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Archive for February, 2014

The Truth Value and Interpretation of the Holy Bible

 

It is between fifty and sixty years since I read [The Apocalypse] and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy or capable of explanation than the incoherence of our own nightly dreams.

Thomas Jefferson (Third President of the United States, 1743-1826)

 

Background

 

This Blog is a modified excerpt from a book I wrote between 2005 and 2009, “titled—Trouble in Paradise: The Decline of Christianity in the 21st Century. For those of you who haven’t read this book, this Blog should provide information and facts that are central to the following question: How was the Holy Bible really created?

There are two ways people generally view the Holy Bible: (1) as the “Received View” based on faith, and (2) as the “Historical View” based on valid historical facts. True Christian believers tend to follow the Received View, while academics and religious scholars tend to support and accept the historical view. Both viewpoints attempt to see “Truth” as supporting their viewpoint. For the true believer facts are irrelevant, only faith and belief matters. For the academic or scholar, facts and data are the only things that matter. This conflicting difference between the two viewpoints automatically begs the question—what is truth?

What is Truth?

So what is truth anyway? Is my truth the same as your truth? Is truth absolute or is it variable, conditional, a product of culture, or depend entirely upon the interpretation of the word itself? Is truth only a matter of faith or are there empirical ways of getting at the truth? Well, it appears that truth is not absolute. Truth is, quite simply, what we agree it is (no more and no less). It is a matter of consensus that can change over time. Scientific truth operates in this conditional sense of everything being subject to change. So, why not any other “type” of truth?

Theologians, when discussing truth, would answer that everything has a cause and that cause is God. In their opening pages to their book, The Idiot’s Guide to the Bible, the authors ask a thought provoking question in their own right. If everything has a cause (as theologians assert) then what caused God? Theologians, of course, don’t answer that question and can’t answer the question.

At one level these questions are asking for an answer that is logical, empirical and straightforward, based on reason and facts. Most of us lead lives that are rather pragmatic and ordinary where we tend to answer everyday questions using facts and reason. At another level some questions simply have an underlying dimension of value judgments. The answers to these value-laden, judgmental-type questions also tend to be value-laden, judgmental-type answers.

Answers are not facts or data but statements of value instead. For example, people on both sides of the abortion issue often ask and answer questions that are riddled with value judgments. Another example of a value judgment question (it must be remembered that many cherished beliefs are really cherished values) is–what is the purpose and meaning of one’s life? Since everyone presumably would have a different purpose in life, this question is really asking, “Does my life have value?” Science, of course, is unable to answer judgmental or value-laden questions such as meaning and purpose, including the ultimate value of one’s life. Theologians and ministers ask these types of value-laden questions and provide value-laden answers every day.

At times it is true that scientists also make value judgment statements about the value of research findings, and the delight and joy at making discoveries and unraveling the laws of the universe. People will mostly agree that there is value when science does succeed when cures are found for illness and new medicines are created in the laboratory.

However, that is where the similarity between science and religion ends. Knowledge and methodology separate physical science, medicine, and the social sciences from religion. While the physical sciences (chemistry, biology, physics and medicine) came on strong from the 17th century on, the social sciences of psychology and sociology made their strong entry and debut into the world of science, and scientific methods, during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Knowledge in medicine and the physical and social sciences are contained in books, articles, and academic journals. Such a body of knowledge goes back in time regarding the content of the material. In addition there are over 1500 formal academic journals published around the world each month. Each journal usually covers 10-12 articles on new research findings that have passed muster by a professional peer-review process.

Unlike the quality and quantity of authoritative serious knowledge created and reported upon by scientists today, religions rely almost exclusively on ancient documentation to support their belief systems.

In order to provide religious answers on meaning and purpose, special documentation was needed.  In Judaism, it is the Old Testament accepted as the Hebrew bible. In Christianity it is the Hebrew bible and the New Testament. In Islam it is the Koran. Scriptures are used to teach adherents and to serve as justification for a particular belief system.

This is only speculation, but perhaps the first writers of the Judaic and Christian gospels needed to “market” the material as–you guessed it–“The Word of God.” If God is the real author and architect of the Bible, He would be much better than some nondescript followers of Jesus. Ever wonder why there is so much debate as to who wrote this chapter or that chapter in the Bible?

One must remember that in the timeline for authorship in the Old Testament their mythological stories were created by men centuries before the New Testament. In order to garner support for the New Testament, someone among Jesus’ later adherents to the new religion came up with the bright idea that wouldn’t it be nice to hijack the scriptures of another religion and call it their own. If Judaism’s Old Testament were borrowed, wouldn’t that increase the probability that other non-Christian Jews might throw their support to the fledging Christian religion?

