Tag Archives: Shaye Cohen

iTunes U Course – The Hebrew Bible

A Harvard University Course by Shaye J. D. Cohen

Much like my last post on Dale Martins course on the New Testament, this is a course that I got into because of my interest in ancient scriptures and while it would make sense to post these in reverse order however, this is the version I listened to them in.

Shaye J. D. Cohen is a professor in the Hebrew Scriptures at Harvard University. Like mentioned in my last post, I do have a fairly good understanding, at least in introductory understanding, (better than most gentiles) of the Hebrew texts. I took a few courses on them, but again these were years ago and in high school setting. Therefore, I was intrigued to listen to a historical criticism of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is worth note the complexity of these documents. While that is not to say that there isn’t in the New Testament, the scope and scale of time is important here. Like Martin, Cohen makes an effort to start the course with some basics including maps and a timeline chronology.

As a Gentile growing up, I learned that the Scriptures of the Old Testament are divided into four parts the Torah, the historical books, the wisdom books, and the prophetic books. Cohen does a good job at the beginning of describing the differences between the Protestant books and Catholic books, and then comparing these the Jewish books. Even going into why the Catholics have seven more books in the Old Testament then either Jews or Protestants. (For those interested, this has to do with what language the books were originally written. If the book was originally written in Greek, despite the importance to the Jewish faith, it is not included in the Hebrew Scriptures, but often kept alive in the rabbinic tradition of people named Cohen (Coen) and the Levites. This means that the Catholics have the Song of Songs and the books about the Maccabean revolt (ie The story of Chanukah) while the Protestant and Jewish scriptures to not do not).

However, Cohen plays devil’s advocate much more. He admits that oftentimes we just don’t know certain things. Now, he does this playfully. What this means is that he looks at say rules in numbers, talks about the fact that the 10 Commandments in Exodus is different than the one that shows up later in Deuteronomy, or that certain kosher laws are explained, but then not really explained. He talks about parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that he finds uncomfortable like God’s demand that the Israelites commit genocide on the Canaanites. That being said, he explains this in an interesting way (that the Israelites were most likely Canaanites themselves), but not in a way that is in the text, more of a way that we understand thanks to archaeology. This course does an excellent job of explaining the history of the text and why it is different than the interpretation of the text. Additionally, he makes the arguments about where Judaism actually comes from. Which is very tricky.

Ultimately, this is an interesting piece because it allows for a new kind of interpretation, while introducing for example the documentary method which is so well understood. In fact my New American Bible, the standard Catholic of edition, includes Joshua, Ruth, Samuel and the histories, because they’re all clearly written by the deuterocanonical author. It is an impressive course and one that should be enjoyed by people interested in the text. It goes much further than the traditional easy criticisms like contradictions in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. I think, unlike Martin, this course ebbs and flows. Overall the course is excellent, and the last lecture specially is incredibly well done, and would have none of the power if you had not listen to his other lectures.

Like last piece, I want to make it clear here that this is a lecture series on the historical interpretations of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). I’m not here trying to change your faith, I just think this is an interesting interpretation. Cohen even seems to struggle at times with parts of what historians are saying, but still makes sure to say it. Overall I think this is an excellent podcast, and I am doing additional research.