coming up

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be running a campaign for work – a series of Facebook posts on a subject we hope our members will find of interest. I’m planning to transfer the posts over to the blog in case there’s any readers who are similarly interested. So, without further ado, THE INTRODUCTORY POST

We’re Thinking About: The Bible
gutenberg bible
Introduction
For Christians, the Bible is key to their understanding of faith and provides the basis for many essential concepts such as creation, incarnation, and the fall.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the book itself – what it is, who it’s for, its impact on society, the uses and abuses of scripture and a couple of different ways of looking at it.
We’ll be taking the time to explore the text (well, translations of it) and from time-to-time compare it with a few popular misconceptions…
Along the way (generally on a Tuesday) we’ll be having a look at some of its most famous stories and showing off some of the fantastic resources we have to help you develop your own understanding and help with your work regarding the scriptures.
Please feel free to join the discussion – either on this page, or over on our discussion forums.

Image Credits
Gutenberg_Bible,_Lenox_Copy,_New_York_Public_Library,_2009._Pic_01.jpg
By NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) – originally posted to Flickr as Gutenberg Bible, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9914015

…like a metaphor