Saturday, December 6, 2014

My Thoughts on the Bible

One of the most frustrating things about discussing religion and the reasons why I am not a fan of them is that most Christians operate from the standpoint that the Bible is automatically to be considered

a) literally true, and
b) free from mistakes or contradictions, and
c) authoritative.

What I mean when I use the word "authoritative" is that they believe that since the Bible is literally true, it can be used as evidence for other things than the Bible.

There are several of problems with thinking that the Bible is literally true, inerrant, and authoritative.

The first problem is that there's no one, single agreed-upon "Bible".  Rather, what we have is a collection of similar-but-not-identical documents that the varied, differing, and constantly-arguing sects of Christianity consider to be "canonical scripture". Each of the different flavors of Christianity has its own version of the Bible they use and rely on, and no two versions are precisely the same.

And I'm not even going to get into the differences between the Christian version of the Old Testament and the Jewish or Muslim versions.

Anyway, what this (the fact that there are dozens of versions of the Bible out there) means is that whenever I or anyone else use the phrase "the Bible", singular, we're actually making an grammatical error. We should be talking about "the Bibles", because what we're talking about are various compilations of documents, which are all assembled and read and studied and debated by different groups of people.

The second problem is that we know, and by "we know" I mean that it has been demonstratably proven beyond any possible doubt, that the Bibles we do have are changed, edited, and rewritten copies of earlier texts. And when I say "changed, edited, and rewritten copies", I would like to point out that sometimes those changes, edits, and rewrites are substantial.

What evidence do I have that this is so?  Well, the most famous example is the 16th chapter of the Book of Mark. In the earliest known copies of Mark, everything from verse 9 through verse 20 is missing. Let me repeat that: in the earliest known copies of the Book of Mark, the 16th Chapter ends at verse 8.

In other words, we know that everything after Mark 16:8 is a forgery and not original to scripture.

In addition, careful study of the Pauline epistles in the New Testament have shown that while all of the Epistles are supposedly written by Paul, at least fifteen of them (1 Peter, 2 Peter, James, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Hebrews, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philipians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians) were absolutely not written by Paul at all.  The remaining Epistles (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and Romans) have been thrown into doubt as to their authenticity to the point that its entirely possible that Paul didn't write any of them.  At the very least, later parties took Paul's original words and heavily edited and rewrote them.We know this through careful examination of  the vocabulary and the grammar used, and their relationship to the known timeline of the life of Paul (to put it bluntly, at least two of the epistles turn out to be happening at the same time).

The third problem with considering the Bible literally true is pretty basic. Despite the fact that Biblical literalists claim otherwise, we know that the Gospels were not written by the men whose names are on them (indeed, outside of the Bible, there's not a lot of evidence that these four men even existed). Mark did not write Mark, John did not write John, and so on. So who did write the Bible?

We don't have the first damned clue.

We don't even have original copies. What we have are copies of copies of copies. So we really have no idea what the sources for these documents, which remember the literalists think are historically authoritative, really are.

Something else to be considered is that the New Testament canon wasn't assembled until three hundred years after the alleged death of Jesus. The Bible as we know it right now didn't exist until the Fourth Century CE. The reason why the New Testament looks the way it looks is because a man named Athanasius pretty much unilaterally declared it would look like it does.

Think about that for a second. One man was responsible for deciding on which twenty-seven books to include in the New Testament out of the hundreds if not thousands of scriptural books. And by his own words, he did so primarily on the basis of what he liked, and what he didn't like. Not, "Is this more accurate" or "Is this better", but rather, "Does this fit my own personal opinions?"

Had Athanasius decided that he liked the Book of Thomas, for example, or the Book of Judas, more than he liked the Book of Mark, we might be here talking about how the Books of Matthew, Thomas, Luke, and Judas weren't actually written by the characters they were named after.

And he made this decision based on advice given to him by a committee. The Council of Nicea was a group of men, between 250 and 300 in number (we don't have solid records of who attended and who didn't, but that's the best estimation from the few facts we do know) who debated and argued and wrangled and politicked over which of the thousands of scriptural documents were their favorites.

So that book you have on your shelf called "the Bible" is actually a collection of documents decided on by debate and voted on three hundred years after the fact. And the argument and debate never really stopped.

When we look at the actual content of the Bible, there are additional problems. A lot of the text of the Bible reads like the explanations for the natural world thought up by unscientific, primitive people who didn't have a clue how the world really worked.

