Jesus Rejected Biblical Literalism

According to the New Testament, Jesus rejected the idea that every verse of the Bible was “written” by God. Here’s the evidence:

As I mentioned in earlier postings, the Biblical penalty for doing any work on the Sabbath was execution: “… on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death …” (Exodus 35:2)

That seems a bit harsh, but the rule was sometimes enforced with deadly seriousness. Supposedly God even commanded Moses to have a man slain because he gathered sticks on the Lord’s day. (Numbers 15:32-36) But later Jesus was criticized for working on the Sabbath (picking grain to eat, and healing the sick). In an earlier time he could have been stoned to death for that crime. His response to his critics was, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27. See also Matthew 12:9-14.)

So Jesus himself rejected Biblical literalism! He explicitly contradicted passages from the Hebrew Bible (which has become the Christian Old Testament). Since Jesus clearly rejected a passage which is part of Christian scripture, anyone who takes his statements as truth must conclude that Biblical inerrancy is in error. And of course, few Christians today think God wants us to kill those who work on Sunday.

The Gospel According to Matthew also says Jesus rejected Biblical rules about what should and should not be eaten. “And he called the people to him and said to them, ‘Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.’ Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’” (Matthew 15:10-12)

The Hebrew Torah (and therefore the Christian Old Testament) bans lots of foods. Leviticus 11, for instance, forbids consumption of pigs, shellfish, ostriches, lizards, crocodiles, etc. But if Matthew 15 is correct, the Nazarene was rather relaxed about such matters.

Right now I’m mostly writing about Old Testament passages, but I am taking a detour into the New Testament to show that Jesus disagreed with at least one of the death penalty clauses of the Torah. So there’s a big problem here. If we assume that every word of the Bible is true, we have to believe that “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” But that obviously contradicts the passage mandating the death penalty for anyone who does even a tiny amount of work on that holy day.

Any comments?

Roger Christan Schriner


Capital Punishment in the Bible: God Was Just Kidding?

In my previous entry I wrote that the harshness of Biblical death penalties suggests that those who wrote the Bible were limited by “personal and cultural biases.” One reader replied that this statement actually shows my cultural bias, because it is unclear “whether the Torah death penalties were ever regularly observed as written. Some scholars suggest that the very extremity of the stated punishment suggests it was never intended as the actual punishment but as a statement about the seriousness with which the matter touched society.” This commentator also referred me to a helpful web page called The Death Penalty in Jewish Tradition:

So was I showing cultural bias? I admit it may have sounded as if I was showing ignorance about Hebrew culture, assuming that the ancient Hebrews always carried out the letter of their law. I’m sorry to have given that impression, so let me emphasize that I was not trying to focus on what the Hebrews did or did not do. Instead I was commenting on a list of plain and blunt statements in the Bible, and asking whether these reflect a supreme intelligence.

For example: I am not saying that every time a child impulsively smacked one of its parents they called the village together and stoned the little tyke. That seems most unlikely. As Paul H. Jones writes in The Fourth R, Nov./Dec. 2012, “If parents executed their rebellious children according to the directive of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, none of us would be alive!” (Actually I doubt that all of us were as rebellious as the “glutton and drunkard” described in that passage, but I’m sure you get Jones’ point.)

I will, however, stand by my statement that these passages reflect personal and cultural biases – although “opinions” would have been a better word than biases. Those who wrote these verses believed that imposing (or at least threatening) extreme penalties was a good idea, either because that was their personal opinion or because they were reflecting the opinions of their culture.

These passages sound quite human to me, rather than divine. I cannot imagine that a supreme being, knowing exactly how the human mind works, would prescribe death for a wide range of offenses, assuming that fallible men and women would soften these commandments appropriately. That assumption certainly didn’t turn out well for the fellow mentioned in Numbers 15:32-36. God supposedly commanded Moses to have him slain, merely because he gathered sticks on the Sabbath.

Furthermore, an all-knowing deity would have been able to predict the terrible damage that certain verses would cause when people took them literally. Witch-hunters down through the ages have justified their murders by quoting Exodus 22:18: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

Remember, the focus of this blog is on whether every verse of the Bible was “written” by God. And even though the verses I’ve been discussing so far are from the Jewish Torah (which became part of the Christian Old Testament), Jews have not typically embraced scriptural literalism. Saying that God inspired every word of the Bible is much more common in conservative Christian churches than in Jewish synagogues.

I don’t think it works to say that God commanded these punishments, thinking, “These rules are so harsh that people will know I’m kidding.” So what are some other ways that a literalist could deal with the three puzzles about Biblical penalties that I discussed in my previous entry? I welcome further comments.

