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I’ve now finished my new book. It took a full year longer than anticipated, forcing me to put off many important priorities. So I’ve decided to suspend this blog for a while. I still welcome comments on the two dozen items I’ve already posted.

For those who might be interested in my new book, here’s some basic information. It’s called Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. This publication confronts the most bewildering puzzles in philosophy of mind. It explains how dedicated scholars have struggled with these riddles, apparently without success. I offer opportunities for the reader to reflect and experiment, and I present my proposed solutions. I have tried to explain subtle ideas in straightforward language, minimizing technical jargon. Issues are clarified with illustrations, diagrams, and specific examples.

Your Living Mind was written for several kinds of readers. Do any of these statements fit for you?

* You want to develop a well-crafted personal philosophy of life. Understanding consciousness is part of that quest.
* You want to learn about yourself, to know who and what you are.
* You have been interested in the “big questions” of philosophy and psychology, and you’d like to revisit this sort of reflection.
* You find it fascinating to learn about the mind and the brain.
* You have already explored contemporary consciousness studies, and you enjoy playing with new ideas about “philosophical zombies” and other enigmas.

It’s now available on Amazon.com.

Roger Christan Schriner

 

In my previous posting I reported an experiment in which I opened the Old Testament at random five times and glanced through the text of the two facing pages before me. It turned out to be very easy to find verses that did not seem divinely inspired. I could imagine a loving deity shuddering at the thought that these passages are part of a book that people read for divine guidance.

Example: Execute anyone who has the wrong theology, which is commanded in II Chronicles 15:13.

Now let’s try the flip side of this experiment. Go back through the pages you selected at random and look for statements that do sound divinely inspired, or that at least express keen insights.

Here’s what I found when I tried this, and I realize that “your results your vary.”

The pages I picked at random began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4. Out of the five two-page segments that began with these verses, I found uplifting material only in Proverbs. Even in that section most statements were common-sense platitudes that essentially told the reader, “Be good, work hard, and treat others well.” No doubt we need to hear such messages repeatedly, but a normal individual of average intelligence should discover these principles without a revelation from on high.

Here are the verses that seemed insightful, beyond mere “let’s-be-good” platitudes:

“Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8)

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)

“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” (Proverbs 11:1)

I especially appreciate the first of these items. It pushes against the peculiarly-common human inclination to waste time arguing with fools. I still fall into that trap at times, so it’s a good lesson for me personally.

Again, try this yourself. Open the Old Testament to five different places at random, revealing ten pages. Look for passages that sound like genuine divine revelations, statements which give you that spine-tingling feeling that something transcendent has broken into our human world. (“Love your enemies” is a good example.) Then do the same with the New Testament. See what you learn.

Roger Christan Schriner

This blog deals with the question of Biblical inerrancy. Is every verse of the Bible literally true, due to being inspired by a loving and all-knowing God? As I have indicated, I am impressed by the very large number of Bible passages that do not seem to have been inspired by such a deity.

Today I tried an experiment. I opened the Old Testament at random five times, and briefly scanned the text of the two facing pages before me. I was wondering how often I would find the sort of troubling statements I’ve discussed in earlier posts. The pages I opened to began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4.

This experiment has its limitations, because to understand a Bible passage one has to read it in context. Old Testament material is often part of a long historical account of the nation of Israel and its relationship with surrounding nations and with God. But even without spending much time establishing context, it was clear that certain Biblical themes are very often encountered:

God wants us to carry out elaborate rituals to do penance for our sins. Carry out these rituals precisely “lest you die” (Leviticus 8:35). Example: “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not rend your clothes, lest you die….” (Leviticus 10:6).

The men of that era often slaughtered each other over theological and moral issues (Judges 20-21). God supposedly intervenes in such military campaigns (Judges 20:28). Physically seizing women and forcing them into marriage was considered acceptable behavior (Judges 21).

Those who do not accept the established religion shall “be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman” (II Chronicles 15:13).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….” (Proverbs 9:10). “The fear of the Lord prolongs life….” (Proverbs 10:27).

Military invasions, victories, and defeats often result from obeying or disobeying divine commandments. “Because you sinned against the Lord, and did not obey his voice, this thing has come upon you” (Jeremiah 40:3).

