Friday, January 16, 2015

Five Facts about the Bible (that your Pastor will never tell you)

I don't play games much anymore. There was a time, though, when I was all-in on first-person multi-player games. My buddies and I would all pack up our PCs and head to one friend's basement, set up a network and spend the day drinking beer and shooting at each other with virtual weapons. Good times!

I suspect that this guy would be just as scary with all the lights turned on.

One of the more popular of these first-person shooter games was Doom. The Doom games featured a dark environment where the player would wander around in fear of being confronted by an unseen enemy. The designers of Doom 3 used the darkness to great advantage by making it pervasive, and then allowing players a flashlight, but with a caveat: the player could not operate both the flashlight and their weapon at the same time. Later, a developer releases a "mod" called "Duct Tape" that permitted the player to attach the flashlight to their gun, thereby allowing them to see what was ahead while still being prepared to attack. I think it took some of the suspense out of the game, but it proved to be very popular for obvious reasons.

I believe that there are a lot of Christians who seem to be bound by this kind of rule when examining their faith: they are unable to use the Bible and their brains at the same time. It's not that they don't care to know what the Bible really says. And it's not that they cannot reason. It's just that when we are fed only bite-sized passages from the Bible by our churches, it is difficult to reach any depth of understanding of it. I am glad that I was able to break out of that mindset, and my wish is for others to do the same.

I'm not quite as cynical as young Bartholomew.

The Bible is a complicated ancient book , and it was the single authority in our society for over a millennium at a time when the average person had no access to actually read it. Gutenberg fixed the problem of availability with the printing press, but people then were only reading it in the context of the teachings of the church. Next came the Reformation when people recognized that the church had modified the Bible's teaching. Yet with no way to understand the original author's intent many were just reading the Bible in yet another flawed context. It wasn't until scholars of the past two or three hundred years that we have been able to analyse, re-translate, investigate and test the Bible text using the modern disciplines of science, archaeology, and textual criticism. The Bible has been opened up for us all.

I admit that not everyone can (or should) be a biblical scholar. But this doesn't mean that they can't be "handed a roll of duct tape": i.e. be informed at a broad level what we have learned about the Bible in the past few hundred years. There's no reason this information should be kept away from the average reader.

Even with new data freely available to all, scholarly knowledge of this kind still appears to be esoteric. Very old understandings of origin and meanings of the Biblical text persist in the church, and nobody seems to go out of their way to debunk misinformation. I think a few of these details would be valuable to discuss. Nothing that I am about to write is new or controversial. In fact, much of it should be obvious from reading the text itself with no assistance. Yet we continue to use an outdated understanding of the Bible, and for some reason the Church doesn't seek to correct this teaching. I could honestly write a book on this subject (and many people have), but here and now I want to simply include the five facts that I found to be transformative in my understanding of the Bible. Any Christian who is aware of these truths will necessarily have a much easier path to get to the real message of Christianity.

  1. Moses did not write the Torah.
    I remember being taught as a youth that the first five books of the Bible where written by Moses. Even at the time I thought this was odd, since the book of Deuteronomy records Moses' death, but I wasn't in a position to argue. This account of the death of Moses is only a single detail that demonstrates that Mosaic authorship of these books just doesn't make sense.
    In the 18th and 19th centuries a group of biblical scholars from Germany (see Julius Wellhausen) developed what is now known as the Documentary Hyphothesis. According to Wellhausen's hypothesis, which is almost universally accepted by scholars, these Old Testament books were derived from multiple ancient sources (at least four) and compiled by a redactor or group of redactors into the text that we have today. This hypothesis helps explain a lot of what we see in the Old Testament text.
    This guy also did not write the Bible. If he did, Moses probably would have been packing heat.

