The Bible — Another Saga
In The Bible — Not a Book of Science, and NOT a Book of History (June, 2020), I hypothesized that the Bible venerated by Christians everywhere is definitely a saga. That is, you cannot obtain dependable science from the Bible, nor can you obtain verifiable history from it. To test this hypothesis, I decided to read what is widely considered a literary and cultural saga, The Icelandic Sagas, to compare with the texts of the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is a “book report,” if you please, of the results of that comparison.
My “saga source” was the two-volume set The Icelandic Sagas, Vol. I (753 pages) and Vol. II (683 pages), (1999 and 2002, respectively), compiled by Magnus Magnusson and published by The Folio Society, London. Together the two volumes present 22 (out of 40) of the extant classic sagas preserved by Icelandic culture in writing — a faithful and consensual “re-telling” in print of the rich oral traditions handed down for centuries in Iceland. (Five of the 22 are called “The Big Five,” each a long epic covering years — Egil’s Saga, Laxdaela Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Njal’s Saga, and Grettir’s Saga.)
The oral traditions go back to the Viking history, culture, and traditions of Scandinavia and its “raiding and trading” lands of NW Europe influenced through invasion, conquest, settlement, or trade — a timeline covering roughly the 9th through the 12th century CE or A.D. It was Christianity, the conversion to which in Iceland began in 999-1000 CE, that brought literacy to Viking culture and thereby made possible the penning of the oral sagas in the 12th to the 14th century CE. Together, the The Icelandic Sagas paint a sweeping historical narrative of mostly natives of Norway emigrating to the island of Iceland fleeing autocracy, monarchy, and tyranny, in much the same manner that Northern European settlers fled their “mother country” over the centuries and settled eventually in the “West,” western North America north of the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande and west of the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. The perceptive reader might already anticipate that these two narratives resemble the narrative in the Old Testament of the children of Israel invading the “promised land” according to God’s covenant with Abraham, or of the story of the ancestral Aztecs struggling to the site where they established Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), led by their god Huitzilopochtli (See The Bible — Not a Book of Science, and NOT a Book of History (June, 2020)). However, the establishment of Iceland was secular, like the “winning’ of the American West, not theological, like the ancient Hebrews’ and the Aztecs’ establishments of their “domains.”
Sagas have no necessary sectarian or secular guidelines. They are simply oral or written “prose narratives,” stories to which the audience or reader relates through common historical tradition. As Magnusson says on page ix of the Introduction to Vol. II, “…it (a saga) is a comprehensive term which encompasses history, story, biography, and legend.” (parentheses mine) Sagas, therefore, are neither history nor fantasy; in other words, sagas are very much like historical novels. As such they are, in Magnusson’s words “…not always consistent in their own internal chronology.” (page xiv, Author’s Note in Vol. II).
The Bible, it turns out, is a two- or three-volume historical novel (Old Testament and New Testament or Old Testament, Apocrypha, and New Testament) similar to the two-volume historical novel The Icelandic Sagas. This, despite the fact the Nordic sagas were written hundreds of years after the biblical texts.
Consider the unmistakable mark of sagas, the listing of linages of the protagonists of the stories. From the Bible in Genesis 22:20-24 (KJV) “And it came to pass after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying, Behold, Milcah, she hath also borne children unto thy brother Nahor; Huz his firstborn, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram, And Chesed, and Hazo, and Pildash, and Jidlaph, and Bethuel. And Bethuel begat Rebekah; these eight Milcah did bear to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, she bare also Tebah, and Gaham, and Thahash, and Maachah.” From I Chronicles 7:6-8 (KJV) “The sons of Benjamin; Bela, and Beher, and Jediael, three. And the sons of Bela; Ezbon, and Uzzi, and Uzziel, and Jerimoth, and Iri, five; heads of the house of their fathers, mighty men of valor; and were reckoned by their genealogies twenty and two thousand and thirty and four. And the sons of Becher; Zemira, and Joash, and Eliezer, and Elioenai, and Omri, and Jerimoth, and Abiah, and Anathoth, and Alameth. All these are the sons of Becher.”
None of the Biblical genealogies are more well known than the two contradictory genealogies of Jesus in the New Testament, Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 (both KJV). Yet they read like traditional saga genealogies:
From Matthew, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son on Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon; And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; and Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias; And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa; And Asa begat Josaphat and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias; And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias; And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias; And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon: And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel; And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.”