Interpretation of Scriptures

In Christianity one problem that surfaces is that the documentation provided is itself highly problematic and questionable as a source of any kind of authority in its own right. In the case of the 27 books of the New Testament and 39 books of the Old Testament, interpretation of scriptures is not a straightforward process. Far from it! Differences of opinion are everywhere from biblical experts, scholars, and from biblical archaeologists on the one hand, to practicing priests, ministers, and Christian schools on the other. In fact, even among believers there is great diversity of opinion as to whether scriptures hold any “truth value” for them.

One important reason scriptural interpretation is so varied is that the Bible itself is believed to have had many authors and many scribes to convey its content. Richard Dawkins has commented that, “The fact that something is written down is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like: ‘who wrote it, and when?’ ‘How did they know what to write?’ ‘Did they, in their time, really mean what we, in our time, understand them to be saying?’ ‘Were they unbiased observers, or did they have an agenda that colored their writing?’

Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life. All were then copied and re-copied, through many Chinese Whispers generations by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.” [1]

If one thinks that these differences are occurring only in the modern era, he or she is poorly informed. Before the orthodox only abbreviated viewpoint of Christian literature was assembled into what we call the Bible today, the rich tapestry of comprehensive writings on Christianity from many different sources were, for the most part, circulating throughout the ancient religious communities of the Middle East.

Diversity of Opinion in Early Christianity

 

There was no New Testament for early Christians. The books that were eventually collected into the New Testament had been written by the 2nd century but had not been gathered yet into a widely recognized and authoritative canon of Scripture.[2] The best way to determine if early Christians held differing opinions about Christ and Christianity is to know what their beliefs were and how they differed.

For example, according to Erdman, “The wide diversity of early Christianity may be seen above all in the theological beliefs embraced by people who understood them to be followers of Jesus.”[3]  Erdman goes on to cite an impressive offering of different beliefs among early Christians of the second and third centuries. Among those Christians, some thought there was just one god, and others believed there were two gods. Some thought there were thirty and some even believed there were 365.[4]

There were Christians that thought God created the world; other Christians thought or believed that this world had been created by a subordinate, ignorant divinity. (Why else would the world be filled with such misery and hardship?). Yet other Christians thought it was worse than that, that this world was a cosmic mistake created by a malevolent divinity as a place of imprisonment, to trap humans and subject them to pain and suffering.[5]

There were Christians in the second and third centuries who believed that the Jewish Scriptures (the Christian “Old Testament”) was inspired by the one true God. Others believed it was inspired by the God of the Jews, who was not the one true God. Others believed it was inspired by an evil deity. Others believed it was not inspired.[6]

“In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that Jesus was both divine and human, God and man. There were other Christians that argued that he was completely divine and not human at all. (For them, divinity and humanity were incommensurate entities: God can no more be a man than a man can be a rock.) There were others who insisted that Jesus was a full flesh-and- blood human, adopted by God to be his son but not himself divine. There were yet other Christians who claimed that Jesus Christ was two things: a full flesh-and-blood human, Jesus, and a fully divine Christ, who temporarily inhabited Jesus’ body during his ministry and left him prior to his death, inspiring his teachings and miracles but avoiding the suffering in its aftermath.” [7]

Finally, there were Christians who believed that Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world. Others believed that Jesus’ death had nothing to do with the salvation of the world. There were other Christians who said that Jesus never died.[8]

At the time the New Testament was written, the Gospels (written anonymously and later assigned the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were made a part of it. Other Gospel books (discussed later in this Blog) were becoming available as sacred texts, read and revered by different Christian groups throughout the world.[9]

But all these other Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses were viewed as heresy by the orthodox religious authorities of the day. As rich and as popular as these books were among early Christians, they were excluded from becoming part of the sacred scriptures or canon of Christianity. What eventually became the 27 books of the New Testament is only a subset of all Christian literature that was once available to all Christians.

At the root of the development of orthodox views only of Christianity–was politics, even in the ancient world. Holding a conservative orthodox view of Christianity today is, as it was in early Christianity, to see only one view of Christianity. Just because it’s a politically derived set of canonized scriptures doesn’t make it any more descriptive of the historical Jesus than if those who were branded the heretics of Christianity instead had succeeded in dominating the sacred texts of Christianity.

 

Modern Day Differences of Opinion

Despite the orthodoxy of winning the battle to control the scriptures of early Christianity, large differences today exist among the world religions and the many denominations within Christianity itself.

Any particular church’s doctrine may be at great variance, not only with other world religions and other denominations within Christianity, but with the very tomb of religious cannon itself that they promote as their source of authority–the Bible. There is wide variation of opinion regarding Christian doctrine espoused by skeptics, the general public, evangelicals, born-again Christians, notional Christians, agnostics and atheists, including differences by age, gender, and race.