Consider the story in Genesis 3 in which Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent. Not only is this an explanation of why snakes don't have any legs, its an explanation of why childbirth is painful, why men traditionally did all the dirty, hazardous jobs, why men grow old and die, and so on. This story could easily fit between "How the Elephant Got His Trunk" and "How the Zebra Got His Stripes" in Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories".

And the Bible is full of these sorts of stories. Genesis 9:13 is the story behind rainbows, for example. And Genesis 11 not only explains why there are so many languages in the world, and why nations fight other nations, but it reads like a variation on the even older story of Prometheus bringing fire to man and the punishments suffered for it.

I won't even get into the bald-faced implausibilities found in the Bible. Talking snakes, talking donkeys, people living for nigh on a thousand years, stars literally falling to earth and fighting alongside humans in war, zombies attacking a town, a man being swallowed by a fish, and that's not even mentioning the greatest implausible story of them all, the story of how one family and two (or is it seven) of every animal species existing on a boat for close to three months.

Taken by themselves, these are all reasons why the Bible cannot and should not be read literally, or with the idea that it is inerrant or authoritative. Use it as the basis for your own personal morality code if you wish, but please do not speak to me about the Bible as if I should be listening to it just because it has the words "Holy Bible" on the cover.

One of the other more frequent claims made by literalists is how the fact that certain Biblical stories are set in real-life places or include real-life people supposedly means that the Bible is true and accurate. This just isn't so. At best, the Bible might qualify as an "historical fantasy" story along the same lines as Homer's "Illiad".

Consider: the ancient ruins of Troy were actually discovered, thus showing that many of the names, places, and events in the Iliad actually occurred. However, this does not change the fact that the Iliad is rightfully still considered a work of fiction. The simple fact that the Iliad mentions a real city named Troy that really was attacked by the Greeks does not mean that the Greek gods wandered around the battlefield any more than the fact that the Harry Potter novels mention London, Scotland, and Wales means that there are wizards wandering around Great Britain in secret.

In the same way, just because certain events in the Old and New Testaments are set in locations that actually exist means that the other events in the Bible are automatically true. In point of fact, when it comes to history, the writers of the Bible get pretty much all of it wrong.

A lot of it is simple exaggeration. Where there is evidence for some Hebrew inhabitation of Egypt, there is no actual evidence that millions of Hebrews ever lived there; neither is there evidence that millions of them later escaped from that kingdom in a mass exodus. Neither is there any evidence that Asa could have mustered an army of half a million Hebews, with which he slaughtered a million Cushites. And in addition to the utter lack of archeological evidence, there's simply no way that a Bronze Age society of tribal warriors and goat-herders could have maintained supply and support for an army that big.

Compare, for example, the Athenian invasion of Sicily, an event that we have literally tons of evidence for. It happened a thousand years after the supposed slaughter of the Cushites, and involves armies less than 1% of the size claimed in the Bible. And one of the things mentioned in every single Greek and Sicilian account of the invasion mentions how difficult it was for the two armies to stay supplied due to their size.

For further comparison, consider the actual events at the Battle of Thermopylae. While legends speak of 300 Spartans holding back an army of a million Persians, it turns out that the numbers were really closer to 7500 Spartans and other Greeks holding back about 90,000 Persians... and both the Greeks and the Persians complained about supply problems.

For this and a dozen other reasons, pretty much no credible historical scholar considered Biblical accounts of half-million-man armies mentioned in the Bible (and mentioned nowhere but the Bible, at that) to be anything but hyperbole.

In addition to the exaggeration of real world events present in the Bible, some of the events depicted are simply made up out of the cloth. For example, the Bible tells us in pretty clear detail that leading up to the birth of Christ, Herod ordered a slaughter of innocent children, what must have been one of the worst atrocities of ancient history.  And yet Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was pretty careful about recording and detailing the events that occurred during Harod's rule, never saw fit to even mention such a crime against humanity. One would expect he would have. And if not he, then someone else. But no one alive during the rule of Harod apparently ever heard of such a thing.

So what's more credible? That Josephus just forgot to mention the murder of thousands of Hebrew children in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus? Or that that this story is just a retelling of part of the Moses myth in which Pharaoh orders a similar slaughter of Hebrew children in an attempt to kill the infant Moses?

What we see when we look at the historical events described in the Bible are clearly fictional and fictionalized accounts of things that either never happened, or just didn't happen the way they were described.

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