Tag Archives: Bible

Take Aways: Misquoting Jesus

Today’s review is on Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.  Ehrman is one of my favorite authors on the subject of religion and I was happy to find this book at the local library.  Ehrman is considered one of the leading authorities on the New Testament (NT), and his wealth of knowledge and experience comes through in all his books. In Misquoting Jesus, we take a close look at the history of the NT, who wrote the individual books, how and why they were edited over time, and how the 27 books that now make up the NT came to be canonized.  As the title suggests, the crux of the book is on the many, many changes that were made to the books of the NT throughout the centuries, why they were made, and how they influenced Christian doctrine.

A couple important points to start with.  You will often hear believers talking about various Bible translations being better than others because of how close the are to “The original Greek and Hebrew” texts.  This is misleading because there are no original Greek or Hebrew texts in existence.  All that we have are copies of copies of copies.  And speaking of copies; apologists will often claim that the large number of copies we have of the NT are evidence to the Bible’s reliability.  While, it’s true that there are thousands of copies of NT books, virtually no two copies are the same.  In fact, there are more discrepancies between the different copies of the NT then there are words in the entire NT.  Regarding these discrepancies:

Of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, or not any real importance  other than showing that scribes could not spell of keep focused any better than the rest of us.  It would be wrong however to say -as people sometime do – that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts means or on the theological conclusions one draws from them.

Because of all the mistakes and alterations, and due to the fact that we do not have the original manuscripts, it is virtually impossible for us to know what the original authors’ true words were.  This poses a big problem for those who claim that the Bible is the “inspired word of God”.  Even if God had inspired the writers of the original text, we have no way of knowing what that text actually said.  If God was so concerned about preserving his words, why not ensure that they were passed down, unaltered, throughout the generations?

It would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place.  If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he could have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew).

Some have argued that the people making the copies took great diligence to ensure that the manuscripts were as unaltered as possible.  This is also false; the scribes copying were largely not religious scholars, but people outside the religious community:

Texts were typically copied either by professional scribes or by literate slaves who were assigned to do the work within a household.  That means, among other things, that the people reproducing the texts throughout the empire were not, as a rule, the people who wanted the text.

We need always remember that the copyists of the early Christian writings were reproducing their texts in a world in which there were not only no printing presses or publishing houses, but also no such thing as copyright laws.  How could the authors guarantee that their texts were not modified one put into circulation?

As mentioned above, most of the mistakes found throughout the various copies are relatively insignificant.  However, sometimes the changes were more drastic.  Many manuscripts have whole sections that have been altered, added to, or taken out all together.  A couple of well-known examples are Mark 16:9-20 and the story of the adulterous women found in John 7:53-8:12.  Both of these accounts are not found in the earliest copies that we have, and were added later.  Sometimes only a single word was changed, but these deliberate changes could have significant impact on the overall message of the text, as we will see shortly.  Often the texts were changed to suit the views of whichever scribe happened to be copying to better fit the prevailing “orthodox” view at the time.

We see this in regards to how women were viewed, and their role in the church.  For example, I Cor 14:26-33 directly contradicts what Paul says in chapter 11:5 regarding women prophesying, and was likely added later on.  It also contradicts the many times that Paul recognizes female prophets, including Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), Phoebe (Rom 16:1), Priscilla (Rom 16:3), and Junia (Rom 16:7).  In regard to the last example, many texts purposeful changing of the word Junia to Junias.  This is problematic however, as Junia was a common women’s name, but there is no evidence in the ancient world for “Junias” as a man’s name.  Many modern English translations of the Bible still carry this error.

The alteration was no doubt made by a scribe who was concerned to emphasize that women should have no public role in the churches, that they should be silent and subservient to their husbands.

During the second century, hostilities between Jews and Christians were rising, and many Christian leaders wanted to put a real emphasis on the fact that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, and God would not forgive them for it.  Some manuscripts are missing Luke 23:34, most likely because certain scribes didn’t like the idea of Jesus forgiving the Jews.  Also, in one of the earliest complete manuscripts, the Codex Sinaitus, Luke 23:25 reads that Pilot “handing him over to them [i.e. to the Jews] in order that they might crucify him”, thus emphasizing who was really responsible for crucifixion of Jesus.

One of the most controversial subjects in early Christianity was the nature and divinity of Jesus.  Texts were often altered to match the particular Christology of whoever happened to be copying the manuscripts.  For example, John Wettstein noticed that the Codex Alexandrinus had been altered in I Timothy 3:16.  The original manuscript had been altered from saying Christ “who was made manifest in the flesh” to say “God made manifest in the flesh”.  Also, we can see in the books of Luke and Acts that there seems to be a discrepancy regarding when Jesus became divine.  The author states Jesus as Son or God, but did he become the Christs (Luke 2:11), at baptism (Acts 10:37-38), or at resurrection (Acts 2:38)?