Differences of opinion are the rule, not the exception, where the Bible is concerned. One group that has received a lot of media attention is known as the Jesus Seminar. This is a group of academic scholars who question the truth behind the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith.

According to Lee Strobel, “The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith: the Jesus Seminar believes there’s a big gulf between the two. In its view the historical Jesus was a bright, witty, countercultural man who never claimed to be the Son of God, while the Jesus of faith is a cluster of feel-good ideas that help people live right but are ultimately based on wishful thinking.”[10]

One of the great apologists for Christianity was C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). Many younger generations may more likely remember C.S. Lewis for his creative fictional work, “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” C. S. Lewis was one of the great defenders of the Faith since his conversion to Christianity in 1931. There were many Christians at Oxford in the 1940s. Many, like Lewis, felt that both the pros and cons of the Christian religion should be discussed openly. This led to the foundation of the Socratic Club.[11] C.S. Lewis served as its president until 1954 when he became a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge University, England.

Many scholars today probably would dismiss Lewis’ logic as nothing more than Socratic debate double-talk, or that his underlying assumptions about the relationship of natural to supernatural things or events made no sense at all. There was one statement in the Preface to Lewis’ book that did make a lot of sense. That is, Walter Hooper wrote, in the preface to Lewis’ book, God in the Dock, “Regardless of one’s education, it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.”[12] The methodology, of course, of knowing what something is about, should be based on observation, knowledge, and interpretation of the facts and assumptions made.

Interpretation of the Bible itself is made further difficult by the conflicts between various texts. There are texts within the New Testament that conflict with one another as well as conflict with those sacred texts that were rejected by the Orthodox Church. These rejected texts may have been more representative of who Jesus was and what Christianity was about than those texts that eventually became the “Orthodox view” of the Bible people read today.

For example Elaine Pagels reports in, Beyond Belief–The Secret Gospel of Thomas, “Christian mystics, like their Jewish and Muslim counterparts, have always been careful not to identify themselves with God. But the gospel of Thomas teaches that recognizing one’s affinity with God is the key to the kingdom of God.”[13] Pagels goes on to say that, “Orthodox Jews and Christians, of course, have never wholly denied affinity between God and us. But their leaders have tended to discourage or, at least, to circumscribe the process through which people may seek God on their own. This may be why some people raised as Christians and Jews today are looking elsewhere to supplement what they have not found in Western tradition.”[14]

Where Does the Old Testament Come From?

It is important for people to understand that “the stories of the Bible evolved slowly over centuries before the existence of orthodox religions. Many belief cults spread stories and myths handed down by oral tradition from generation to generation long before people wrote them down. Many of the stories originally came from Egyptian and Sumerian cults.

All of these early religions practiced polytheism, including the early Hebrews. Some of the oldest records of the stories that later entered the Old Testament came from thousands of small cylinder seals depicting creation stories, excavated from the Mesopotamia period. These early artifacts and artworks (dated as early as 2500 B.C. E.) established the basis for the Garden of Eden stories at least a thousand years before it impacted Hebrew mythology.”[15]

How eventually were these stories written? It depended upon different languages. According to Martin Manser, “The two main original languages of the Bible were Hebrew and Greek. The Old Testament was mostly written in Aramaic. The entire New Testament was written in Greek, the language commonly spoken and written throughout the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.”[16]

Today original writings of the Old Testament do not exist. What does exist are hundreds of fragments from copies that became the Old Testament. The original material of the Old Testament was handed down as mythological stories via oral tradition. When scribes got into the act of writing the Old Testament they began to use Cuneiform tablets, papyrus paper, leather etchings and the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.[17]

 The writers or scribes of the Old Testament, as mentioned wrote in classical Hebrew except for some portions written in Aramaic.[18]  “The traditional Hebrew scribes wrote the texts with consonants but the Rabbis later added vowels for verbal pronouncing…In the second century C.E., or even earlier, the Rabbis compiled a text from the manuscripts as had survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E…This text incorporated the mistakes of generations of copyists, and in spite of the care bestowed on it, many errors of later copyists also found their way into it. The earliest surviving manuscripts of this text date from the ninth to eleventh centuries C.E. It comes mostly from these texts which religionists have used for the present Old Testament translations.”[19]

Where Does the New Testament Come From?

