2. On Biblical Literalism

Have you ever noticed that there has never been a massacre between atheists and agnostics. And no pantheist has ever gunned down a pandeist because of a theological dispute. That kind of behavior is reserved for people of religious passions, and especially those of the Abrahamic tradition: Christians, Muslims and Jews. Christians murder Muslims and Muslims murder Christians. Historically, just about everyone has murdered the Jews. Now, with the creation of the state of Israel, the Jews are finally returning fire. It’s not just the main branches of the Abrahamic faiths that murder each other; within the main branches there is more internecine warfare, with Catholics murdering Protestants and Protestants murdering Catholics, Sunnis murdering Shiites and Shiites murdering Sunnis. Non-believers, we don’t murder anyone. At least not for their lack of belief.

Depending on the day or the time of year or my mood, I could alternatively be described as an atheist, an agnostic, a pantheist, a pandeist, an antitheist, an apatheist, a nontheist, a freethinker, a secular humanist, or a scientific rationalist. But for the purposes of this essay, let’s just call me an atheist. I recognize that “believing” in the big bang is an answer that begs a question. What caused the big bang? All I know about God and the Universe is that, whatever they are, they are much too complex for my tiny brain to comprehend. That’s what I know about God and the Universe. And that’s about all.

If you have a personal relationship with God, this essay is not intended to sway you from that position. It would be silly if it were. I can’t even persuade my Republican friends that the overheated rhetoric of right-wing talk wing radio is not conducive to a national conversation on important policy issues. Not only don’t I want to dissuade you from your belief, but a part of me envies you and the comfort that it brings you. I just can’t join you there.

There are many people these days who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I’m not one of those people. It’s not that I don’t feel things, sometimes very deeply, or that don’t I don’t occasionally have a connection to the mystery, mostly when I’m in the full flight of improvisation. Personally, I have a lot of affection for Christmas and the meaning that it has for my family. I admire the ideals that Christ represents, or is alleged to represent. I respect the tradition of charity and social activism within Christianity and especially the Catholic Church. Some good works have been done in the name of Christ. And then, some really bad things have been done in His name. We can begin with the Crusades and the Edict of Expulsion and continue from there. The list of crimes that have been conducted in Jesus’ name are too numerous to recount.

Christianity is famously a proselytizing religion. The word itself literally derives from the Greek language and the efforts of early Christians to convert Jews to their new religion. It has it’s origins in the “Great Commission,” recorded in the final verses of the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus commanded his disciples to spread his teachings to all the nations of the world. Non-Christians may not realize how much our entire Western culture is permeated not only with Christian values, but also Christian iconography. If you don’t believe me, go ask a Jew.

The Problem with Constitutional and Biblical Literalism

What did the Founding Fathers think of net neutrality? If you know the answer to that one, you’re a lot smarter than I am. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Constitutional Literalism. At the time that the Constitution was ratified in 1788, we lived in a completely different world. For example, the Founding Fathers were not, on the whole, opposed to slavery. The notion that women should have the vote was preposterous. And the Internet was entirely inconceivable. The problem with taking an archaic document literally is that the context changes. We’ll never know what the Founding Fathers would have thought of net neutrality, nor does it really matter. In Constitutional interpretation of this sort, we have to derive the essence as best we can and apply it to the question at hand.

If Constitutional Literalism is difficult to negotiate, then Biblical Literalism is exponentially more problematic. With the Constitution, we at least know who wrote it, and it’s one document written in a language (English) that we can still understand. What about the Bible? The first problem we encounter is that there are different versions of the Bible. There is, for example, the Hebrew Bible, which consists of a different set of books from the several Christian Bibles. The first Christian Bible didn’t even appear until 331 AD, and it was a distillation of various authors writing in different languages, including Aramaic, Koine Greek, and ancient Hebrew. A Latin version was commissioned by Pope Damasus in 383 AD The first translation into English didn’t appear until 1535. There have been different translations of the Bible ever since.

The translations of the Bible, such as they are, have produced a document rife with a multitude of contradictions. In fact, Biblical contradictions are so numerous that there have been documents published with names like “1001 Biblical Contradictions.” It’s not necessary to list them here. Biblical contradictions are like shooting fish in a barrel; they’re so plentiful and in many cases so obvious that it’s not even sporting.

