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Biblical History and Archaeology


The book of Genesis speaks extremely briefly about the initial period of the life of humanity. After the story of Cain and Abel, the period before the flood is limited almost to a genealogy, to names alone. Calculating the number of years the antediluvial patriarchs lived, we count a span of approximately 1600 years.

Thus, the history of many centuries occupies only a single chapter the fourth of Genesis. Hence we see how Moses protects his account from arbitrary, popular, or mythological tales. As a source for his genealogies, Moses undoubtedly had very ancient and, of course, very brief lists, whose place of origin was Mesopotamia. From the beginning of its existence, mankind preserved its history as the apple of its eye. Families preserved the memory of their ancestors. But the whole history could express itself only in one thing, in the recording of names and length of life. In contemporary excavations in Mesopotamia, cuneiform fragments are being discovered which go back to the third millennium before Jesus Christ, which means several hundred years before Abraham. In addition to these records, antiquity tried to preserve from generation to generation the memory of its greatest ancestors, the heads of families, and built tombs and similar monuments in their memory. After a detailed account of the flood, the book of Genesis again returns to its genealogical history, again embracing almost two thousand years, and again it is just as laconic. It just as strictly follows data from sources unknown to us in enumerating the heads of generations until Abraham. These records are interrupted by two accounts: that of the flood and Noah and his sons, and that of the building of the tower of Babel and the dispersion of the nations.

If Moses paused to give details of the event of the flood, then obviously he had grounds for it. The principal basis was a direct tradition about the flood among the Hebrew people of that time. They took the account into Egypt and preserved it amongst themselves, while in the monuments of the ancient Egyptians it has not been preserved; evidently they had lost it. Then it comes to light with a mythological coloring in Mesopotamian (Sumerian, not Hebrew) written monuments (from the library of Assurbanipal). This concord about the basic fact clearly demonstrates that the memory of this event was still alive in Mesopotamia. Taking into account the spirit of the language of antiquity, we can assert that Moses uses the expressions in the text of the Bible "all the earth," "all types of animals," in the sense in which they were customarily then understood, at the time when the concept of "the world" was limited to the region in which one lived, when that which was before one's eyes was taken to be everything. We can, therefore, take the words "all," "everyone" in a relative sense. Even in the time of the Roman Empire and early Christianity, the word "universe" referred to that part of the earth's surface which had been explored and was known to the ancients. However, this is only one of many possible explanations regarding the question of the flood .

Moses' account of the flood is subject to three basic tenets, which, in general, are expounded throughout the whole Bible: a) that the world is subject to God's will, b) that national disasters are a chastisement for man's impiety, and c) that one tribe (and subsequently nation) was chosen to preserve the true faith.

The account of the original unity of language, of the building of the tower of Babel and the dispersal of peoples is another detail amid the short scheme of genealogies. The existence of the tower of Babel is confirmed by contemporary archaeology!

When it reaches the time of Abraham, the book of Genesis begins a continuous historical account. From this point, the history of the Hebrew people begins. It continues to the end of Genesis, then into the other four books of the Pentateuch, and then into the cycle of the historical books of the Old Testament, and in part, into the books of the prophets. It then proceeds without interruption, until, at the end, it draws near New Testament times.

Archaeology provides rich material parallel to the biblical history which begins in Abraham's time. A few decades ago, liberal biblical criticism formulated a theory that the book of Genesis constitutes a collection of pious legends. Now however, archaeological science takes Genesis under serious consideration as one discovery after another confirms the biblical accounts. They prove the great antiquity of names and customs referred to by Moses, like the names of Abraham himself (Abram-ram) and Jacob (Iakov-EI), which are encountered as personal names in ancient Mesopotamia. There is a connection between the names of Abraham's ancestors and relatives and the names of towns, since towns were named after their founders. These names, in turn, passed from the towns to the people who came from them. Thus, in the names of towns, the following names have been found: Tharrha (Abraham's father), Seruch (Tharrha's uncle), Phaleg (one of their ancestors), Nachor, Arrhan (Abraham's brothers Charrhan was the region of Mesopotamia from which they came). In observing the morals and customs of that time, the so-called "tables of Nusa," which were found in Mesopotamia, throw some light on such facts as Abraham's intention to adopt his "home-born servant" Eliezer before Isaac was born, Esau's sale of his birthright, the Patriarch's blessings before death, and the story of the Teraphim (the idols which Rachel brought from the house of her father Laban) (Wright, op. cit., p. 41-3).

Of course, later periods give more archaeological material. If there are difficulties in making some details agree, this is natural. The title of one book in German on this subject, In Spite of All, the Bible Is Still True, expresses our general conclusion, as does the remark of one of the American biblical archaeologists: "There is no doubt now that archaeology confirms the essentially historical nature of the Old Testament tradition" (Albright, p. 176).

The historical books of the Old Testament, like the Pentateuch of Moses, propound the concept of the causal relationship between the people's piety and the people's prosperity. In other words, they show that national disasters are always brought on by apostasy from the faith and moral decline. Therefore, the sacred history of the Old Testament remains very instructive for everyone, even in the Christian era. In her services, the Church indicates many events from this history as examples for us. In the series of historical books, there are some in which the national Hebraic element places the purely religious element in the background, such as the books of Esther and Judith. The Church does not use these books in the services, although, of course, they still remain edifying for us. Thus, the historical material of the Old Testament is no longer important of itself for us, for old things are passed away (2 Cor. 5:17), but its importance lies in its edifying content.

In their historical accounts, the prophet Moses and the sacred writers who follow after him speak of many manifestations of God's power, of miraculous phenomena. But rarely do they make use of the term "miracle" or "wonder" (although in the Psalter we encounter it frequently). They instill in us the idea that the whole of history takes place before God's eyes, and that everything consists of events which only seem to be divided into usual and unusual events, into the natural and the miraculous. For the believing soul, openly miraculous events are only an opening in the veil, behind which the interrupted miracle of God's Providence continues and the writ of each man's course is recorded without omission.

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