In a nutshell, “Scholars have long debated whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John actually penned the Gospels. Because John and Matthew were thought to be original disciples and Mark and Luke were companions of Paul, their names may have been used to add credibility to the account. Many scholars argue that the gospel writers were disciples of disciples or members of communities who were influenced by Paul or the disciples.”[20]

Pastor William R. Grimbol regards the Gospel writers as editors. According to Grimbol, “Although the primary sources for the story of Jesus are the Gospels, the Gospels are not firsthand accounts. The writers of these books were not reporters. The Gospels were recorded several decades after the events of the life of Christ. They were written from the perspective of looking back upon Christ’s life and forward in anticipation of his return. The Gospels were not your average history books. The gospel writers gathered many patches of oral tradition concerning the life of Jesus. Each gospel writer received several of the same patches, some that were slightly different, and a few that were unique. Each gospel writer then weaved these patches together with the thread of his personal faith standpoint.”[21]

There is great discontinuity in the bibles that were created. First, the material of the Bible came from many unknown authors spread over a great expanse of time. One thousand two hundred fifty years separates the beginning of the writings on the Old Testament to the end of such writings (1450 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E.).[22]

It is believed that any New Testament writings didn’t begin to be written until more than 30 to 95 years after the death of Christ.[23] It is believed that Christ died in 30 C.E.[24]  “The Gospels cannot really be dated, nor are the real authors known. It is based on speculation that Mark was the first, written between 60 and 70 A.D., Matthew second, between 70 and 80 A.D., Luke (and Acts) third, between 80 and 90 A.D., and John last, between 90 and 100 A.D.”[25]  The Epistles were written by the Apostle Paul long before the first Gospels were created. These Epistles were written between 48 and 58 C.E.[26]

“All of the Gospels except John contain possible allusions to the destruction of Jerusalem, which was destroyed in 70 C.E., and thus it is likely they were all written after that date.” [27]  Also, there appears nothing in Paul’s letters that either hints at the existence of the Gospels or even of a need for such memoirs of Jesus Christ.[28]

Some scholars believe that in 90 C.E. Old Testament books called, “The Writings,” were created as part of the Christian Canon. The Writings included Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and Chronicles.[29]

It is also reported that, “The oldest copy of the New Testament yet found consists of a tiny fragment from the Gospel of John. Scholars dated the little flakes of papyrus from the period style of its handwriting to around the first half of the 2nd Century C.E. The language of most of the New Testament consists of old Greek.”[30] In 150 C.E. two important events occurred: (1) the four Gospels were collected and put together, and (2) The School of Alexandria was founded in Egypt, quickly becoming a major center for both Christian Theology and Greek Philosophy.

What many Christians fail to understand is that, in addition to the four Gospels of the New Testament, there were many other texts created by the early Christian religion. But these texts were suppressed [These texts will be discussed in detail in the next section]. They were known as the Agnostic texts, and were very important to early Christianity.[31]

The first recorded use of the term “Christian” occurred at Antioch, Syria, home of one of the first Christian Churches.      

The backdrop of the path of how today’s Bible became what it is, is based on modifications over the last 2000 years. According to the history of the Dark Bible, “There has existed over a hundred different versions of the Bible, written in most of the languages of the time including Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Some versions left out certain biblical stories and others added stories.

The completed versions of the Old and New Testaments probably got finished at around 200-300 C.E. although many disputed the authenticity of some books which later ended up as Apocrypha (un-canonical or of questionable authorship). For example, the book of Ecclesiastics appears in the Catholic Bible but not in Protestant versions.”[32]

A Bogus Christianity Based on an Incomplete Bible

 

On December 25th, 2005, and later during the spring of 2006, the History Channel presented an outstanding 2-hour world premiere documentary called, “Banned from the Bible.” The reader must understand that many Christian documents and gospels on Christ and Christianity may have been destroyed or lost during the last 2000 years. However, many gospels and related documents were not lost or destroyed. They were simply banned from the Bible. What makes the extant Bible the Word of God? Why wouldn’t the volumes of excluded documents also be the Word of God? And if so, who appointed whom to be the editor of God’s word? Could it be then that the existing bogus Bible really had nothing to do with giving voice to God’s word if men decided what was and was not the Word of God?

It is obvious to religious scholars that these books were in some way objectionable and threatening to the leaders of the orthodox Christian churches. Anything that did not meet with their approval was branded as heresy. Many of the books that were available as possible candidates for inclusion in the New Testament were, in fact, very popular with early Christians.

Like today early Christians hungered for any information about Christ. The extant Bible today is a bogus version representing the life of Christ in only an incomplete and limited way. Other Christian beliefs, such as those of the Agnostics never saw the light of day, even though many might argue better represented the true nature of Jesus Christ and Christianity. Interpretation and the derivation of meaning from any scriptures are patently unintelligible if the original sources of literary importance were excluded.

“One hundred and fifty years after the birth of Jesus, a man named Marcion decided that a Christian Bible was needed to replace the Hebrew Bible. Church leaders opposed Marcion’s banning of the Hebrew books, but they did agree that Christians should have a Bible of their own.