    One way we can distinguish different authors is by the age of the Hebrew language, which can vary from one passage (and sometimes within a single verse) to the next. Imagine if you were to combine a poem by Shakespeare with a Kanye West song; it should be pretty easy for a student of literature to figure out that the piece had two different authors, and just as easy to determine which text came from which author. It's more difficult to see in the Bible in English translation, but it is obvious to the scholars who study these things. We can also see multiple versions of the same story appear in the Bible with different details. There is a story of Abraham presenting his wife Sara as his sister to Pharaoh, and then another story where he presents Sara as his sister to King Abimelech (did he think his deception worked out so well the first time he would try again on a different ruler?), and we also see a story about Isaac presenting his wife as his sister to King Abimelech (is this technique hereditary? And would Abimelech fall for that trick again?). These are obviously three re-tellings of the same legend.
    Sure she is, Abe. Sure she is...
    Duplications, contradictions, and anachronisms are so abundant that I am aware of one scholar who maintains an excellent daily blog devoted to analyzing them in detail. I am even aware of a web site showing an interactive graph of them. It should seem obvious that there are not only multiple authors from multiple eras, but even authors with competing views contributing to the final text. It was certainly not a singular Moses, if he ever existed at all, who authored this text.
    A great book I have read on the subject of old testament authorship is Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Friedman. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the construction of the Old Testament. For me, understanding this helped me eliminate the uncomfortable feeling I had whenever I heard these unbelievable tales, since I understood them to be folklore, rather than holy words handed down to Moses. I am also able to laugh at the "Creationists" who want to insist that the Earth was created 6000 years ago, since they are demonstrating not only their ignorance of science, but of the Bible itself. Sweet Irony!
  2. The letters of Paul (Epistles) are the most reliable record of early Christianity.
    I do not remember ever being explicitly told in the church that Paul was the the original author of Christianity, although it's not really a secret. Paul's letters are, in roughly correct order: First Thessalonians (ca. 51 AD), Philippians (ca. 52–54 AD), Philemon (ca. 52–54 AD), First Corinthians (ca. 53–54 AD), Galatians (ca. 55 AD), Second Corinthians (ca. 55–56 AD), and Romans (ca. 55–58 AD), and they are the first texts written about Christ or Christianity. There are 6 other letters in the New Testament that are sometimes credited to Paul, but are held by scholars to be either falsely attributed or outright pseudoepigraphic (i.e. forgeries): with the 7 listed above there is no dispute (or very little dispute: we could always look to the Dutch Radicals, who make a very valid argument for the idea that none of the Pauline Epistles are authentic, and Paul may not have been a real person at all!).
    This guy doesn't get nearly enough credit. He started a way better religion than L. Ron Hubbard did. 

    One thing that is interesting to note when we understand that epistles came before the gospels, is that if Jesus died in 33 AD at the latest (as is accepted), there was nothing written about him for nearly 20 years after his death! And what Paul writes does not contain a lot of the details that Christians seem to think are important. Paul doesn't seem to know anything about the virgin birth or where Jesus was born, or any of the teachings of Jesus, or any of his miracles, or even the empty tomb. These particularities are the staples of Christian apologetics, yet the first writings about Christianity don't mention them at all. Paul doesn't even appear to know about Hell, and the idea of such a place appears to be incompatible with his theology. If you limit yourself to reading the uncontested letters, you will get a clear picture of what early Christians may have actually believed about Jesus and the faith.
    Of course, when we read the epistles today we have a natural tendency to read Paul through "gospel glasses". This ignores that Paul has never read the Gospels like we have. In Paul's case, the Gospels hadn't even been written at the time he authored his epistles.
    In spite of this, many articles that the churches considers to be central to the Christian faith (like what is found in the creeds) were either overlooked by Paul, or simply not known to people in his time. Did the leading evangelist of Christianity lack knowledge about Jesus, or did he just choose not to include the information? In my mind, these omissions in the message of Paul raise all kinds of questions about the orthodox and evangelical messages of the church that I have been told all of my life.
  3. We do not know who wrote the Gospels, but it was not by anyone who ever met Jesus.
    Christianity is supposed to be about Jesus, and the gospels are held up as the books that tell us about Him. But if you are looking for a historical account of the life of Jesus, they cannot be considered an accurate source of information at all. Yet they are all we have.
    This is, I think, the most difficult truth about the Bible for most Christians to swallow. It was easy for me to deny a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, but not so easy for the gospels. Every since I took a course in "Bible as literature" at university years ago, I had accepted that the Old Testament stories were mythology. However, the idea that the gospels where written by eye-witnesses and should therefore be understood literally was something that was persistent with me beyond those days, and is still assumed by a large majority of worshipers.
    My persistence in this point of view was in part because, as a teen, I read the apologist Josh McDowell's book "Evidence That Demands a Verdict", which asserted that a scholarly view of the Gospels showed them to be well attested to. McDowell was very convincing to an ignorant believer who was not looking for a argument, and his rhetoric caused me to put off deeper study of these matters for a lot of years because I felt it to be unnecessary. What I have learned since is that Josh McDowell is not a scholar, and that the real scholars see things very differently from the way he does.
    "Apologist" comes from the Greek word for "making up whatever half-truths are necessary to prevent your readers from reading an honest book." That's my own liberal translation, because fair is fair.