From Luke, “And Jesus himself began to about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son Joseph, which was the son of Heli, Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph, Which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Amos, which was the son of Naum, which was the son of Esli, which was the son of Nagge, Which was the son of Maath, which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Samei, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Juda, Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zorobabel, which was the son of Salathiel, which was the son of Neri, Which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Addi, which was the son of Cosam, which was the son of Elmodam, which was the son of Er, Which was the son of Jose, which was the son of Eliezer, which was the son of Jorim, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, Which was the son of Simeon, which was the son of Juda, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Jonan, which was the son of Eliakim, Which was the son of Melea, which was the son of Menan, which was the son of Mattatha, which was the son of Nathan, which was the son of David, Which was the son of Jesse, which was the son of Obed, which was the son of Booz, which was the son of Salmon, which was the son of Naasson, which was the son of Aminadab, which was the son of Aram, which was the son of Esrom, which was the son of Phares, which was the son of Juda, which was the son of Jacob, which was the son of Isaac, which was the son of Abraham, which was the son of Thara, which was the son of Nachor, Which was the son of Saruch, which was the son of Ragau, which was the son of Phalec, which was the son of Heber, which was the son of Sala, Which was the son of Cainan, which was the son of Arphaxad, which was the son of Sem, which was the son of Noe, which was the son of Lamech, Which was the son of Mathusala, which was the son of Enoch, which was the son of Jared, which was the son of Maleleel, which was the son of Cainan, Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.”
Compare these biblical passages with Chapter 105, p 644 from Njal’s Saga in Vol. I: “There was a man named Thorgeir, who lived at Ljosavatn; he was the son of Tjorvi, the son of Thorkel Langi (the Long). His mother was Thorunn, the daughter of Thorstein, the son of Sigmund, the son of Gnupa-Barth. Thorgeir’s wife was named Guthrith; she was the daughter of Thorkel Svarti (the Black) from Hleithrargarth; his brother was Orm Toskubak (Trunk-Back), the father of Hlenni Gamli (the Old) from Saurbaer; Thorkel and Orm were the sons of Thorir Snepill (Snippet), the son of Ketil Brimill (Seal), the son of Ornolf, the son of Bjornolf, the son of Grim Lothinkinni (Hairy Cheeks), the son of Ketil Haeng (Trout), the son of Hallbjorn Halftroll (Half-Troll) from Ramstad.” (Note all the given names built from the name of the god Thor.)
Or compare the biblical genealogies with Chapter 1, pp 107-108 from Laxdaela’s Saga in Vol. II: “There was a man named Ketill Flatnefr (Flat-Nose), who was the son of Bjorn buna…….Ketill flatnefr was married to Yngvildur, the daughter of Ketill vethr (Wether), a fine man. They had five children. Their sons were Bjorn austroeni (the Easterner) and Helgi bjolan. One daughter was named Thorunn hyrna; she was married to Helgi magri (the Lean), the son of Eyvindur austmathr (the Norwegian) and of Rafarta, the daughter of Kjarval, king of the Irish. Ketill flatnefr’s second was Unnur djuputhga (the Deep-Minded), she was married to Olafur hviti (the White), the son of Ingjaldur, the son of Frothi froekni (the Valiant), who was killed by the Svertlingar. Ketill’s third daughter was named Jorunn manvitsbrekka (Wisdom-Slope); she was the mother of Ketill fiskni (the Fish-Lucky), the first settler at Kirkjubaer; his son was Asbjorn, the father of Thorsteinn, the father of Surtur, the father of Sighvatur logsogumathr (Law Speaker).”
I suppose one could argue that the latter sagas, The Icelandic Sagas, on the basis of recording genealogies, wanted to emulate the Bible, given the Bible’s prestige of being not only the Word of God, but, also, a reliable source of history at the time The Icelandic Sagas were written some 1,200 years after the writings of the Bible; to those of the Viking tradition, that tradition deserved no less than the prestige of Scripture. But that logic boosts my intention of showing both sources are sagas; to emulate a saga would seemingly form another saga. However, that approach assumes from the beginning what I’m trying to show: the Bible is a saga. Actually, I’m arguing from The Icelandic Sagas back to the Bible, trying to show that the earlier work has the definitive characteristics of a literary source directly recognized as a saga, even over the span of 12 centuries or so.