The Old Testament begins with five books — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy — that make up the Torah. This is the story of Israel from the creation narrative to the death of Moses; these books apparently reached their present form in the “Persian period” of 538-332 BC, and were authored by a multitude of writers who had the political control of the Temple at that time. The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings followed, forming a history of Israel from the Conquest of Canaan to the Siege of Jerusalem, and were probably authored during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC; the two Books of Chronicles probably date from the 4th century BC; the books of the various prophets were mostly written between the 8th and 6th centuries BC; and the “wisdom books” date from between the 5th century BC and the 2nd century BC. The authors of all of these books are unknown and multiple, and it’s clear that most of these books have been edited, if not just rewritten, to serve various political objectives.The process by which scriptures became canons is equally complicated, and need not detain us here. All the books were translated into Latin at the time of the publication of the first “coherent” Bible, the “Vulgate” Bible commissioned in 382 AD.

Jesus himself most probably spoke Aramaic. The writers of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were not contemporaries of Jesus. The earliest Gospel, that of Mark, was believed to have been written around 70 AD, or more than a generation after Jesus died. Mark is believed to be Mark the Evangelist, although even this is not clear; he probably wrote in Greek while living in Syria. The other gospel authors wrote even later, and are generally believed to have derived their work from Mark’s gospel, from oral traditions, and potentially from an unknown written source of Jesus’ sayings, known as the “Q Source.” In case of the Gospel of John, there may have been multiple authors who wrote at three distinct time periods, with the book not reaching its final form until 90 to 100 AD. The Gospel of Matthew was probably written in Aramaic or even Hebrew, although the version we know was translated into Koine Greek.

The most commonly used rendering of the Bible in English is the “King James” version, begun in 1604 and completed in 1611. This was the third translation into English to be approved by the English Church authorities, after the Great Bible commissioned in the reign of King Henry VIII, and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. King James gave the forty-seven scholars who performed the translation instructions intended to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England, and its belief in an ordained clergy. The “King James” version itself became rife with errors because of misprints and variations among the printed texts, leading to a renewed effort to standardize this translation. Consequently, scholars at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge embarked on a decade long mission to produce a definitive version, which in 1769 emerge as the “Standard” text.

Needless to say, the modern English translation of the Bible is problematic in all kinds of ways. For one thing, the English version is translated from the Latin, which is itself translated from other languages. But in addition to the linguistic problems, there are serious issues of context: most of us understand so little about the times in which Jesus lived.

A Very Short History of the Abrahamic God and his Prophets

Yahweh (also, “YHWH” or “Jehovah”), the God of ancient Israel, who became the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus and the God of Mohammed, is a deity who, according to the preeminent religious historian Karen Armstrong, “emerged” from a region in the south of Canaan. He was an especially capable War God. When he first entered into public consciousness ” probably around 1300 BC, Yahweh had to “compete” with a Pantheon of other regional Gods. Initially he was considered to be the consort of Asherah, the Semitic Mother Goddess of ancient Canaan. Because he was a War God, he was not regarded as being particularly good at agricultural abundance or fertility; this is why the Canaanites (later Israelites) continue to worship other Gods as well. Yahweh did not become the God of all Israel until the Exodus, which some have speculated may in actuality be the story of a peasant uprising.

As depicted in the Old Testament, Yahweh is jealous, petty, and insecure. Loyalty is prized above all other virtues. If God is the husband and Isreal the wife then, as some commentators have suggested, this is an abusive relationship. To cite just one of many examples, Yahweh tests Abraham — the Patriarch of the “Abrahamic” religions — by forcing him to promise to sacrifice his only son. Yahweh relents in this demand only when Abraham already has his knife in his hands. Subsequently, Yahweh enters into a covenant with the people of Israel in which the greatest (and some might argue only) sin is disloyalty. This God is vengeful and capricious, and shows no mercy to the enemies of Israel. As the Bible progresses, Yahweh mellows slightly and becomes a bit more compassionate and a little less unrelenting. But fundamentally, disloyalty is still the greatest sin in the eyes of the Lord.

