Taking the Plunge: The Big B

>> Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Alright, no more teasing.

I'm going to talk about one of the quintessential "sacred" documents out there that many people put complete and implicit faith in. Let me preface what I'm saying with a few caveats. First, this is how I see it. If I make sweeping remarks, it's because that's what I think. I'm not apologizing for it, just saying I know the difference between my opinion and fact, and this is the latter. In case you were wondering.

Also, I'm using the Bible as an example, but I suspect this would apply to any text that claims to be divinely inspired - but this is the one I know the most about. So, it's nothing personal.

Thirdly, and I'll be exploring this in one of the forthcoming posts, I don't see why it matters what the source of something is. If it speaks to you, if it makes you think and gives you inspiration, you are welcome to all the happiness and guidance it gives you - just do us the courtesy of not confusing your devotion to a scripture as an obligation in the rest of us to give it the same credence. By all means, choose the path that speaks to you - and give us the opportunity to do the same.

Now, on to the topic. The Bible, as I mentioned, is often quoted as unassailable truth, the exact word of God. That's a lovely notion, of course, but, unless you read ancient Greek, there's no way you can be reading the exact word of God even if he spoke directly to those who authored it. In fact, I think it's unlikely that the Greek texts that most forms of the Bible are based on reflect the original language God spoke to anyone, you know, since most of the Bible authors were supposedly not Greek. I'm sure my pal, Roy, can provide some excellent insight on this topic.

But, let's suppose. Let's suppose we lived back in ancient times, in whatever time the Bible was written (though I very much think neither Testament is a product of a single period of time) and that the author was listening directly to the word of God. The question is, how would that make what the recipients write down the thoughts of God?

See, I can't speak for everyone, but, in my experience, saying exactly what I mean, with all its nuances and undertones, all its shades and distinctions, is virtually impossible. And, even when I think I've made a fair approximation of what I intended, my experience on what my listener absorbs is, well, usually hell and gone from what I thought I said. And this is just simple stuff. If I want to describe, say, quantum physics to say, elementary school kids, it becomes even harder. Why?

Two reasons. The first is that there are limitations to any language. All of them have limitations - just try describing a sunset to someone who was born blind. And this leads nicely to the second reason: a listener can only grasp a notion from his frame of reference. If I describe a sunset to someone who has lost his sight, he may be able to envision what I describe. But to someone who has never seen colors, he might instead end up envisioning a bouquet of flowers or the music of a symphony - something his mind has a frame of reference for.

I suspect describing the mysteries of the universe to primitive man (or, in fact, modern man) makes describing quantum physics to schoolchildren seem easy.

But people not only are limited by their ability to comprehend what they hear, they are a product of the world they live in. If, for instance, in one's world, women are passed about like property, daughters are bartered for prestige or wealth, one is likely to assume that any stories related would inhabit the same world order. One is generally prone to carry forward one's own prejudices, one's own limitations, into what one passes along, not necessarily intentionally. It is part of one's own frame of reference.

But there's another aspect that I think is worth noting. People who write down what they believe is the word of God tend to have a vested interest in getting others to believe it. I mean, if they didn't, why bother to write it down? If one was happy and comfortable alone in one's beliefs, why tell anyone? I suspect it is not it's not a coincidence that most scriptures include a passage or two that notes that ONLY this path leads to Heaven (or whatever facsimile they promote). For me personally, I bear it in mind when I read something like this. I don't blame them - I'm sure they believed that their beliefs would "save" others but I think it's fair to note religion has often been a path to wealth and power. If I find a passage that seems to stress conversion instead of merit, I get skeptical.

Tomorrow, the Constitution as another example.


  • flit

    I don't get the whole Bible as literal truth thing... it contradicts itself...so how can we possibly be meant to take it as literal fact?

  • Aron Sora

    This is my crazy eclectic spiritual side coming out. When you read the bible, I think the teachings you need to follow and the interpretation that is best for you is programmed into you. The bible only serves as an access panel for God. So, what's in the book doesn't matter. The bible is God individual message to you.

    Again, I don't like using my spiritual side and I rather have data for you, but, those are my thoughts on this.

  • Roy

    Hey, even the Greek text has variants. You saw my post on twisting translation, where I described how Erasmus messed with things to create a dogma-friendly "original" Greek text, the Textus Receptus. And even the honest text, the UBS4/NA27, lists all known variants for the verses.

