New Year’s resolutions are a big deal around our house. Everybody writes them down, reads them aloud on New Year’s Eve, and posts them for the Mid-February Shaming.
The night before New Year’s Eve, Becca told me that one of her resolutions is to read the Bible this year. Though now a secular humanist, she was raised Baptipiscobyterian, and like most BPBs her scriptural knowledge was pretty much limited to pre-masticated pastoral nuggets, Fortified with Vitamin J and 99.7% Atrocity Free.
Reading the actual thing on your own is a good idea — if not the whole actual thing, then a few key parts. I managed the whole thing, with difficulty, over the course of about a year and a half when I was 13 and 14. And by the time I was done accompanying John of Patmos on his chemical field trip, I had a much more solid foundation under the feet of my growing skepticism.
One of the hopes I’ve had for my kids is that they get some unmediated experience with the Bible. But I didn’t want to lead them there by the nose, and my one early attempt to do so by reading Genesis aloud to them about eight years ago (“Gather ’round, children!”) ended mercifully around Genesis 2 in a hail of rolled eyes and groans of agony. It was clearly not the way, but I’ve wondered ever since how we would get to that deeper level of literacy.
So I was (quietly) thrilled when Connor, now a high school junior, announced his own resolution to read the Bible straight through this year. After years as an apatheist, Connor has begun engaging more actively, often expressing a baffled, how-can-anyone-believe-this-stuff consternation at the religious assumptions of everyone from presidential candidates to rapture predictors to kneeling QBs. I take it as a really good sign that his response to bafflement is not just a dismissive snort but a desire to figure it out by learning more about the baffling thing.
On New Year’s Day, Erin (14) said she’d like to give it a try as well. Holy smokes.
I doubt that many people who pledge to read the Bible get past the begats, and a fraction of those ever finish the whole thing. And no wonder — for every verse that’s poetic, dramatic, or horrific, the Bible has half a dozen that are tedious lists of names or numbers, or instructions for washing pots or getting your Bronze-Age business done. So without being heavy-handed, I wanted to improve the chances that my kids would actually stick with it — if not to the last Amen, at least to the point where their religious literacy would get a serious boost.
The first question is version. King James is poetic, but the archaic translation won’t keep those pages turning. On the other end of the scale are efforts like the NRSV Children’s Bible (loaded with silly, happy cartoons) and The Message, which puts accessibility ahead of pretty much everything else.
To get a sense of this spectrum, here’s the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13) in King James:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
…and in The Message:
Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.
If you can read that without mentally inserting “dude” every few words, you’re a better person than I.
Then there’s accuracy. Some translations simply rewrite the ineffable word of God to suit their preferences. This is important to know for critical reading but not my biggest concern in this case. Such translations end up pasting over little inconsistencies and leaving enormous, rancid horrors in place.
I’m more concerned with the use of euphemisms to help readers gloss over uncomfortable moments. Take Genesis 19:4-8:
Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
That’s the New International Version with one of the great jawdroppers of Western lit. Instead of “have sex with them,” King James says “so we may know them,” while The Message says, “Bring them out so we can have our sport with them!” Erin, who has a more than a hint of Amelia Bedelia in her, couldn’t be blamed for reading those last two as respective requests for conversation and tennis.
In the end, I gave Erin an NIV/Message Parallel Bible. Each page has the NIV running down the left column and The Message running down the right. She asked what the difference was, and I told her, suggesting she read the left column and use the right if she ever gets stuck. Comparing the two will keep her engaged and occasionally amused. I gave Connor the NIV Study Bible, the one I use most for reference. The translation is clear and readable, and every page is full of footnotes on historical context, alternate interpretations, and etymology.
I also gave them both a suggestion that I think is the real key to success: Start by reading Genesis and Matthew, just those two, then keep going if you want. Takes about five hours. And as Stephen Prothero points out, a good 80 percent of the religious references in our culture and politics can be found in those two books.
Thomas Jefferson considered it “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.” Robert Ingersoll called it “the insanest of all books.” Even Martin Luther, who knows a thing or two about being offensive, found it “offensive.” And though some modern theologians call it the “least important” book in the Bible, the Googlemind has a rather higher opinion of its significance:
Google hits for various canonical books:
— “Book of Luke” or “Gospel of Luke”: 414,000 hits
— “Book of Matthew” or “Gospel of Matthew”: 517,000
— “Book of Genesis”: 685,000
— “Book of Love”: 827,000
— “Book of Records”: 893,000
— “Book of Revelation”: 1.14 million
So whether or not it’s theologically “important,” the Book of Revelation clearly has our attention.
I Googled the phrase “The Book of Revelation is the most” to see what word comes next. Some favorites:
…book in the Bible. And now that Barack Obama has been proven to be the Antichrist — the Beast having chosen to reveal himself through the Illinois Lottery — we’d better take a look at the book that has warned us about him lo these many years.
A brief synopsis, for those of you who haven’t (yet) had the pleasure of devouring Left Behind:
John of Patmos had himself a “vision.” It starts with Christ appearing with eyes of flame, feet of bronze and a sword coming out of his mouth. He explains to John (in an understandably sword-muffled fashion) that he, John, should watch carefully so he can describe the vision to the churches.
John is taken before the throne of God where he sees twenty-four chosen ones and four Creatures covered with eyes, giving glory to God. Seven seals on seven scrolls are opened by a lamb. As each is opened, various things are loosed on the world—war, plague, death, earthquakes, and (my personal favorite) really outrageous food prices.