So how did the Bible come to be as it is?  It was well-known early on that there were a great amount of discrepancies amongst the early manuscripts.  As Ehrman notes:

 Already in the second century, the pagan critic Celsus had argued that Christians changed the texts… his opponent Origen speaks of the “great” number of differences among the manuscripts of the Gospels; more than a century later Pope Damascus was so concerned about the varieties of Latin manuscripts that he commissioned Jerome to produce a standardized translation; and Jerome himself had to compare numerous copies of the text, both Greek and Latin, to decide on the text that he thought was originally penned by its author.

The simple answer is this: “The group that established itself as ‘orthodox’ then determined what future Christian generations would believe and read as scripture.”  As time went on, and certain groups rose to power, they decided how the Bible was to be read and understood.  They altered the texts to match their particular theology, and much of that theology has been passed on to present day.

The Bible is a collection of the work of men, with all the biases, mistakes, and corruptions that we would expect from a work that has been touched by countless hands.  It’s time people start treating the Bible for what it is, rather than what they want it to be, and stop basing their beliefs on what ancient men wrote down, and future men edited.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mythbusters: De-conversion (Pt 2)

This is going to be an extension of a previous post I wrote addressing some of the common misunderstandings and stereotypes people have about those who leave religion.  The first post was more personal in nature, but this one is going to be a bit more universal and is going to address some of the common reactions one gets from Christians when they de-convert.

This post came about because a good friend of mine “came out” as an atheist on Facebook.  Some people were supportive, but like most people here in the Midwest, a good percentage his friends and acquaintances are Christian.  Their reactions to his decision were as predictable and infuriating as one can expect, and that is what we will be discussing here

Before we get into it, I want to talk about a common theme one sees with Christians* when faced with an alternate view point.  It’s what is known as the false-consensus effect: a cognitive bias whereby people tend to overestimate the extent to which their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical of those of others (i.e., that others also think the same way that they do). This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist; a “false consensus”.

Captain Cassidy gets even more specific with this bias and how it relates to Christianity and their beliefs regarding atheists.  She likes to call it “The Law of Conservation of Worship” – for every action and belief Christians hold, their enemies and sales targets must also have an equal and opposite reactionary action and belief.  Spiritual practices are neither created nor destroyed; as beliefs change, they simply transfer to another method of expression.

We’ll see this theme of false-consensus popping up throughout these common myths, so I thought we’d get it out of way before we got started.  So let’s get into some of the common things one hears when they come out as an atheist:

“This is just a phase /you’ll be back”

I’ve heard parents use this same phrase when their kids come out to them as gay.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction caused by cognitive dissonance sent into overload.  It’s simple denial – some people just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that other people can leave the religion they hold in such high regard.  Regardless of what denomination you belong to, when you go to church you are lead to believe that Christianity is the “One True Religion” and God/Jesus are supposed to be your #1 priority.  To see someone not only walk away from that, but denounce it as false comes as a big blow to some.  Rather then accept it, they would rather just hope that it isn’t really true.

Let’s clear things up a bit.  No one becomes an atheist overnight.  It is not a decision one takes lightly and is typically the cumulative result of months, if not years, of careful and deliberate research and thought.  It is not “just a phase” and I’ve never met anyone who has gone through the de-conversion process only to go back to religion.  Once you find out that religion is demonstrably false, there is little chance you are going to decide one day that it is “true” and go back to it.  Those of us who have broken rank from Christianity know too much about its history and where it came from, how fallible the Bible really is, and how useless and counter-productive Christianity’s culture and practices are.  Why would we go back to that?

“It’s religion you have a problem with, not God”

This one plays out in a number of ways.  People either assume that you have been personally hurt by the Church or have become fed up with the negative and harmful behavior of some Christians.

While Christianity’s homophobia, misogyny, nationalism, willful ignorance, and constant struggle for political power is certainly what drives many down the path towards reason, it is not what makes someone an atheist.  Similar to a point I’ve brought up before, it’s not that an atheist has a problem with God – it’s that they don’t believe in God.  Period.  

This is a good example of false consensus – Christians naturally assume that everyone believes in God in some way, so if someone claims to be an atheist, then organized religion must be what they really don’t believe in because they couldn’t possibly not believe in God.  Right?  Wrong.

It is possible to not believe in any god/deity/higher power and tens of millions all over the world do just that.  In the same way that children grow out of believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, millions of people have grown out of believing in god(s).  I know that comparing God to the Tooth Fairy may be offensive to some, but you need to understand that atheists don’t see any difference – to them, they are both mythological beings that exist only in peoples’ minds.

“Satan is trying to deceive you”

It’s still surprising to me how often I see this one come up.  People who use this line of reasoning fail to understand that atheists don’t believe in any supernatural deities.  This includes God, Satan, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Thor, etc.  Arguing that one mythological being is trying to sway us from believing in another mythological being is illogical and ineffective to say the least.

I can already hear people saying, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled…”  Stop.  Just stop.  We’ve all seen The Usual Suspects.  It doesn’t help your case.  Quoting a fictional movie to make a case for you fictional deities isn’t a good tactic.