Roger Christan Schriner

Three Puzzles about Biblical Death Penalties

The Christian Old Testament prescribes punishments for lots of banned behaviors, including execution by being burned or stoned to death. Oddly, even though the Bible often spells out ceremonial regulations in meticulous detail, death-penalty commandments are tossed off almost casually, with little or no wiggle-room for unusual or extenuating circumstances. This tends to confirm the idea that even though the Bible’s human writers tried to accurately express the will of God, they were limited by their personal and cultural biases.

Here are a few examples, beginning with those found in Exodus 20-22, which begins: “And God spoke all these words, saying, …” (Exodus 20:1)

“Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:15)

“For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” (That’s Leviticus 20:9, which I mentioned in an earlier entry.)

“You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

“Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death.” (Exodus 22:19)

“Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)

And from a list of regulations in Leviticus 20-21:

“For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” (Leviticus 20:9)

“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death, their blood is upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed incest, their blood is upon them. If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them. If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is wickedness; they shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you. If a man lies with a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” (Leviticus 20:10-16)

“A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them.’” (Leviticus 20:27)

“And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” (Leviticus 21:9) (I guess it’s always been tough to be a preacher’s kid!)

And here’s one I’ll discuss in a later entry: Whoever does any work on the Sabbath, even kindling a fire, “shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:3) A strict Biblical literalist might have found it hard to live in Medieval Scandinavia during the winter.

This blog focuses on whether it’s realistic to believe that the Bible is God’s Word from beginning to end, and obviously some of these verses don’t sound like higher guidance. Here are three puzzles about these passages.

1. Many punishments seem absurdly extreme. If a child kicks Daddy or curses Mommy, that would seem to suggest a time-out rather than capital punishment.

2. A supreme divine intelligence would realize that offenders can be reformed. For example, those who engage in peculiar sexual practices might learn to obey social norms. How about giving first offenders a second chance?

3. As noted above, lists of rules in the Bible seldom allow for extenuating circumstances. If one actually thinks parent-strikers should be killed, the regulation should say something like, “You must kill a child who strikes a parent, unless the child is very young, or was drunk with wine, or is mentally incompetent, or unless the parent has done something terrible to the child, or unless there is some other reason that this penalty should obviously not be applied.” (And even that greatly-softened rule still sounds horrible!)

How should a Biblical literalist deal with these three puzzles? Literalism accepts every bit of the Bible as true. Is it possible to do that with these passages? I’ll comment further in my next post.

Roger Christan Schriner

Inspiration: Dictation or Filtration?

Before considering other problematic Bible verses, I want to suggest two different ways of understanding the divine inspiration of scriptures.

A sacred book can be inspired through dictation. God, or an emissary from God, can speak to a human (or put thoughts into a person’s head) and these can be written down word for word.

In this scenario, the person is a passive instrument, serving as “God’s pen.”

On the other hand, inspiration may involve filtration. Communications from God or some other source of wisdom are filtered through the minds of human beings. Sometimes people are so thoroughly conditioned by their cultures or so full of their own prejudices that most or all of the message gets filtered out. And sometimes they think they’re hearing God when they are actually listening to a very different voice.

By the way, something similar can happen with guidance that comes from within. An unconscious insight may “try” to push its way into our consciousness, but for one reason or another we suppress or distort this message. The classic example is a revelatory dream that the dreamer misinterprets. Sometimes people discover, years later, that they completely missed the point of what a dream was trying to tell them.

Let’s assume that a personal deity did communicate with those who wrote the Bible. If the Bible seemed like perfect heavenly guidance from Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21, then one could reasonably believe that this book was divinely dictated. But if there are numerous passages that clearly do not reflect higher guidance, perhaps such guidance was filtered through the minds and hearts of fallible humans.

Isn’t that how Christians often experience prayer? Even if they have been listening carefully for the voice of God, they may see later on that they were mostly hearing themselves. “Uh-oh! That was my ego talking, not God.” Or: “That was my anger … my stubbornness … my attachments … my narrow-mindedness … my self-righteousness … my fear of change.”

And maybe that sort of thing sometimes happened to those who wrote the Bible.

Roger Christan Schriner

The Heartblink

I’ve been thinking about the way good people often disagree about important life issues, especially in dealing with politics, morality, and religion. Part of the problem is that we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, and one way to stay comfortable is to close our minds.