I can imagine someone contending that all of these passages reflect God’s will, but it would be a bit of a challenge to make that case.

Try it yourself. Open the Old Testament five times and read the two pages revealed, seeing if you encounter statements that do not seem divinely inspired. And do the same for the New Testament. (I’m obviously not saying that every human action reported by Scripture is divinely inspired. The question is: Does it seem as if God wanted the text written as it was? Does God, for instance, want people who don’t believe in the correct theology to be put to death?)

Try it. Think about it. If you pray, pray about it. See what you discover.

Roger Christan Schriner

The Bible repeatedly claims that God caused the death or injury of thousands of people, including those who had done nothing wrong but were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have suggested that rejoicing in such carnage is a human failing rather than an expression of divine wisdom. And it is striking that so many religious people manage to read these passages with an easy conscience.

We humans have a remarkable ability to distance ourselves emotionally from tragedy and cruelty, as long as it’s not happening to anyone we personally care about. I remember singing a jubilant song in Sunday school about Joshua and the battle of Jericho – “and the walls came tumbling down.” I identified with the Hebrew soldiers who gave a mighty shout that pulverized the walls of Jericho. But I did not think about what happened next, as the invaders stabbed and speared the city’s inhabitants.

Here’s another example: In Genesis 7:11-24, God becomes angry about human sinfulness and decides to kill every living thing that walks, runs, or slithers on the Earth, except for Noah’s family and two animals of each species.

As a child, I was captivated by the picturesque imagery of Noah’s ark, with cheerful little beasties marching up the gangplank two by two. Perhaps like me you sang that happy little ditty: “The animals went in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo.” Catchy songs can make it easier to “heartblink” evil, temporarily immobilizing our own moral instincts.

If I had reflected more deeply I might have considered what it would have been like if my dog had been caught in that flood, bewildered, terrified, struggling to stay afloat through exhausting hours or even days, and finally drowning. I might have imagined that tragic scene being multiplied by millions of living creatures who had done nothing to deserve such a fate. I would have realized that it made no sense to punish animals for human misbehavior and that this passage could not possibly have reflected the will of any God worthy of worship.

Some studies seem to show that as a general rule religion doesn’t make people more moral. Certainly churches try to teach us to be good. But if spiritual communities teach both adults and children to overlook troubling aspects of Bible stories, it is teaching them to dull their own moral faculties.

Churches should urge people to read the Bible with their moral instincts fully functional. If they see something that doesn’t make sense, intellectually or ethically, they should be encouraged to bring it up and talk about it. But that would mean abandoning Biblical literalism, the doctrine that every bit of the Bible is literally true.

It is not literally true that a perfect deity would destroy the innocent with the guilty. Congregations and clergy need to say so, clearly and courageously.

Roger Christan Schriner

I once thought Bible passages portraying God as commanding (and committing) mass murder could mostly be found in its first few books. Mark Johnston’s Saving God, however, makes a more troubling case:

“Yahweh’s thoroughness in inciting and supporting mass killing is consistent, and extraordinary” (p. 58). The idea that God “is a very dangerous person to mess with . . . is a central theme of the prophetic literature of the Bible. That will be denied, but only by those who have skipped over, or forgotten, the rather demented reiteration of the theme” (p. 60).

I found this comment disturbing, but I have to admit that he’s right. So does Johnson believe that God is a mass murderer? I don’t think so. As I read him, he does not see the Bible as a perfect record of God’s messages to humanity. Instead, Scripture shows how people’s understanding of deity changed down through the centuries. At first Yahweh is portrayed as a “jealous” war god. Later prophets spoke of a god of love.

For Johnson, it’s important to recognize how frightening God seemed to the early Hebrews. As Psalms 111:9-10 puts it, “… Holy and terrible is his name! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Those who play down God’s ferocity “underestimate the dramatic character of Yahweh’s transformation, his second life as the advocate of justice and compassion” (p. 63).

In Sunday School, many of us were taught that God is love. That’s one reason the passages I have been discussing seem alien and even reprehensible.

