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The Bible, Word of God (5)
He hath made His Works to be remembered
The possessed Gerasenian and the battle of Ai
Photo by Tuppus
1 – The Bible the work of men?
Those who oppose the Bible, God’s Word, state categorically: «« If the Bible is the Word of God, why does God tell so many lies? God’s Word: that’s really something! There are whole passages that cannot possibly be true. The incongruities are not a cause for concern but point to the fact that although the Bible is an inspired book it still remains the work of men. The oral tradition is sometimes written down only much later. It was impossible for inaccuracies not to creep in. The Bible is principally a storytelling exercise! It is the message that counts. When the Bible is approached with awe, this should not be given a naïve form as with the primitive and ignorant people who make everything absolute. Just as God worked through people at the time, so He works through people now. The Spirit blows where He will. And thus we must have confidence in the scriptural approach of the generation we are now living in so that, on the basis of the sacred nature of the Bible, we find solutions that match up with the needs of this time. »» This train of thought indicates that we cannot simply shrug our shoulders when an untruth is cited from the Bible. It is a serious question which, fortunately, does not need to be solved by proving what really happened. In order to undermine the fact that something is ‘impossible’ we do not have to demonstrate what really occurred. Even an unlikely possibility still remains a possibility.
2 – Gerasenians or Gadarenians or Gergesenians
As my first example I would refer to the occurrence of the possessed Gadarene related in Mark 5 and Luke 8. No few exegetes have shaken their heads when attempting to elucidate this apparently grotesque tale in which Jesus releases a possessed man from the demons that inhabited him and sent them into two thousand swine, the animals subsequently throwing themselves into the Lake of Tiberias where they drowned. The text has caused a great many headaches, as we can see from the various translations. For instance in the Petrus Canisius translation (1967), undertaken with the approval of the Dutch bishops, Matthew 8:28 states: “land of the Gerasenes”, with the following remark: “This interpretation (based on the Vulgate) is doubtful, here as well as in Mark 5:1 and Luke 8:26, 37. Probably Matthew wrote: Gadarenes, Mark and Luke: Gergesenes.” That this question has always been doubtful is evident from the King James Version where Matthew speaks of Gergesenes and Mark and Luke of Gadarenes! I stick to the revised original Greek text of Westcott & Hort, which has great authority. In this work Mark 5 and Luke 8 talk of the land of the Gerasenes. Matthew 8, on the other hand, talks about the land of the Gadarenes. Gadara was not far south from the lake and dominated the above region. And yet the town of Gerasa said to be referred to is 54 kilometres as the crow flies from the lake. Gerasa (or Jerash) is situated in a mountainous region belonging to the ten-cities-region (Decapolis), which is towards the Dead Sea, and thus to the south of the Lake of Tiberias in Trans-Jordan. The location of the incident is clear, being close to the lake, but this cannot be reconciled with the Gerasa of the Decapolis. A problem arises in Luke 8:34 with the mention ‘city’ and ‘Decapolis’, since to the east of the Lake of Tiberias there was a poverty-stricken region without cities. However, the native language of the writers of the Gospels was not Greek but a Semitic language in which no distinction was made between ‘village’ and ‘town’ (at the time towns were a relatively new phenomenon). There were no good dictionaries – as we know them – available at the time. So why, in the Low Greek of the time, should the word ‘polis’ (town / city) not mean simply ‘inhabited place’? It would seem that there are no words in the New Testament that do not appear elsewhere, although a number of words – the so-called hapax legomena – do not necessarily appear in the Greek dictionaries serving the translations of the Classics. The New Testament is written in what we could call cosmopolitan Greek dating from the beginning of the Christian era. This is known as ‘koine’ or the ‘common’ Greek of the great Hellenistic-Roman world and there are still no dictionaries of that language. It is therefore not beyond the bounds of imagination that, in a kind of competition with the area lying to the south, the inhabitants living to the east of the Lake of Tiberias talked of their ten-placesregion and that they indicated the local village using the Greek word ‘polis’, assuming that this was the correct term.
