Should I Abandon My Bible Study?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017

I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.

The Bible

The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?

I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?

This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.

Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy.  They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.

Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.

Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.

Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.

When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.


The Good Book by David Plotz

The full title of David Plotz’s 2009 book is:  Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned when I Read Every Single Word of the Bible.  Now anyone who regularly reads my blog knows I’m an atheist, so you must be asking, why the hell is Jim reading a book about the Bible?  Well, for the last few years I’ve taken a little time now and then to either read the Bible or read about it, and it’s very rewarding, but just not in a religious way.  You might even say it adds to my spiritual development, and I do feel like I have a spiritual side, it’s just atheistic.


However, to be more down to Earth, I have to say unequivocally:  to understand western history and literature requires studying the Bible.  Not only that, to understand the psychology of the modern religious person requires a thorough knowledge of the Bible.  Moreover, I think knowledge of the Bible shines a light on contemporary politics.

The Good Book by David Plotz is a quick, informal, but skeptical overview of the Old Testament.  Plotz is Jewish, but not a religious man, but I think he still wants to believe in God, and has some religious affinities, at least far more than I do.  Plotz just wanted to read the Bible to understand his cultural heritage and ended up blogging about it over at Slate in a series called Blogging the Bible.  Read some of his posts to get a feel for his style, or even read the entire series online if you don’t feel like buying the book.  The blog isn’t the book, and I recommend the book if you’re willing to buy it.  I listened to an audio book edition read by Plotz.  Think of the Good Book as a hip Cliff Notes summary of the Bible from a Jewish guy that has a light, if not humorous touch.

Most people have never read the Bible from start to finish.  It’s long, and has lots of boring bits, and despite what fundamentalists believe, is full of inconsistencies, contradictions and surprising unspiritual stories.  Plotz gives a Reader’s Digest overview that’s surprisingly entertaining.  And like most people who try to read the Bible from cover to cover, Plotz is shocked by what he finds.  Not to give away the ending, but Plotz concludes that value of the Bible is in coming to grips with its messy parts, of which there are many.

Plotz’s Good Book is an entertaining flyover of the Bible that doesn’t take sides.  He doesn’t go very deep, but just summarizes what he’s read and gives his personal reactions.  I was hoping to learn more about Judaism but Plotz doesn’t digress too deep into that territory either.  He’s familiar enough with Christianity and the New Testament to point out passages that foreshadow things to come but he doesn’t really explore how the Bible is different for the two religions.  This is not a deep book, but a case for Bible literacy.

Everyone who reads the Bible has their own interpretations, but I like studying the Bible as history, and Bart D. Ehrman is my main guru for this approach.  Religious people like to read the Bible for messages, but I like to read it as a historical and literary puzzle.  Now that’s a black hole as big as trying to understand Shakespeare, but it’s still fun.  For example, here’s a textual problem.  There are two accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis, and they don’t match up.  Plotz points that out but doesn’t question it too deeply, but I want to know why.

Wanting to know why makes you want to read more, and that’s why I like Ehrman.  I wished that Ehrman wrote books about the Old Testament too, because his series of books on the New Testament goes deeper and deeper.  Ehrman grew up as an Evangelical and attended the Moody Bible Institute seeking more knowledge.  He kept seeking and got his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary.  He’s a guy that’s on a quest to know the truth.  What he’s ended up researching is who wrote the various books of the New Testament and why.  And reading David Plotz’s book makes me want to know the same about the Old Testament.

For example here’s my untrained guess about the two descriptions of creations in Genesis.  Long ago stories weren’t written down but memorized and spoken.  Eventually some people took up writing, and the creation tales were written down at different times by different people, and by then the stories had diverge.  For some reason when the editors of the Bible found both they included them both.  The really should have edited the two into one story though, but they probably hated throwing anything away.