“The Bible says…”

For Christians, the Bible is the ultimate authority and their first, if not only, source of “truth”.  When faced with conflict it seems all to natural for them to turn to it for help.  When faced with the cognitive dissonance of one leaving their ranks, it’s natural for them to start quoting Bible verses as if they have some magical powers.

I saw a meme once that said, “The road to atheism is littered with Bibles read cover to cover”.  An appropriate statement.  For most atheists, the road out of religion starts with a thorough reading of the Bible, and what we discover is that it is an entirely man-made book, filled with all the prejudices, biases, and ignorance one would expect from a text written by an ancient people.  If someone has come to the conclusion that there is no god, it’s a safe bet that belief in the accuracy and authority of the Bible went away a long time again.  Therefore, quoting scripture is of no significance to us.  You might as well be quoting the Koran or Lord of the Rings; it really makes no difference.

To quote Neil Carter from the article I linked above: “When talking with Christian friends online, I often find that they can’t help citing a Bible verse as their proof–text in order to reinforce a point they are making, as if that is supposed to mean something to me.  For non-believers with backgrounds like mine, not only does the citation not prove anything but virtually any passage you select will be so familiar to us that we are weary of hearing it cited for the ten-thousandth time, probably arguing the exact same point, perhaps even in exactly the same way as every time before.  It’s become like a bad joke among ex-Christians how slavishly it seems people are imitating one another without showing the slightest self-awareness of how badly they’re doing it.”

“You have faith too”

This one usually presents itself something like this, “You need faith to believe in science the same as you do God.”  This is a very common argument among theists, more specifically theists who have no idea how science works.  I addressed this argument once before, but it’s worth repeating here.  Having “faith” in science is not the same as having faith in the religious sense.  This is example of false equivocation.  There are two definitions of the word “faith”: (1) confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; and (2) belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  Atheists’ “faith” in science fits under definition 1, theists rely on faith as defined by 2.  Atheists don’t have faith in a religious sense of the word – they have evidence-based trust.  

This is another example of a false consensus.  Those who hold to their religious claims on faith naturally assume that everyone’s worldviews are shaped this way.  But that is not the case with atheists and skeptics – our world view is shaped by empirically evidence, logic and reason, not simply believing in something because we want it to be true.

Another way that I see this argument worded is the accusation that everyone worships something, therefore atheists must also worship something.  Again – false consensus.  No, not everyone worships something.  I know this is commonly taught in Christian culture, I heard it said more times then I could remember, but it’s simply not true.  The definition of worship (as a verb) is: “to show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites.”  You can’t show reverence and adoration for something you don’t believe in.

“Don’t you worry about the afterlife?”

No.  No we don’t.  Because there is no evidence that there is an afterlife.  As far as we know, this life is the only one we get.  Once we die, that’s it.  I realize that the belief in an afterlife is common to all religions, and even with some people who aren’t religious, but that doesn’t make it any more true.

This one comes up both subtly-and not so subtly- in the form of threats of hell.  It’s exactly why the myth of hell was invented – to keep people in line and keep them from straying from the pack.  It’s inevitable that when someone leaves religion there’s going to be that one (or many) friend or relative that is going to let them know in no uncertain terms that they are headed for hell.  Threatening someone with a mythological place for not believing in a mythological god is not only ineffective, but only affirms the fear-based and controlling nature of religion that were likely instrumental in our departure.

A more reasonable question that some propose is if it makes us sad to know that this life is all there is.  Sure it does.  We all want to spend as much time as we can enjoying this life and spending time with the ones we love.  Which is exactly why we spend our time worrying about this life instead of worrying about the next.  Ricky Gervais was presented with this same question in an interview and I thought his response was spot on:

“There’s this strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for, it’s the opposite – we don’t have anything to die for.  We have everything to live for.”

I would love to be wrong about this.  I would love to die someday and wake up again in some other dimension or existence.  That would be a pleasant surprise.  But I’m going to hedge my bets on what we thus far know to be true about death, rather than what we wish to be true.


There’s a common myth that atheism is just another option in the game of “Choose Your Own Religion”, but it’s not – we’ve opted out of the game all together.  We don’t play by the same rules as theists.  Yet, many can’t seem to grasp this fact, desperately insisting that we really do believe in God/the supernatural/faith on some level.  This is their way of trying to rationalize their own belief system to themselves.  By claiming that we also have faith or believe in the afterlife, it makes it appear that atheists have simply made a lateral move from one belief system to another, when in reality we’ve jettisoned the whole construct.  As Captain Cassidy puts it:

“What they’re really trying to do is make their own beliefs sound a little less wacky and foolish – and more believable and relatable. There are several reasons why they do it – sometimes they just want to make themselves feel less wacky and foolish despite believing some wacky and foolish things, or they want to signal and affirm their membership in their group…

When Christians misrepresent our lives, experiences, and worldview in order to make us sound more like themselves, that’s a desperate attempt to create a common ground where (they hope) Christianity’s claims might start sounding a little bit more plausible.  

