RELIGION 100: Old Testament-Hebrew Bible

June 1, 2004
relief sculpture on campus

When it comes to the "Word of God," is a typo really a typo? According to Melvin Peters, a religion professor who, for twenty years, has taught Religion 100, "What you find when you examine the Old Testament challenges the first assumption of the faithful: that a single, immutable, flawless source produced this material." If the Old Testament is the most influential body of literature in Western civilization, it is also perhaps the most widely misunderstood, "viewed not as artifact, but as the foundational document explaining human existence," says Peters. "It is a very 'dangerous' text. It makes claims and gives directions. I want my students to have a sense of its power in our culture, and I invite them to commit to it in an informed sort of way."

Peters acknowledges that what he does--examining cases of textual variety, demonstrating the implausibility of events, identifying mistranslation in the Bible--is, in essence, disruptive. "If you believe, 'This is the word of a particular god,' then that word cannot be contradictory. It can't come in versions." But from a scholarly point of view, he says, the contradictions can be very exciting, too. "It means that real humans were at work here."

A divine author, Peters argues, would not, for instance, be so repetitive as to tell the story of David and Goliath three separate times or so inconsistent as to vary the telling. When recounting Moses' parting of the Red Sea, He or She would have known that it wasn't the Red Sea at all, but, as first written in Hebrew, the "Sea of Reeds.'" He or She, as the book says, created it, and, of all beings, wouldn't need a map to know that the Red Sea is a huge detour for anyone trying to get to Israel from the delta region of Egypt in one night. "Quite apart from the name, it is just a matter of simple geography," says Peters.

While his students bring to the classroom their own diverse religious persuasions, Peters asks that private and unverifiable sentiments be left at the door. "We are not interested in beliefs in this course." Still, discussions do tend to heat up. "And I have to say, 'Wait! Don't shoot me! I'm only the piano player. I give you the facts. What you do with them is clearly up to you."

Ironically, in examining the Old Testament so closely, Peters wants to "get past the material entirely. You don't take the notion of monotheism seriously unless you recognize what follows from the claim, 'There is no god but my god.' Whether it's from the mouth of a Muslim or a Jew or Christian, some form of that is taken very seriously. In the interest of the survival of the planet, we need to lift our eyes above confessionalism and have a different kind of conversation about our shared humanity."

Readings

Crisis and Story: Introduction to the Old Testament by W. Lee Humphreys

Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, edited by Hershel Shanks

The Bible: Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha

Requirements

Class attendance with an open mind

Assignments

One research report

Announced quizzes on assigned portions of the Old Testament

One midterm exam and one final exam

Professor

Melvin K.H. Peters was born in Antigua and attended college in Canada, earning a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. He speaks in buoyant Caribbean tones. Although reared as Seventh Day Adventist, he is wary of labels and says that religious commitments as he has known them tend to mitigate against a lifelong goal. "I would like my life to communicate to anyone who engages me that I'm here to try to do a little to foster the survival of the planet. I think people are awfully important. And I think that what often happens is that people get marginalized in the service of some larger, intangible power."