Sun black, moon red, stars fall, sky disappears, mountains flung, 144,000 people are marked with the seal of God.
Seven trumpets sound, bloody hail and fire, sea turns to blood. Locusts that look like horses with lion’s teeth and sting like scorpions fly out of the abyss and for five months sting anyone who do not have the seal of God on his or her forehead. One third of humankind is killed.
John eats a scroll, and a war breaks out in heaven. A dragon is defeated. Seven vials of wrath opened. An angel tells birds to feast upon dead human bodies. The beast and the false prophet are cast alive into a lake of fire. The rest are killed with the sword of Jesus. A thousand years pass, God sends Satan to deceive us all, and whoever isn’t found in the Book of Life is cast into the Lake of Fire as the rest ascend to glory.
Imagine if you will my shock and surprise upon learning that John’s home island of Patmos has been the Mediterranean’s premiere source of hallucinogenic mushrooms for thousands of years.1
For many years I wondered not so much at how anyone could believe such unhinged ravings, but why they would even want to—why such a blood-soaked festival of flying monsters and burning flesh appeals to anyone. And it does, you know. The End of It All is not simply accepted by fundamentalists—it is yearned for.
William Miller, founder of the Adventist movement, predicted that the end of the world would come on October 22, 1844. When it didn’t, his followers referred to it not as “The Day of Phew!”, but as “The Great Disappointment.”2
When yet another, later prediction maddeningly passed, the first one had to be renamed The First Great Disappointment. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
Many denominations, including Sarah Palin’s Assemblies of God, capture the yearning for the end perfectly by calling the coming end of the world “the blessed hope.” And she almost got the nuclear codes.
But I’ve come to empathize with the yearning to some degree, even if I don’t share it. It isn’t just about the triumph over death—it’s the triumph over injustice and evil. No matter how bad and unfair things seem, says John of Patmos through his shroomy haze, the wicked will one day pay in the most horrible way possible, and you’ll get to watch.
Compared to most of humanity, I’m a shar-pei sitting in the warm, fat lap of obscene privilege. I have never been the impotent victim of genuine injustice. I have recourse when I’m wronged, and I’m rarely seriously wronged. But to be a slave in the 17th century, or an impoverished Irish peasant in the 19th, or a Sudanese villager in the midst of civil war, to be shit upon relentlessly, to live in fear of an oppressor and to know you will die unvindicated for whatever happens to you—to live like that, imbued with our innate sense of fairness and to see none of it—I can see how Ultimate Fiery Justice would exert an irresistible pull. I’ve even seen the need for ultimate justice ( “Without it, Hitler would never pay!”) offered as the reason to believe.
I have considerably less empathy for those who define evil so misguidedly that the burning flesh they dream of smelling is not that of a slaveowner or warlord, but of the gay, the Jew, and the atheist. Not that I don’t know where they got such a grotesque and immoral definition of evil (HINT: See 1000-page preamble to Revelation).
Perhaps the most revealing moral question we could ever ask is whose shoes you’d like to see disappearing under the surface of that eternal lake of fire, with the prize going to those who say “none of the above.”
Okay, there it is. I had predicted the Bookin’ Through the Bible series would end last February (a date now known as The First Great Disappointment), but I proved infinitely distractable. Maybe that’s God’s problem as well—Armageddon’s on the calendar, but it just keeps getting pushed back.
A few years ago, a Catholic friend and neighbor of mine put the foundation of her belief into words for me. There are lots of reasons to doubt the divinity of Christ, she said, but one powerful thing continues to keep her doubts at bay. During Jesus’ life, the apostles were doubtful, denying, noncommittal. Then something happened to transform them, and they were willing to sacrifice their own lives in the name of their newfound convictions.
The Stoning of St. Stephen, Rembrandt (1625)
“I find it hard to account for that kind of radical transformation unless he really rose from the dead and was really the son of God,” she said with a shrug.
I didn’t say the obvious thing — that using one part of a book to prove another is meaningless. If I said I know Chapter 49 of the Koran is true because Chapter 50 says so, she would rightly laugh at me. But it wasn’t that kind of conversation, so I kept my mouth shut and gained a powerful insight into which book is the keystone and linchpin of the New Testament—the Acts of the Apostles, a.k.a. Acts.
Though its significance hadn’t hit me before, I’d already heard that argument several times before and have heard it since in various forms. The “Easter faith” of the apostles is the clincher. If you want to know something about Christianity, read a gospel. But if you want to understand Christianity, to get a sense of what makes it tick (and fizz, and shine, and honk, and occasionally explode), read Acts. Christ is born in the gospels, but Christianity is born in Acts.
The Conversion of Saul, Michelangelo (1545)
It’s in Acts that we get several post-resurrection appearances by Jesus; the Great Commission, in which Christ instructs his disciples to spread his teachings to all the nations of the world (the origin of evangelism); Pentecost, speaking in tongues, exorcism, and the raising of the dead; the first stories of persecution of Christians and the first Christian martyrs; the conversion of Saul/Paul (who was alleged to have been a persecutor of Christians), his early ministry, and his arrest and imprisonment; and the first glimmer of the spreading, enthusiastic, universal church that continues to motivate evangelists today.
As a result of all of this passionate and very human action, Acts delivers some of the best mythic narrative in the Bible. But by the end of the book, something more profound has been achieved than the gathering of heroes and transformation narratives: Christianity is converted from a Jewish sect to a religion in its own right. The teachings of Christ are now said to be for all humanity, not just a local group.