    There are a number of reasons to doubt that the gospels where written by the disciples of Jesus or other witnesses. This first is that the earliest gospel, The Gospel according to Mark, was not written until at least 70 AD - that's roughly 40 years after Jesus died. Bear in mind that an average life expectancy at the time was around 50 years of age. Not many eye witnesses would still be alive by this time. Furthermore, the gospels were all written in Greek, with numerous clues that the authors were neither Palestinian, nor writing from Palestine, or possibly had never been to Palestine. This is despite Jesus supposedly never leaving Palestine in his lifetime and only speaking Aramaic. Most importantly, none of the Gospels even claim to have been written by witnesses. Mark, Matthew and Luke are not even written from the perspective of witnesses. John flat-out talks about the source of his information in the third person, and very clearly puts his own words into the mouth of Jesus at every turn. The language and context of the books make it pretty clear that the authors or each is not party to the events described.
    Furthermore, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are both revisions of the Gospel of Mark - but why would any eye witness copy someone else's story, rather than writing his own? And why would these eye-witness accounts all disagree with each other, adding incompatible details to his own version of the story? Mark doesn't report the birth of Jesus at all, Matthew says it happens during the reign of Herod the Great, Luke says Jesus was born at the time of a census taken 10 years after Herod's death. That is just one of many peculiarities of the nativity story that cannot be harmonized. The crucifixion-resurrection accounts are even more divergent. However, just like we do when reading Paul, we have a tendency to assume that Mark knows the same things Luke does, and vice versa. Bart Ehrman calls this the construction of a "super-gospel", where we have comglomerated the events of the 4 books into a single narrative, smoothing over the inconsistencies, and forgetting that they were ever independent stories. Independent stories, that is, written by separate authors at different times containing exclusive facts and differing agendas!
    This historical ambiguity about the life of Jesus led to something called "the Jesus Seminar", and later "the Jesus Project" where biblical scholars have tried analyzing the gospels along with the known history of the time in order to attempt to build an accurate picture of the life and teachings of Jesus. Even earlier than this, David F. Strauss wrote "Das Leben Jesu" (translated "The Life of Jesus, critically examined", freely available as an ebook or audiobook) published in 1835. This is an extremely long read for a layperson, but it examines every story in the New Testament about Jesus, analyzing it to assess the historical or literary tradition that it originated in. Something a bit easier to read on the subject is Bart Ehrman's book, Jesus Interrupted. (For information specifically on the authorship of the books of the New Testament, Ehrman's Forged is very easy to digest. For the Ehrman trifecta, look into Misquoting Jesus.)
    To give a bit of context to how this has affected my understanding of the gospel stories, I think about a great scene in the movie Braveheart, where William Wallace shows up to lead the men of Scotland. They don't recognize him at first:
    William Wallace is obviously not 7 feet tall, as few men are. He also doesn't shoot fireballs out his arse, as cool as that would be to see on-screen. That doesn't prevent people in his own day from embellishing stories about him. Similarly, people in Jesus' time had all kinds of ideas about him, and after his death his legend grew like we should expect. I would suggest that if anything about him seems unbelievable, it's because you should not believe it. The source is just not persuasive enough.
  4. The core of mainstream Christian doctrine is dependent on the book of John, which is the latest and least factually accurate book among the gospels.
    The Gospel According to John is a unique book. The author was obviously aware of the other three gospels, but was interested in using the character of Jesus to tell a much different story.
    John's Gospel was not written until at least 95-100 AD when almost anyone who had been a witness to the life of Jesus would have passed away. This is not the first generation of Christianity, and there was a lot of time for the church to think about and develop their theology. This alone is a reasonable motivation for the inclusion of so much new material in John - the author was trying to fit in some theology class for his readers.
    The author of John appears to be less interested in telling a history of Jesus, since that had been completed by the other gospel writers. He is trying to interpret the life of Jesus. We see this when he eschews the historical sounding genealogies of Matthew and Luke in favor of something more mystical:

    John 1:1-5

    New International Version (NIV)

    The Word Became Flesh

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

    This is beautiful poetry, but it really doesn't help us know anything about the earthly Jesus - only about the divine role that the author wishes to place him in.
    Many of the key doctrines of the church like the trinity are seeded in passages like this in the Gospel of John. 
    "I'm the way, the truth and the life. Now, take good notes; I'm only going to say this once! No, don't worry about that other time, when I told everybody to keep quiet about me." Jesus, probably 

    If you have read any of my writings, you know two things about me: 1) I love metaphors and poetic language, and 2) I hate it when people confuse metaphors for reality. I have said this before: the metaphor is not the thing. For example, it may be illuminating to say that we live on "Mother Earth", and using this expression can help you understand the Earth's place and tune your relationship with the Earth. But the earth is not a "mother," it is a giant lump of rock, and no amount of poetry will make it have a womb or bear children.
    Curiously enough, the author of John himself gives the reader a warning about this very thing several times: my favorite is the story of Nicodemus, who for some reason thinks that Jesus means for him to crawl back into his mother's womb after Jesus tells him he "must be born again". Jesus rightly rebukes him for being so foolish,  but let's be real - Nicodemus is a member of the Sanhedrin, the high Jewish counsel - do you honestly think he couldn't understand figurative language? This was obviously an attempt by the author of John to warn the reader to not fall into this literal way of thinking.
    Another thing that is interesting is that we have found several other gospels written in this later period that also deviate from the synoptics. However, theologically they represent the views of other groups - heretics - that did not become the mainstream, and thus were not canonized and were either ignored or refuted.
    Although I haven't read it yet, John Shelby Spong has written the book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic that gives this gospel the respect it deserves, and is high on my "to read" list.
  5. The "Revelation" was not a prediction of future events, but in fact is a commentary on the troubling events of the day.
    This one is not so much a fact as it is a different interpretation, but bear with me. As a teen, I remember attempts by the church to have us all "scared straight" with stories about the second coming of Christ, the anti-Christ, tribulation, the mark of the beast. It didn't scare me, because I knew that I would be saved by Jesus (of course). But I assumed that un-believers would be terrified by these kinds of stories. I remember a play called "Heaven's Gates, Hell's Flames", and also the Left Behind series that stoked the fires of this fear.
    This whole mythology is for the most part based on a futuristic interpretation of the book of Revelation, which appears to describe an end time where the world is destroyed. This view is called "Dispensationalism", and it is a fact that this interpretation pretty much originated with the writings of John Nelson Darby in the 19th century. However, the book of Revelation seems to make the most sense (if any at all) when it is interpreted as events that happened in the late first century in which it was written - this alternative interpretation is called "Preterism", and was in fact the dominant understanding throughout the history of the church. It is only within the last several generations (powered by the Left Behind series) that the interpretation of Revelation as a description of a coming end-of-the-age has been popular. A good book explaining a lot of this from a Christian perspective is Raptureless by Jonathan Welton, which is available to read for free on the author's web site.
    Not even Jesus could save this turkey from the critics. Brutal!