The thing about the Old Testament is it’s a collection of short stories, mixed in with some history, genealogy, directions for building a temple, dietary rules and commandments from God.  It’s a real hodgepodge of ancient documents thrown together that could have used a lot of editing.  The best parts of the Bible are the stories, and as Plotz points out, they aren’t exactly political correct stories either.  There is very little in the Old Testament about being spiritually good, and often the good guys are rather bad.  So what do we make of all this?

I tend to think the Old Testament wasn’t really about God all that much, but about building the first Jewish nation, so instead of Paul Bunyan we have David and instead of Sacagawea we have Esther.  And the reason why there are so many inconsistencies in the Bible is because it was written over centuries by who knows how many different authors.  The Old Testament doesn’t promise everlasting life, salvation, or heaven.  Your soul isn’t on the line like it is in the New Testament.  God doesn’t ask much other than obedience and doesn’t promise much other than safety from being blasted by his wrath.

One thing Plotz points out time and again is how often the stories have been sanitized for retelling  to children in Bible schools.   And many of the stories have an ax to grind, like the spin Fox News puts on its stories.   Many stories are political stories trying to make a point, and often they are rather heavy handed.  If you don’t feel like reading the whole Bible, I recommend reading this book, or one like it.  The Bible is not as mysterious as it seems.  It’s less about up there and a whole lot more about down here.

JWH – 3/29/11 

Does Jesus Matter?

When I became an atheist at 13 I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about who Jesus was anymore, and I could stop reading The Bible.  Around age 55, I returned to reading The Bible, to understand its place in history and to find out why so many people claimed it was so significant.  I’m still not religious, or even spiritual, but The Bible is like the world’s hardest jigsaw puzzle, you start to put a few pieces together and you get hooked.

In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik describes the latest crop of books about Jesus in, “What Did Jesus Do?”  I highly recommend you taking the time to read this essay.

Gopnik claims ten books came out about Jesus in just one month.  I always figured Jesus was a real historical person, that we have very little actual evidence about him, and that there is a difference between Jesus the philosopher and Christ, the deity with infinite aspects.  I might be right or wrong about all points.  In fact, there are so many interpretations of who Jesus the real person was that I have to wonder if I shouldn’t write him off as unknowable.

The trouble is about 2 billion people want to define reality by their interpretation of Jesus.  Would reading all of these books that Adam Gopnik surveys put enough puzzle pieces together to produce a consistent view?  No, you won’t get a conclusive answer to who was the historical Jesus, but your sense of history and reality would be greatly expanded.  Here are links to some of the books he reviewed, and some others I ran across.

And there is no end in sight.  I put “Jesus” in the search box at Amazon, and then set the order to date, and there were over twenty pages of books scheduled to be published.  So I have to ask, should I even study a subject that produces so many opinions?

I know the faithful will say Jesus is someone I should study forever, but I don’t think that’s true.  He either had a definite message or he didn’t.  I also know the faithful will claim the definitive message is found by reading The Bible, but that’s also not true, because of the zillions of books trying to interpret The Bible.

And why try to understand Jesus and not all the other religious figures who have thousands of books written about them?  I do know from the many books I’ve already read, that the more one studies Jesus, the more one tries to understand him in a historical and political context and not as a metaphysical being.

In other words, if we can get a clear picture of the time in which he lived, it reveals much about what he supposedly said.  Studying history is fascinating, but why spend so much time on one person in one tiny portion of the globe for one very short period of time?  Wouldn’t it be more important, and even more spiritual, to study now?  Let’s assume Jesus was an astute observer of life, and his message was different from the teachers of his time, because he was revolutionary, choosing not to look backwards. 

All religions eventually come up with the golden rule.  The basic direction of religion is to inspire people to be better people.  Do we really need to know about people and their problems 2,000 years ago, when we have plenty of people and problems now?  My guess is people would be more Christian if they forget the past and just worked and studied in the present to improve their own lives and help other people around them.