With controversial issues, strong arguments may pull us in opposite directions, and it’s no fun to feel like the rope in a game of tug-o’-war. So we choose one side of the controversy, and screen out information that supports the other side. Blocking out threatening facts is similar to the way our eyes blink when we get hit with a bright light. It’s a sort of mindblink. Shutting out data in this way can be soothing, but it can also be dangerous.

What’s especially dangerous is a related phenomenon we could call the heartblink. To block out disturbing data we momentarily disable our moral instincts.

When I was a child, I read the Bible all the way through. But even though I read all of the problematic Bible verses that will be discussed on this web site, I didn’t let myself realize their significance. I remember sort of “blurring” after reading a troubling passage, feeling confused and quickly moving on. Mindblinks and heartblinks shielded me from distress.

Here’s an example: Leviticus 20:9 states, “For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” Exodus 21:17 also demands the death penalty for parent-cursing.

Many Christians have been startled at this teaching. In Is God a Delusion? theistic philosopher Eric Reitan asks incredulously, “Would a good God call for the execution of children who curse their parents?”

Notice that this commandment is clearcut, black-and-white. Execute the child, period. Nothing is said about the child’s age. Are we talking about a twenty-year-old? A ten-year-old? A four-year-old? Nor are extenuating circumstances mentioned, such as mental illness, low intelligence, extreme provocation, or the child’s repentance. What if the child was temporarily enraged and apologized immediately? Or suppose a little boy or girl had reason to hate the parent, such as being the victim of sexual abuse? Sorry, little one. No excuses are allowed.

Furthermore, if this was the voice of higher guidance speaking, one would think that God would have revealed helpful principles of communication and mutual understanding. The creator of the universe would presumably realize that there are other ways of dealing with an angry child besides killing it.

 I never cursed my parents, but as a child that passage should have gotten my attention. I should have asked myself, “If one of my classmates got mad and said, “Damn you, Mommy!” does God actually want that little kid to be stoned to death?

It’s easy to heartblink Leviticus 20:9 and Exodus 21:17 because they are so obviously not the Word of God. But both of these verses are embedded in a long list of rules that are explicitly presented as God’s commandments.

As you read the scriptural passages which I will discuss on this web site, watch out for mindblinks and heartblinks – moments when you suspend your ability to think, or your ability to care. Learn to notice when you cope with a passage such as Leviticus 20:9 by momentarily immobilizing your own moral instincts. All of us do this sort of thing from time to time.

The Bible as a whole, I believe, asks us to open our hearts rather than hardening them. Jesus and many of the prophets urged us to stay in touch with our compassion. I think they would agree: Beware of the heartblink.

Roger Christan Schriner

Four Reasons People Believe that Every Word of the Bible is True

The idea that every word of the Bible is true is often called “inerrancy,” meaning that the Bible is free from error. This belief is very common in the United States. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that “About one-third of the American adult population believes the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.” On the other hand, about half of Americans believe that the Bible “is the inspired word of God but that not everything it in should be taken literally.”

Importantly, “Some denominations hold the belief in a literal Bible as a hallmark of their faith. The statement of ‘Faith and Mission’ of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, states that: ‘The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.’”


Similarly, the influential minister Rick Warren writes in The Purpose-Driven Life that “What we need is a perfect standard that will never lead us in the wrong direction. Only God’s Word meets that need. Solomon reminds us, ‘Every word of God is flawless,’ and Paul explains, ‘Everything in the Scriptures is God’s word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live.’”

Warren continues, urging his readers to “Resolve that when God says to do something, you will trust God’s Word and do it whether or not it makes sense or you feel like doing it” (p. 187).

Biblical literalists are often stereotyped as uneducated and unintelligent. But with tens of millions of Americans believing that everything in Scripture is true, there are obviously a great many smart and well-informed individuals who accept inerrancy. Certainly Rick Warren himself has a fine mind.

Even so, I am going to suggest that there is essentially no chance at all that inerrancy is correct. How can this be, when so many competent people accept this doctrine?

Here’s an even harder question: How can I myself write off Biblical literalism when I have stated that “Whenever significant numbers of sincere and competent people persistently disagree, one suspects that the truth remains unknown”? (Do Think Twice: Provocative Reflections on Age-Old Questions, p. 51.) If that’s true, then literalism must at least be a valid option.

Not necessarily. In some cases lots of very bright people believe something that just isn’t so. So let’s consider why so many accept inerrancy. Are they all Biblical scholars? Have they read the whole Bible through, in the original languages? Obviously not, and it would be silly to expect that of the average churchgoer. So why do they think this book is not only God’s Word, but in a sense, Gods words?

