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Biblical History & Meaning (Part 1: Purpose)
It is important to keep in mind the historical context and the intended audience of a message if we are to fully understand it. It would seem that for many modern people, the bible is a mishmash of historical data pertaining to the Jews and some kind of extended metaphor that primitively attempts to explain humanity's purpose and place within the universe in general. It is not always evident that it is describing a method of living that is intended to permanently bring about individual and collective harmony in every aspect of life, to the point of physical immortality and an eternally enduring civilization for all.
This problem is compounded when what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken figuratively becomes confused. The contents of the bible even state as much. For example, Matthew 13:10-13 (NLT):
His disciples came and asked him, "Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?"
He replied, "You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. That is why I use these parables,
For they look, but they don't really see.
They hear, but they don't really listen or understand."
It is interesting to note that the term "pagan" literally translates to "rural", "rustic", "country-dweller". Likewise, the term "gentile" actually means "heathen". It seems as if some of the early Christians were part of a highly educated priestly class of Jews attempting to empower everyone outside of that group by speaking to them in ways that they could understand (i.e.: by assimilating their symbolism and reworking their mythology accordingly). Whereas others attempt(ed) to use that knowledge to take advantage of others who do not know it, and/or inhibit other's learning of it through their ignorance of what it really means. Hence, Matthew 23:13 (NLT):
What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people's faces. You won't go in yourselves, and you don't let others enter either.
Things are infinitely more meaningful than they might first appear upon their surface. By carefully analyzing the basic terms used within Christianity, we can get a good understanding of what the originally intended meanings probably were. There are beautiful messages behind many familar biblical quotations when they are interpreted in this manner. To give a couple of examples: The English word "repentence" is often used as a translation of the Greek word μετάνοια ("metanoia"). However, it is much more than just a feeling of regret, but a complete change of heart and mind, a turning away from evil. The English word "faith" is often used as a translation of the Greek word πίστις ("pistis"). Again, it is more than just a blind belief, but an acceptance of the truth of something that has been proven trustworthy.
So very different from how someone might use these words now. And to think, this is just a small sample of the many intricate meanings that one can derive from the original Greek! Our ancestors were very wise, and not all of them were corrupt with the desire for power. Likewise, there are many "good Christians" of just about every denomination who are alive now and know the essential truths behind the teaching. The deepest aspects of these teachings have not been lost, but are often thoroughly obscured and forgotten by many. I won't claim to have all of the answers, only The One does, but I humbly share the following ideas for your consideration...
There are "secular" sources by a wide range of different Greek, Roman, Syrian, and Jewish authors from the first century AD that corroborate some of the events in the New Testament and the history of the early "church", including the existence of a historical Jesus. For example, there are accounts by:
• Mara Bar-Serapian
[If this is of interest to you, there is an informative and somewhat humorous ~30 min. video that goes through all of the above mentioned works here.]
Whether or not one wants to personally accept Jesus as an actual historical figure, one thing that is common to many of these accounts is the fact that some early Christian groups were not accepted by other groups of Jews and Romans for various reasons. There is a complexity to events that our generalized labels and personal biases can sometimes shield us from. In general, there are an incredibly large number of examples throughout history of people that have been persecuted just for holding some kind of ideology, and sometimes entire groups have been tragically wiped out through genocide and the record of their existence obliterated according to the whims of the rulers in charge of the areas in which these people lived. Some of this is occuring around the world this very second. It is also important to note that things like governments, churches, schools, and hospitals were (and can) often be singular social constructs. So how can we get a handle on it in relation to the origins of Christian teachings?
There are some interesting ways of looking at this situation, and the works of Josephus offer us some clues...
In the time of Jesus, the kingdom of Judea was occupied by Rome. The Sanhedrin, which was something like a Jewish parliament, was generally composed of three factions that did not always see eye-to-eye:
• The Pharisees (yes, those Pharisees)
• The Sadducees (some of which were absorbed into the Roman government)
• The Essenes
[There was also a group of Jews (generally referred to as "Zealots") that rebelled against the Roman invaders of Judea and who were radicals in the sense that they did not follow the Jewish leaders.]
Even a cursory glance at what is said of The Essenes reveals many intriguing ideas, such as:
• They were a very ascetic group thought to be in opposition to a corrupt priesthood,
• They were organized into two groups: the Ossaeans and Nazoreans, the latter is where we supposedly get the term "Nazareth",
• They were the source of the Dead Sea Scrolls,
Some have claimed that John the Baptist was of this group (and perhaps even the historical Jesus himself to some extent), but whatever the true circumstances were, one thing is certain: Particular ideas were not welcome and some people went to great lengths to perserve what they thought was important while being actively persecuted by others, even those who were supposedly within the same faction. But what exactly were these teachings and can they be recovered? I will describe one possible avenue of exploration that can yield fruitful results...
Much like how we gave a couple of examples of how deeper meanings can be derived from the Greek of the New Testament, a similar process can be done with the Hebrew of the Old Testament. Just how far this process can be taken is astounding, and as strange as it might sound, one can derive a lot of useful mathematics and science from it as well. In short, there are things encoded within the bible that are timelessly relevant if one understands how to uncover, interpret, and apply it.