They think that tearing down our worldview will make us forget that they aren’t actually offering any evidence that their claims are true. They’re not giving us any good reason to believe in their god’s existence. They’re just trying to make us think that we’re already just as irrational and silly as they are, only in different ways, in the wild hopes that we will think it wouldn’t be quite so weird to consider their claims.”

That last paragraph really addresses why theists try to paint atheism the way they do.  In lieu of actual evidence for their truth-claims they resort to Straw-Man arguments in an attempt to deem atheism no better then their own faith system.  Hopefully I’ve pointed out the major differences between the stereotypes some Christians have regarding atheists and how to counter them.  Thanks for reading.

*NOTE:  While writing this, the lead singer of the Christian rock band, Order of Elijah, came out as an atheist.  The response was much like what I’ve described here – while many were supportive, others had plenty to say about it.  Captain Cassidy wrote a rebuttal to the criticisms that are going around that is well worth the read.  

*I mention Christians here because of how it pertains to the discussed subject, but false consensus can be found among any large group of people that share a common identity, whether it’s religious, political, national, or otherwise. 

 

 

Things Christians Say (that are nowhere in the Bible)

Anyone who has ever engaged with Christians either in-person or on social media will know that there are certain catch-phrases that often get thrown around as a way of trying to win a debate.  These statements are usually meant to be conversation stoppers – a way of “dropping the mic” and acknowledging that they are no longer interested in anything else the other person has to say.  Having been taught that there is “power in the Word”, many Christians believe that these little one-liners have the power to actually change people’s hearts and minds.  Like magical spells, many believers honestly think that simply quoting Bible references will have some supernatural impact on others around them.

I’ll set aside just how absurd this notion is for now.  Today I want to focus on whether or not some of these saying are truly “Biblical”.  Are these concepts that can be found in the Bible or are they merely a product of modern Evangelical culture?  We’re going to examine a few of the more common statements that one hears in Christian culture and the validity of these statements as it pertains to the Bible.

“God helps those who help themselves”

While sounding like something one would find in Proverbs, this little gem can be found exactly zero times in the Bible.  Some have tried to argue that 2 Thes 3:10 and James 4:8 support this saying, but those are both a bit of a stretch.  In fact, this saying originated in ancient Greece, but is most commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

I see this verse most often used as an excuse not to help someone in need.  It usually looks something like this:  Tony is down on his luck and needs some assistance, so he asks Becky for help.  Becky doesn’t think that Tony is doing everything he can to better his situation; therefore she isn’t obligated to help.  Because if God isn’t going to help those who help themselves, why should she?

I also see this excuse used on a larger scale when dealing with social welfare issues.  It’s simply a more “Christian” way of saying, “Just go get a job, you lazy bum!”  Ironically, in the Bible God seems to show up and help those who can’t help themselves, but must turn to Him for help.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin”

This saying is a favorite among Christians and can be used in a multitude of situations, but is most often used in reference to homosexuality, or really any issue regarding sexuality or gender.  The basic idea is that you can still love a person, but disprove of what they do.  Sounds OK in theory, but in reality, it’s nothing more then an excuse to judge other people, which we’ll get to in a minute.  First, let’s state what shouldn’t need stating:  this “verse” appears nowhere in the Bible.

When the Bible doesn’t contain the verses necessary to back their worldview, apologists’ favorite trick is to simply cut-and-paste different verses together to come up with Frankenstein-esque “verses” like “love the sinner, hate the sin.”  This sort of word-smithing allows Christians to claim that their favorite excuse to judge people is taught in principle in the Bible.

As I’ve already stated, LTSHTS is nothing more then a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for Christians wanting to look down their noses at others and judge them for any actions, behaviors or lifestyles they don’t agree with.  They can try to disguise their contempt under the banner of “love” all they want, but you can’t fully love someone while simultaneously looking down on them.  John Pavlovitz wrote a great article on this topic, calling this saying an “abomination”, stating that; Rarely in history has there been a greater mischaracterization of the heart of Jesus or a more egregious bastardization of the Bible than these six words.  The damage that LTSHTS has done in the lives of billions of people and to the public perception of Christians can never be fully calculated, but one thing is certainly true: it’s an embarrassment and a sin and a total abomination.”  

 “The Bible is the inerrant Word of God”

I was at a Christmas pageant recently where the kids were telling the Christmas story we’re all familiar with.  I was a little surprised to see one kid playing the “skeptic”.  Every so often, after another child relayed a part of the story, the “skeptic” would chime in and say, “But how do you know that’s true?”  To which the other kids would reply, “The B-I-B-L-E!”  I wanted to go up to the kid afterwards and ask him, “But how do you know the B-I-B-L-E is true?”

It’s inevitable that any discussion with a Christian about any subject is going to come down to them quoting Scripture, yet when asked how someone knows that what Bible says is true, or inerrant, the answer is almost always, “Because it says so in the Bible”.

First of all, this is a circular argument, and completely illogical.  But, does the Bible, in fact, claim that the contents contained within it are completely factual and accurate in every way?