The only real reason to study Jesus is to study biblical history and that eventually leads to studying ancient politics and sociology.  I think the reason why there is so much scholarship on the historical Jesus is because his life is such a delicious mystery.  And if you study biblical times you’ll eventually migrate into classical studies and the study of prehistory.  It’s a deep well to fall into.  Obsessive scholars even take up ancient Greek and Latin.  Eventually these studies turn into the psychoanalysis of the western mind.  Look what happened to Bart D. Ehrman.  He started off as a Evangelical Christian and now he’s almost a  pure historian.

I’m not the kind of atheist that wants to convert the faithful to the scientific worldview.  I don’t want to argue The Bible with others.  I can live with an indifferent reality, but most people need the comfort of answers, even if they are fantasies.   I wish the religious wouldn’t kill each other, or go on jihads and crusades, but I can’t do much about that.  Attacking their beliefs doesn’t do much good.  I do think I contemplate many of the same concepts Jesus is said to have meditated on, and seek many of his same goals, but I just don’t believe any of the stories written about him after he died. 

I’m willing to accept Jesus as a philosopher, say like Plato.  But does he matter?  Not to me.  But then neither does Plato.  In terms of leading a good life one only needs to endlessly explore the golden rule.  The study of history is like the study of science, it is meant to explore the nature of reality.  In this content Jesus is the most famous person in history, and understanding why does matter.

JWH – 5/25/10

The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong presents a precise history of how The Bible was written and assembled and then she concisely chronicles how Jews and Christians have used The Bible for the last 2,000 years in her short volume, The Bible: A Biography, from Atlantic Monthly Press.  Armstrong’s narrative runs just 229 pages – it’s intense, scholarly, and very readable.  If there’s a better short one volume overview of The Bible let me know, but for now, this is the book I’ll recommend to anyone who wants to study The Bible in a historical context.

The Bible is not a single book, but an anthology of narratives written over hundreds of years, by many writers, with some text blended together by unknown editors from multiple earlier sources.  The books of The Bible are not always in chronological order, and most of the main characters are presented differently by various writers.  How do you sum up the most read, most written about, book in history?

To understand the scope of Karen Armstrong’s task, I thought I’d list pertinent Wikipedia articles.  Reading these articles will enhance your understanding and enjoyment of The Bible: A Biography.  Whether you are among the fundamental, faithful or unbelieving, The Bible is completely woven into the fabric of Western society and history.  The Bible is actually the Rosetta Stone between prehistory and history, between oral tradition and the dawn of writing.  Studying religious texts written down in the Iron Age reveals concepts first formulated in the Bronze age, giving clues to the childhood psychology of homo sapiens.

Take the time to read these articles even if you don’t buy Karen Armstrong’s book, but I really recommend her elegant digestion of this vast intellectual feast.  I was especially impressed with her whirlwind survey of how The Bible has been used to back so many different belief systems, and inspired so many philosophers and philosophies.

I read Armstrong’s book first, and now I’m going back researching all this stuff on Wikipedia.  I wish I had found a review like this one, telling me to read the Wikipedia articles before I read Armstrong’s book because I think I would have been even more impressed with her writing.  I just finished listening to the unabridged version of this book and I’ve already started back at the beginning and I’m now reading a hardback copy with my eyes.

Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers has the hardback edition remaindered for $5.95.

The Bible: A Biography is part of a series from Atlantic Monthly Press called Books That Changed the World.  Other books in the series are:

  • The Republic by Plato
  • The Prince by Machiavelli
  • Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin
  • Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
  • The Qur’an
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • On War by Clausewitz
  • Das Kapital by Marx

JWH – 1/27/10

The Garden of Eden

The other night on The History Channel, I watched “Mysteries of the Garden of Eden,” an episode of their Decoding the Past series, where scholars speculated about the location of the Garden of Eden.  In The Bible, Eden is a place, and the garden is located within Eden.  Over the centuries some people have considered the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as just a fictional metaphor about how life began, but other folk believe The Book of Genesis is the literal word of God.  I think the truth falls somewhere in the middle, in the delicious realm of speculation.