    If one considers Jesus to be the Messiah and a prophet warning about the end of the world who was killed when the Romans were the supreme power on earth, it is only natural that one of his followers would see the events happening in Jerusalem at the time, (including the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, which was a Joe Biden-level "Big F*%&ing Deal") and be inspired to write a fantastic apocalypse describing the end of the world. The earliest followers of Jesus all expected an end-time scenario along with his return during their lifetime (the Gospels include Jesus saying this very thing).
    But the temple was destroyed, eventually the Roman Empire itself fell, and the world continued to exist; Christ did not return, and the poetic Revelation became doomed to interpretation, and re-interpretation until the end of time (literally). I personally consider it a major embarrassment that Christians who have not even read enough of the relevant Bible passages to form an opinion on something as complicated as eschatological theology (or even know what that means) seem to fear of the silliest things (like the number 666, or do you remember the introduction of debit cards? Whoah, boy!) because of some impassioned end-time preachers.I have even heard people quote their views on end-times theology as a reason for denying human impact on the global climate. That's just ridiculous, and dangerous.
These facts have all changed the way I look at the Bible. When I did not know them, the Bible seemed to be seamless, and authoritative. As I studied it and it started to break apart, I began to look outside the book to see how others understood it. When you do this, you open yourself up to a world of new thought, although you risk disturbing your illusions. I contend that it is worth sacrificing those illusions.

I no longer fear Hell, nor an impending apocalypse. I am no longer forcing myself to re-interpret the words of Jesus to mean things that I can believe, nor do I feel shame when I cannot figure out how to do that. I no longer fear that if I am too harsh on the Bible, that God is going to remove his presence from me for blaspheming Him. These are the fruits of an informed criticism of the Bible.

"Dante, Virgil - I think these are the Gates of Hell. You guys go ahead, I'll meet up with you later..."

So why don't pastors talk about this? I don't want to leave the impression that pastors are being dishonest. I have very dear friends who are in the ministry, and some of them even read this blog. They are honest leaders who feel called by God to teach, and they want the best for their people. I think that criticism of the Bible is equated with skepticism, and is seen as a sort of "gateway drug" to total unbelief. It seems innocent enough to doubt the virgin birth, but before you know it you're building an altar to Richard Dawkins and offering you children as a sacrifice to Science. Maybe part of that's true, but I think a lot of pastors just don't want the risk of "going there" with their congregation. Maybe they don't want to go there themselves, and so they haven't consciously acknowledged these ideas.

I've explained in the past that my reason for leaving the church is the people's failure to be honest about reality. Their willful ignorance of the Bible is a big part of this. I can never leave behind the example of Jesus, as I have known him since childhood. I still find my self trying to be like Jesus: a Christian. But, knowing what I know about the Bible, I can't accept some things that I have been told about him: that his mother was a virgin, that he could walk on water, or even that he came back to life. Those things don't happen, and there are important reasons why they don't. However, they make for fascinating stories - so much so that they were repeated for generations, until someone used these same stories as a source for their books and letters, and those writings have continued to inspire us for centuries. Let us not destroy the beauty of these stories by believing that they are something which they are not.

"Hmmm, she seems innocent...

Of course, I'm not going to persuade those who take these stories literally to change their minds. I could put the verifiable bones of Jesus on display, and they would still insist God raised him from the dead. And that's not what I'm trying to do. I really only want to show that the other 5 billion or so people on Earth don't really have a good reason to believe that these stories are anything more than that. But I am fine with someone who wants to maintain their beliefs. As long as they make room for everyone else, I don't have a problem for that. Besides, I understand how long it took and how much study I needed to come to such a conclusion myself. Yet, maybe just saying it out loud will help people understand where I am coming from. And maybe we can all treat others better because of it.