The answer is no – it doesn’t make this claim anywhere in the Bible.  The verse I most often hear cited as evidence is 2 Tim 3:16,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

There are a few problems here.  First, the word “Scripture” does not refer to the Bible, as we know it today, it is most likely referring to the Torah.  The Bible would not become compiled and canonized for another three centuries.  Second, saying that something is “breathed out by God” (some translations say “inspired”) is not the same thing as the literal Word of God.  Lastly, in no way does “profitable” (or useful) mean the same thing as inerrant.

The idea of the Bible being inerrant is purely human fabrication, and it doesn’t take a Bible scholar to notice the thousands of errors, inconsistencies, contradictions, and scientific errors found in its pages.  It’s unclear when this idea was first introduced, but it didn’t become popular until the late 19th century with the rise of Christian Fundamentalism.  It still remains dominant in Fundamental and Evangelical circles, and has been used to propagate and justify all manner of deplorable behaviors by Christians.

“The Earth is only 6,000 years old”

Creationists love to claim that they derive their belief in a young-earth from the Bible.  Next time someone tells you that the Earth is only 6,000 years old “because the Bible says”, ask him or her to cite the chapter and verse and see what he or she says.

The age of the earth is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible.  Even if one where to take a literal view of the seven-day creation story, that tells us nothing about how long ago that happened.  The young-earth view, in fact, comes not from the any specific Bible reference (and certainly not from science), but from an analysis by 17th century scholars of the Biblical genealogies found in Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.  Basically, they used the genealogy in the Bible to create a timeline of the Earth.  There are several problems with this methodology.  First, it assumes that the people recorded in the Bible were the only humans in existence, not accounting for any other civilizations, or civilizations that came before.  Second, different translation of the Bible cite different ages and dates than others.  And most importantly, humans have never lived for hundreds of years as the Bible claims.  Life expectancy during Biblical times was shorter, not longer, then what it is today.

This isn’t time or space to get into all the reasons why young-earth Creationism is harmful, but there are many articles out there discussing the dangers of Creationism on children, educationsociety as a whole, and even its own religion.   I’ve also written before about why science-denialism hurts everyone.

“Marriage is between one man, and one woman”

Everyone has heard this one.  It’s the battle-cry for those who believe that it’s not only acceptable, but mandated by God, to deny LGBTs the same civil liberties that everyone else has.  The Bible says many things about marriage, but it being solely between one man and one woman is not one of them.

If we were to base the institution of marriage on “Biblical values”, then it would be permissible to have multiple wives, to have wives and concubines (i.e. sex slaves and breeding stock), to have sex with your wife’s servant, to marry the women you rape, and to take virgin women as spoils of war.  But, just make sure whatever women you marry is a virgin, or else she needs to be put to death.

Really, the only verse in the Bible that hints at a so-called “traditional marriage” is found in Titus 1:6, where the qualifications for elders, or overseers, of the church are laid out: “If anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination…”

This may seem like an odd requirement to modern readers, but in the 1st century Middle East, it was quite common for both Jews and Gentiles to have multiple wives.  Regardless, this verse only addresses “elders” and says nothing of lay people, and certainly nothing of society as a whole.

“Abortion is a sin/murder/against God’s will”

I thought about making this its own post, but will include it here and try to make it short.  I have no doubt that this is going to spark the strongest reaction.  Abortion is undoubtedly one of the hot-button topics in society today, and Christians have spent millions of dollars trying to make it illegal.  Undoubtedly, those who find abortion morally wrong will cite their religious convictions and/or the Bible as the reason for opposing it.  But, what does the Bible actually say about abortion?

It won’t take long for most to realize that the word “abortion” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible, nor does it give any specific commandment one way or another on the issue.  The first objection (and usually only) argument most will give is that “abortion in murder, and murder is clearly wrong according to the Bible!”  This argument is almost entirely based on the notion that an zygotes and embryos are the same as humans, therefore to terminate one is the same as terminating an actual human.  This argument stems from a lack of understanding of biology and personal bias.  But what of the claim of abortion being murder?

If one were to try and find a clear outline as to what defines “murder”, the Bible would be the last place to look.  In the Bible, especially the OT, we see a complete disregard for life, with the murder killing of countless people, including children.  Abraham is asked by God to kill his only son to test him (Gen 22), the Israelite are commanded to commit genocide of whole races, including children (Deut 2:34, Deut 7:2, Deut 20:16-17, Deut 32:23-26, Numbers 31:17-18), God had 42 children killed by a bear for mocking Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-24), Israel was told to sacrifice their first-born, both animal and human to God, (Exodus 13:1-2), Jephthah sacrifices his only daughter to God after winning a battle (Judges 11:29-40), and God has thousand of his own people killed for such petty things as complaining about the food (Numbers 11:1-35, Numbers 21:4-9), wanting to go back to Egypt, not liking the boss (Numbers 16:27-32), those who followed those not liking the boss (Numbers 16:35), complaining about God killing those who didn’t like the boss and their followers(Numbers 16:49), and looking at the Arc of the Covenant (1 Sam 6:19).  And let’s not forget how “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9)

The above passages clearly demonstrate that our modern definition of murder is considerably different (and more civilized and humane) than in biblical times.  A reading of the OT laws shows that killing another human was only considered “murder” if that other human was an Israelite (or “sojourner” living on their land).  But what about children?

