Some of my friends have been surprised to find out that I’m still reading the Bible. They thought I would be totally done with it after I left religion behind. Actually, I now enjoy reading the Bible more than I ever did as a Christian since I no longer have to defend it. Without the baggage of faith, it’s possible to appreciate the book with a little more objectivity.
Yes, I realize a lot of freethinkers are really put-off by anything having to do with the Bible, and I completely understand that. The book has been a source of much human suffering, and it has often served as a brake on the social evolution of our species. But just because we may reject the metaphysical and magical claims of the Judeo-Christian tradition doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t worth reading. Here are a few reasons to pick it up.
- Knowing some basics about the Bible will make your critique of religion more credible and might enable you to better engage theists in conversation about what they believe and why they believe it. Heck, you’ll probably be able to point out a few things they didn’t know.
- Whether we like it or not, the reality is that biblical allusions and imagery pervade the music, art, and literature of Western civilization. If you don’t know the Bible, you’ll miss a lot.
- The Bible contains a lot of good literature. The cycle of stories in the David narrative are gripping portrayals of the complexities of human nature. I’d be willing to bet they provided at least some inspiration for “The Godfather.” Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is sublime and is also, ironically, entirely non-theistic. (Literary critic and non-theist Harold Bloom counts Paul as one of the one hundred “exemplary creative” literary geniuses of the Western world. Yeah, I know Paul often sounds like a jerk, but it is possible to be a jerk and a genius at the same time. )
- Knowing something about the Bible is often helpful when trying to complete The New York Times crossword puzzle.
Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way suggesting that the Bible has any special authority or any wisdom about life that can’t be found elsewhere. In fact I am totally confused by theists who claim to find some coherent set of “biblical values.” I spent twenty years trying to find coherence in the book. None exists.
But sometimes it’s a heck of a good read. And the portions of the Bible that actually are good literature present us with compelling and nuanced descriptions of human condition. And so I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the Bible any more than I’d want to live in a world without The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost.
Thanks for all the comments on the last post. Sorry I’ve been late getting back to you all. I was doing a little traveling last week and got behind on the blog. Today I just want to respond quickly to some of the questions you asked on “What About Jesus?”
Kim wrote: “So if he [Jesus] was just another Jewish preacher, why/how did he become such a lightning rod? Was there something particularly different about him…?”
There were certainly other dynamic religious teachers and preachers who were more or less contemporaries of Jesus. Apollonius of Tyana is one who comes to mind. Hillel the Elder (110 BCE-10 CE) continues to inspire modern Judaism. (Many of the sayings attributed to him sound like teachings also attributed to Jesus.) So why did the Jesus movement triumph and persist? I think the reasons are pretty mundane. Competition between religions is not any different from competition among any other human enterprise, ideology, or product. Why did VHS triumph over Betamax? How did the A&P lose out to Kroger?
The triumph of Christianity was a case of the right message at the right time marketed in an effective way. It was a brilliant fusion of Judaism with elements of popular Roman mystery cults, and for a variety of reasons it struck a chord. For more on this topic I highly recommend The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.
Julia asks: “So what exactly did Paul’s letters say regarding Jesus if he never mentioned the virgin birth or miracles?” Paul mentions Jesus’ death and resurrection a lot. But aside from that he says hardly anything at all about Jesus’ life. It is particularly curious that Paul never quotes Jesus even when it would have been advantageous for him to do so. If I had to put money on it, I would bet that many of Paul’s teachings to the early churches got re-worked later and inserted in the mouth of Jesus. In Romans 12-15, for example, several passages sound very much like what we hear in the Sermon on the Mount.
A big turning point in my journey away from faith in Jesus as the Savior came when I learned that one of my favorite gospel stories, the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16), actually came from pre-Christian pagan sources and did not originate with Jesus at all. That was a serious wake-up call.
Toby wrote: “Mohammad has had followers for 1,400 years (or so) and Moses has had followers for 3,400 years (or so). Do we make the same conclusions about Moses and Mohammad that we do with about Jesus?”
Good question. And let’s not forget Buddha as well. Yes, the dynamics in each of those cases are similar to what happened with Jesus. In fact, revisionist historians of Islam are now beginning to doubt if Muhammad even existed. Buddha, Muhammed, Moses, and others are reminders that the historical impact of Jesus is not really all that unique. The same thing has happened throughout history around the world.
From time to time I’d like to use this space to respond to questions I’ve received from readers of this blog. Here’s one for today:
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the existence of Jesus is not questioned–just maybe some of the details surrounding his life. So if he did exist and if he did inspire people with his teachings then what do we do with that? If we do not see him as the son of God, then was he just some kind of crazy person who was very persuasive?