Roger Christan Schriner

I have been emphasizing the first five books of the Bible because they contain so many disturbing passages that claim to express God’s will. But such questionable verses can be found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (which became the Christian Old Testament).

There are troubling passages in the New Testament as well, but perhaps not as many. If that is so, it’s partly because the Hebrew Scriptures focus more on the history of Israel. In most of the historical sections God is either smiting Israel’s foes out of love for his chosen people, or using Israel’s enemies to punish them for disobedience. Here are a couple of examples which are distressing enough that you may just want to skip past them:

Zechariah 14:2: “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women ravished …” The text goes on to say that God will then turn around and attack those who have invaded Israel.

Hosea 13:16: “Samaria shall bear her guilt because she has rebelled against her God; … their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.”

I apologize for presenting such grisly material, but if we want to know whether every verse of the Bible is literally true, we need to know what’s in that book.

What shall we make of the way God seems to see-saw back and forth between boundless love for the Israelites and blistering rage against them? Does this love-hate relationship really reflect the behavior of a perfect being?

Here’s another interpretation which seems more likely: Sometimes the Israelites won battles and wars, and sometimes they lost. Humans often explain victories and defeats by saying that great forces controlled the outcome – fate, karma, gods, demons. So when they won a war – or today, after a team wins the Superbowl – God was with them. When they got clobbered, God was punishing them for their sins. This sort of thinking reflects human ignorance, not divine inspiration.

Roger Christan Schriner

In my last few entries I’ve been discussing inherited guilt and punishment. A related idea is collective guilt. According to the Bible, if most people in some group do bad things God may punish the whole group. In fact, God may do that even if only a few group-members transgress.

Or even one! In Second Samuel 24, David, ruler of Israel, ordered his assistants to carry out a census. Even though God had actually put this idea into David’s mind, the Lord was very angry that David wanted his people to be counted. “David’s heart smote him after he had numbered the people.” He confessed that he had sinned and asked God for forgiveness. God then proposed three possible punishments, and he and David agreed that the punishment would be a three-day pestilence.

The pestilence was not directed against David, but against his people. Seeing their terrible suffering David protested, “… but these sheep, what have they done?” God had evidently already decided to cut the pestilence short, so for David’s sin only 70,000 of his people died. Could have been worse.

The theme of this blog is: “Did God Really Say THAT!? In this case the answer is, absolutely not. A loving, all-knowing, perfect being would not kill 70,000 people because their leader took a census. That Bible passage cannot be accurate.

Roger Christan Schriner

Many Bible passages include the peculiar notions of inherited guilt and punishment. For example, one standard interpretation of the Garden of Eden story is that it resulted in “original sin.” Every human being has inherited the guilt of Adam and Eve for disobeying God in Eden.

The apostle Paul thought our inherited guilt was canceled out by a vicarious sacrifice. We became guilty by being children of Adam and Eve, but we could be forgiven because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Romans 5:18-19: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

I don’t mean to oversimplify here. There are several major interpretations of the Christian doctrine of salvation through Jesus, and within each interpretation there are subtleties and sometimes profundities. My point is simply that in Biblical times many believed in inherited guilt, so for them this was a plausible interpretation of the Eden story. If we do not believe that guilt can be passed on to one’s offspring, that should influence our response to religious theories of sin and salvation.

So what do you think? Is the inherited-guilt concept entirely defunct? If not, how is it meaningful to you? And if we believe it is an obsolete idea, how should this opinion influence our assessment of Christian theology?

Roger Christan Schriner

I realize it can be depressing to slog through Bible passages that seem factually false or morally disturbing. But if you love the Bible and you’re finding the courage to read this blog anyway, remember this: If you find certain scriptural passages troubling, that is partly because they contrast so sharply with other passages which are inspiring and insightful. It’s jarring to encounter Bible verses that fall short, that seem out of sync with beloved verses that have lifted the hearts of believers everywhere.

So every time I spotlight an unsettling excerpt from the Bible, think of other places in Scripture that ennoble the reader and that urge us to a higher standard of personal commitment and action.

Roger Christan Schriner

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:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Life_Events/Death_and_Mourning/About_Death_and_Mourning/Death_Penalty.shtml.

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