Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Bible as Literature

My recent tongue-in-cheek post about the Bible resulted in a couple of emails and a blog comment.

One acknowledged that I 'didn't mean any harm' by my post, another implied that my reference to the contradictions, discrepancies and inaccuracies in the Bible 'reveal a lack of understanding of the work.'

It's the second statement I disagree with. This is a very common response from people who don't agree with my particular take on the Bible and the context of what's written within it - but I went to a theological university (albeit to study history) and took classes on the history and origins of the Bible.

I think this puts me in a better position to discuss it than a certain sect of the Christian community, whose 'knowledge' of the Bible stems from them reading their own particular English translation of the Bible and discussing it amongst themselves.

There is an important difference between 'studying the Bible' (in which one learns about the documentary history of the Bible, the historical and political influences that effected it's development and the context in which it was written) and 'Bible studies.' Reading four chapters of the Bible every day does not give you a better understanding of it.

The fact is, each of the 21 English-language translations of the Bible are riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions and inaccuracies. Even ignoring the internal inaccuracies, it's difficult to reconcile how one translation of the Bible (such as the popular King James) is often in contradiction with another (such as the Revised Standard Bible.)

I've written quite extensively about it here - The Bible and Star Wars.

It doesn't have to be a big deal. The inaccuracy of the Bible shouldn't be a question of faith.

For example, I'm an atheist and I still believe that the Bible contains many historical and philosophical truths. Catholics and Episcopalians still believe that Jesus was the son of God and died for our sins - yet they're willing to accept that the story of creation was allegorical and the actual birth of mankind follows what scientific study has taught us.

[You should listen to the Catholics, guys. When it comes to The Bible, they wrote the book. Literally. - Editorial Bear.]

The problem arises when fundamentalist evangelicals - and yes, I'm sorry I'm always ragging on you - try to claim that the Bible isn't inaccurate. It's not allegorical. It's literal fact and it's the infallible word of God.

I simply find it astonishing - mind boggling - that we live in the early years of the 21st century (man has split the atom, sent men to the moon and harnessed the power of DNA) yet there are millions of people in the United States who honestly believe that the world is 7,000 years old and God made Eve out of one of Adam's ribs (what was she? Six inches tall?)

But I've discussed this particular troubling issue many, many times over and generally reached the same impasse. They tell me: "If the facts don't agree with our belief system, then the facts are wrong." There's very little point discussing it further.

"It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?" Stephen Colbert

Riddle Me This...

Assuming for a second that the Bible is the infallible word of God and the copy you've got sitting in your bookcase (let's say it's the Revised Standard Bible) is entirely 100% accurate (even if it has several inconsistencies with your neighbour's King James Bible) could you answer me these questions? I'll make them multiple choice, to keep things easy.

Let's look at some of the attitudes and inspirations behind Christian faith first.

God is...
  1., which is not jealous or boastful
  2. ...a jealous God, who will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins and will turn and do you hurt, and consume you

The Bible's attitudes towards feminism are:

  1. Progressive. "There is no such thing as male and female, for you are all one person in Christ Jesus."
  2. Chauvinistic. "Women should keep silent. They have no permission to talk. If there is something they want to know, they can ask their husbands at home."

What was God's attitude to enemies and war?

  1. He was an old softy! "Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds."
  2. He was a vicious old bastard. "Go now, fall upon them! Destroy them! Spare no one; put them all to death, men and women, children and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and donkeys!"
If that hasn't confused you, let's have a look at some of the purely factual evidence regarding certain events (like Christ's Crucifixion.)

After Judas betrayed him, following the Last Supper, which of the Jewish authorities decided whether to hand Jesus Christ over to Pontius Pilate or not?
  1. Jesus is placed on trial in front of the whole Sanhedrin.
  2. There's no trial. The Sanhedrin merely hold an inquiry to decide.
  3. There isn't even an inquiry. Jesus only appears before Annas and Caiphas.
When Jesus is arrested, how does he tell his disciples to react?
  1. Non-violently. "Those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword," he warns them.
  2. Aggressively. "Whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one!"
  3. He doesn't say a thing. He's too busy getting arrested.
After betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot...
  1. Gave back the money he'd been bribed and hung himself.
  2. Kept the money, fell over and died after his intestines randomly fell out.
The answer to all of the questions is 'all of the above.'

These are just a tiny handful of the hundreds of blatant contradictions contained within the Bible, ranging from major theological issues (is homosexuality a sin? Or does Jesus condone it?) to some mundane, but important facts (Luke says Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, while Matthew implied they lived in Bethlehem.)

I've said it once. I ought to say it again. The fact that the Bible is a deeply flawed and inaccurate document does not stop it being an enormously important book - nor diminish the message of faith it contains. However, it is not the infallible word of God, as certain evangelicals would like to believe. It's not even the infallible word of man.

In the course of the Bible's long journey to your bookshelf, the real events that inspired it have been significantly warped, manipulated, misquoted and fictionalized. The worst of that damage has been done in the last century or so - when dozens of forthright and opinionated 'translators' delivered their own 'versions' of the King James Bible, using creative licence to insert their own religious agendas in amongst the so called 'words of God.'

There are no less than 21 different English translations of the Bible. You can see that list here. What troubles me more than any of the inconsistencies within the scriptures itself are the discrepancies between one edition of the 'English Language Bible' and another.

One Bible translates something one way. Another translates it different. This website allows you to take a specific passage from the Bible and compare each of the 21 translations against each other. Before anybody claims that 'the Bible' is the infallible word of God, they should take their favourite passage and see how different it appears in other versions.

Which one is the 'infallible word of God?'

None of them. And the sooner the evangelical movement accept that faith in God doesn't require slavish devotion to a flawed religious text, the sooner we can all embrace rationality and reason, instead of cynical superstition.


The Chronicles of a Fashionista in PDX said...

I have a hard time understanding why people won't accept the fact that the Bible had been translated multiple times to fit the needs of an era. One of friends is convinced the Bible IS the word of God and that it was never translated to fit the needs of Constantine's reign nor for the influencial Roman Catholic Church. Hope that made sense...

The Bible is sold As Is! No Refunds!

GMM2003 said...

Thank you for the comment about listening to the Catholics that you placed in the parenthesis!