The consensus among scholars is that, yes, Jesus did in fact exist. He probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher of the apocalyptic variety who attracted some followers. He was executed by the authorities. The movement he inspired lived on after his death and quickly morphed into various groups with vastly differing theologies. Beyond that there is not much we can say with any certainty at all about the life of Jesus.
The earliest Christian writings we have are the letters of Paul, which predate the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life by decades. Paul does not mention the teachings or miracles of Jesus. This is beyond curious. I’ve heard all the usual responses to this strange omission, and they are all very weak. Paul also makes no mention of a “virgin birth.” His account of the resurrection includes none of the details that we associate with the Easter story. In fact Paul seems to describe more of a “spiritual” resurrection of divine visions and appearances in contrast to the emphasis on a bodily resurrection we see in the gospel accounts.
It seems probable that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels were actually put in his mouth posthumously. I also think it’s very likely that many of the teachings of Paul that sound like something Jesus would have said were later re-packaged as quotes from Jesus.
Over the centuries, Jesus has become a religious Rorschach test. People tend to project on him the values that are near and dear to their hearts. Conservatives see him espousing traditional conservative virtues. Liberals see him as a champion of social justice, exercising a “preferential option for the poor.” Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites see him as a pacifist. Most Christians, however, subscribe to the “just war” theory, also based on Jesus’ teachings. Years ago Jerry Falwell even said he was sure Jesus would approve of using nuclear weapons when necessary.
In the end, what we say about Jesus most certainly says more about us than it does about him. And in that respect, studying the figure of Jesus is a fascinating window into the complexities of human nature.
First of all, I just want to say thanks to everybody who commented on yesterday’s post (5/22). I really appreciate you taking the time to read and to respond. So I’d thought I’d do a quick follow-up today–mainly to the questions that were raised.
“Adtz” gave a great response to Julia’s question about the Israelites and their Canaanite origins. I don’t have much to add to that. Some scholars have suggested the possibility of a small band of escaped slaves who joined up with the Canaanite tribes, but hardly any credible scholar thinks that anything like the mass exodus portrayed in the Bible ever happened. And “Yahweh” appears to be the result of a merger between two earlier tribal gods “Ya” and “El.”
Julia, you also mentioned that you had trouble wrapping your mind around the Trinity. Good for you! I take that as a sign of sanity (and I’m not being facetious.) Theological discussions about the interrelationships of the Persons of the Trinity are incomprehensible. When you try to follow the logic of the Trinity, it always ends up reminding me of that old Willie Nelson song, “I”m My Own Grandpa.” Of course the concept of the Trinity as we have it today emerged gradually in the early centuries of Christianity’s existence. And in those early centuries various Christian groups had a broad range of opinions regarding the divine/human nature of Christ.
Chris Breman asked how others have worked through the process of leaving religion. Some of you shared parts of your story, but if anybody wants to share more, I’m sure it would be helpful to others. I’m convinced there are many secret skeptics out there. (See “The Atheist at the Breakfast Table” in the latest issue of Psychology Today.)
Finally, I really liked John Stutzer’s description of a dinner in a VFW hall for volunteers fighting the 1993 Mississippi flood as the best “communion” he ever had. A lot of great images and symbolism there. Those kinds of moments can help us recognize and affirm a common humanity that transcends the tribal labels we so often use to define ourselves. Christian communion has often been a vehicle for separating people, especially along doctrinal lines. I’m all in favor of experiences that bring us together.
Thanks again, everybody, for the good conversation.
Virtually everybody who attends a mainline seminary learns facts about the Bible that will rarely, if ever, be shared with the typical congregation. Ministers are generally reluctant to talk about how the Bible was largely shaped by geopolitical facts on the ground. Perhaps the lack of discussion about problems with the Bible is an example of the attitude expressed in that famous line from the film “A Few Good Men,” when Jack Nicholson’s character shouts, “You can’t handle the truth.”
When I was working in churches, I too, never really shared what I had learned about the Bible. Here are just a few examples of some difficult realities that believers should probably know about:
- There is basically no archaeological evidence at all to show that the Exodus event ever happened. Most of the evidence actually suggests that the Israelites were Canaanites all along. All those marvelous images we have from the movie “The Ten Commandments”?–forget about them. It’s all fiction. And there was no conquest of the land as depicted in Joshua and Judges. These stories are most likely national creation myths written down in the late 7th century BCE, to support King Josiah’s plan for national unification and expansion.