My neighbor may (or may not) be surprised to hear that the book in whose testimony she places such unsinkable faith is perhaps the most altered, amended, and interpolated book in the New Testament. Here’s bible editor and theologian Bruce Metzger writing in The Text of the New Testament: Writing in The Text of the New Testament, bible editor and theologian Bruce Metzger noted (disapprovingly) the position of many theologians including Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort regarding the Book of Acts:
Words, clauses, and even whole sentences were changed, omitted, and inserted with astonishing freedom, wherever it seemed that the meaning could be brought out with greater force and definiteness…. Another equally important characteristic is a disposition to enrich the text at the cost of its purity by alterations or additions taken from traditional and perhaps from apocryphal or other non-biblical sources… Another impulse of scribes abundantly exemplified in Western readings is the fondness for assimilation… But its most dangerous work is ‘harmonistic’ corruption, that is, the partial or total obliteration of differences in passages otherwise more or less resembling each other.
That such a well-traveled and freely-altered book continues to convince smart people like my neighbor of anything is testimony to the incredible power of confirmation bias and provides a nice foreshadowing of the upcoming blog series. Acts also provides a handy lens through which Christians can see and “understand” nonbelievers: we are Paul before the Damascus road, the apostles before the Resurrection. They saw the light — someday, surely, goes the narrative, we will too.
Next and final episode of the series, thank the Lord God Jehovah: REVELATION (date TBA)
You’re a thirtyish Israelite. You’ve been wandering in the desert your entire life and are now poised on the doorstep of the Promised Land. You can practically taste the milk and honey—which, after nothing but manna all your life, sounds pretty damn good. Just one ordeal remains: the Trial by Sermon. Moses is geared up to give you Israelites a three-sermon thrashing, telling y’all (1) why you don’t deserve the reward you are about to get, (2) all the arcane rules you must henceforth follow, and (3) the many, many people you will have to exterminate — Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites — for not vacating the Promised Land. For though Yahweh was apparently able to promise you the land, he was not in a position to evict the previous tenants himself.
(For the actual slaughterfest, read Joshua. Deuteronomy is just the marching orders.)
Hangest thou in there, O Israel, until the end of the third sermon, and I promise you, Moses will finally die. Then you can proceed to the Promised Land and get on with the holy business of genocide.
SERMON #1: Dad reminds us what happened last time…like we’d forget
Moses reminds the Israelites of the reason for their troubles: God tried to lead them into the Promised Land 40 years earlier and they had disobeyed. (Okay, Moses was the one who actually incurred God’s wrath, but as he makes clear in Deut 4:21, the Israelites made him mess up. Did I promise comedy or did I?)
Now, as they enter the suburbs of Canaan, Moses is essentially turning around in the front seat and saying “Now listen, we’re about to pull into my boss’s driveway again, so I’m going over the rules one more time. And if you kids embarrass me again, so help me, it’s Deuteronomy 28! Got it?”
SERMON #2: The Rules
Moses: “Now listen carefully. I can’t go with you into the Promised Land, because—as I believe I mentioned—you made me disobey Yahweh. So I’ll give you the rules and then die. They are simple rules—so simple even a Hittite could follow them:
“Once you’re inside the P.L., worship only Yahweh, and only in the designated areas. Don’t listen to people from other cultures and religions. In fact, kill them. Drink, but don’t get drunk. No shrimp or pork, and if you enslave another Hebrew, be sure to let him go after six years. No fortunetelling or witchcraft. Kill stubborn sons and all Amalekites, but NOT fruit trees, the mothers of newborn birds, or livestock that have fallen over, because that would be mean.
“No mixing fabrics, crops, or genders. Follow thus-and-such rules for marriage, loans, hygiene, and military service. Don’t sacrifice blemished animals. And if you’ve murdered someone, we have designated three cities where you can flee for asylum.
“I believe that covers everything. Oh, one more, this is important: Women are forbidden to grab the groin of their husband’s enemy (Deut 25:11, lest ye doubt). Can’t believe I almost left that one out. That is all.”
That’s the gist of the sermon, but the way it proceeds is interestingly different from the earlier attempts to lay down the law—much more lawyerly and tight. He doesn’t just instruct the Israelites to worship only one god; he backs them into an epistemological corner with a pretty impressive rhetorical Q&A. It’s like Socrates, with worse logic but a much better beard—all circularity (“Yahweh is the only real god because he’s the one who spoke from the midst of the fire,” etc.) and argument from authority. But a tip of the yarmulke for at least making an effort at argument.
Take a moment to read and appreciate the breathtaking bloodlust in Deut 20:16. I’ll use the happiest, breeziest translation possible for this (The Message), and it still retains the ability to disgust an ethical humanist:
But with the towns of the people that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, it’s different: don’t leave anyone alive. Consign them to holy destruction: the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, obeying the command of God, your God. This is so there won’t be any of them left to teach you to practice the abominations that they engage in with their gods and you end up sinning against God, your God.
Cross-stitch THAT one on your throw pillow, Grandma.
Okay. So there’s the LAW portion of our program. Now for ORDER.
SERMON #3: THE THREATS
Sign no treaties with the heathens. Show them no mercy. Kill them all, smash their altars, chop down their sacred trees. And if your brother, or your son or daughter, or your wife, or your closest friend urges you to worship a rival god, show him no pity or compassion. Take his life. “Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death.”
And then it gets serious. Remember the hypothetical dad threatening his kids with Deut 28? Here goes. If you break Yahweh’s laws:
“You shall become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky.”