After Constantine the Great converted to Christianity in the 4th century, a serious effort was made to compile a Christian Bible, one that included both the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and Christian manuscripts (the New Testament). It took another 40 years before a final list of New Testament books was officially canonized by the church. Many of the most popular were excluded. Upon examination today, many of these writings attempt to resolve inconsistencies and questions raised from reading the bible.”[33]

As pointed out, more gospels and documents were left out than were included. To say that the Bible is the word of God is to miss the mark in a big way. The Bible was the political creation of conservative, Orthodox Church leaders in the 4th century that determined what was included, and what wasn’t included in the Bible.

It is interesting to note in Bart D. Ehrman’s book, Lost Christianities when he points out, “It is striking that, for centuries, virtually everyone who studied the history of early Christianity simply accepted the version of the early conflicts written by the orthodox victors. This all began to change in a significant way in the nineteenth century as some scholars began to question the ‘objectivity’ of such early Christian writers as the fourth-century orthodox author Eusebius, the so-called Father of Church History, who reproduced for us the earliest account of the conflict. This initial query into Eusebius’s accuracy eventually became, in some circles, a virtual onslaught on his character, as twentieth-century scholars began to subject his work to an ideological critique that exposed his biases and their role in his presentation. The reevaluation of Eusebius was prompted, in part, by the discovery of additional ancient books, uncovered by trained archaeologists looking for them and by Bedouin, who came across them by chance, other gospels, for examples, that also claimed to be written in the names of apostles.”[34]

Banned Sacred Texts

 

A short synopsis of some of the banned sacred texts follows. Each of the books was excluded from the canons of Christianity:

  • The Life of Adam and Eve: A more detailed story of creation than what is found in Genesis, this book  includes jealous angels, a more devious serpent, and more information      about Eve’s fall from grace from her point of view.[35]
  • The Book of Jubilees: This obscure Hebrew text offers an answer to a question that has vexed Christians for centuries – if Adam and Eve only had sons and if no other humans existed,  who gave birth to humanity? This text reveals that Adam and Eve had nine children and that Cain’s younger sister Awan became his wife. The idea that humanity was born of incest would have been radical – and heretical.[36]
  • The Book of Enoch: This scripture reads like a modern day action film, telling of fallen angels, bloodthirsty giants, an earth that had become home to an increasingly flawed humanity and a divine judgment to be rendered. Though denied a place in most Western Bibles it has been used for centuries by Ethiopian Christians. Large portions of this book were found as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.[37]
  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: The only book that deals with young Jesus, it indicates that Jesus was a strong-willed child who one historian describes as “Dennis the Menace as      God.” The book reveals that at age five, Jesus may have killed a boy by pushing him off a roof and then resurrected him. Perhaps too disturbing for inclusion in the Bible, this book seems to contain traditions, also known to the Koran.[38]
  • The Protovangelion of James: This book offers details of the life of the Virgin Mary, her parents, her birth and her youth; stories not found in the New Testament Gospels but was      beloved by many early Christians.
  • The Gospel of Mary: This Agnostic Text reveals that Mary Magdalene may have been an apostle, perhaps even a leading apostle, not a prostitute. While some texts in the Bible seem to deny women a voice in the Christian community, this text helps spark the debate about the role of women in the church.[39]
  • The Gospel of Nicodemus: This is the story of Jesus’ trial and execution and descent into hell. According to this gospel, the Savior asserts his power over Satan by freeing      patriarchs such as Adam, Isaiah and Abraham from Hell.[40]
  • The Apocalypse of Peter: Peter’s apocalypse suggests that there is a way out of punishment for evildoers and implies that the threat of the apocalypse is a way for God to scare      people into living a moral life, and committing fewer sins.[41]

“These books are just a sampling of the hundreds that were never included in the Holy Bible. Perhaps there are more to be found. Whether one believes these alternative stories or not, they do provide an interesting perspective of the religious culture and propensities of the time.”[42]

On April 7, 2006 a bombshell rocked the world of modern day Christianity. Another book that had never made its way into the “official Bible” was discovered and found to be, through carbon dating, authentic. After 1700 years The Gospel of Judas was rediscovered. “Judas Iscariot, long reviled as history’s quintessential betrayer, was actually the best friend of Jesus and turned him over to authorities only because Jesus asked him to, according to the Gospel of Judas.”[43] The long-lost document was revealed by the National Geographic Society. The document is considered by some to be the most important archaeological find in the last 60 years. It “purports to record conversations between Jesus and Judas in the last week of their lives–conversations in which Jesus shared religious secrets not known by the other disciples.”[44]

