Monday, 24 September 2012

Why I don't trust the Bible

I have been embroiled in a discussion with a work colleague who is an Evangelical Christian. He asked me to read a book by a Ms Amy Orr-Ewing called "Why I trust the Bible"  this is my response. There is a rise in Fundamentalist Christianity today I hope the following text and associated links will give some arguments for those people who get embroiled in such discussions. I should come clean in my first year at University I was a member of the Christian Union for a year. However the more I read around the subject the more, I became aware that the Evangelical View of things was just one particularly obnoxious view of Christianity placing more emphasis on individual salvation rather than say the fight for social justice. I abandoned Evangelical Christianity and became a liberal Christian. I have retained a modicum of interest in academic theology of which I was quite keen on in my twenties, but would now call myself agnostic, however given the rise of fundamentalist Christianity and traditional Catholicism I think it is worth trying to counter the obnoxious views prevalent in todays Churches. What follows is an attempt to redress the balance.

                          Why Trust the Bible ? Amy Orr-Ewing A review

 

At the request of a work colleague I have been asked to state my opinions on the above book.This book is written by an unashamedly evangelical Christian who works for a Christian apologetic organisation As such it is a piece of bibliolatory, designed to convince sceptics that the Bible is to be trusted (whatever that means). Presumably Ms Orr-Ewing means that the Bible can be trusted as a reliable witness to the allegedly historical events that are described in it. That it’s strictures on ethics are reliable and that despite numerous discrepancies between say the four gospels, these can all be harmonised with each other. More importantly from her point of view Ms Orr-Ewing wants to get people to read the Bible so that they will become converted and accept Jesus as their Saviour, believe in the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, a literal virgin birth and that the miracles of Jesus and the other fantastical stories in the Bible were historical events which actually happened.
Although Ms Orr-Ewing doesn’t explicitly state it ,if Ms Orr-Ewing is a typcial evangelical Ms Orr-Ewing believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and that this is the only way in which the Bible is to be interpreted. Liberal Christians and others who see the Bible as a piece of culturally significant piece of literature, some of which has merit for today, but much of it, especially large chunks of the Hebrew Bible such as the barbaric laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is to be discarded, according to Ms Orr-Ewing are just wrong and cannot be ‘true believers’. The liberal secular view of the Bible despite it being that of most Academic theology departments, is anathema to her, as her whole chain of beliefs would come tumbling down.
One of the most dangerous things one can do, is to elevate any text and say it is beyond criticism and must be correct for all time. This is especially true of religious texts, including both the Bible and the Quran. This leads to the intolerance we are currently seeing in Muslim countries, where the smallest degree of criticism of the Quran has led to the murder of many people, death threats being laid on authors such as Salman Rushdie and journalists. In the past critics of the Bible, have been hung or burnt at the stake, thankfully we don’t, at least in the West live in such times but the tendency is still there. The Catholic Church seems to want to move Europe back to a theocracy and in America large numbers of states seem pretty close to a theocracy. Certainly in the South, anyone who dares challenge the alleged authority of the Bible would be regarded with deep suspicion. All of this is inimical to the democratic notion of free speech and open inquiry essential to the Modern Age. If the Evangelicals had their way they would also try and impose a degree of theocracy and go back to a time when the church had control over people’s lives, even if they weren’t Christians.

I don’t have time to deal with all of Ms Orr-Ewing’s points, but some will suffice, In her first chapter Ms Orr-Ewing claims to have dealt with the question of whether or not anyones understanding of the significance of the Bible is just a matter of interpretation. Unfortunately Ms Orr-Ewing has a tendency to include a lot of anecdotal stories about particular people who were previously sceptical but on reflection became Evangelical Christians, Ms Orr-Ewing doesn’t mention for example others such as Bart Ehrman who were evangelical Christians and then later rejected the evangelical interpretation of the Bible. All these anecdotes really do not help her case at all.

Her key point in this chapter, is that under the influence of postmodernism has arisen a suspicion of the use of key texts such as the Bible to maintain power. One of the main proponents of this view being Foucault. Ms Orr-Ewing attempts to dismiss this view as Foucault and other post modernists cannot avoid a charge of circularity as their texts also seek to impose a power structure on people. However the point is that whilst historically the Bible has been used to oppress people, particularly women, the poor, people of differing ethnicity and sexual orientation, no one uses Foucault’s or any other post modern writing to oppress people. Ms Orr-Ewing, despite having a degree in theology, would have us believe that the call for the critical examination of texts such as the Bible is a recent occurrence. Yet with the rise of Biblical criticism in the late 18th century, people have argued that the Bible should be subject to the same degree of criticism as say the works of Plato or any other classical literature. In the 1860’s a collection of essays written by eminent clerics and theologians advocated this very same point of view. [1]. The results of Biblical criticism namely that what we have in the Bible is an intertwining of different sources and that the Bible is essentially a collection of different books containing differing views about the relationship between God and man or differing interpretations of the significance of Jesus Christ is now seen as the main way of teaching Old and New testament theology in universities today [2].

