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PROGRESSIVE REVELATION:

Three more paradigm shifts of
beliefs & practices within the Bible:

Transferability of sin, afterlife, status of women

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Overview:

The concept of progressive revelation in the Bible suggests that God gradually revealed truths as the Hebrews and Christians needed the information, at a rate that the people were capable of absorbing. This produced a number of paradigm shifts in people's beliefs and actions, in which old structures were replaced with new ones. Some are described briefly below.

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Are people to be punished for the sins of their parents and other ancestors:

Yes they are to be punished: In the Pentateuch, the first five books in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), there are numerous passages that describe how one generation was punished for the sins of their parents or ancestors: Probably the three best known examples are:

bulletGenesis 1: The first few chapters in the Book of Genesis describe what Christians have called the "fall of mankind" and the transmission of "original sin" from Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden to their children, grand-children and even down about 800 generations to the present day. Judaism, which was responsible for the preservation of Genesis for many centuries prior to the advent of Christianity share the same text but reject the concept of original sin.
bulletGenesis 6: This describes the flood of Noah. God was said to have been displeased with almost the entire human race and decided to commit the most serious genocide in history. Not only the adults responsible for God's anger were to be killed. So also were the youths, children, infants and newborns.
bulletExodus 20: One of the three versions of the Ten Commandments appears in Exodus 20:5, God is reported as saying that he will punish children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and perhaps even great-great-grandchildren of anyone who worships idols:

"Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them (idols), nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." 1

There are numerous other examples of this transmission of sin, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).

There is a lack of consensus about when the Pentateuch was written. Most conservative Christians believe that the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written by Moses circa 1450 BCE. Most liberal Christians believe that they were written by three Hebrew authors (or groups of authors) between 922 and 622 BCE. Either way, they were recorded before the ministry of Ezekiel who turned belief in the transferability of sin on its ear -- at least temporarily -- in the 6th century CE.

No they are not to be punished: Ezekiel was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah whose ministry lasted from about 593 to 570 BCE -- just before the time of the Babylonian captivity. He wrote that God told him that transferring sin from one generation to another is not longer valid. Instead, every person would be judged separately, according to his good and bad works:

bulletExekiel 18:1 to 9: states: "What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge? As I live, ... ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die. But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right, .... hath executed true judgment between man and man, Hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live."
bulletEzekiel 18:10 to 13: states: A man who "... is a robber, a shedder of blood, ... Hath oppressed the poor and needy, hath spoiled by violence, he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him."
bulletEzekiel 18:14 to 17: states: A man who sees "... all his father's sins which he hath done, and considereth, and doeth not such like, hath walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live."
bulletEzekiel 18:19 & 20:  states: "Yet say ye, Why? Doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." (Emphasis ours).

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Life after death:

Religious liberals and conservatives reached very different conclusions about how belief in the afterlife evolved during biblical times. For purposes of illustration, we will describe below only the liberal analysis. Their conclusions are based on a study of the Bible as a historical document, in the light of findings from archaeological studies. The conservative view is based on interpreting the Bible as inerrant text, inspired by God. It is covered elsewhere in this website.

bulletThe afterlife as described in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament): Hebrew beliefs about life after death gradually evolved as they incorporated Pagan concepts from two other religions: Zoroastrianism and the Greek Pagan religion:
bulletPrior to 623 BCE: The ancient Israelites had the same view of life after death as other Semitic peoples. Both good and  bad individuals went under the earth into Sheol when they died, where they led a type of shadowy, energy-less existence, separated from God. People, while they were alive, worshipped both their ancestors in the underworld and many Sky Gods in heaven.
bulletFrom 623 to 586 BCE: This covers the period from the introduction of monotheism to the Babylonian captivity. Belief in the gods of the underworld and ancestor worship ended. Polytheistic belief is abandoned. Jehovah alone is worshiped. The Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Bible -- was assembled from earlier writings during this interval. As in the previous interval, the dead are believed to lead a shadowy, totally isolated existence under the earth in Sheol, cut off from their relatives and from God.
bulletFrom 586 to 332 BCE: from the Babylonian captivity to the Greek invasion: Zoroastrian religious ideas are blended with the earlier Jewish beliefs about Sheol. The faithful dead are viewed as being resurrected, to live a second life in a cleansed Jerusalem for 500 years. Then, they die and are no more.
bulletDuring and after the Greek occupation: All the dead will be resurrected. They will be judged by God and sent either to an eternal reward or never-ending punishment.
bulletMore details about these four belief systems.
bulletThe afterlife as described in the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament): Various authors had different concepts about who would be saved and go to Heaven. They also disagreed on the fate of the unsaved.
bulletSt. Paul's writings; 48 to 65 CE: Those who believe in Jesus' resurrection will go to heaven. Non-believers are annihilated; they cease to exist after death.
bulletAnonymous authors of the Synoptic Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke: circa 70 to 90 CE: Those who do good deeds go to Heaven. Hell exists as a place of eternal torture without hope of mercy.
bulletAuthor of II Thessalonians: 75-90 CE: All the unsaved will be killed when Jesus returns.
bulletAuthor of Revelation: 93 CE?: Evil people are thrown into a lake of fire and annihilated. Some are eternally punished.
bulletAuthor(s) of Gospel of John: 100 CE?: Those who believe in Jesus' divinity will go to heaven. The unsaved will be annihilated.
bulletMore details about these five belief systems.