In addition to the genealogical listings, one needs to look at the content of both. Vol. I and Vol. II display a sociological description of Viking culture — a sweeping revelation of the mores, passions, traditions, beliefs, institutions, tools, vocations, etiquettes, adventures, interpersonal relationships, explorations, economy, concepts of wealth, and agriculture across centuries of time. Similarly, the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament display a sociological description of Hebrew or Jewish culture across centuries of time. The migration, in forms of both settlement and invasion, from Scandinavia to Iceland and beyond reflect the migration of the children of Israel into the “promised land.” The executive powers of both peoples were embodied in monarchies that evolved from earlier, autonomous, tribal groups (from earls to kings for the Vikings, judges to kings for the Hebrews). Judicial power was embodied in the regional gathering of the Althing for the Vikings, in the central gatherings around Jerusalem and the Temple for the Jews. “Soap opera” dramas involving the sexual bonds between men and women, such as love triangles and manipulation of men by wily women (I won’t give names from the Viking sagas, as I assume few have read them, but I will assure the reader that analogies with Biblical stories like the triangle of David, Bathsheba, and Urias and the vamp-ish antics of Delilah with Sampson exist in The Icelandic Sagas. Readers of the Bible will recognize subjects like arranged marriages, wedding feasts, the herding of sheep, bullies like Goliath, sorcery, demon possession, ghosts, curses, gods in charge of stormy weather, oaths, testimony, animal sacrifices, destruction of settlements, jealousy, and plotting in Vol. I and Vol. II. Biblical readers will feel “right at home” reading in the Viking sagas fable-like lessons of altruistic behavior, regrettable behavior, or unethical behavior such as loyal friendships, true love, revenge, naivete, confidence, cowardice, awe, fraud, and existential questions of our existence.
What the Biblical reader will find as unfamiliar in the Viking sagas is life shutting down every year during the long, cold winter, ship building and buying, a sea-faring international economy, a domestic economy built upon raising livestock, Viking raids as “normal” and expected, berserkers, seemingly perpetual family blood feuds and personal vendettas, declaring social pariahs outlaws, emphasis upon weaponry like swords, knives, shields, halberds, blood-axes, and spears, horse-fighting (like dog and cock fighting elsewhere), the flencing (butchering) of beached whales, formalized social ale drinking, foster-parenting among family and friends, and both pagan and Christian priests who also have to be warriors. Most of all, the Biblical reader will find The Icelandic Sagas as secular compared to Semitic Scripture. Whereas the Bible is a theological or sectarian story told around the relationship of a people to Yahweh, the Viking saga is a secular story told of the relationship of a people with a culture in which the gods play (and, after the conversion to Icelandic Christianity in 999-1000 CE) or God plays a minor or peripheral role at best; stories change not because of divine intervention or ignoring the divine, as in the Bible, but, rather, because of individual foibles and decisions of saga characters, both protagonists and antagonists..
As shown in The Bible — Not a Book of Science, and NOT a Book of History (June, 2020) the Bible emerges as a saga by putting the two Testaments of the Bible in their historical context, something usually not done by Bible readers. When in its historical context, the ahistorical aspects of the Bible “stick out like sore thumbs.” In addition to the consensus, archeologically-based sources cited in The Bible — Not a Book of Science, and NOT a Book of History (June, 2020), I was able to cite Josephus’ Life of Herod (which includes an Appendix Herod and the Kingdom of Judaea, by Menahem Stern), 1998 & 1974, The Folio Society, London to help historically contextualize the Apocrypha and reveal its historical deficiencies. Similarly, I was able to use the The Vikings, by Gwyn Jones, 1984, Oxford University Press, a consensus, archeologically-based history of the Vikings (which, incidentally, contains an Introduction by Magnus Magnusson, the compiler of The Icelandic Sagas), as well as the historical commentary in both the Introductions and the Prefaces of the longer sagas by Magnusson, to call my attention to the ahistorical aspects of Vol. I and Vol. II. Magnusson goes out of his way to point out inconsistencies among the sagas themselves, along with facts and events espoused within the sagas that have no historical basis. (Not to mention the historical fantasies made up by the History Channel TV Series “Vikings” that “fly in the face” of the historically documented The Vikings.) One example from each saga — from the Bible and from The Icelandic Sagas: King Herod never called for the slaughter of the innocents, and King Harald (Fine-Hair) Halfdanarson of Norway did not die in battle in England.