The first of Yahweh’s great prophets is Moses. Whether Moses actually existed as an actual human being is debatable; most likely, he is a composite of historical figures, much like a character in a historical novel. Nor has the Exodus been clearly connected to any Egyptological chronology. The stories related to Moses may be based in events that happened over time, but again, they are likely to be composites. If Moses actually existed, he probably lived around 1200 to 1300 BC, or around the time that Yahweh was first recognized as a God.

The second great prophet was Jesus, the putative son of God. We really don’t know much about the historical Jesus. We know three things for sure: that he was baptized, that he was crucified, and that in-between he had a ministry. The ministry didn’t last very long, probably not more than three years. Jesus did not write anything down himself, and he was probably illiterate. Nor did any of his contemporaries write anything down about his ministry. Nothing formal was written down until at least a generation after his death, beginning with the “Synoptic” Gospels. These Gospels tell us much about what Jesus is believed to have taught. I personally view Jesus as kind of a precursor to Mahatma Gandhi — a prophet for the dispossessed, practicing a brand of non-violent political activism — but that’s a totally subjective interpretation based on far too little reliable information and my personal biases. In truth, Jesus can be said to have a complex legacy. We know, for example, that while he taught much about justice and compassion, Jesus was not opposed to slavery. He also believed in eternal damnation, which earned him the severe disapprobation of Bertrand Russell, among others.

If we don’t know that much about Jesus, we know relatively more about the third great prophet of the Abrahamic tradition, Muhammad ibn Abd Allah, (or “Mohammed”). For one thing, we know that he was born 570 AD. We even believe to know the exact date of his death, on June 8, 632 at the age of 62. We know that Mohammed had thirteen wives, and we know all of their names. More significantly, we know when he received his first revelation, and that the book that he would eventually author — the Quran or “Recitation” — was dictated over 23 years by Mohammed to various scribes. We know that the process of “writing” the Quran is closer to what today would be considered “channeling.” We know that Mohammed united the Arab tribes of his time and that, in 622, Mohammed migrated with his followers to Medina. (By the way, the name “Allah” derives from the name of pre-Islamic pagan Meccans, and originally referred to their creator deity. For all practical purposes, in the Islamic period it is a different name for the same Abrahamic god previously identified as Yahweh.)

Heaven, Hell and Other Myths

According to a 2005 Barbara Walters ABC News Special, nine out of ten Americans literally believe in heaven and hell. This is remarkable. Heaven and hell is a child’s concept; it is the ultimate example of what psychologists call “black and white” thinking. Under this doctrine, you can be a mass murderer but still get into Heaven if you just repent and accept God; or, you can be the Dali Lama and suffer eternal damnation regardless of what else you’ve done in your life, simply because you haven’t accepted Christ as your personal savior. Not to put too fine a point on this, but an all powerful God could have generated as many offspring as he chose. To give up Jesus was no real sacrifice for God. Conversely, that Jesus had to suffer the agony of crucifixion and ask God why he has “forsaken” him should prove that Jesus was no God.

Recently, when the tragic events happened in Newtown, many people comforted themselves with the belief that all those innocent children who were mercilessly assassinated by another armed-to-the-teeth psychotic blowhole somehow found their way to heaven (even though several of them were Jewish). Unfortunately, my friends, that is no more likely than that the 9-11 hijackers who flew the planes were greeted in the afterlife by seventy-two virgins. While I have every sympathy with these comforting beliefs, the fact remains that they are equally improbable, which is to say, almost totally impossible. You’re more likely to win the Powerball lottery than find an idyllic after-life, and we already know how likely you are to win the Powerball lottery. Angels are equally as unlikely to exist as Heaven or Hell. It’s not that we may not have an experience of them; many people do. But by now it should be clear that our minds have an infinite capacity for self-deception. That has already been proven scientifically to those who are interested enough to inquire.

Continue to a discussion of the Historical Jesus

2 Responses to 2. On Biblical Literalism

  1. jbhmuddog says:

    Would it be fair to say that your initial premise that atheists have never committed a massacre is false, and that most of the rest of your commentary is built upon that falsity? You have put together a lot of information from your perspective to further support your own perspective.
    I’d still, however, enjoy sharing insights; as I come from knowledge that I am only righteous in one thing, but fallible in actions.

  2. I’m not in any way familiar with the teachings of the Bible, but I am familiar with how it is misused. Thank you for this. 🙂

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