New DSR course examines different ways "The Bible" could have turned out

June 30, 2021 by Department for the Study of Religion Staff


John Marshall is a professor in the DSR and cross appointed to the Centre for Jewish Studies and the Department of Classics. His current academic interests are apocalyptic literature, colonialism and religion in the ancient world, early Jewish-Christian relations, and Jesus in historical perspective.

The DSR asked him about “RLG195H1 Alt-Bible: What Could Have Been?”, a course that professor Marshall is teaching this fall.


DSR: When you call it ‘Alt Bible’, is that short for ‘alternative Bible’ and what does that mean?

JM: Yes. What we have in the Bible looks like a nicely packaged item, but it's actually a finalized version of things that could have gone in many directions, and there are a lot more stories that people have told than those that we only read in the Bible. I think it's worthwhile for students to have a sense of how this, “the Bible”, came to be, and what alternatives there were.

DSR: Can you give examples of biblical stories that never made it into “the Bible”?

JM: One easy example is Noah's Ark, the story most people know is about animals boarding the boat two by two, there was the flood and no one avoids the flood. But why? Why was there a flood?

DSR: God was angry because people were being terrible to each other?

JM: Kind of, but what it actually says in Genesis is that the Sons of God saw that women were beautiful, and they took them as wives. These are not human men; these are angels coming down from heaven and creating a race of giants by mating with human women. And then it says God saw the wickedness of man was great and conceived the flood. So this whole story is elaborated in enormous detail in texts attributed to Enoch, who was a descendant of Adam. There's this giant back story of angels who crossed the border between heavenly beings and earthly beings through illegitimate sexual activity and this causes God to want to destroy the whole world. In the Bible, it’s reduced to a story of the flood because people are behaving badly.

DSR: Why would the powers that be, who are deciding what the canon is, decide that they don't want to include this fantastical story? It's a good story!

JM: There are three criteria that are helpful to think about what gets to be included in the version of the Bible that most Christians read: Wide usage, authoritative origins, and doctrinal fit. You want things that you can fit together into a coherent system. You may have to whack them with a hammer and bend them around to make it fit, but that’s what you do if your goal is to create a foundational collection that you can treat as if it's one text. The Bible is a collection of writings with almost 1000 years between its earliest and latest texts, and yet you see repeatedly how people use general phrases like “biblical values”, as if this group of texts assembled from a millennium speaks with a coherent voice. It doesn't, of course, but with enough aggressive interpretation people try to make it speak with one voice.

DSR: How did you come up with this course?

JM:  I like to know how things work in my life; I like to know how the plumbing in my house works. I like to know how the administration of my university works. And, somehow, my career has ended up being knowing how the foundational texts of Christianity and Judaism work.  I'm not qualified to teach plumbing or electrical.

DSR: What kind of student do you think will be interested in taking this course?

JM: I think there are a few profiles. One is someone who has been inside religion and wants a slightly different environment to discuss it. And then there are people who have no direct experience of Christian and Jewish texts in their lives, but they see that they're part of a culture where the Bible has had a lot of influence, and they might want to get a sense of what these things say and how they're made.

DSR: Can you imagine this being a challenging course for somebody who thinks of the Bible as created, and not written?

JM: You're alluding to the idea that God created the Bible, and that I am saying humans created the Bible, I think. Could it be challenging? Yes, it could be.  I think, however, that there are a lot of people who have grown up in religious environments that are interested in being a little more in control of the questions they can ask. They're not necessarily unhappy with what they've been given, but they want a more mature relationship to it through some knowledge that's been cultivated in an academic space.