To the Christian mind, and the Jew and Muslim, the early chapters of Genesis are about the beginning of all time, the Earth and the first people.  It is very hard to date The Bible, with scholars arguing between 1446-300 BCE.  If you look a this timeline of the Levant, you’ll see that puts The Bible being written from the late Bronze Age throughout the Iron Age.  That’s well along in the story of human history.  Also, some fundamentalists like to believe that The Bible traces the origin of time to what some call Chalcolithic Age (4500 – 3300 BCE), which cuts out a whole lot of time that science knows about before then.  The above mentioned TV documentary suggests Eden existed in the Stone Age during the Neolithic period.

Let’s say The Bible was written down in 1000 BCE, can those writers really know anything about a place that existed in 6000 BCE?  Just how good is oral storytelling?  And why is the story about Eden remembered and considered so important?  By then the myth of Eden would be several times older than our myths about Atlantis.  The cradles of civilization are far older than The Bible, and many of the stories in The Book of Genesis were retold from early civilizations and their religions, thousands of years older the writers of The Bible.

Anyone who wants to understand the story of The Garden of Eden needs to study ancient civilizations, which I haven’t, but wished I had the time to do.  I’m fascinated by the idea of cultural memory and maybe even the woo-woo idea of the collective unconscious.  Since The Bible has been written down, and especially since it’s been printed, the idea of The Garden of Eden has solidified in minds of western culture.  We can never escape the power of that myth.  Not only does it haunt us, but also it corrupts the very fabric of reality.

I believe one way to deprogram ourselves of the memes of the Garden of Eden, a kind of mental virus, is by achieving understanding of the original intent of the storytellers of the fable.  We know that civilized mankind existed for thousands of years before the writers of The Book of Genesis.  We know The Book of Genesis is the opening story to explain the foundation of a nation and religion.  If some scholars are right, Eden is quite a distance from Israel, so why include it?

Eden is mentioned outside of The Bible in other texts, including travel stories with directions.  Here is the Biblical quote from the extensive – using the English Standard translation of The Book of Genesis 2:10-14:

10A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of(A) Havilah, where there is gold. 12And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14And the name of the third river is the(B) Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

If you have any love of history and archeology, these are some yummy clues.  Ever since I was a young atheist kid, I wondered if the Garden of Eden story had anything to do with mankind’s shift from being a roaming hunting and gather animal to settling down and taking up farming and developing technology.  Could these Genesis stories come from our deepest cultural memories?  We know that The Bible is old, but not that old, but we also know that the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and even serpent and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil come from religions a thousand years older than the people who wrote The Bible.  How far back do these stories go?

Anthropologists are used to collecting stories from primitive people.  They have even gone back decades later to hear the same stories told again by the same storyteller and find it repeated word for word.  How old is the story of the Garden of Eden?  Scientifically we know early man develop agriculture between Tigris and Euphrates long before writing.  But could the farming man remember being a hunting man?  And were the authors of The Book of Genesis philosophical enough to think about the change?  If they were, that’s a major conceptual idea to explore.

Even more astounding is another clue that the Decoding the Past show presented that was totally new to me.  I’ve always thought the story of the flood was the silliest story in The Bible.  At best I thought it was an incredibly overblown account of one flooded valley.  Flood stories are common in other ancient religious texts, so like the Garden of Eden, there might be some truth to it too.  Here’s where the show blew me away.  They proposed a theory that the Biblical flood is a description of flood waters from when the last ice age melted and greatly raised the world’s sea levels, like the Persian Gulf, and caused many valleys to be flooded by glacier melt.  This was around 6,000-7,000 years ago, they reported.

