Very interesting how what we call the Old Testament came into being. It’s somewhat shocking to learn that they were not written chronologically as it is listed. In some ways it almost takes away the inerrant nature of the bible, it certainly takes away it’s magic. That Genesis and Exodus were written later is certainly shocking, but something we should have suspected since many of the prophets make no mention of the early founders. It does force us to truly examine and study the texts involving actual critical thinking instead of simply accepting as face value. The bible is not a magic book that fell from heaven, it is an ancient text of man struggling with God.
Other cultures affected Jewish thinking in many significant ways. Assyrian and Babylon’s defeat of them forced much deep reflection the same way a life altering tragedy can force a person to seriously take a look at one’s life. Even the forced contact of different cultures influences thinking like only a certain person can draw out traits in another person, such as a person in need can awaken the hero in the mild mannered. Persian and Greek culture affected Jewish thought in a more beneficial way, people of other cultures can actually be good to Jews and maybe even convert. Greek culture especially introduced new ideas and concepts such as afterlife. It also helped to improve their theology so it wouldn’t embarrass them to the high minded Greeks.
Romans also had a significant influence both harmful and helpful similar to the other cultures. Their main new contribution is the rise of the synagogue. These cultural centers doubled as both a religious institution as well as a secular academic and cultural assembly.
In the second part of chapter 2 titled “The Exile and After”, MacCulloch writes about the impact the Babylonian exile had upon Jewish history and the formation of her ideas. Many scholars speculate that much of the stories in the Torah reflect the religious stories they encountered during the exile, such as their creation stories, epic stories like “The Gilgamesh Epic”, the flood, the ark, etc. It is interesting, as noted by the author, that Abram originates around the Babylonian area near the city of Ur. He writes about how “Jews still in Babylon picked up an interest in the long Babylonian tradition of observing and speculating on the stars and planets, and began contributing their own thoughts to the subject.” One can start seeing the connection this influence may have had with the Nativity narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke with the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi from the East.
However, what most intrigued me about this section was when MacCulloch writes about a possible origin and development of the character of Satan (or Hassatan) that originated in Babylonian thought. It originated through post-exilic Jews puzzling over how a loving God could have allowed the exile and most importantly the destruction of the Temple. The answer to get God off the hook was to create a supernatural being who was his chief adversary, Hassatan, or what we now know as Satan. These post-exilic writers “were influenced by other religious cultures which spoke of powerful demonic figures.” (I’m surprised he didn’t mention later Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism and their conception of Ahriman.) Of course, we know how impactful the image of Satan has influenced the Christian faith.
I personally haven’t delved too deeply into the theology of Satan, hell, demonology, spiritual warfare, etc. as some Christian denominations go in depth into. It’s interesting how much of our Christian understanding of these things were heavily influenced or derived from not only ancient near eastern (Babylonian and Persian) sources but also Greco-Roman influences (like mythologies of Hades and the underworld) as well as Egyptian sources (the Book of the Dead, the great serpent demon Apophasis, lakes of fire, judgment of the dead into the afterlife, resurrection, etc.). It shows that the Christian faith hasn’t arisen out of thin air but seems like it was “stitched together” over a long period of time. This doesn’t mean that a real evil being of Satan doesn’t exist, but I have my strong doubts.