3 - Gerasa – nowadays: Khersa
That the biblical Decapolis should not be confused with the ten-city-region beyond the Jordan is also apparent also from Matthew 4:25, which states that “great multitudes followed Jesus - from Galilee and Decapolis, and Jerusalem and Judea and beyond the Jordan.” This enumeration would not tally if Decapolis were identical here to the upstream of Trans-Jordan, for then it should say: “and from Decapolis and beyond the Jordan” (the latter indicating the downstream), but it says: “from Galilee and Decapolis”. This means: from the area around the Lake of Tiberias. Such a pair is also “Jerusalem and Judea” to be read as Jerusalem and its vicinity, a logical combination because of the special status of Jerusalem in the political and religious makeup of Israel. It happens that there is also a Garasa in the ten-village-area, now called Khersa or Kursi (more than 16 km north of Gadara). Recent excavations have discovered a late 5th-century monastery on this spot, which location and layout on the steep shore suggest that it was a prayer institution commemorating the biblical exorcism. Khersa is sometimes wrongly associated with Gergesa (i.e. by Gustaf Dalman in “Orte und Wege Jesu” [Places and Ways of Jesus] ), a place that could have existed more than 3 km south-east of Khersa on a mount now called Skoefijeh. This corresponds with the descriptions of Origen, Eusebius and Saint Jerome, who talk of Gergesa “super montem” or on top of a mount, while the exorcism took place near the shore. The knowledge stating that the story of the expulsion of the legion contains factual inconsistencies is therefore wrong. If there is a plausible explanation that offers some kind of possibility to a textual problem, this suffices to invalidate a statement of it being absolutely impossible. The fortress of Gadara, also mentioned in the story of the exorcism, is nonetheless part of the tencity-region, but this city dominated the whole northern ten-village-area and could be seen from there because of its urban size and elevated position (approx. 600 metres above the lake and 9 kilometres south of it). In fact this city agrees with the traditional explanation.
4 - Solution: the difference between High and Low Greek
There are thus insufficient arguments for the so-called knowledge that the story of the expulsion of the legion of demons contains factual inaccuracies. It is not the case that only sceptics have pointed out the difficulties involved in the account, but also faithful believers have wrestled with the problem. The reason why the solution was so long in coming has to do with the fact that it was only in the second half of the 20th century that the division between High and Low Greek was uncovered thanks to the discovery of some papyrus fragments with scraps of text confirming that the hapax legomena also occurred elsewhere and not just in the Bible. Before these finds were made, some experts had even suggested that God had created new words in order to make clearer His holy intentions and that such terms were first applied in the New Testament! Other deviations from High Greek in the New Testament were also known because its language has a deviant grammar. A classical scholar, therefore, can easily read biblical Greek whereas a student of theology familiar only with biblical Greek will have the greatest difficulty reading the classical Greek authors.
5 – The conquest of the town of Ai
After having discussed an example of a place name in the New Testament we will now deal with the account of the capture of Ai, to be found in Joshua 7 & 8. When, near the close of the
15th century BC, under the leadership of Joshua, successor to Moses, the people of Israel entered the Promised Land (inhabited by other peoples at the time) the first city to be conquered was Jericho. The Israelites then moved on to do battle at the place known as Ai. Most scholars identify Ai with the excavations at Et-Tell, close to Deir Dibwan, 2 kilometres to the southeast of Bethel. In Joshua 8:28 Ai is turned into a “heap forever”; the Hebrew for ‘heap is ‘tel’. Archaeological investigations have shown that Et-Tell, which had massive stone walls, was destroyed no later than 2300 BC and was no longer inhabited before the invasion of the Israelites. Various and sometimes far-fetched explanations have been proposed to resolve the discrepancy between the biblical account and the archaeological discoveries. The most plausible explanation is given from the military point of view.
Gustave Doré – the conquest of Ai / Bethel
Chaim Herzog, the former president of the State of Israel (1), and Mordechai Gichon have researched this question with great military and topographical expertise. Together they wrote a book, published in 1997, entitled “Battles of the Bible” (2), a systematic analysis of all the battles in the Bible. They state the following in the foreword: «« Our close familiarity with matters military and the actual sites of the biblical battles has convinced us that fashionable thinking is wrong in relegating an ever-growing part of biblical history to the realm of sage, pragmatic invention or aetiological interpretation
by unknown creators of folklore, later scribes and authors who were used by the compilers of the Bible canon. »» (3) They conclude that the battles as described in the Bible could be a correct representation of what really happened. And that is an exceptionally strong argument for the authenticity of the accounts.