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The status of women.

During Biblical times, the status of women went through three phases:

bulletThroughout the Hebrew Scriptures: A few extraordinary women achieved a high status. However, the vast majority were considered little better than slaves:
bulletWomen were viewed as inferior to men. In Genesis, Adam is portrayed as ruling over Eve. The Hebrew term "marry" literally meant to "become the master of the woman." Female slaves could be raped by their male owners. A female owner -- like Sarah -- could assign her slave to be raped continually by the husband. Women were not eligible to be considered for the priesthood. A census included only males over the age of one month; women were not counted at all. A man's vow was binding; a woman's vow could be nullified by her father, if she was single, or by her husband, if she was married. During the Second Temple period, women were not allowed to testify in court trials. They could not go out in public, or talk to strangers. When outside of their homes, they were to be doubly veiled. "They had become second-class Jews, excluded from the worship and teaching of God, with status scarcely above that of slaves." 1
bulletWomen were viewed as an item of property: The Tenth Commandment forbids coveting any piece of property that the neighbor owns. This includes his house, wife, slaves, and animals. A father could sell his daughter into slavery. Unlike a male slave who regained his freedom after six years, she remained a slave forever. A man seducing a virgin woman was seen as a property offense against the owner of the woman -- her father.
bulletMore details.
bulletDuring Jesus ministry: He overthrew centuries of Jewish law and custom. He almost always treated women and men as equals. He violated numerous Old Testament regulations, which required gender inequality. He ignored ritual impurity laws by curing a woman who suffered from untreatable menstrual bleeding. He talked freely to women -- even foreign women. Jesus taught women -- a forbidden act. Of the ten or so followers of Jesus whose characters are developed in the Gospels, about half were women. The author of Luke and Acts told many pairs of parallel stories, in which one referred to a woman, the other to a man. He appeared first to women after his resurrection. "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary" receive the first apostolic commission of any human - to tell the good news of the  resurrection to the disciples. More details.
bulletAfter Jesus' execution: The Epistles give mixed messages concerning the status of women.
bulletSome passages continued Jesus' tradition of gender equality. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost was described as entering both men and women. Paul refers to various women as a disciple, a deaconess, co-worker or colleague, as "outstanding among the apostles," and as a co-leader of a house church. ocrt4In Galatians 3:28, Paul equates the status of men and women: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (NIV)
bulletOther passagesocrt4 promote female inferiority: The husband is to be considered head of his wife. Women were to wear head covering as a sign of inferiority. They were to remain silent in churches. Women are to submit to their husbands in everything. A woman must not teach. A woman must not have authority over a man. A woman is a "weaker vessel" in comparison to her husband.
bulletIn later centuries, tocrt4he church enforced this latter inferior role for women. It is only in the 20th century that significant changes have been adopted by many mainline and liberal denominations. Most conservative denominations still prohibit women from being ordained.
bulletMore details.

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Related essays on this web site:

bulletThree additional examples of progressive revelation, including:
bulletThe evolution of Satan.
bulletRitual sacrifice of animals.
bulletHoly days.
bulletTypes of sin, as defined by the Mosaic Code in the Hebrew Scriptures
bulletSatan: His early history: 300 BCE to 100 CE
bulletSatan: More recent history: 100 CE to now

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References:

  1. B.M. Metzger & M.D. Coogan, "The Oxford Companion to the Bible", Oxford University Press, New York, NY, (1993), P. 806 to 818.

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Copyright © 2003 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-DEC-24
Latest update: 2006-NOV-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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