“The Lord will strike you with hemorrhoids, from which you shall never recover.” (28:27)
“You shall not prosper in your ventures, but shall be constantly abused and robbed.”
“If you pay the bride price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her.”
“You shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!;’ and in the evening you shall say, ‘if only it were morning!’—because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see.”
“She who is most tender and dainty among you will secretly eat the afterbirth that issues from between her legs because of utter want.” (sometimes translated as eating the newborn itself)
Moses, creatively exhausted, dies, then (according to those who continue to assert that he wrote Deuteronomy) writes about his burial and the thirty days of mourning that followed.
Looking for the milk of human kindness in the Bible? Stick with the gospels—no no, better make that the synoptic gospels—and cherry-pick the epistles and proverbs, but steer clear of Deuteronomy. On the biblical wind-chill scale, Deuteronomy — please forgive the expression, Wiccans — is the witch’s tit.
ADDENDUM: FROM THE “HONEY, THERE ARE NO COINCIDENCES” DEPT.
How amazingly strange to learn that the very same evening I wrote about the death of Moses, Charlton Heston died.
Now Moses was very humble—more humble than any other person on earth.
Numbers 12:3 (The traditionally-claimed author of Numbers is, well…Moses)
The wicked man desires the booty of evil men.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts.
There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.
There are many candidates for funniest verse in the Bible, but for me there’s a clear winner—and it’s found, surprisingly enough, in Leviticus, the least funny book of the Bible:
If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death.
During the ethics portion of my half-day nonreligious parenting seminar, and in a previous post, I talk about what I call “boiling-pot parenting”—the notion that our children are, at root, boiling pots of depravity, and that our foremost occupation as parents is sitting hard on their lids lest their naturally sinful natures o’erflow.
I quote Christian parenting author Reb Bradley who warns that “all children are born delinquent….Given free reign to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a killer, a thief, and a rapist.” I mention The Lord of the Flies, a novel that convincingly plays out Bradley’s nightmares.
I then make what I hope is a convincing case that this is all rather silly and thoroughly unsupported by the best research in the social and developmental sciences.
Leviticus (“of the Levites”) is the book of the Bible that most directly reflects the boiling pot mindset. And though it’s tempting to lay the blame at the foot of Leviticus, that would be silly, too. The Bible didn’t create this mindset any more than it created self-delusion, self-contradiction, bigotry and fear. These are far more ancient and basic human frailties of which the Bible is merely a potent reflection, a handy place to go when we need to feel good about our lazy inability to do any better than ignorant Bronze Age goatherds.
Because I’ve come to see Leviticus as a reflection of our fears rather than the inspiration for them, it doesn’t get under my skin anymore. It’s fascinating anthropology. The fear of disorder—the absolute terror that the second law of thermodynamics governs human life as well as the physical world—is at the root of all Abrahamic religion. We’re all hurtling toward a cliff every second of our lives, says the Salvationist, with Sin leaning on the accelerator. That’s why Leviticus, the “morality” chapter in the OT, is not a steering wheel but an emergency brake. Don’t do X, never do Y, watch out for Z. Leviticus boils down to this idea: Follow God’s rules or die.
And such rules! There are rules for the wringing off of pigeon heads, precise instructions for the killing, burning, distribution, cutting, and “heaving” of animal sacrifices, for the all-important “waving” of the entrails, for the girding of men with “curious girdles.” There are rules for allowing fields to lie fallow and for washing pots, cautions against mixing this and that—different grains, different threads, same genders, the sacred and the profane. Don’t touch a menstruating woman. Don’t think an impure thought. And if you do… If you do… (Damn. What should we say?) I’ve got it! An invisible and quite powerful force will smite you.
No, that’s not exactly right, is it. One of the things I find most curious about Leviticus is that God is telling the people to do the smiting. He’s quite busy, granted, but I can’t help thinking it strange. Why bother with intermediaries? How much more efficient it would be if God would simply set things up so the scores of capital crimes in the bible are rewarded with a nice, sudden aortic rupture. Imagine Hitler crumpling on the spot before he quite got the order to invade Poland out of his mouth. Imagine how many children would have been spared if the first child-abusing priest had keeled over, pants around his ankles, as a warning to the others. Imagine all the disobedient children, astrologers, seed-spillers, marriers of their wives’ mothers, every one of them dropped where they stand. Instead, this weird system of intermediaries. I’m sure there’s a reason.
Leviticus is often maligned for its clear and happy endorsement of slavery. But dig deep enough—granted, you’ll need a big, big shovel—and there’s a hint of moral progress here. The Israelite is instructed to treat all Israelite slaves generously: “You must not rule over him ruthlessly,” and he must be released before the periodic “Jubilee year.” A miracle of progressive thinking.
You quickly note the obvious flipside—that non-Israelite slaves are designated as property “for all time” and can be treated however you like—that this is just bigotry compounded by distinguishing between those worthy of mercy (those most like one’s self) and all others. Give me a break. I’m digging for gold under a latrine here.
The book ends with an epic speech by Jehovah in which he promises bad juju if the rules are broken:
If you reject My laws and spurn My rules … I will wreak misery upon you … you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it … I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper. … I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children … though you eat, you shall not be satisfied … your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin …
And then some stuff about taxes.
Leviticus is an early attempt to impose the order of rules on the perceived chaos of the human condition, to articulate a workable morality. In the absence of systematic evidence, we were feeling our way forward, trying to come up with rules to live by, trying to avoid screwing up—an activity in the midst of which we generally screw up far worse.
