The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had. But their worldview has become so much a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as a genetic code. We find it so impossible to shed--even for a brief experiment-- that it is now the cosmic vision of all other peoples that appears to us exotic and strange.
The Bible is the record par excellence of the Jewish religious experience, an experience that remains fresh and even shocking when it is read against the myths of other ancient literatures. The word bible comes from the Greek plural form biblia, meaning "books." And though the Bible is rightly considered the book of the Western world--its foundation document--it is actually a collection of books, a various library written almost entirely in Hebrew over the course of a thousand years.
We have scant evidence concerning the early development of Hebrew, one of a score of Semitic tongues that arose in the Middle East during a period that began sometime before the start of the second millennium B.C.*--how long before we do not know. Some of these tongues, such as Akkadian, found literary expression fairly early, but there is no reliable record of written Hebrew before the tenth century B.C.--that is, till well after the resettlement of the Israelites in Canaan following their escape from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the greatest of all proto-Jewish figures. This means that the supposedly historical stories of at least the first books of the Bible were preserved originally not as written texts but as oral tradition. So, from the wanderings of Abraham in Canaan through the liberation from Egypt wrought by Moses to the Israelite resettlement of Canaan under Joshua, what we are reading are oral tales, collected and edited for the first (but not the last) time in the tenth century during and after the kingship of David. But the full collection of texts that make up the Bible (short of the Greek New Testament, which would not be appended till the first century of our era) did not exist in its current form till well after the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews--that is, till sometime after 538 B.C. The last books to be taken into the canon of the Hebrew Bible probably belong to the third and second centuries B.C., these being Esther and Ecclesiastes (third century) and Daniel (second century). Some apocryphal books, such as Judith and the Wisdom of Solomon, are as late as the first century.
To most readers today, the Bible is a confusing hodgepodge; and those who take up the daunting task of reading it from cover to cover seldom maintain their resolve beyond a book or two. Though the Bible is full of literature's two great themes, love and death (as well as its exciting caricatures, sex and violence), it is also full of tedious ritual prescriptions and interminable battles. More than anything, because the Bible is the product of so many hands over so many ages, it is full of confusion for the modern reader who attempts to decode what it might be about.
But to understand ourselves--and the identity we carry so effortlessly that most "moderns" no longer give any thought to the origins of attitudes we have come to take as natural and self-evident--we must return to this great document, the cornerstone of Western civilization. My purpose is not to write an introduction to the Bible, still less to Judaism, but to discover in this unique culture of the Word some essential thread that runs through it, to uncover in outline the sensibility that undergirds the whole structure, and to identify the still-living sources of our Western heritage for contemporary readers, whatever color of the belief-unbelief spectrum they may inhabit.
Excerpted from The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill. Copyright© 1998 by Thomas Cahill. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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