It’s important to note, that under Jewish law, life does not begin until birth.  In Exodus 21:22, the law states that if a pregnant women is hurt in an altercation between two men and looses her baby, the man who struck her will be punished in whatever way is seen fit by the husband and the judge.  The man, however, is not put to death, as would be the case if the woman was killed (Exodus 21:23).  Just to reiterate – if the unborn child died it was not considered murder.

Children under a month old appear to not have any worth in ancient Israel.  They were not included in censuses (Numbers 3:15) and were not given any monetary value (Lev 27:6).   There is also the horrific fact of parents being commanded to kill their own children for things like being disobedient (Deut 21:18-21), cursing their parents (Lev 20:9) or suggesting worshiping a different god (Deut 13:6-11).  In the book of Hosea, we read that God will cause women to miscarry (9:14) and kill any children that are born (9:16) if Israel does not repent.  Samaria, too, will feel God’s wrath as “their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.” (13:16)

The other popular argument against abortion are the verses in the Bible which describe a child being made in a womb (Job 31:15, Psalm 139:13, Jer. 1:5, etc.)  The argument goes that because God “knit” humans together in the womb, this suggests that the life in that womb is sacred.  All these verses demonstrate is that the authors had a very basis understanding of human development.  Ancient cultures understood that if a seed was placed in ground, the ground would nurture it, and a plant would come forth.  A similar understanding was assigned to humans – a man places his “seed” into a women, the women carries and nurtures the seed, and a child comes out.  None of these verses say anything of the intrinsic value placed on the “seed” in the womb.  The verses I shared above  however, do give us an understanding of when it was thought life began, and it wasn’t in the womb.  Reading the “womb verses” as evidence against abortion is an example of people extracting their own meaning and understand from the Bible and failing to place it in the context of the larger narrative. 

If abortion being murder is a Biblical concept, then it was only very recently that anyone became aware of it.  In fact, this “Biblical” view is younger than the Happy Meal.  The truth is, Christians were largely indifferent about abortion until the 70’s, when right-wing politics got in bed with Evangelicals and made it an issue.  Many denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, supported it.  And far from being an issue of morality, abortion was used by right-wing politicians as a means to an end for what they considered a much bigger issue – protecting segregated schools.

One of the important aspects of critical thinking is the careful evaluation of truth-claims.  It is important for people to realize where their knowledge comes from and what the roots are of long-held beliefs.  Hopefully I have demonstrated how easily it can be for someone to claim something that has the illusion of bearing weight, when in reality it rings hollow.  We all have our favorite bag of tricks that we like to employ in an argument, but we, both believers and non-believers, must always be mindful of the validity our own “tricks” or truth claims, and scrupulously evaluate them for accuracy.  There’s a lot of bullshit out there – let’s make sure we’re not contributing to the stench.  Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

God Seeks Justice and Mercy, Not Theology or Worship.

I recently read an excellent post by Chuck Queen; Faithfulness Is More Important Than Veneration (Back to the Future with the Jewish Jesus). At first I was a little bummed because I was working on a similar post and Queen’s version was way better then mine.  But, with Queen’s permission, I decided to spin off of what he wrote and expand on it, so I’d encourage you to read his post before continuing on with mine.

In my previous post, I stated that any interpretation of scripture that causing others to be harmed, marginalized, or oppressed is the wrong interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetical it may be.  I want to clarify that statement here, by saying that God is far more concerned about how we treat others then in what theology of doctrine about Him we subscribe to.  As Queen puts it, Jesus is far more interested in our faithfulness to the way of Jesus than our worship of Jesus or veneration of his deity. Having the faith of Jesus is more important than what we believe about Jesus.”

Current church culture often dictates that what you believe is what defines you as a “true Christian”.   It’s my opinion that one’s beliefs are simply a compass that points one in the right direction in life.  Queen echoes this by saying that, Our beliefs are mere pointers; our human way of trying to grasp and explain what is beyond our comprehension. Whereas beliefs tend to divide us, a living faith unites us.”  This is not to say that one’s beliefs aren’t important.  Queen states, What we truly believe in the core of our being impacts how we live, or at least how we want to live.”   It would seem that for many however, rather than beliefs simply pointing one in the right direction, they have become the journey itself; the goal and the emphasis of what defines faith.  It has also been my experience that most people of faith hold and defend their belief system with such vigor that it’s hard not to see them as idols.  These “idols” very often can lead to wrong and destructive positions in regards to such topics as LGBTs, women, immigrants, poverty, other religions, capital punishment, violence, and so on.

There is a perpetual fear amongst many Christians that if they don’t follow what the Bible says to do (or more accurately, what the church/religious leaders say to do), then they will incur the wrath of God and/or lose their salvation.  Without diving into the error of this sort of fear-based faith system, I hope to show scripturally that God’s primary concern is with our actions towards others, not with how closely we follow religious dogma.