And there’s the human comedy for ya.
Far less forgivable to me is the fact that anyone in the 21st century—anyone with access to the knowledge and insight and history these guys didn’t have—still finds a single scrap of Leviticus good for anything beyond cultural anthropology. And the occasion chortle.
I have the good fortune to cover two of the most humanist books of the Bible: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, both traditionally attributed to wise King Solomon. Ecclesiastes is a philosophical reflection communicating an old man’s existential angst; Song of Songs is an erotic exchange between two lovers.
My wife, Deena, put it this way: “Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes before he went on Prozac and Song of Songs after he went on Viagra.”
Let’s look a little deeper.
Identifying King Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes “is no more than a conventional literary device; the author commends his thoughts to the public under the name of the greatest sage in Israel.”1 I’ll follow David Plotz and the folks at Humanistic Texts in simply calling the author Koheleth (“teacher, leader of the assembly”), the original Hebrew word
which translates to Greek as
The main theme of the book is Koheleth saying of many things “This is vanity”2, and his repeated declarations that “All is vanity”3. That’s 12 near-identical phrases, plus the odd use of the word “vanity” elsewhere in Ecclesiastes. The slightly punchier NIV translation uses the word “meaningless” here. The New King James version offers “Absurdity, Frustration, Futility, Nonsense” as further alternatives in a footnote. When we look at the original Hebrew, we find that “The roots of the word hebel
indicate vapor, fog, steam, breeze or breath…. they all describe something that is transitory, ephemeral, impermanent.”
Aha! “Vanity”, “meaningless”, and the others are editorial extrapolations by early translators. Now we see the original sense more clearly: Everything is ephemeral; Everything is transitory. This is a difficult fact of life faced by humanists and others who do not believe in an eternal afterlife.
No discussion of Ecclesiastes would be complete without mentioning the first eight verses of chapter 3. You’ve probably already heard them – here’s the start:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
And so on. Some of the lines are questionable (“a time to kill”, “a time to hate”, “a time for war”), but the overall sentiment is reassuring – even to a humanist. Farmers must accept the seasons as they come; living creatures must accept the cycles of life. Naturally, these lines are popular for funeral readings.
The lines that follow, however, say that God ordains the time to do each thing. Is it possible to read the first eight verses without the taint of divine predestiny?
Here’s another recurring theme in this philosophical retrospective on a wise man’s life: we are told six times that the really good things in life are eating, drinking, and enjoying your work and its fruits4. Rather than simply calling this shallow hedonism, we could reasonably interpret it – especially the “enjoying your work” bit – as promoting human flourishing. Humanist philosophers and religious skeptics such as Socrates and Paul Kurtz express similar sentiments, coining words like eudaimonia and eupraxsophy to express the idea. Combine this with what we learn from his repeated use of the word “ephemeral”, and it’s easy to think of Koheleth as an early existential humanist. Cool.5
Unfortunately, a later editor felt that such religion-free morality was not appropriate for the Jewish scriptures, and added these two verses: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ec 12:13-14)
Twelve chapters of telling us that there is no ultimate good, nothing lasts forever, and the greatest worldly good is human well-being, and then we get the old obedience mantra that we first met in the Garden of Eden, as if it is the natural conclusion to draw from what went before. This complete U-turn suggests to non-believers and believers alike that the God-fearing stuff was tacked on some time after Koheleth composed the main body of the book.
My recommendation: do as they do at Humanistic Texts. Lop off the unnecessary addendum, and take this as a good work of humanist philosophy, poetically-presented.
Song of Songs
Now, let’s see what we can make of Solomon’s other masterpiece, Song of Songs. Reading through from Ecclesiastes into the Song, you have to agree that either these two books were written by different people, or Deena was right that there was a severe shift in the author’s pharmaceutical habits between books.
In fact, the Song is probably no more Solomon’s work than Ecclesiastes was. As its Wikipedia page notes, “It was common practice in ancient times for an anonymous writer seeking recognition for his work to write eponymously in the name of someone more famous.”
What about the content? The Song is packed with a wide variety of romantic and erotic images. It is clearly an exchange between two lovers, with some comments thrown in by others. It is not always obvious who is speaking where, though the NIV and NJB translations try to suggest divisions, with headings like “Lover” for the man, “Beloved” for the woman, and “Friends” for other speakers.6
The man compares his lover to a mare; her eyes are doves; her lips taste like honey.7 She says his eyes, too, are like doves; he is like a gazelle or young stag. His skin is golden, his hair is dark and wavy, his legs are like marble.8 So far so good – modern poems and songs contain similar (sometimes identical) imagery.
But not all of the metaphors are so familiar, nor so complimentary to modern eyes.
Hair like a flock of goats”? From a distance, perhaps a big flock of goats flowing down a slope could evoke cascading hair. Teeth like a flock of shorn ewes”? From the context (“all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved”), we must presume he’s telling us she has all her teeth, and maybe that they’re white. Fair enough if you’re living with bronze-age dentistry, but don’t try it in a Valentine’s Day card these days!9
I’m afraid I don’t know exotic fruit well enough to speculate about cheeks like pomegranates, and I’m completely lost when it comes to a neck like the tower of David with a thousand warriors’ shields hanging on it. Breasts like twin fawns may sound cosy and pleasant, though my knowledge of infant ungulates suggests they’re rather scrawny and leggy rather than round and bosom-like.10
With all that, you can’t blame the translators for trying in small ways to translate the imagery to contemporary romantic themes. The rose mentioned in 2:1
is a crocus in the original Hebrew.