Ms Orr-Ewing may not like it, but the fact is that the Bible has been interpreted in different ways by different people throughout history. Ms Orr-Ewing’s and the Evangelical view that the aim of the Bible is to get people to believe in the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, to have faith in Jesus Christ and that the Bible is the inerrant word of God is by very definition a particular interpretation, not shared by most people including other Christians. Thus I cannot find her arguments in the first chapter at all convincing. Ms Orr-Ewing is guilty of the special pleading that she accuses other people of .

In her second chapter Ms Orr-Ewing tackles the question as to whether or not we can know anything about history. Again Ms Orr-Ewing seems to think (along with other writers such as Dever [3]) that the current post modernist climate is sceptical about history and Ms Orr-Ewing makes a rather tendentious claim, that those who deny that the Bible is historical are the same as Holocaust deniers. Doubting the historicity of certain texts and events described in the Bible, is not the same as denying that history occurred. We have evidence for the Holocaust, we do not have evidence for the Exodus, the miracles of Jesus, the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, as opposed to a gradual settlement [3,4]and so forth. What is doubtful are the versions of history as presented in the Bible, not that historical events did not occur. I could give many examples lets just take a couple

First the dating of the destruction of Jericho [For more see the debate [5]) In the 1950’s Kathlyn Kenyon performed a series of excavations at a site generally considered to be that of Jericho. It uncovered evidence of a cataclysmic event and this was dated as 1550 BCE (Before Common Era). However if one takes the chronology of the Bible at face value (admittedly something quite dubious) The conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Judges took place 460 years before the reign of Solomon. This is reckoned to be about 1400 BCE thus there is 150 year discrepancy between the chronology of the Bible and the archaeological evidence. Current archaeological evidence casts great doubt on the historicity of much of the Old Testament. It is true that there is some debate between maximalists such as Dever [3] and minimalists such as Finkelstein [4], but both agree that there is little or no evidence for the Exodus stories and the conquest of Canaan as related in the book of Joshua.

Secondly, the conflicts in the Gospels surrounding the events of the crucifixion and the alleged resurrection of Jesus. If one compares the stories in the four Gospels with each other reading the Bible horizontally, as Bart Ehrman suggests. It immediately becomes clear that there are numerous discrepancies. The earliest versions of Marks Gospel do not have any appearances of Jesus to the disciples [6] it is generally considered that the appearance story that does appear in the version of Mark in today’s version is a later interpolation [7] Matthew has a fantastical story about 500 saints being resurrected and appearing in Jerusalem. The synoptic Gospels have Jesus being crucified after the Passover meal whilst John has him being crucified before the Passover meal. A chart cataloguing some of the differences in the stories can be accessed here [8]

Any open minded person would see these stories as not being straightforward history. The differences occur because the Gospel writers had different views of the significance of Jesus’ death and his alleged appearances to the disciples. More sinisterly the shift of the blame for the death of Jesus, gets transferred from Pontius Pilate to the Jews. In one of the most chilling passages in the Bible (Matthew 27:25) the author of the so called gospel of Matthew alleges that the Jewish crowd say "His death be on us and on our children." This verse has been used down the centuries to justify the persecution of the Jews and as the Gospels develop, there seems to be an increase in Anti-Semitism. Of course any normal person would say that this verse and all the anti semitic aspects of the Gospels should be disregarded. That option is not open to those such as Ms Orr-Ewing, as she believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

It is true that there is a whole industry devoted to trying to reconcile the differences [9]. Typical arguments include such claims, as the Gospels only reflect partial accounts. The events happened twice or thrice and so forth. If there really were 500 saints that visited Jerusalem, as the author of Matthew claims, why wasn’t that considered significant by the other Gospel writers. Clearly if you want to go down that road you can reconcile anything, however that is not the mainstream academic view. The differences reflect the differing Christianities that were around at the time. It does not help an understanding of the significance of the Bible to gloss over these differences. Bart Ehrman has painstakingly documented all the other gospels that did not make it into the final canon [10]. These contain many other stories about Jesus, why is it that these are not considered historical, yet the ones that made it into the canon are ?

To summarise then there is more than enough evidence to show that the Bible cannot be seen as straightforward history. This realisation occurred in Western Europe over 250 years ago with the rise of Biblical Criticism, Evangelicals such as Ms Orr-Ewing can stick their heads in the sand and ignore this but they will end up ignoring the fruits of academic research and hence despite a popular appeal will become intellectually irrelevant.