    As for the Hebrew Bible (the "Old Testament" if you're Christian) isn't a single document but a crazy-quilt of various and sundry sources collected over a period of 1,500 years and sewn together so poorly that all the seams show. And when put together to form one "Bible", the Tanakh (the Hebrew name for the Hebrew Bible) still has 3 major codex variants: the Babylonian codex, which is the basis for the modern Tanakh; the Alexandrian codex, which no longer exists in Hebrew but which served as the basis for the Greek translation known as the Septuagint or LXX; and the Palestinian codex, which served as the basis for the Qumran documents (i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls). And there are considerable differences between those codices.

    The main thing to remember is that the majority of Christians and Jews know all this and don't regard their scriptures as literal and inerrant, but rather regard them as inspirational. It's only the minority - although it is admittedly a large minority - who view it as literal and inerrant and who believe that it tells them to convert or punish all who disagree. And in fact, the "spiritual leaders" of the literalists know very well the things I told you above, about Greek and Hebrew variant texts and their history, and still they preach literalism. Which shows you the level of intellectual integrity and basic honesty of the people who preach "morality".

  • Stephanie B

    I've noticed that, flit. The whole Jesus or the highway notion is contradicted by the Good Samaritan story.

    Aron, first, I don't see why your notion makes any less sense than anyone else's (in fact, I like it). I've found wisdom in the Bible, but I've seen damnfoolery, too. I don't see why I can't respect the first and ignore the rest.

  • Stephanie B

    Roy, I knew you'd weigh in with useful data. Many religious folks (and even some of us "agnostics" or unconventional religious folks) know this and can still appreciate some of the beauty to be found in many religious texts. But if I have to shut down my brain to appreciate a passage, I'll likely not be buying into that passage.

  • flemisa

    Give a page or two of a story to someone to copy by hand and you will find errors in it as they make more and more copies. Not because they want to make errors but they creap in-- in the spelling, in missing words, in changing one or two words to make it easier to read. This is what early copiests of the Bible would certainly have done.

    Have just finished reading the book "Misquoting Jesus The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why" by Bart D. Ehrman. Fascinating book by a man who was an evangelical Christian who believed the literal truth and became a studen fo the Bible and the translations and copies available.

    The copy errors are a very obvious source of errors. Even when someone tells you something and you write it down, it becomes filtered through your experience and interests and capabilities.

    Doesn't change the fact that the teachings can be a help and benefit to anyone who reads with an open mind and heart and love. (So many don't have the love required.)

    I do recommend the book.

  • Stephanie B

    Interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.

    I try not absorb any "inspiration" that recommends hatred and fear. You know, if you look for something beautiful, something wonderful, you can find it in so many places.

  • FishHawk

    Our Heavenly Father's Holy Scriptures were given to serve as written confirmation of He Himself wants to personally reveal to each individual. For when one has a thought about Him having a hand in all that happens, including even what we naturally consider as being bad, they have such a verse as Isaiah 45:7 to reference. For it is written: "I form the light and create the darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things." {NIV}

    Of course, it all comes down to what one wants to believe. For the Bible can used to justify almost anything, but that does not make what is actually contained in it any less true.

  • Stephanie B

    I'm not sure what you're trying to say, Fishhawk.

    Admittedly, since my background is in science, I have a specific understanding of "written confirmation" that involves objective evidence.

    I'm not trying to say you're wrong, but I'm not sure what you're trying to communicate. Do you mean thatyou believe each person's personal truth is capture in the Bible, but doesn't mean that each tiny word applies? That just because some things are clearly tied to a particular time or contradictory or counterintuitive, doesn't mean others don't hold wisdom and truth? Or did you mean something else?

    I'm not trying to mock you. I'm just not sure I'm getting your meaning.

  • The Mother

    While I would LOVE to believe that the majority of Christians and Jews understand that their books are stitched together over long periods of time from many different authors with many points of view, and that translation errors are not only common, but often intentional, the fact is that I DON'T.

    Down here in the Bible Belt, I see daily ignorance on the subject. The Bible is the true, final, exact word.

    And those ancient, mixed up, mistranslated words get used to justify the most heinous of sins, JUST BECAUSE they are viewed as the perfect word.

    Someday, we will learn to throw out all these ancient texts and reevaluate spirituality for ourselves. But not anytime soon, I'm afraid.