Using a succinct, broad-brush, summary, then — Just as the Bible is a sweeping presentation of moralistic and teleological stories of heroes and villains like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Sampson, David, Goliath, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, Satan, Judas Maccabaeus, Jesus, Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Pilot, The Icelandic Sagas are a sweeping presentation of moralistic and teleological stories of heroes and villains like Egil, Njal, Grettir, Harald Fine-Hair, Gisli, Snorri gothi, Guthrun, and Thorgeirr. The main contrast between the two is that the Bible concerns itself with the protagonists’ relationships with a deity, and The Icelandic Sagas concern themselves with the protagonists’ relationships with Nordic culture. Otherwise, in my opinion, they compare very favorably, right down to the poetry they both employ — the Psalms of the Bible and the poems uttered by warrior poets in Vol. I and Vol. II.
My belief in Christianity being rooted in reliable, verifiable history made it easy for me to put the Bible to the “history test” and restoring the Bible into its historical context. I can see why most church-going Bible readers would never do as I regarding the Scriptures. Most church-going Bible readers I know have never read all the Bible, never studied it critically, and never read a lot of the history that objectively describes the historical context of the Bible (e.g. the works cited in The Bible — Not a Book of Science, and NOT a Book of History (June, 2020) and Life of Herod) because most don’t read a lot of non-biblical history nor do they have time to read a lot, as I do in my retirement; and if they do read a lot, many read mostly fiction, in my experience.
Also, most Biblical readers would require more evidence than I have cited to resort to calling the Bible a saga, a historical novel. But what I have listed above is plenty evidence for me, I having held the Bible in scrutiny for many years. (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015], At Last, A Probable Jesus, [August, 2015], and Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015]) Reading The Icelandic Sagas confirmed my suspicions as I guessed they would.
I would suspect most Biblical readers, and certainly Biblical believers in it as the Word of God, would be reluctant to call any other saga story set, like the Nordic sagas, as anything comparable to the Bible. But if one strips the Bible of its religious teleology and if one strips The Icelandic Sagas of their cultural purpose of preserving the Viking heritage of Norwegians and their Scandinavian neighbors, in my opinion what you have left are two “birds of a feather.” I am no literary expert, but it seems what are left are two pieces of literature of the same genre; what you have left are two historical novels.
If a person believes the Bible is the Word of God, would that person be OK with the Word of God being a saga, a historical novel? At first, given their epistemological problem all religious believers have of not being able to show their religion is truer than any other religion (God — The Ultimate Meme, or The Problem of God, [August, 2019]), one might think a believer in the Bible as the Word of God would not be OK with the assertion that God’s Word is a saga. However, consider the teachings of Jesus (Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015]). Do the main players in the Parables have to be historical? Did the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son have to have actually existed? Personally, I don’t think so; the moral lessons of the parables are the message, not that something described is historically accurate. Fables such as Aesop’s reinforce this notion; the moral lessons of the fables don’t even have to be conveyed by human beings — talking animals do the job nicely! The lessons of the fables and the Parables do not have to be historically based; they are ethical norms and exemplary behaviors conveyed without need of science or history. In my opinion, theology needs the justification of science and history, if it is believed. But theology is bankrupt in its believability (God — The Ultimate Meme, or The Problem of God, [August, 2019]), which is why, in the case of Christianity, ethics needs to be separated from theology, and the latter discarded (Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015]).
So, if a believer in some “Word” needs something written down to believe in, then why not a “Word of Ethics” or “Word of Behavior,” which would be based on some form of the Golden Rule, or the Principle of Reciprocity? (Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015]) Because of its toxic theological epistemology, we cannot have any confidence in any literature labeled, like the the Bible, as the Word of God. Thus, we cannot also venerate other theological-themed resources as “Words of God,” such as the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, the Vedas, the Avesta, and the Mahayana Buddhist texts (The Bible — Not a Book of Science, and NOT a Book of History (June, 2020).