6 - Ai: a fortified outpost of Bethel
As regards Ai (or Hai) the writers are of the opinion: «« …that the people of Bethel did prepare Ai as a fortified outpost to forestall the threat of an Israelite attempt upon their town. This was sensible because of its commanding position above the ascent, which was in ‘dead ground’ (uninhabited and uncultivated). Unlike the scouts’ evaluation of Bethel, the intelligence reports about Ai were optimistic (Josh. 7:3-4), and the scouts, unfamiliar with the great strength inherent in ruins prepared as defensive positions, advised their commander that a token force of up to three thousand men would suffice to capture the town. »» For this reason the first sortie failed, and a better prepared attack was needed to finally take the city and the Bethel – which is what it really was all about. The name ‘Ai’ means ‘ruin’ and ‘Hai’ in the French translations (Crampon, Glaire) means ‘the ruin’. ‘Ai’ with a resh (our r) at the end – though that does not occur in the text – means ‘city’, but not in the usual meaning of the word: every site with an outlook post in the broadest sense of the term fulfils the criterion for a city, thus even a guarded encampment, and that is something quite different from what we mean by a city.
7 – Useful archaeological investigations
This removes two stumbling blocks, both related to the definition of ‘town’, in an acceptable manner. The previous paragraphs demonstrate that archaeological investigations really are useful in learning to know the Bible better and to provide a solid foundation for that knowledge. One could get the impression from commentaries in the Press that science and belief do not go together. James Frazer, one of the founders of social anthropology, suggested that human evolution has passed through magic to religion to finally land at science. For him science is the highest approach to reality. And thus it is not only interesting but also necessary to deepen one’s knowledge of these questions so that we do not need simply to believe but are also allowed to know that what we believe is reasonable. Hubert Luns
[Published in “De Brandende Lamp” 2nd quarter 2006 - No. 106] [Published in “Positief” May 2005 – No 352]
Chaim Herzog and operation Desert Storm (1) Chaim Herzog was the president of Israel during the Desert Storm operation. To contain a potentially dangerous escalation of the war, Israel agreed not to intervene and retaliate, whatever might happen. As feared, there were numerous mid-range missile attacks by Scud rockets, directed onto Israel’s soil. Yet the destruction and casualties were minimal. In spite of the American Patriot missiles intercepting the Iraqi Scuds on the fly, 39 were to hit their selected targets, mostly in population centres such as Tel Aviv. As a result 10,992 apartments and 1,235 private homes were completely destroyed. Inexplicably, there was not a single death. Many were pulled from under mounds of wreckage several metres high. The only fatality was that of an elderly man who died of a heart attack in hospital after having survived an impact that destroyed his home. In great contrast, the only Scud that hit a military base in Saudi Arabia killed nineteen Americans. That was to be normally expected, for in the first Iran-Iraq war the reported toll from Scuds falling on Teheran was on average nine dead for each Scud! Chaim Herzog addressed the nation on February 22, 1991, in the “Voice of Israel” radio programme, commenting on these wondrous incidents: «« The Jewish nation has witnessed many miracles throughout its history, from that of the splitting of the Red Sea to the miracles that we are witnessing this very day. This time, as well, we are being blessed with Divine intervention. »» The editor in chief of the profoundly secular magazine “This World” (HaOlam) wrote in a leading article: «« God’s hands guide the Scuds, its lethal shrapnel, away from people to walls. God’s hands - it could be nothing less. You stand, shivering and shuddering, opposite a house reduced to rubble, and you are amazed that these tons of concrete and steel can tumble while the residents of the sealed rooms are barely scratched. Miraculous. Time and again, miracle upon miracle, and then yet another miracle; there is no other explanation. »» This is how it works when ‘Hashem Elokei Yisrael’ (the God of Israel) wants to save. Have Israel’s secular leaders, a few years on, learned their lesson? Not yet!
The burning oil fields of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm
(2) Reference: The 1997 edition of “Battles of the Bible” is a completely revised version of the 1978 edition. The quote about Ai is from p. 51. (3) The science of aetiology is based on an a priori opinion regarding the natural cause of all things. Here it is assumed that primitive peoples, having no explanation for a particular phenomenon, sought causality in divine intervention thanks to their insufficiently intellectual framework.