When asked what the underlining theme of the Old Testament prophets’ message to Israel was, most would say that it was to stop worshiping idols- and they would be correct.  But the other common message found throughout the prophetic books is God’s anger at Israel for its neglect of the poor and marginalized.

In Isaiah 1, God tells Israel that he is tired of their offerings and their feasts, and He will no longer hear their worship or listen to their prayers until they get themselves right with Him.  What must they do to get right?

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

Again, in Isaiah 58, we see that despite seeking God daily and delighting to know his ways, and be a righteous nation, it’s not enough.  What does God want from them?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Amos continues in the theme of Isaiah with God once again being displeased with Israel’s feasts, offerings, and songs.  In a verse made famous by MLK, God demands:

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

In my ESV Bible, the heading above verse 6 of Micah 6 is titled: What Does the Lord Require?  We find the answer in verse 8:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Go ahead and read the verses that proceed this one.  What does God require?  Not offerings or sacrifices, but justice, kindness, and humility.

You see this word “justice” come up a lot.  Justice usually evokes images or ideas regarding a courtroom or the law, but in broader   terms, justice is the quality of being fair, just, or impartial.  It is “a principle or ideal of just dealing or right actions” according to Webster.  Frank Schaeffer makes the point that “tribalism and excluding classes of people is the enemy of justice.”

The writers of the New Testament were equally concerned about matter of social justice.   James writes that:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)

James goes on to show that faith and kind sentiments are meaningless unless they lead to actions which help others:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

John echos this sentiment by saying:

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)

Peter tells us:

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)

I find it ironic that the apostle Paul, whose words are all-too-often used as justification for the oppression and marginalizing of others, was so outspoken of the fact that religious traditions accounting for little in God’s eyes; only love.  In his letter to the church of Galatia, he writes:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)

Again, in his famous passage on love, Paul writes:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

If you’re wondering why I skipped over the Gospels, rest assured; I saved the best for last.  Jesus, more then anyone else in the Bible, taught and demonstrated that caring for others is more important then devotion to scriptural law of religious traditions.

Despite the assertion by most that Jesus was “without sin”, I would argue that this is a relative claim.  In whose eyes are we talking about?  Because certainly in the eyes of the dominant religion and it’s leaders of the time, Jesus “sinned” frequently and unashamedly.  In modern language, he would be accused of “living in sin”.

Jesus broke purity laws by touching lepers, dead people, a women on her period, handicapped, and the demon possessed.  He hung out with prostitutes.  He broke the Sabbath.  He associated with Samaritans.  He dined with “sinners”.  He disregarding fasting laws.  He pardoned people of their sins.   He was irreverent when speaking about God and taught his disciples to do the same.

Jesus seemed to have little regard for the “inerrancy” of the Torah, either.  In fact, Jesus frequently undercut scripture, stating the, “The Law says this, but I say…”  Can you imagine if an Evangelical pastor got up some Sunday and said to the congregation, “The Bible says this, but I say forget all that, listen to what I’m saying now!”  He would be fired before he even finished his sermon.

And what about the parable of the Good Samaritan?  Who was considered the good neighbor towards the beaten man?  Not the priest or the Levite, but the Samaritan bandaged him, cared for him, and offered to pay for all his medical expenses.

Finally, in the most telling example of love trumping law,  in Matthew 25 we read about the final judgement and how people what people will be judged on:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:31-40)

No mention of correct theology.  No word about sound doctrine.  Nothing about standing up for “Christian values”.  Not a thing about defending “truth”.  Just caring for the “least of these”.  That is what living as a follower of Christ is all about.

Are ones beliefs important?  Yes, but only in so far as they are used to love and care for others.  If certain beliefs cause others harm, it’s time to drop them, or at the very least reevaluate them.

Who someone is and what they do is all that matters” says Frank Schaeffer

In closing I would like to offer a modern interpretation of Paul’s words to the church of Corinth.  We’ll call it “Rob’s Letter to the Church of America”:

If you have vibrant, Spirit-filled worship services, but exclude outsiders from joining in, it’s all just a bunch of noise.  If you have the most exegetical and theologically-sound teachings, but use them to harm or marginalize others, it is all just useless words.  If your own beliefs are more important then serving your neighbor, then your faith is meaningless.  If you give all that you have to help build your own church, but ignore the poor and the hungry, you are throwing your money away. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redifining Sin

Every month a group I started, The Armistice Project, holds a meeting at the local library where people from all backgrounds, faiths, and sexual orientation come together and discuss the divisive topic of faith and homosexuality.  At one of our last meetings I posed the question, “Using non-religious language, how would you define sin?”  This proved harder to do then one would think.  Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time in a church or around religion instinctively links the word “sin” with God and/or the Bible.  In fact, even the dictionary states that sin is defined as “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.”

