This isn’t a book review in the traditional sense, because my concern when reading isn’t to uncover if the book is good or bad. My goal is simply to take what’s valuable and applicable from the book and extract it into my life.

Book #3: The Cities That Built the Bible by Robert Cargill

When we’re born we have zero context to the world that surrounds us. We don’t know about history, science, or religion. We don’t know what is true, what is false, or what is opinion. We don’t know…anything.

Over the next decade or two of our lives this changes. We absorb the constructs of the adults that surround us. They teach us what to believe, what not to believe, and hand us the paradigms that we are supposed to view the world through. This is how belief systems have been passed down for all of human history. We’re born. We observe. We listen. We ask questions. We’re told answers. And this becomes our “truth” because we don’t know any better or different.

For most of us, at some point in our lives, we become aware of this fact and connect the dots that every person on earth is shaped like this, so clearly it can’t all be true. And if we dig a little deeper we realize that it might be our own beliefs that are incorrect.

And if we have the courage to dig even deeper, we begin to investigate our own beliefs.

I think this is one of the most important things we can do as we grow into adulthood. It’s important because it’s scary. It’s scary to think that what we’ve believed for all of our lives may be wrong. And this isn’t just referencing religion. It’s true for everything – our beliefs about ourselves, about the opposite sex, about different races, religions, countries, and stereotypes.

If we don’t ever prod our own beliefs, how will we ever know we truly believe them?

Which brings me to my third book of the year, The Cities That Built the Bible.

Religion is one of my favorite things to study. It’s shaped our societies perhaps more than anything else in history, and it impacts nearly everyone on the planet in some form or fashion.

So to me it’s one of the most worthy things I could spend my time learning about. I love asking the hard questions.

Where did these beliefs come from?

Who were the people involved?

What is the proof?

Why did it start?

What does this thing or that thing actually mean?

The Cities That Built the Bible is a fascinating dive into the exact thing the title describes. It’s written by a professor and archaeologist, and he takes an interesting perspective on investigation. He’s looking at the books of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament by examining the histories of the people and places within them. He naturally takes an archaeologist’s slant on the topic by looking at the evidence of these histories and people.

Two of the more interesting things I learned from the book:

Origin of Heaven and Hell

The concept of heaven and hell was nowhere to be found in the texts of the ancient Jews. The oldest texts that we have, both within the Jewish Bible and outside of it, make no mention of the afterlife, heaven, or hell. In fact, there’s many texts that simply talk about us going back to the dust that we came from.

Heaven and hell as actual concepts of what happens after we die didn’t start appearing in Jewish texts until Jews were under Greek rule – thousands and thousands of years into the history of the Jews. The author’s belief, which is a logical jump, is that the Jews adopted the concept of heaven and hell from Greek mythology, since that was the culture and belief system surrounding them.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Many religious people believe that the Bible (both the Jewish Bible and the New Testament) are without error. They believe that the text is perfect, without mistakes, and that everything is to be taken literally. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest known copies of the Hebrew Bible, and when they were discovered they threw a wrench in the concept of an inerrant text. There were countless discrepancies from these earliest versions compared to later versions of the Hebrew Bible written hundreds or thousands of years later. One simple example is the height of Goliath in the classic David and Goliath story. In the later versions of the Bible Goliath was over 9 feet tall (!!!), but the Dead Sea Scrolls described a much more reasonable 6 feet 9 inches, showing that the text of the story had changed over the years.

This study of inconsistencies in ancient texts is known as “redaction criticism,” which the author defines as “the science of identifying changes to copied and translated texts and then attempting to identify a reason for these changes.”

And this, to me, is something I wish more people had an open mind about. We’re dealing with religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) that are thousands of years old, and their histories were passed down through stories, oftentimes hundreds of years after the events they purport to describe. To think that these texts would be inerrant is unreasonable.

The book can be a bit dense at times because he uses countless names and words that are difficult to read and say if you don’t speak Hebrew. But if you’re a nerd about religion, and you can push through the difficult language, you will love this book. The author leaves his own beliefs out of the text (I still couldn’t tell you what he believes), and simply presents the information, history, and data through his lens of archaeology.

What you do with that information while investigating your own beliefs is up to you!

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