- There is also no evidence that either David or Solomon ruled over a great kingdom. If David did exist, he was probably a minor tribal chieftain and not a commander of vast armies. The temple of King Solomon was supposed to have been one of the grandest edifices in the ancient world, yet none of its remnants have ever been found–and not for lack of trying.
- Jesus, as depicted in the gospels, gets more than a few things wrong, and that’s problematic if he’s supposed to be fully divine. He was an intensely apocalyptic preacher who clearly expected the end-times to happen very soon. See, especially, the thirteenth chapter of Mark, where Jesus predicts the darkening of the sun and the moon, the stars falling from the sky and the “Son of Man” coming in glory within the lifetime of those hearing his words. Obviously, the prediction did not come true.
- Paul’s letters predate the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life by many years. Yet Paul does not reference the teachings or miracles of Jesus. When Paul talks about Jesus’ resurrection he does not mention a bodily resurrection, an empty tomb, or many of the other details we associate with the Easter story.
Well, this is just the beginning of the problems to grapple with. And none of the items mentioned above are some kind of fringe position. This is all part of mainstream biblical scholarship. But it’s not widely known or discussed in churches.
I only have a vague notion of who reads this blog. But I would be interested to know a couple things: If you are a believer, how do you deal with the numerous historical and archaeological problems in the Bible? And if they don’t impact your faith, why is that? If you are a freethinker, do you ever engage your believing friends on these issues? If so, what do they say?
Thanks for reading.
Since President Obama’s public announcement of his support for same-sex marriage last week, the response from the right has shown us yet again that the Bible continues to drag our society down. In several stories on radio and television I’ve heard people angrily denouncing the President’s stance saying, “It’s wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong!”
That’s it? That’s all you got? “It’s wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong.” Is it really that hard to think with a just a little more nuance? And how can we even begin to have a conversation with a mentality like that?
From time to time I have encountered conciliatory progressives who urge patience and moderation when dealing with the fragile psyches of the Bible believers who wish to impose their worldview on everybody else. After all, they will say, religion has a valuable role to play. As an inherently conservative institution, religion acts as a necessary brake or a corrective on those who would change society too quickly. I’ve heard that argument more than a few times. Change is good but it has to be gradual.
Why does all social change have to be gradual? I don’t get it. Who would possibly get hurt if same-sex marriage were suddenly legalized all over the country tomorrow?
The influence of the Bible was a huge reason slavery lasted until the 1860’s in this country. (Actually slavery persisted under the form of sharecropping well into the 1960s.) Why did the Land of the Free tolerate human bondage for so long? Partly because the Bible says slavery is OK. I’d be willing to bet the slaves wished that social change had been a little less gradual in their case.
On issue after issue–slavery, women’s rights, reproductive rights, Prohibition–the legacy of the Bible in American public life has largely been a story of oppression and social regression. The role of the Bible in American life is analogous to the role of the Koran in the Arab world. Any difference between the two situations is merely a difference of degree, not a difference of kind.
(Actually, I’m not saying that the Bible is totally worthless. In a post-Christian, secular society there are actually still good reasons to read the Bible, which I’ll get to in another post. )
A useless but fun exercise is to speculate “what if” about various historical events–like what if the South had won the Civil War? Or what if Kennedy had not been assassinated? Along those lines I’ve often wondered what the history of Christianity might have looked like if the book of Revelation had not been included in the canon. By most accounts of the New Testament’s development, Revelation almost did not make the final cut. Unfortunately for us, it did. And that fact may be one of the most tragic legacies of Christianity.
With it’s bizarre imagery, cataclysmic battles, and it’s vision of a vengeful Christ pouring out his wrath on the enemies of the faith, Revelation has been a source of fascination for many believers up to the present. When I was still working for the church, I would occasionally ask students in the weekly Bible class which book of the Bible they would like to study next. Revelation was always the most popular choice, hands down.
Now there are a lot of incomprehensible parts of the Bible, but Revelation takes the cake. What on earth possessed ancient church leaders to claim that that this hallucinogenic rant was divinely inspired? And because they deemed it divine, we are still suffering the consequences today. Many Christians are not only eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of Revelation’s visions in their lifetimes; they are actively seeking to hasten Armageddon. When you have a free moment, do a Google search on “Numbers 19 Red Heifer.” I’ll be some interesting stuff comes up. And because of Revelation, many Christians actively oppose environmentalism. After all, if this world is headed for destruction, and there is going to be a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) why bother taking care of this earth that’s passing away? The sooner we trash it the better. This was summed up well in the bumper sticker I saw recently. It was on the back of a behemoth SUV sporting a Christian fish sign, and it read: “Friends don’t let friends become environmentalists.”