While parts of the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments, may be universally excepted as a golden standard of moral behavior, very often a sin is considered anything that a particular church, pastor, or person doesn’t agree with.  Growing up, everything from drums in church to people mowing their yards on Sunday were considered sin.   Talk of sin, whether from the pulpit or from your parents, is usually wrapped up in language of guilt and shame and seems more intent on controlling or repressing peoples’ behaviors, as apposed to being simple moral guidelines.  Yet, when one takes a close look at the statistics of divorce rates, domestic violence, and teenage pregnancy amongst people who go to church, it becomes obvious that all this sin-talk does little to make religious people any more moral than the rest of the world.

When I was about 13, my mom finally decided it was time to talk to me about sex.  (Little did she know, I already knew a great deal about sex thanks to the Glamour magazines she kept hidden under her bed)  Her talk went something like this, “It’s a sin to have sex before you’re married, so don’t do it.”  That’s it.  No explanations,  no rational dialogue, just a blunt, black-and-white statement with a little Bible talk thrown in.  How well did it work?  I started having sex in high school and had gotten a girl pregnant by the time I was 20.  I’m not trying to blaming my parents for my actions, but their riveting speech gave me no motivation to abstain from sex.  Current studies would suggest that my story is not an isolated one as 9 out 10 church-goers have sex before they’re married.  Yet, churches still keep pushing the same mantra of premarital sex being a sin against God, a sin against your future spouse, “true love waits”, etc.  What’s that old saying about insanity?   It’s repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results?

Another issue the church is trying to tackle is pornography.  I’ve heard this addressed more times then I can count, but the speech is always the same; pornography is a sin against God, against your spouse, against your future spouse, etc.  From my experience, this does nothing but pile on the guilt and shame that people who struggle with pornography already deal with, and shaming is never an effective deterrent for negative behavior.

I think what’s missing is proper explanations as to why some things are immoral or unhealthy behaviors.  When asked what constitutes a sin, most will open up their Bible and point to a verse or two, but how effective is that today?   How effective is ancient Bible text in a world that has information at it’s fingertips?  Is the Biblical language of sin, which people thought of as being the cause of natural disasters and mental illness, still applicable in our post-science worldview?  I think a new understanding of what constitutes a “sin” is needed if people of faith hope to remain relevant in our modern world .  We need to search for more rational, universally excepted reasoning when engaging in dialogues regarding peoples behaviors.

Maybe if my parents would have explained to me what a huge responsibility sex was, I might have listened.  Maybe if my mom had explained to me how emotionally attached a women gets when she is intimate with someone, I might have reconsidered who I slept with.  Maybe if my dad had explained to me how sex makes you willing to overlook negative qualities in someone that your with, I would have gotten out of bad relationships sooner.  I’m not saying any of this would have stopped me from having sex, but it would have been much more useful information to have in making decisions then any of the Bible-talk that I received.

If I had an atheist buddy who was really into pornography, what good would telling him it’s a sin do?  But, what if I explained to him the addictive nature of porn and how it affects the brain the same way as drugs do?   What if I told him that constant exposure to porn could alter how aroused he got when around the real thing?  I could explain to him that, more then likely, his significant other felt disrespected when he looked at porn and might even feel like she’s being cheated on.  He would be far more likely to hear me out then if I started preaching at him.

While looking at immoral behavior from a rational standpoint, it’s important that we also see the flip-side of the coin.  What about some of the long-standing stances the Church has taken on certain “sinful” behaviors?  Could they still be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in light of our current world-view?

Today, women are CEOs, doctors, lawyers, scientists, serve in government, and serve in the military, yet are still barred from serving in positions of ministry in many churches.  Is there any rational reason why women can’t be in ministry?  If your only explanation is a couple Biblical verses written in a time where women were considered nothing more then the property of men, then it’s time to dismiss this case and move on.  Thankfully, many denominations have moved past archaic ideas of women needing to “remain silent” in church and have appointed women to all offices of ministry, but I think there is still progress to be made.

The Church is also in desperate need of a more rational discussion about homosexuality.  The stance of most Evangelical churches is that all homosexuality is a sin and LGBTs have no choice but to remain celibate and hope that God will make them straight.  This stance is based on an ignorant view of human biology and a misunderstanding of a handful of verses written at a time and culture that had a very different world view of gender and sexuality then we do.  Yet, I’ve never heard a rational explanation as to why two people of the same sex can’t be in a relationship.  To expect gay people to remain celibate is not only cruel and unrealistic, but it’s an ugly representation of the Church’s obsession with trying to control people’s behaviors.  No where in the Bible does God call anyone to celibacy or a life of loneliness.  To make such demands of our LGBT neighbors is reminiscent of the religious leaders of Jesus’s time who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”  

The use of the word “sin” has for too long been used  to control people through guilt and shame.  Maybe it’s time we start looking for language that builds up rather then tears down.  Maybe we should start focusing on people’s good qualities instead of focusing on where they fall short.  Or, maybe we should just leave this whole business of judging sin up to God and get on with the task of loving people.

 

(NOTE:  I realize that there is a lot more to the arguments regarding faith and homosexuality, far too much to put into one post.  Rest assured, I will be addressing some of these arguments in future posts.)