There’s other imagery – gardens, locked gates, myrrh – but you get the idea. I’ve left the sexiest metaphors for you to find and enjoy on your own (or, preferably, with a companion).
We now have some idea what images the ancient Jews considered sensual or erotic. We can also infer that the author of this book found sex to be fun.
Which it is! Sex is a delight, physiologically and socially. Humans are adapted to wanting and enjoying sex. It is wired into us as a way of reinforcing pair bonding and maximizing our reproductive chances.
It is also at the root of what we value most: human life. The ancestors of every human on the planet (every animal of any kind, and most plants, for that matter) have been reproducing sexually for about 2.5 billion years. No sex would mean no life as we know it.
The author of the Song didn’t know just how long the history of sex is, but he almost certainly knew that sex leads to children. Even that, however, is not mentioned in the Song – and rightly so. When desire is upon us, it is not the consequences of sex that consume our minds, nor the historical precedents, nor its role in abstract moral philosophy.
It is the act itself. The raw, physical union of two people. This is what caresses the minds of lovers, what tempts and lures and pleases.
And this is what the Song is all about. It is about the fire that awakens in adolescence and, properly honoured and nurtured, doesn’t die until we do.
In Ecclesiastes we have a work of non-theistic moral philosophy, and in Song of Songs we have an erotic cavort through the poetic metaphors of a pastoral culture. The authors of both were big enough fans of Solomon, the wise king, that they credited their books to him. Both made it into the central canons of the Jewish and later the Christian scriptures. And both books, for the most part, convey secular humanist sentiments. What a pleasant reprieve to find, in a collection of bad science, repressive laws, and unlikely miracles, the odd book of humanist-friendly wisdom and joie de vivre.
5This is leaving aside, of course, Koheleth’s brief lapses into nihilism (Ec 7:1-4) and misogyny (Ec 7:28).
6The feminist in me would love to rant about the linguistic sexism implicit in these translations that give the male the active label “Lover” and the woman the passive label “Beloved”, but I have too little space to make it more than a footnote.
7So 1:9; So 1:15, 4:1; So 4:11
8So 5:12; So 2:9, 2:17, 8:14; So 5:11, 14, 15; So 5:11; So 5:15
[Editor’s note: I’m not the first to come up with the idea of bible study for nonbelievers. In order to give y’all a taste of the many different ways this can be approached, I’ve invited a couple of guest bloggers to each take the book of their choice and run with it. Our guest today is Vast Left, the brain behind the blog “Bible Study for Atheists,” who has prepared a comprehensive look at Exodus especially for Meming of Life readers. The introduction is below, followed by a link to the entire text. Many thanks to Vast for taking on this task!]
The Exodus Is Here
The ongoing influence of Exodus
Hello, Vast Left from Bible Study for Atheists here, taking you on a speed-dating tour through Exodus. King James Version, of course. I may be a heathen, but I’m a traditionalist heathen.
For an explanation of BS4A’s scope and philosophy, please click here. In a nutshell, the approach is to read the Bible through modern eyes, exploring the literal and metaphorical meaning of each chapter. In every sense, it’s a thoroughly irreverent look at the Good Book.
Ready to take a walk on the wilderness side? Then, let’s via con Dios, and read a summary of all 40 chapters of Exodus, specially prepared for readers of Parenting Beyond Belief / The Meming of Life.
If we’re trying to make historical sense of the Bible — and many, many people persist in the effort — the differences between the three “synoptic” gospels and the Gospel of John is a problem best not pondered too much. “John’s testimony is so different from that of the synoptic gospels,” wrote Tim Callahan in Secret Origins of the Bible, “that if his is accepted, theirs must be discarded.” But once you accept the folkloric nature of the Gospels, you can discard all of them as any kind of historical record and just enjoy the variations as evidence of oral handling and glean the occasional meaningful message from it. Liberal Christians do exactly that.
I’ve already confessed a certain affection for Luke. Part of it is familiarity, certainly, but it also includes a really attractive mythic narrative. But the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, the crazy aunt in the Christian attic, is the one that really grabs me by the bollocks:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
That’s the way to start a book about a god, not with a rambling genealogy or by banging on about vague prophecies! Religious moderates are often embarrassed by the weirdness of John, while Born-Agains, anti-Semites and rainbow-wigged endzone dwellers find their raisons d’etre in it. Yes, John has inspired more than its share of grief and ongoing lunacy. But considered as literature, as folklore, I find myself thoroughly grabbed by its metaphors (2:19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up) and its brutal, vivid directness:
6:53 Jesus said to them, I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.
No wonder “from that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him”! And in verse 6:66, no less! If you want passing, veiled references, go back to the synoptics. John makes the gristle of Christ squeak between your teeth.
My favorite gospel story, and the favorite of religious moderates everywhere, is John 8:4-11:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say? They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
They are asking this of the man who affirmed every “jot and tittle” of the Law of Moses, remember, including Lev 20:10. John describes the scene with this wonderful small detail:
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger, as if he had not heard them.
We’re in the midst of one of the greatest Bible moments here, a wholly uncharacteristic one. It’s more of a Buddha moment, really, and a marvelous piece of scene setting. It’s not the only one in John—“Jesus wept” (11:35) is another. In most of the gospels Christ is drawn with the wooden two-dimensionality of a grade school nativity play. But here, in John, he pops to life.
