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The Death of the Biblical God

See Also:
What Jesus Didn’t Say (Polebridge Press, 2011)

By Gerd Lüdemann
Professor, Emeritus of the History and Literature of Early Christianity,
University of Göttingen, Germany
July 2011

From its very beginning, Christianity has seen itself as a religion based upon the historical deeds of God, spoken of in the Old and New Testaments. Up to now, most Christian theologians agreed with the formulaic statement “God brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the Dead.” The resurrection of Jesus has long been a subject for critical comment, even in the public forum, whereas the issue of Israel’s exodus from Egypt remained untouched. Yet it is precisely the Exodus story and its related account of Israelite history through the time of the judges that has almost unnoticed undergone a complete revolution.

Historical-critical Old Testament research, which has been going on for more than 200 years, has led to a thorough winnowing of all the books of the Hebrew Bible. Although scholars early arrived at the relatively obvious conclusion that the Bible begins with two radically different Creation-stories, they generally hesitated to deal with one potentially disruptive issue that is central to the entire narrative of Israel. In the first five books of the Holy Scripture, they found an idealized picture of an ethnic group chosen by their God Yahweh to be his special people – a picture that included their enslavement in Egypt, Moses’ role in receiving the Ten Commandments, and the conquest of the Promised Land. And despite doubts about the historicity of individual elements of the account, the broad outline of this series of events remained unchallenged. The situation changed, however, when research made it clear that the Biblical portrait of Israel before the establishment of a united kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon (that is, before 1000 BCE) was a theological invention of the priestly elite of the post-exilic era some five centuries later.

The combination of archaeological research and subtle textual observation has gained rapid and overwhelming acceptance for this paradigm shift. Scholars now agree that the earliest mention of Israel appears on the victory stela erected by Pharaoh Merenptah in 1208 BCE. The inscription on this column provides a powerful argument against the scripturally attested history because it identifies Israel as a group already living in Palestine at or before the time of Moses, and thus contradicts the Old Testament picture of an Israel made up of a united twelve tribes who fled Egypt and began a protracted invasion of Canaan at about this time. Moreover, despite an abundance of Egyptian documents going back to the 14th century BCE – when according to the biblical account Israel’s sojourn in that country began – we find not a single reference to Israel’s presence in or subsequent flight from Egypt, nor to Moses, who according to the Bible had important dealings with the royalty dynasty of the Pharaoh. All this obliges us to consider it likely that the Israelites originally were and long remained a sub-group among the Canaanites.

According to earlier research, worship of Yahweh had always been associated with the First Commandment, which noted the existence of other gods but ordered exclusive loyalty to the one divinity. Consensus reigned that neither Yahweh’s claim of exclusivity nor the assertion (implicit in what followed from the First Commandment) that other gods must not be worshipped stood at the beginning of the Yahwistic faith. Palestinian inscriptions during the eighth century BCE attest to a tolerant Yahweh-cult. Sources discovered only in the last decades mention numerous local Yahweh-gods and thus bespeak a poly-Yahwistic phenomenon. Furthermore, they name a divine couple – Yahweh and his spouse, Ashera. Thus an exclusive Yahweh-cult after the Mosaic pattern appears to have been foreign to the Biblical Israel and Judah of this time. Only after the fall of Judah in 587 BCE, it now seems, did resourceful theological minds formulate the First Commandment in the course of interpreting Israel’s history. In view of the oft-repeated biblical warning that Israel would suffer repeated ills as long as its people worshipped any other gods than Yahweh, one can reasonably conclude that the Biblical tradition represents the literature of a minority who in the end had prevailed.

Ultimately all this presents a problem for all three “Abrahamitic” religions. The Church, regarding herself as the New Israel, has always taken the Old Testament myth of Yahweh’s election and concern for Israel as a firmly established constituent of the Salvation history that culminates in Jesus Christ. But if the historical framework of the Old Testament is essentially fictitious, and both the biblical Israel and its exclusive God are theological constructs of exilic (beginning 587 BCE) or post-exilic (starting after 538 BCE) Judaism, then reading the Old Testament as the pre-history of Jesus and Muhammad becomes a whimsical affectation. And when these foundational assumptions dissolve into the mist, so do the resurrection of Christ and the divine calling of the Prophet, for the central tenets of Christianity and Islam are then seen to rest on a repudiated theology. Recognizing that the supreme and exclusive deity of the Hebrew Bible, which is to all intents and purposes the fictive creation of a cultic clergy who lived more than eight hundred years after the time of Moses, gravely and equally undermines the mythic foundations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The present essay is based on his Altes Testament und christliche Kirche: Versuch der Aufklärung, Springe: zu Klampen, 2006. He thanks Martha Cunningham for work on an earlier draft and Tom Hall for editing the manuscript.