  • Shakespeare

    I think, more and more, Christians fall into two categories, those who believe in God (or some spiritual presence, whether they claim to understand him or not) and those who believe in the bible. Many fundamentalist groups worship, not a God they admit they don't quite understand, but a book... and if the book is God, then the book must thus be infallible, inerrant, and perfect, or it's not worth worshipping.

    I like the bible as "myth," in the same way I like other mythological systems. I couldn't care less whether any of it is literally true. Myth is myth because, even if fictionalized, it is, in its essence, true--it speaks to human nature, the movement of the world, and truths about our lives. When the bible speaks to these things, it works for me. When the Bhagavad Gita does this, or the Native American tales do, or even Shakespeare does, these mythic systems work for me, as well.

    Great post today. Very thought-provoking.

  • The Mother

    I just wanted to add one little thing.

    I have always found it fascinatingly ironic that the Christians are fine with throwing out specific commands of the Torah, as just not relevant. The dietary laws, for example, or the ritual circumcision.

    But when it comes to using passages in the Torah to push their agenda (homosexuality is a sin, for instance), the words are the genuine words of God and are to be obeyed.

    Love it. It hurts, but I love it.

  • Stephanie B

    Perhaps I need to put off the Constitution thing for a bit and spend today's post on an example of what I mean.

    My experience has been like yours, the Mother. If most religious folks take their Bible with a pinch of salt, it's not obvious to me. Admittedly, I'm living where you're living (or near about). The caveat to that, though, is do we know that what we hear, the people who stand up and get noisy defending this or that notion, are they representative of the majority of religious folks or are they just the NOISIEST? I don't know. I don't doubt that, if they're a minority, they are, as Roy said, indeed a big minority.

    On the other hand, if you're the sort of person who needs external spiritual guidance, it does not seem implausible that you could readily be led to believe the Bible is the absolute and inviolate word of God as Shakespeare alluded to. Preachers can (and have) preached bits of wisdom from the Bible that are demonstrably true and used them as "proof" that the whole is equally true.

    If you are not the sort to think critically on your own, if you want someone else to figure out your spiritual path so you don't have to, it's easy to assume it's all good. No scholarship required.

    I don't find it implausible that many of those that see the Bible (or any other religious script) as perfection to every word really believe that because they are (a) unwilling to regard it critically and (b) aren't really as knowledgable about it as they think they are.

    In either case, it's speculation on my part.

    Shakespeare, I've always respected mythology and think, in general, people give too little credence to it, unless, of course, it's titled "religion." A study in mythology like, say, The Iliad can give one an appreciation for the facts included, the lessons intended without necessarily buying all the specifics.

  • The Mother

    The Bible IS mythology. It's just the Christian version.

    Mythology is representative of the ideas, philosophies, and values of the culture from which it sprang. It therefore has utility for the social sciences.

    But I contend that we have grown past that. Mythology is intended to explain the unexplainable. We don't need that anymore--we have SCIENCE.

  • Stephanie B

    I see the Bible as mythology, too, the Mother. One can make as strong argument that, for one of its original purposes (i.e. explaining natural phenomena), it is desperately out-dated and no longer useful.

    However, one could also make the argument that there are other purposes to original mythology. Like any allegory, there is a potential for a lesson to be learned or morals to be taught. Science is not a help in that.

    The problem is, of course, that most mythology mixes what one might consider universal truths with cultural taboos (which often have a basis in truth, but can be readily superceded).

    For example, the infamous left-hand with evil connotation might be associated with an environment where bathing is uncommon and washing, because of water shortages, is unknown. My understanding is that it used to be common to wipe only with the left hand but do everything else (including greet people) with the right. Such habits help promote hygiene in lieu of water. However, they become meaningless where cleanliness is common. Many early food taboos had a similar background.

    Unfortunately, without understanding the origin behind a taboo or restriction, it can be challenging for those unused to critical thinking to separate the useful guidance from outdated nonsense.

    Personally, I don't think it's that challenging for those that think critically, but then I also think it's less likely for those people to require guidance on right and wrong.

    Of course, that's just my opinion.

  • The Mother

    I don't see the bible as teaching infallible moral lessons. The Adam and Eve thing--what does that teach us? That curiosity is evil and blind obedience is a good thing.

    It is outdated, even for moral lessons. We should move on.