This method of extracting information from the Old Testament was well known to the Jews and was handed down as an oral tradition, given first from those of the priestly order to responsible men who were of age, and then from each man unto their wife and children as appropriate. A lot of this eventually became codified into what is now known as "Kabbalah" (which literally means "received tradition"). However, there were many times in history that the Jews as a whole were quite close to losing their culture (including the Hebrew language and the spiritual teachings written in and based off of it). These events were part of what is now known as the "Jewish diaspora", and those who survived were known as "the remnant". They retained and adapted the sacred knowledge that they had received from each culture that they were a part of and transmitted it from generation to generation.
Throughout the Hellenistic period (starting around 300 BC), a kind of renaissance happened. Greek culture exploded and a profusion of various spiritual and scientific systems came into being, partly due to a kind of "cross-pollination" of cultures connected by a huge international trade-route called the "Silk Road". Despite its name, this path covered both land and sea. It also converged with highways connecting together various local areas, such as the "Royal Road" which spanned most of the Persian Empire.
(Note that all of the places that were interconnected by the Silk Road already had well-developed systems of spirituality and science that had sprung up some 200-300 years earlier. For example, there was Zoroastrianism from Perisa, Pythagoreanism from Greece, Buddhism and Jainism from India, Confucianism and Taoism from China, and so forth. All of them fragments of The One.)
A place of great significance during the Hellenistic period was Alexandria, Egypt, where the ruling Greeks, native Egyptians, and a small population of displaced Jews lived together. It is here that the "Septuagint" (i.e.: a Greek translation of the Hebrew bible) was made. This is one of the things that helped to preserve the teachings of Judaism and elucidate patterns nearly forgotten. This is partly because the Greek and Jewish peoples have a common root: Their ancient ancestors were Semitic and their languages are alike in certain key features that would allow the layers of meaning hidden within their holy scriptures to be more easily converted from one into the other and vice versa. There was also a thorough mixing of Greek and Jewish peoples at this time.
This is the historical backdrop for the eventual appearance of Jesus the Christ in 1 AD, give or take ~7 years. It is also why the writings that would later make up the New Testament are written almost entirely in Greek (other than the very occasional Aramaic word or phrase). Biblical Hebrew was understood only by the priestly class and nearly a dead language for most of the Jewish people at this point. If they didn't use Greek, they used Aramaic, another Semitic language. However, for most of the Jews outside of Judea, Greek was the more predominant because it was the "lingua franca" of the time, much like English is now.
But if we pay close attention to the language, it goes even deeper, reaching far into pre-history...
The Greeks are said to have originally received their alphabet from a group of sea-faring peoples called the Phonecians, who most likely originated from Africa. (Their name is actually where we get the English term "phonics" from.) Likewise, the "Paleo-Hebrew alphabet" (used to write Biblical Hebrew) and the Aramaic alphabet (used to write Aramaic) also came from the Phonecian alphabet. In turn, the Phoenicians derived their alphabet from Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The interesting thing about Egyptian hieroglyphics is that they were primarily used for the recording of the most important spiritual teachings and history of the Egyptians. These were often carved in stone, whether it be the stone that made up monuments, or the stone that made up the walls of palaces, temples, and tombs. They used another cursive-like script for everyday writing called "Hieratic". This was often written on "papyri" (a paper derived from a kind of reed).
The differences in the usage of these two ways of writing is striking to say the least. To give an example of some of the things written in Hieratic:
• There is "The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus" (from ~1550 BC), which covers some pretty advanced aspects of Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry; it is predated by the "Moscow Mathematical Papyrus" (from ~1850 BC) that covers similar ground.
• There is "The Edwin Smith Papyrus" (from ~1600 BC), which covers advanced aspects of Medicine, everything from suturing wounds to curing infections with honey; it is predated by the "Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus" and the set of "Ramesseum Medical Papyri" (both from ~1800 BC).
A lot of this knowledge wasn't rediscovered until relatively recently in history. But if we were to take a guess as to what were the most important things to the Ancient Egyptians, would it be the information written on a paper prone to decay over time, or that which was carved into stone? It seems that history is incredibly different from what we might sometimes think...
The "Pentateuch" (or first five books of the Old Testament) were said to be written by Moses, who was once of the royal Egyptian priesthood. This "Torah" (or "teaching") is the core scripture of Judaism. It is said to be "the word of God" as dictated to Moses...But who is "God"? The answer to this question is given directly within one of these books (specifically Exodus 3:14). Within it Moses asks God, "What shall I call you?" and the reply he receives is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה ("Eyeh Asher Eyeh") or "I AM what I AM".
Throughout the bible, including within the passage immediately after this one, the full name of God is repeatedly given as: יהוה ("Y.H.V.H."). If we are to add the appropriate vowel markings to it, then it is יְּהוָֹה and is pronounced as "Yehova" (which got Latinized into "Jehovah"). This is often shortened into just יָח ("Yah", or the Latinized "Jah").
Both "Eyeh" and "Yehova" share the same root: חיח. From this, we get all three conjugations of the verb "to be":
• חָיָח ("Hayah", "was")
• חֹוֶח ("Hoveh", "is")
• יִחְיֶח ("Yihyeh", "will be")
In other words, "Yehova" literally means: "All that was, All that is, and All that will ever be." This is the eternally self-existent One making itself known!
...Definitely gives a different feel for what the bible is attempting to convey doesn't it?