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. And again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
Jesus straightened up and asked her, Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?
No-one, sir, she said.
Then neither do I condemn you, Jesus declared. Go now and leave your life of sin.
The pace, the detail, the dialogue—none of it would be out of place in a modern novel. And unlike most of the Bible, there’s some genuine, original wisdom in it.
Gospel Hero No. 1: Judas
I’ll close by acknowledging two genuine heroes in John. In both cases, their heroism is interestingly set against the intransigence or cynicism of Jesus. The first is Judas in John 12:3-8:
Mary took a pint of pure spikenard ointment, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.
He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Why hello there, John. Editorialize much? Methinks he protests too much about Judas’ motives. Even if the dialogue is pure fiction, a graduate lit seminar would credit the character of Judas here and distrust the petty narrative voice. Judas didn’t say the money should have stayed in “the money bag.” He specifically suggested the 300 dinarii—a year’s wages for a laborer—should have been spent, but on the poor instead of on a luxury. And the character of Jesus responds with unworthy cynicism:
Leave her alone, Jesus replied. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.
Webber and Rice side with me on this interpretation in Superstar. Judas is the conscience and hero of the film:
Christ redeems himself (now there’s a turn of phrase) in 13:34 with a brand-new commandment, and a cracking good one:
A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.
Gospel Hero No. 2: Thomas
I’ll close with my other gospel hero, Thomas, who thought to ask for a bit of simple evidence before believing:
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, We have seen the Lord! But he said to them, Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you! Then he said to Thomas, Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.
The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601) by Caravaggio
Thomas said to him, My Lord and my God!
Then Jesus told him, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.
Oh really. I haven’t seen Joseph Smith’s golden tablets either. Shall I believe in them? Why not? How about the Mohammedan revelations? David Koresh, Jom Jones? This is the elephant in the church: When you say “Have faith,” which unevidenced claim shall I believe? The one I was born into? The one that gets to me first? The one with the loudest proponents or the worst threats? Perhaps the one with the least evidence? The story of Thomas would have been perfect if it ended 23 words earlier.
You can’t really blame Jesus for missing the point of the Thomas story. He was dead on his feet, after all. I’ll stick with Thomas, a biblical hero well worth introducing to my kids.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: John 3:16 Guy, a.k.a. Rollen Stewart, is currently serving three consecutive
life sentences for kidnapping and for threatening to shoot down planes in preparation
for the Rapture. No reflection on other fans of the Gospel of John or others with rainbow
hair, of course. But it IS a reflection on believers in the Rapture.]
You are a scribbler living somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean—maybe Antioch, maybe Alexandria—a devoted follower of a scattered and struggling Jewish sect that worships Yeshua, a rabbi who died in Jerusalem fifty years earlier. Your language is Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the known world in the last quarter of the first century.
Your parents raised you on tales of Yeshua, as they themselves had been raised on them. Dozens of accounts of the life of the rabbi had been written down by others, including a book of the sayings of Yeshua, a.k.a. Jesus.
One in particular has caught the popular attention. It would eventually be known as the Gospel of Mark, though it was no more the work of John Mark than your soon-to-be-contribution was the work of the apostle Matthew. That’s right: you’re about to write a gospel.
“Mark’s” story lacked a certain something. A beginning, for example, and an end. Also missing were the details of the teachings of Jesus that had come down to you through oral tradition. You decide to write your own version using a popular technique of the time, the merging of elements from many traditions into a single new narrative. “Mark” will do fine for a framework, so you start out with your 517 favorite verses from Mark and call it a day. Your Gospel is half done.
Eager to bring the message of Jesus to life, you draw on four other sources: the aforementioned book of sayings, which would later be called the “Q” source; the prophecies of the old Law (OT); the stories you heard at your mother’s knee; and the hands-down coolest religious superhero yet conceived: the Persian god Mithras. Or perhaps more to the point, oral tradition had already merged these threads. Your gospel will simply record the story of Jesus as it emerged from three generations of oral improvement.
Mithraism was already 1500 years old by the time of Christ, but recently it had begun spreading like wildfire into the Roman Empire. And the Mithraic narrative should, to put it mildly, ring a bell for modern readers.
Born on December 25th, son of the sky god, his birth witnessed only by shepherds, Mithras was called the Way, the Truth, the Word, the Light, the Son of God, and the Good Shepherd. His followers celebrated his birth each year with hymns and the giving of gifts, as well as a sacrament involving bread and water. At the end of his life, goes the story, Mithras was laid in a tomb of rock for three days, after which he rose from the dead and appeared before his twelve disciples before ascending into the sky to join his father.
Luke, which many scholars consider the likely work of a woman, would shortly follow.
I’ve always had a love of compelling mythology, so Matthew and Luke have always appealed to me. When I heard many years later that nearly all of the details of Jesus’ birth narrative were borrowed from the Mithraic religion of Persia, it only enhanced my affection for these gospels.
Like most of my generation, my first direct contact with the Gospels was through Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas:
Luke 2:8-11 is pure loveliness, especially in the KJV. I have to shake myself out of the fog of familiarity to really hear it, to imagine myself as an ancient shepherd standing in country-darkness, then being enveloped in heavenly light. Just like Bellerophon riding Pegasus to the gates of Olympus or Brunnhilde plunging through the world-fire to return the Rhinegold to the riverbed, this is a mythic scene I saw vividly in my mind’s eye as a child.