This particular gospel, like many others above, was ruled heretical by early church leaders because of its disagreement with the conventionally accepted Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. According to Thomas H. Maugh II, writer for the Los Angeles Times, “Biblical scholars, however, hailed the new text because of the insight it will provide into the exceptionally turbulent period when competing ideologies sought to stake their own claims to the Jesus story, battling in oral stories and written texts until a single, faction eventually won out.”[45]

This writer’s article, which appeared in the Sacramento Bee, also reported that, “Scholars said the 26-page document was written on 13 sheets of papyrus leaf in ancient Egyptian, or Coptic, and was bound as a book, known as a codex. It is one of dozens of sacred texts from the Christian Gnostics, who believed that salvation came through secret knowledge conveyed by Jesus.”[46]

 

The Great Problem of Biblical Interpretation

One of the greatest problems for Christian believers and non-believers alike is interpretation of biblical scriptures. Historically, this is shown and demonstrated by the plethora of major denominations and splinter groups in the Protestant movement alone. Different groups reflect different perspectives on Christian practice, theology, and the underlying meaning of scripture. All of this is aside from the many religions worldwide that have very different systems of belief from Christianity.

Fundamentalists in Christianity are more likely to believe in a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible. What exactly is a literal interpretation?

According to Donald K. Campbell, “when we interpret the Bible literally we interpret its words and sentences in their natural, normal, and usual sense.”[47] He quotes Merrill F. Unger as saying the literal method is “the method which seeks to arrive at the precise meaning of the language of each of the Bible writers as is required by the laws of grammar and the facts of history.”[48] At the heart of this approach is to derive ‘meaning’ from the scriptures.

The literal method does not preclude figures of speech such as symbols, allegories, metaphors, and similes.[49] The literal method recognizes that sometimes poetical and allegorical language is used to support a literal meaning of the Bible.[50] Natural meaning, rather than literal words, per se, is secondary to natural meaning that provides context to underlying biblical truth.

Campbell further asserts that the more important principles of literal interpretation of the Bible include: (1) grammatical interpretation, (2) contextual interpretation, and (3) passages in the Bible have one meaning that should be determined prior to any moral application of the passage.[51]

However, A.R. Bernard, Pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn New York, says “interpretation of the bible is more than literal.” That is, he describes the interpretation of the Bible as literal, figurative, and symbolic.[52] According to Campbell and Bell, coming to agreement about what the Bible means has been quite a difficult task.[53] Both authors attribute difficulty to three factors: (1) a changing culture, (2) different and changing religions, and (3) different ways of understanding sacred writing. Within the Christian faith alone there is a plethora of opinions on what scriptures mean.[54]

Whether something is told as a parable or that appears to be hyperbole, the words themselves always need to have their meaning deciphered. Campbell and Bell generally agreed (also an opinion) that the Bible provides God’s truth for our lives, but how to interpret that truth is another matter. These authors also say, “One reason you need to check out the bible on your own, rather than limiting your knowledge to what we tell you, is that people vary in their opinion of what is to be taken literally and what is figurative or symbolic.”[55]

According to Christian scriptures, only God possesses absolute truth, not man. However, it is still man who must interpret scriptures. If this were not so there wouldn’t be so many religions and so many different denominations within Christianity itself. “We all tend to draw those lines in different places, and it’s no simple matter to say that one person is right and another wrong.”[56]How right one is ought to follow some degree of logic and reason, two things fundamentalists reject, ironically, even when defending their own positions.

Unfortunately, there are extremes in how scripture is interpreted. Some splinter Christian groups use snakes in their services, and others employ mentally unbalanced oppressive interpretations of God and scripture. Such was the case with charismatic leaders David Koresh of the Branch Dravidians, and Jim Jones of Jonestown.

Freedom of religion is a key freedom in every democracy; but to be really free democracy requires that there also be freedom from religion. Problems of interpreting the morality underlying many stories in the Bible are very significant. Seeing the Bible as a source for moral conduct is not only problematic, but downright immoral.

Using the Bible as any source for moral conduct is not only highly misplaced judgment, but highly dangerous in its implications. Problems of moral interpretation of the Bible reach far beyond the difficulties individuals have with ordinary contradictions and nonsensical or bizarre statements found in the Bible. There are more moral contradictions in the Bible than there are speeders on the nation’s freeways. Rather than address all of them I will concentrate on just a few.

Is God A Loving God or a Murderous Thug? You Decide.

In the Bible, many people, including children, are slaughtered. Does God want children to die as some sort of whim? In Matt 18:14. It reads, “It is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.” One might conclude from this passage that God doesn’t want any children to die. However, he often kills children and commands others to do so as well. In Gen.7: 21-22. God drowns all children (except for Noah’s) in a worldwide flood. In Gen.19:24. God kills all of the children of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in Gen. 22:2. God tells Abraham to kill his son for a burnt offering. Gee, what a loving God!