Before this melt, water levels were far lower, and because of this, the scholars on the show speculated that the Garden of Eden was located under the northern most area of the Persian Gulf, where the Tigris and Euphrates did meet with two ancient rivers that no longer exist in modern times.  This fits with Genesis retelling ancient religious stories from Babylon and Sumer.

Now I’m really puzzled.  How did the Genesis authors get the stories of these floods.  And did people then really remember and speculate about the transformation of man from hunters to farmers?  If global warming really slams us, and it destroys modern civilization, will people six thousand years from now talk about a time when men went to the Moon?

We think of The Bible as the foundation of Western civilization, but it appears the beginning of The Bible is actually about one, two or more civilizations earlier, and thousands of years older.  How were those stories maintained?

And does the Garden of Eden story go back even further?  Were those stories even ancient to the Sumerians?  If I was a scholar of ancient man and history I might know the answer to this.  And if I live long enough I hope to read all this history, but for now I can speculate.  If Eden was a real place, and world-wide flooding did happen, how much else of the story is real?  Adam and Eve? 

We know it’s silly to think of the absolute first man and woman, evolution teaches something far different that makes more sense.  But could Adam and Eve be a man an woman that quit a nomadic tribe to settle down to farming?  No, that’s stretching things too far too.  But I can imagine early storytellers picturing a time when unclothed people lived in a garden paradise and God took care of them.  Is there a chance that hunting and gather man left stories to be passed down to settled farming man, and then town building man?  Or were there still plenty of people still living in nature they could observe and contrast with their new civilized life?

I can also imagine these storytellers speculating about how people learn to think for themselves and started farming.  Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden – a big deal was made about that.  When we were animals, we were all naked.  Did Adam and Eve invent fashion, another attribute of civilization like pottery making, when they decided they needed to wear clothes?  The writers of Genesis could have heard about tribes of men and women who went naked, so it wouldn’t take cultural memory back 10,000 years to invent this aspect of the story.

See, it’s so easy to imagine Adam and Eve acquiring knowledge that they were no longer animals and they had to cover themselves, had to leave the Garden of Eden to farm, herd animals, build houses, and like they say, the rest is history, because history starts after we realized we were no longer animals and started writing about it.  It’s a shame those ancient storytellers didn’t remember being apes, because it would have defused the whole controversy over evolution. 

I wonder if there is any cultural memory of the Neanderthal man?  That would mean information had been passed down from Paleolithic times through Neolithic times into Bronze Age.  That’s expecting way too much of oral communication.  Or does it?

The easiest solution to imagine is the writers of Genesis wanted a beginning to their story and they just made up the creation in seven days, and then imagined God creating Adam and Eve, and then God getting mad at the couple and kicking them out of Eden because they didn’t obey the rules.  The whole Old Testament is all about God constantly grumping about the Israelites not minding his commands.  I can even imagine those writers thinking, “Hey, these other religions have Adam and Eve, a serpent, a Tree of Knowledge, we’d better have them too, in our story.”

Yet, wouldn’t it be wonderfully far out if the Genesis authors had known about an ancient distant land where people had decided to stop living like the animals, dress themselves, build houses, grow food, and then several generations later get wiped out by a flood.  I wonder how they would have changed their story if they had also known about the concept of global warming.  Or maybe that’s why so many Christians today adamantly refuse to believe in our global warming, because biblical teaching tells them God won’t flood the world twice.

For tens of thousands of years all people had to explain reality was oral storytelling.  And then for several thousand years they had scrolls and priests.  For the past five hundred years we’ve had books. For the last two hundred years we’ve had science.  And for the last twenty, we’ve had the Internet.  The communication of information is getting better all the time.  The Book of Genesis is a fascinating aspect to the Bible, because it’s about information before the invention of scrolls, a time when men passed on oral stories from generation to generation.  It’s a murky era to us now, hard to even believe, but can you imagine living in a time of verbal networking?

JWH – 8/6/9

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