In the third chapter of her book, she discusses the establishment of the Bible as we have it to day. Glossing over all the difficulties in getting to the original documents, she blithely claims that the canonical formation of the Bible was unproblematic. Yet as Dale Martin points out in his second lecture [11], there were many variations of the alleged canonical books right up until the 5th and 6th centuries. These local variations persist today, furthermore there were many alternative gospels which were rejected as they did not fit the theological prejudices of Eusebius. Ms Orr-Ewing makes no mention of the fact, that it was only when Christianity became the State religion that anything like an agreed set of texts was established. Prior to the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, there was not just one Christianity but many. What became orthodoxy in the West was a fairly arbitrary selection of traditions, which suited the agenda of Constantine and his Bishop, Eusebius. Ms Orr Ewing would have us believe that the Evangelical interpretation of the Bible is the only one possible, yet even the Evangelical interpretation is a development of doctrine after Nicea, It’s claim to orthodoxy being a mirage, as there was never an orthodoxy in the first place.

Finally Ms Orr-Ewing discusses ethical matters, showing the Evangelical pre-occupation with sexual matters, instead of say social justice. She discusses the status of women in the Bible and the sanctions of the Bible against homo-sexuality. Here Ms Orr-Ewing seems to be rather selective to say the least. She rightly points out that the early church, had many women as leaders, but she conveniently ignores the passages in the Bible such as the Pastoral letters which enjoin women to stay silent in the church and so forth. The fact is that the church today especially the Catholic Church and the Republican right has continually opposed the long struggle for equality for women. Indeed the Catholic church persists in not allowing women any authority in the church and even the Anglican church still agonises over whether or not to ordain women as bishops, bending over backwards, to accommodate those misogynist clergy who oppose the ordination of women on allegedly theological grounds.

If Ms Orr-Ewing took the liberal view, namely that these verses are just outdated and should be dropped, then it would be perfectly fine for her to ignore those verses which insist on the inferiority of women, but again her adherence to the view that the Bible is the inerrent word of God precludes her taking this option.

In another chapter Ms Orr-Ewing tackles the issue of homo-sexuality. She takes the traditional line quoting Paul that homo-sexuality is sinful and obviously opposes any notion of civil partnership or marriage. Then she wants to plead, that she is not bigoted or intolerant. Unfortunately Ms Orr-Ewing has to put up with the fact that the Church in many places is being extremely prejudiced to say the least. Indeed when children of the age of 4 are applauded in church for making up ditties that homosexuals wont get to heaven [13] something has seriously gone wrong. Ms Orr-Ewing no doubt would claim the sanctity of biblical marriage, but of course she doesn’t mention the fact that books such as Deuteronomy and Leviticus have views on marriage which would seem abhorrent to any reasonable person. To take one example (of many) Deuteronomy [22 Vs 28-29] claims that a victim of rape must marry the rapist and all the rapist has to do is pay the Father of the woman 50 shekels and not divorce her. More on just how obnoxious the Old Testament view of Biblical marriage can be seen here. [13]. Ms Orr-Ewing may say that is the Old Testament, no longer relevant to today, but that again would contradict her position that the Bible is the inerrant word of God .

There is a general point about using the Bible to uphold any ethical principle, in that the idea that one can transplant views written over 2000 years ago to the ethical dilemmas of today’s society is just incredible. The more one closely investigates some of the strictures of the Bible on ethical positions, the more irrelevant they seem to today. It is far better I would argue to look at the philosophers and their views on current ethical dilemmas. Philosophy enjoins people to argue their case as best they can using, as far as possible reason. Indeed given that the study of ethics independent of any religious bias started with the Greeks 400 years before Christianity started, the idea that our Western system of ethics derive from Christianity is just wrong.

The world lives in the grey, not in the black and white of Fundamentalist religion and requires thoughtful and critical analysis. Just blindly adhering to an ethical position, because it’s in the Bible or any other religious text, isn’t really going to help matters. Historically the Church especially the Catholic Church, has always opposed progressive social change. It opposed the ideals of the French revolution, it supported the Fascists in the Spanish Civil war and it came to an accommodation with Mussolini and Hitler. It continues to oppose equality rights bills such as Harriet Harman’s recent bill. In America the Evangelical churches support the Republican Party. Of course there are exceptions, the liberation theology of the Latin American church in the late 1970’s which attempted to resist Latin American dictatorships [14] and the Black churches campaign for Civil rights in America, But liberation theology was suppressed by the Catholic church and by definition Black churches are still not mainstream in American society.