One must remember that fundamentalists believe in a “literal” interpretation of the Bible. If one does take a literal view, as fundamentalists tell us we should when reading and interpreting the Bible, one certainly can’t simultaneously take a symbolic or metaphorical interpretation just to be able to deny the acts of violence and mass murder committed by a monotheistic God. Fundamentalists must also accept these acts of murder as the will of God.

In Exodus 21:15; Lev. 20:9 and Deut.21: 18-21. The word of God says, “Children who are disobedient, or who curse or strike their parents are to be killed. In 1 Samuel 15: 2-3. God orders Saul to kill all of the Amalekite children, and in 2 Samuel 12: 15, 18, and 20, to punish David for having Uriah killed, God kills David’s newborn son. In Deut. 20:16. and Joshua 10:40. God orders the Israelites to kill everyone including the children in the cities that they invaded.

Another area of interest is modern day Christian writers. One of the most influential contemporary religious writers is Lee Strobel. Lee Strobel has written several books on Christianity including The Case for Faith, The Case for Christ, and The Case for the Creator. In the Case for Faith, as in his other books, he takes the approach of stating objections to Christianity as a kind of intellectually presented “straw man.”

His Objection # 4 (in The Case for Faith) is “God Isn’t Worthy of Worship If He Kills Innocent Children.”[57] Next in the process he conducts interviews of key religious scholars or academic theologians for their answers.

On the surface this appears to be straightforward and objective. One of his interviews was with a religious expert, Norman L. Geisler. In one example, God orders genocide by telling the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7 to totally destroy the Canaanites and six other nations and to show them no mercy. “God orders the execution of every Egyptian firstborn; He flooded the world and killed untold thousands of people; He told the Israelites to now go attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children, and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”[58]

Strobel asked a question, “How can people be expected to worship Him if he orders innocent children to be slaughtered? Geisler’s answer was some odd statement about how evil the Amalekites had been, and God’s motive for committing murder. Strobel again asks the question by pressing him, “Why Did Innocent children need to be killed?” Geisler’s answer then took off in the direction of the totally bizarre. He said “that technically nobody is truly innocent because we’re all born in sin.”[59] Here the Christian concept of Original Sin is invoked again.

This ascribed status for all human beings (rather than judgment based on earned status) of being born in sin is presumably one of God’s justifications for murdering children. Classifying children as full of sin is similar to what often happens to victims of violent crime in the criminal justice system in modern day society. That is, the victim is blamed for the acts of the criminal. For example, “She had it coming to her. She got raped because she lured me.” Blaming the victim is to misplace responsibility for the acts of the offender. When children are blamed through some religiously simplistic explanation of original sin, it only reinforces the non-believers perception that people within Christianity are at best, misguided, or at worst, really stupid.

The Key to Salvation: Faith or Good Works?

One of the key doctrines of Christianity is salvation. Some believers of the faith believe salvation is by faith alone. What the Bible says is pure unadulterated contradiction. In Mark16:16. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”[60]

It is said in Acts 16:30-31., “Sirs what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved–you and your household.”[61] However, in Psalm 62:12. “For you render to each according to his works,” and in Jer.17: 10. “I the Lord…give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruits of his doing,”[62]and in Matt. 16: 27. “For the Son of Man will come in his glory of His Father with His angels, and then he will reward each according to his works.”[63]And in addition there is James 2:17. “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, it is dead.”[64]

Contradictions in scripture are one reason why we have some Christian denominations telling their members that salvation is based on faith alone, while other denominations are preaching salvation by works alone, and others may be saying you can’t have one without the other. This emphasis on salvation, either way or both, probably varies from church to church.

An Approach to Overcoming Conflict with Biblical Interpretation

One of the directions in the twenty-first century is toward theistic evolution. This is an effort on the part of some scientists and theologians to bridge the gap between science and religion. Despite the long standing conflict between the two approaches to knowledge and the seeking of “Truth,” there may be a middle ground. Not everyone agrees that there can be a middle ground.

If religion, and in particular Christianity, wants to extricate itself from its losing position in the world today, it will have to take a more reasoned approach (albeit scientific methodology) and play by a different set of rules. In all likelihood this repositioning of the rules of the game will be easier for mainline Protestant groups, already many of whom have no quarrel with science or scientists.

Theologians and fundamentalists who pay lip service to wanting to bridge the gap need to remember the words of Clint Eastwood to Liam Neeson in The Dead Pool, “If you want to play in the game love, you better know what the rules are.”[65]

That means take nothing in religion on faith. Test everything according to the rules of scientific inquiry. In other words prove whatever claims are made. Let the chips fall where they may. Let there be no straw men in such testing, but rather the testing of genuine real hypotheses about biblical scripture.