I’m going to mention four reasons, and suggest that all of these suffer from one huge problem.

Many people believe that every word of the Bible is true because:

1. Reading the Bible inspires them and guides their lives in helpful ways.

2. They love their church, and their church endorses literalism.

3. People they greatly respect teach that the Bible is word-for-word correct – friends, family members, writers, ministers, and lay leaders.

4. To say that some of this book is inspired and some is not would be complicated and confusing. God wouldn’t make such a muddle.

I can absolutely understand the appeal of these ideas, but here’s the catch:

This way of thinking about the Bible would justify all sorts of other religions and religious books that disagree with Christian Scripture.

Consider Islam. Muslims view the Koran as the ultimate holy book. They also accept the divine inspiration of Jewish and Christian scriptures, but if there is a contradiction between the Bible or the Torah and the Koran, the Koran wins.

With just as much sincerity as Christians who love the Bible, Muslims could say that:

1. Reading the Koran inspires them and guides their lives in helpful ways.

2. They love their Muslim community, and their imam teaches that the Koran was dictated to Muhammad by an angel of God.

3. People they greatly respect teach that the Koran is word-for-word correct – friends, family members, writers, and spiritual leaders.

4. To say that some of the Koran is inspired and some is not would be complicated and confusing. Allah would not make such a muddle.

But since the Bible and the Koran sometimes contradict each other, it’s impossible for both of these books to be literally true.

Furthermore, in ancient times there were religions that contained beliefs that neither Christians nor Muslims would accept today. And yet these obsolete religions also inspired their followers and provided communities that were helpful and comforting. But that doesn’t show that their scriptures expressed the voice of their god(s).

Here’s a good test: If following a certain line of reasoning makes it possible to prove things you know aren’t so, watch out!

In short, accepting Biblical literalism because the Bible is inspiring, because attending church is helpful, because people we respect teach literalism, and because rejecting literalism would be confusing would also justify accepting other books that contradict the Bible. That can’t be right.

Let me emphasize: I realize it’s easier to just accept everything in the Bible (or at least to tell ourselves we do) rather than decide for ourselves which verses reflect deep wisdom and which do not. But I just don’t think it works.

My next entry will include an example of a Bible passage that was certainly not inspired by God.

Roger Christan Schriner

Is the Bible God’s Word?

After retiring from my work as a minister and psychotherapist, I have been searching for ways of bridging the gap between different theological viewpoints. In November, 2012, as I look back on the Presidential election, it seems more obvious than ever that Americans are polarized about both politics and religion. And one of the key issues dividing people, both here and abroad, is the question of Biblical inspiration. Is the Bible divinely inspired?

Here are some possible answers to that question:

1. The entire Bible is divinely inspired, and every verse is literally true.

2. Except for minor problems such as errors in translation, everything in this book was inspired by God.

3. The Bible may contain incorrect statements due to human error, but God ensures that no harm will result from these mistakes.

4. Some passages of the Bible reflect human opinions rather than divine wisdom, but the Bible as a whole is divinely inspired.

5. Much of the Bible is God’s Word and much of it is not.

6. None of this book was inspired by God. It is entirely a human creation.

This web site is primarily intended for those who accept statements 1, 2, or 3, and are open to considering the possibility that these statements may be incorrect.

In a series of postings I will attempt to show beyond any reasonable doubt that options 1, 2, and 3 are incorrect and lead to dangerous and destructive consequences. I will take no position about items 4 – 6. I hope those who believe in one of the first three options will read this blog with an open mind and send me their comments.

You may find this site helpful if:

* You have believed that all of the Bible is divinely inspired, but you are troubled by passages that seem morally repugnant.

* You notice scriptural passages that seem to contradict each other.

* You wonder about seeming contradictions between the Bible and modern science.

* You accepted the complete literal truth of the Bible when you were young, but now that you’re older you would like to revisit this decision.

* You disagree with someone you love about whether the Bible is “inerrant” (without error), and you would like to reflect on this issue.

There are already web sites purporting to show that the Bible contains errors, contradictions, and hazardous ideas. But many of these sites sneer at Christians and Christian beliefs. I wish to explore this issue in a way that respects those who treasure the Bible, regardless of their opinions about divine inspiration.

I have friends who are Biblical literalists, and I have no interest in denigrating anyone’s faith. I hope the conversation I am beginning will bring us all closer together, not push us farther apart.

In my next entry I will consider inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is entirely true because it is entirely God’s Word.

Roger Christan Schriner