If you know the history of the Jews during the time the gospels were written, the elation at the idea of an arriving Deliverer becomes all the more believable. Messiah refers to a political savior, not a spiritual one. The destruction of the Jewish nation and the dispersal of its people was nearly complete. Jerusalem was in ruins. The final rebellion (bar Kohkba, 132 CE) was just around the corner. Three years after that, the Romans would obliterate the last remnant of Jewish nationhood. It would take over 1800 years and another Jewish Holocaust before such a thing would rise again.
I can easily see what the Messiah concept would have meant to Jews at the time, and how the alleged arrival of a savior could have spawned a new religion.
Matthew also gives the best view of the actual teachings of Jesus. Many seem obvious and commonplace now, but at the time the suggestion in the Beatitudes that wealth and power were illusory and that the poor and meek might inherit the earth and God’s grace represented an absolutely radical inversion of the social system. It’s nothing less than revolutionary proto-Marxism, and I’m behind it 94 percent of the way.
Once I began to see the harm done by biblical literalism and the powerlessness of liberal religion to address that harm, the synoptic gospels also came to my aid in combating literalism. I pointed out Mark 7:9-10 last time, in which Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for ignoring the Old Testament requirement to kill disobedient children. In Matthew and Luke, we hear an even more precise endorsement of the continuing relevance of every last bit of the Mosaic Law (Old Testament):
Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished. (Mt 5:17-18)
But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one tittle of the law to fall. (Luke 16:17)
This should be the end of the argument that the Old Testament was bad but was intended to be superseded by the New. Jesus begs to differ. So they both rise or fall together.
There is so much more to say, from petty geographic and historical errors (Luke 2 has the reigns of Quirinius in Syria and Herod in Judea overlapping at the birth of Jesus, though Quirinius didn’t begin his rule in Syria until ten years after Herod’s death) to the newly created resurrection narrative. But again, I run long, so I’ll close with three thoughts.
1. The Gnostic Compass
One of the greatest questions in gospel scholarship is why these four won the lottery. Among the gospels that fell off the table were several childhood gospels (Jesus turns his playmates into goats and is scolded for it) and the riveting Gnostic gospels, in which Jesus
was a new god trying to free the world from the domination of the old god Yahweh, who was in reality only a sub-creator called the Demiurge, the architect of the flawed material world, a world of illusion and death. Jesus did not really get crucified; he sent a double to take his place and transcended the physical world. (Callahan, Secret Origins of the Bible, 363)
2. The Blood Curse
In the synoptic gospels are the powerful seeds of 2000 years of anti-Semitism. To ensure the survival of their struggling sect, the gospel writers were keen to avoid antagonizing Rome. Hence Pilate’s washed hands and other extravagant attempts to lay the Christ-killing squarely at the foot of the Jews. Clearest of all is Matthew 27:24-26, the so-called Blood Curse:
So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
The last clause would merely rank among the least probable and most ridiculously Pythonesque pieces of crowd dialogue in the Bible if not for the tragedy and hatred it has wrought through the centuries since it was written.
3. “[do not devote yourselves] to myths and endless genealogies…” (1 Timothy 1:4)
The last is something that has fascinated me for several reasons, but I bring it up here as the single most useful example of biblical errancy in the whole damn book: the conflicting genealogies of Matthew 1:1 and Luke 3:23.
It was very important for the fulfillment of prophecy that the eventual Messiah be descended from the House of David, so both Matthew and Luke provide long genealogies to establish Jesus’ lineage. Several things immediately strike even a casual reader:
(1) that aside from David and Joseph, they share nothing in common—not even Joseph’s father;
(2) that Luke records 42 generations from David to Joseph, while Matthew records 26; and
(3) that Joseph’s genealogy is irrelevant anyway, since he was not related to Jesus.
Many gymnastics have been tried to resolve the genealogies, including the suggestion that one is actually Mary’s lineage. This explanation works only if “Mary” is a six-letter word starting with J.
Such inconsistencies are not a problem for those who’ve grasped the folkloric nature of the bible, of course — but the majority of Americans are still literalists, as the following postscript makes clear.
It’s not hard to see why the message of the gospel (literally “Good News”) resonates with humanity. The Jews of the 1st century turned their own dream of rescue from political oppression into a claim that death itself, the greatest oppressor of all, had been conquered. No wonder literal belief persists.
George Barna recently completed one of his periodic polls regarding literal belief. As I noted in a comment on the Gospel of Mark post last week, The Barna Group is the one evangelical source I trust. Barna’s stated goal is to tell the church what it needs to hear, not just what it wants to hear. He uses scientific and transparent methodology to keep his finger on the pulse of American Christianity.
The Barna researchers asked a sample of 1005 adults whether they considered six key bible stories to be literally true or to be narratives that were not factually accurate but were designed to teach principles. Three of the six were in Matthew and Luke.
75 percent of respondents said that they believe Jesus Christ was literally born to a virgin. 69 percent embraced the story of Jesus turning water into wine as literally true. 68 percent view the story of the loaves and fishes as factually accurate.
____________________________ RECOMMENDED READING
Barnstone, Willis. The Other Bible. Includes ancient scriptures that did not make it into the canonical bible, including fascinating alternative gospels, even alternative creation stories. Helms, Randel McCraw. Who Wrote the Gospels? Callahan, Tim. Secret Origins of the Bible. Ridiculous name, terrific book. Details parallels of biblical stories and elements in earlier religious traditions.
[forward to the GOSPEL of JOHN]
____________________________ NEXT WEEK: The Gospel of John