  • Stephanie B

    And there's an example, in my opinion, of a very misguided (and let's not forget) self-serving notion. Admittedly, I struggle to find a lesson I admire in the Old Testament, but there are any number of stories about or attributed to Jesus that I admire and see as an excellent example (The Good Samaritan, casting the first stone leap to mind).

    But, even if I felt the Bible was entirely without merit, I'm not qualified to tell anyone else what they can't and can use for spiritual guidance. But I don't want anyone forcing it on me.

    Of all the things I respect our forefathers for, I respect nothing so much as the separation of church and state, something that precluded (in theory) people from using their religious beliefs to oppress others.

  • The Mother

    Tell that to the Texas School Board.

    Did you hear that Perry is considering DUNBAR to head the Board?

  • Stephanie B

    There's a reason I said, "in theory". My sister used to live in Kansas where, at the time, they ONLY taught intelligent design. Ironically, in college, she was in the play "Inherit the Wind".

  • FishHawk

    No, what I was trying to say is that our Heavenly Father still speaks directly to us, and His Holy Scriptures were provided to serve as written confirmation. Subsequently, there is no need for personal interpretation because He will explain what He meant by this or that, and how it applies to what He is still doing.

    Yes, it would be a lot simpler if He would just show Himself to us, but there are a couple of good reasons for why He doesn't. For some would bow down before Him because of being too afraid not to, while others would want to bow down for the sake of their own personal gain. Whereas what He wants is for us to want to love Him because of the goodness of His heart.

    Alas, it all sounds utterly ridiculous, I know. For if it was not for Him making Himself real to me, I would have very hard time believing it myself.

  • Stephanie B

    It actually sounds to me, Fishhawk, a lot like what I'm talking about except you believe it is direct inspiration - and it might be.

    After all, who am I to tell anyone that God doesn't speak to him in a particular way? There are many things that are in this world and yet are utterly ridiculous. I've always thought there are as many ways to interpret things as there are people. I don't see any reason to feel there's anything wrong with what works for you.

    I'm glad you have found your inspiration and, clearly, it brings you happiness. There's certainly nothing wrong with that.

  • Bob Johnson

    Hey Stephanie, the whole thing with the Bible is you have to have a guiding spirit, the Holy Spirit to be exact to help you through it. Lets face it if you just read it it doesn't make a whole lot of sense especially if you are trying to take it literally, which at one time I did.

    I find that the writings help me personally through the day,make me a better person therefore I am more able to help other people, it's like a battery charger.

    The problem is, it, as a whole leads itself open to numerous interpretations, I still don't understand why God allowed this other then the fact we have to call on him to make sense of it.

    You hit the nail on the head what you said about the right Greek (and Hebrew) translations, we are going on faith that what was written back then was translated properly, but in the end it doesn't really matter if you , again have a guide to get through it.

    It has spoken to me many times and opened my eyes to a lot of stuff, such as feelings and the right course of action to take, but just to read it, well it's not a very good read, very few pictures and too many nouns and verbs, but if I let faith as opposed to common sense take over it works for me.

  • Stephanie B

    And, see, I don't see anything wrong with that.

    I think what irks many who either don't take the Bible as literal truth (or, *gasp*, aren't Christian) is that it seems those most determined to read it as absolute truth that we all should live to, also seem those most prone to impose that "truth" on everyone else (but not necessarily themselves).

    I perfectly cool with the notion of the Bible as an inspiration on how to live your own life; I am not comfortable with bludgeoning your neighbors with your own interpretation of it (whether you're living to that standard or not). And I'm NOT saying you do that, Bob. I know you better than that. But there are those that do.

    I've said all my life that the worst of any subgroup (liberal environmental extremists [such as PETA], the hardcore evangelical conservatives, the rabid violent Muslim organizations, etc.) tend to become the model people think of when they think of the much broader and moderate general group. They're noisy and abrasive, but I think, more and more, they're out of touch with the groups they think they represent. I think if we deal with people as individuals rather than "labels" we are much more likely to appreciate our strengths instead of just the weaknesses.

  • Bob Johnson

    Hey I used to beat people over the head with it, or should I say used it as a sword,lol, tried to convert all the people that didn't see the light, or the cults like JWS, I knew all their lines and their scripture and what the certain verses they like to refer to in our Bible, then spent hours researching come back pat answers, then I grew up, I found that it was just turning people off and we were arguing more then discussing. I've taken a more laid back approach, like getting to know where the person is coming from and loving instead of lecturing them.

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