Even if science isn’t brought to bear in the field of religion and theology, it is very likely that conservative fundamentalists, evangelicals, and others who demand a literal translation of biblical scriptures, will continue to experience a losing uphill battle. This is their propensity to view religious dogma in “absolute” terms. This entrenched position, of course, not only flies in the face of, not just scientific knowledge that contradicts scripture, but competition from other major religions and challenges from other denominations within Christianity itself.

In addition, there is absolute widespread ignorance among most Christian church-goers in the United States on the very history of Christianity itself. There is a need to improve the education of Christians themselves. Instead of teaching Christianity from a doctrinal point of view (and doctrine is the “psycho-babble of religion”), churchgoers would be better off initially if they endeavored to learn the actual history of their own religion. Because of this need, education needs to be more detailed as to all of the decision-making points in Christianity.

How the Bible was put together in the first place, and how theological issues were decided at various points in Christian history had a tremendous bearing on what finally came forward from the 4th century on as to the “accepted” content of the Bible Christians use today. Much needs to be learned about 4th Century activities that changed Christianity.

Many questions need to be evaluated and discussed. Why did early Christians high-jack the Torah, the first five books of the Bible from Judaism? Where did the idea of the Trinity come from (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)? What was the conflict of Christ’s status as either man or God, or both, and why wasn’t it officially decided until 325 C.E?

While answers to these questions are available in the academic literature on Christianity, very few church-goers have an interest in developing a deeper understanding of the very religion they lay claim to believe in. Some believers want to maintain a comfort zone of belief independent of any effort to learn the facts of the very religion they believe in. The notion of justification of beliefs and faith was covered in my book, Trouble in Paradise: The Decline of Christianity in the 21st Century. The specific chapter was Chapter XI , Religious Beliefs versus Rationality.

Despite the sometimes antagonistic relationship between science and religion, it must be remembered that some scientists, namely biblical archaeologists, have contributed a great deal toward our understanding of the ancient world of the Middle East. Biblical Archaeology, however, has never been able to affirm the divinity of Christ, his miracles, or even his character. What it has been able to do is connect many of the locations and identify (through artifacts) many of the events, individuals and empires described in the Bible.

 

 


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Boston: (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 92-93.

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities—The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 3

[3] Ibid., 2

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 3

[10] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 124

[11] C.S. Lewis,  God in the Dock—Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 8

[12] Ibid., 9

[13] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief—The Secret Gospel of Thomas, (New York: Random House, 2003), 75

[14] Ibid.

[15] The Dark Bible: A Short History of the Bible  n.d. [online]; accessed 5 Sept. 2005; available from  http://www.nobeliefs.com/DarkBible/darkbible2.htm

[16] Martin Manser, Bible Stories, (Bath, UK: Miles Kelly Publishing, Ltd., 2000), 8

[17] The Dark Bible.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Pastor William R. Grimbol, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to The Life of Christ, (Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2001), 7

[21] Ibid.

[22] The Dark Bible.

[23] These dates are a matter of conjecture. No one knows for sure when they were written.

[24] Richard Carrier, “The Formation of the New Testament Canon (2000)” [online]; accessed 10 Apr. 2006; available from http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/NTcanon.html

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Individual books of the Writings occurred much earlier. They were not put together into a collection until 90 C.E.

[30] The Dark Bible

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Banned From the Bible: The Stories That Were Deleted From Biblical History,  25 Dec. 2005 [online]; accessed 19 Mar. 2006; available from http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?Acct=10466story=/www/story/12-19-2003/00

[34] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, (New   York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2003), 5

[35] Banned From the Bible.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times “Long Lost Document Casts Judas in new light,” in The Sacramento Bee7 Apr. 2006, A1

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid, A12

[46] Ibid.

[47] Donald K. Campbell, “We believe in literal interpretation,” Pamphlet (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1974), 4

[48] Ibid, 5

[49] Ibid, 7

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid, 13-17

[52] This quote was obtained while watching A.R. Bernard’s television show during the fall of 2004.

[53] Jim Bell and Stan Campbell, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible, (New York: Alpha Books, A Simon & Shuster Macmillan Company, 1999), 15

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid, 17

[56] Ibid.

[57] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith , (Grand   Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 113

[58] Ibid, 118

[59] Ibid, 119

[60] “The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible,” [online]; accessed 16 Mar. 2005; available from  http://www.skepticsannotated bible.com/contra/faithalone.html.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Clint Eastwood, The Dead Pool, 1988 VHS Tape, A Malpaso Production (15189), 1997 WarnerHome Video.

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