To summarise then I have given reasons why I don’t think the Bible is to be trusted, it cannot be trusted historically, and it certainly can not be used as a guide to Ethics. It has a place in society as a piece of culturally significant literature and should be treated, as we treat any other piece of literature, such as say the works of Plato or Aristotle or Shakespeare. Taking the Bible as literally true, or as the inerrant word of God, is just not credible, as we learn more and more about it’s historical context. I long for the day when people no longer use the Bible blindly to justify discrimination against women, people of ethnic minorities and sexual orientation. I long for the day when the Bible is not used to justify oppression and I long for the day when the barbarity of Old testament books such as Deuteronomy and Leviticus are seen for what they are and rejected by the churches.
 
References and External Links

[1] Essays and Reviews 1860 An online version is available here. 

http://archive.org/details/a578549600unknuoft

Some of the background to the book is given here

                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essays_and_Reviews

Despite it’s age it is surprising how modern some of the views are. Contrary to Ms Orr –Ewings sentiments I think it is a real tragedy that the views expressed did not become mainstream, thus allowing for a more mature assessment of the significance of the Bible to be made.

[2] A convenient summary of current academic views on the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible can be found in the Yale Open Course website.

http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies

What is clear from these courses is that the current Bible cannot be seen as a unified text perpetrating Christian orthodoxy but is a collection of diverse literature with differing perspectives on the nature of God and whose historical accuracy is to be questioned. Whatever your religious views or none, these courses are very informative.

[3] Dever W G ‘What did the Bible Writers Know and when did they Know it’ WM B Edermans Publishing Co Grand Rapids/ Cambridge[2001]

[4] Finkelstein I and Silberman‘’The Bible Unearthed ‘ Simon and Schuster 2001

[5]     http://www.theskepticalreview.com/BPBobbyWallsOfJericho.html

The whole website has a series of articles refuting the claims of those who say either the Bible has no contradictions or that it can be taken as historically accurate.


[6] See Dale Martin lecture on the Gospel of St Mark lecture 6
  http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-152/lecture-6

[7] See above

[8]

http://www.outreachjudaism.org/articles/cru-chart.html

(NB I should point out that whilst the chart is a useful reference I do not endorse the sentiments of the host site. However I can sympathise with the attempt to resist conversion of Jews to Christianity).
[9] I’m grateful to my work colleague for giving me a document ‘Apparent Contradictions in the Bible’ by a Mr Charlie Campbell who makes a living trying to refute the claims of academic scholarship.

[10] Ehrman B ‘Lost Christianities’ Oxford University Press 2003.

[11] Martin D Lecture 2 From Stories to Canon.



[13]   
http://robertcargill.com/2011/10/11/what-exactly-is-biblical-marriage/

(NB In the above two references I do endorse the sentiments of the host site which is to get people to look at the Bible in its historical context and to oppose the use of the Bible to justify bigotry).

[14] Gutierrez Liberation Theology. SCM Press 1974.

The concerns of liberation theology were the fight for social justice, it showed how parts of the Bible could be made relevant to contemporary issues, by reminding people that one of the concerns of the Old Testament prophets was for social justice and that Jesus could be seen as siding with the poor against the powerful. Of course such a message is alien to Evangelicals, such as Ms Orr Ewing, who seem more concerned with sexual morality instead of social justice.

3 comments:

  1. I have some rather devastating photographic documentation of the frauds and lies to be found in the Gospels at Miracles and the Book of Mormon

    ReplyDelete
  2. For years newspapers and TV news have run regular Christmas articles on the theme of "What was the Star of Bethlehem?" This has also allowed assorted astronomers the pleasure of writing populist and rather easy books digging into the evidence for planetary alignments, over-looked supernovae and so on, usually with a bit of date-tweaking to make things fit. I could go on, but I won't. Suffice to say that, with Christmas approaching rapidly, it is worth knowing that the answer to the "Star of Bethlehem" question really is in the Bible. Specifically, it is in the Gospel of Mark. Mark's Gospel, as I am sure you know, is generally accepted to be the oldest text of the four Gospels and it contains no mention of the Star, the Kings or anything else remotely associated with the whole Nativity story. And that's the answer to the "Star of Bethlehem" mystery - there simply wasn't one, because the whole Nativity thing was made up long after the death of Jesus in order to put a supernatural spin on his origins (much the same thing happened with Batman...). Sadly, that explanation is too simple to expand into a full-blown book, but do feel free to add it to your Christmas cards this year.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It's even worse if you compare the accounts of Matthew with that of Luke then its as if two completely different events occurred. Luke has no wise men, Matthew has no Shepherds. There is no massacre of the innocents in Luke. Herod only plays a part in Matthew and so forth.

    Ok so there may have been theological reasons for the discrepancies it seems obvious for example that Matthew wants the alleged events to parallel those of the Birth of Moses but the idea that these are historical accounts is just wrong.

    ReplyDelete