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.
Today I just want to share a few random questions and observations for theists. These are not new questions; they have all been posed elsewhere by many others. But they are questions that should trouble believers, and they are questions we never get any good answers for. I am really not trying to be flippant or “disrespectful” of religion. I am genuinely interested in thoughtful, logical responses.
- When you are asked “Where did God come from?” answering that “God has always existed” or ” God exists outside the space-time continuum” is an evasion. These are not legitimate responses to the question.
- Isn’t it just a tad bit self-centered to believe that God is personally choreographing the “blessings” of your day when hundreds of millions of your fellow human beings are living on the brink of starvation?
- If God is necessary as the source of human morality, why do so many non-religious cultures have significantly lower crime rates than more religious cultures? Japan and Sweden, for example, appear to be doing just fine without God. (And please don’t point out that Japan and Sweden are more ethnically homogeneous, because the major racial groups in the U.S. are all predominately Christian.)
- Defenders of faith often like to point out that Stalin, Hitler, and Mao were atheists–ergo atheism leads to genocide. But one of the more recent instances of genocide–Rwanda–was the result of Christian on Christian violence. And in Bosnia it was a clash between Christians and Muslims.
- What logical, empirical evidence exists to support any human being’s claim to divine revelation? What is the basis for believing that anybody–from the Pope to the Dalai Lama– is privy to special knowledge about the workings of the universe?
Anyone have any thoughts to share?
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.”
My current reading list includes “No Man Knows My History–the Life of Joseph Smith” by Fawn Brodie. If you enjoy reading a good biography I highly recommend this one to you. First published in 1945 and revised in 1971, the book is considered a modern classic of the biographer’s art. The story of how Smith convinced so many people that he had received another “testament” engraved on golden plates is absolutely fascinating. Whatever else you might say about Smith, the guy definitely had charisma.
Reading the story of early Mormonism, one quickly sees parallels to the beginnings of Christianity (and probably any other religion for that matter.) Like Joseph Smith, the apostle Paul’s ultimate claim to authority came from revelation–“because God told me so!” Throughout his epistles Paul reminds his readers that he has some kind of special conduit to divine wisdom and that he speaks for God. These passages are numerous, but one example should suffice to make the point: “…what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.” (1 Corinthians 14: 37-38) Sounds just like something any cult leader might say to intimidate the flock.
And that is religion in a nutshell. Anybody who can convince enough people that he/she converses with undetectable beings can start one. The metaphysical claims of Mormonism are no crazier than the metaphysical claims of Christianity. They just might seem a little crazier because we’re not as familiar with them as the world-view of orthodox Christianity which permeates our culture.
For atheists, agnostics, and other skeptics who might be reading this, I’m sure this comes as no “revelation” to you. I just wonder why it took me so long to see it, and being able to write about it is therapeutic for me. Thanks in advance for being patient with a slow learner!
I’ve been re-reading Paul’s epistles this week, and it’s been a pretty horrendous experience. My primary emotional response has been exasperation and frustration. Why did I fall for this stuff for so many years, and why has it taken me so long to see the obvious? I guess it’s a little analogous to doing a crossword puzzle. Sometimes you stare and stare at it, and nothing is clicking. You come back to it later in the day and everything falls into place. You see answers that were staring you in the face.
Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul gave instructions for reining in the prophets, tongue-speakers, and–worst of all–the uppity women! who were destabilizing the order Paul had tried to impose on the community. After Paul tells everybody to get back in line he says this: “Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.” (1 Corinthians 14:37-38)
So ultimately Paul functioned as just another cult leader–albeit an extremely successful one, who has managed to fool people for twenty centuries. “Do what I tell you because I speak for God. If you disobey me, you are disobeying God.” How is that any different from Joseph Smith saying that God told him to re-build his church? Or Jim Jones telling people to kill themselves in Guyana? Like them, Paul just made the whole thing up. There is absolutely no empirical evidence whatsoever that would verify that Paul had a special conduit to the deity. To start a religion you just have to convince enough people that you’ve had a divine revelation.
The scourge of revelation continues to wreck havoc on our world. In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to all forms of contraception that actually work. The Second Vatican Council had put together a commission of scholars, theologians, bishops, and lay people to study the issue. The commission’s majority report to the Pope urged the church to allow the use of artificial contraception. In “Humane Vitae” the Paul flatly rejected the report. Why? Because like Paul, the Pope was privy to revelation, and revelation trumps reason every time. And now, because of the ridiculous revelation of an elderly, celibate bachelor over forty years ago–political discourse in this country is still being hi-jacked by true believers.