Tag Archives: Christianity

Why Biblical criticism is important for both the religious and non-religious

I know I haven’t posted anything in ages.  Sorry; been busy with important stuff.  Thanks a lot for sticking with me.

I can’t write as well as this guy.  Here some of my favorite quotes on the virtues of modern Biblical scholarship (a.k.a. Biblical criticism) – especially for those who are religious, courtesy of the late Italian scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Alberto Soggin, via John Bowden’s outstanding translation (Introduction to the Old Testament, Revised Edition).  [I’ve added occasional points of clarification in brackets].  If you have any favorite quotes on the subject, please share!  Enjoy:

“It is impossible to understand the attitudes of people or schools of thought and therefore the writings that derive from them, without knowing the events which have influenced them in whole or in part.  For example, inadequate knowledge of Canaanite religion would constitute a most serious obstacle to understanding the message of the prophets…, nor could we understand properly their comments on society if we did not know the economic and social conditions which they were attacking (p. 4).”

“The fact that the Christian theologian is convinced that he finds Christ foretold in the writings of the Old Testament (cf. John 5:39) or that the Jewish believer discovers here the revelation and the promise of God for his people, and the divine law, should not in any way prejudice critical and historical study of the texts, which is needed if faith is not to be reduced to the level of ideological prejudice.  The fact that the texts of the Old Testament have an authoritative character for the believer, whether Jew or Christian, which they evidently do not have for the unbeliever, should not prevent the former from achieving a proper objectivity.  On the contrary, it should compel him to listen humbly to what they say.  This is not a paradox.  He should therefore make as calm an examination of the text as possible, taking care not to read into it what is not there.

“Thus the criterion of scientific objectivity applies first of all to the believer, if he wishes to hear the word of the Lord instead of his own, and if he wishes to have a dialogue with his Lord instead of a monologue with himself and his own opinions.  At the same time, it is right that the scholar who is not a believer should be asked to apply the same objectivity to the text of the Bible as to any other oriental [Near Eastern] text (pps. 9-10).”

“In the case of the Old Testament and all the literature of the ancient Near East, the reader finds himself at a considerable remove in both geographical setting and chronological context; the modern reader, especially the Westerner [of the Western hemisphere], meets peoples (and therefore literature, customs, institutions and patterns of thought) with which he has little or nothing in common.  We shall certainly be right in supposing that anyone who does not have an advanced and specialist education will be largely ignorant of the historical, political, economic, social and religious facts to which the texts refer.  In addition, … there is a problem peculiar to the biblical texts; when considering a work which for thousands of years has been the sacred scripture of Judaism and Christianity, and still is, it is all too easy for the Western reader, who has grown up within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to have assimilated unconsciously a theological and ecclesiastical tradition which will not fail to make its weight felt in an any explanation of the texts.  Without one noticing it, centuries of exegesis loaded with preconceptions can lead either to uncritical acceptance of certain unproved assertions or, paradoxically, to an equally uncritical rejection of particular positions simply because they have traditionally been sustained within the sphere of the religious community.  The need for a science of introduction which offers a critical view of the biblical literature must therefore be obvious to anyone (p. 5).”

“While there has never been a time when the reader of the Bible has not felt the need for information about the circumstances which accompanied and often governed the origins of a particular text…, we must remember that (leaving aside the Antiochene school and Jerome) up to the Renaissance the Christian church was not very interested in establishing in an independent and original form the circumstances in which the sacred books had their origin, being content to accept the traditional views of them handed down by the synagogue.  Allegorical exegesis [interpretation] , very soon practiced on a large scale in the medieval church, avoided problems by means of that special form of unhistorical sublimation which is its hallmark; consequently the problem of the difference between the reality presented in the texts and the traditional interpretation of them did not arise before humanistic exegesis  at the beginning of the sixteenth century….  It was humanism, with its principle of a return to the sources, which first laid the foundation for scientific and critical introduction (pps. 5-6).”

“From Napolean’s expedition to Egypt onwards, with the discovery of the Rosetta stone which provided the key for the deciphering of its two scripts and of the Egyptian language (1798), through the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth, there was a rediscovery of the world in which the men of the Old Testament had lived and against which they often struggled.  Practices and customs, religious, political, judicial, and social institutions, people and places previously unknown, or known only vaguely, began to take shape.  Perhaps more important still, their languages came to be understood.  This restored a proper historical basis and a setting in a wider historical context for texts which hitherto had almost always been read only in a church setting.  It also often eliminated fictitious themes and explanations which had been created by the traditions of synagogue and church (p. 7).”

 “Because the believer, Jewish or Christian, sees the text as having a sacred and therefore authoritative character, he should be able to accept biblical [textual] criticism* without difficulty in so far as it sets out to present a text which is as close as possible to the original.  However, precisely the opposite has happened:  among conservative [religious] Jews, Protestants and Catholics, biblical criticism has often received with mistrust, as through the discipline set out arrogantly, and there impiously, to put itself above the text to judge and to ‘criticize’ it.  Such an interpretation of the functions criticism shows a complete lack of familiarity with the concept … and it cannot therefore be taken seriously (p. 30).

*Textual criticism means looking at various old manuscripts of the Bible and, wherever the manuscripts differ, trying to figure out in each case which manuscript has the best reading.


Why is Christmas in the winter? Not the reason you thought, says New Testament scholar

Since many Christians will be celebrating Christmas or the Feast of the Epiphany this Monday, on January 6, I figure it’s not too late to post about this.  I think it’s good for us freethinkers to have an idea of why Christmas is celebrated when it is, and this article suggests a reason you may not have heard.

In this interesting article (here) in Biblical Archaeology Review, New Testament scholar Andrew McGowan goes through the sources and explores how December 25 or January 6 came to be celebrated as Jesus’ birthday.

I recommend reading the full article, but if you really want a short spoiler, keep reading.  My short summary is:

  • The first mention we have of Jesus’ birth occurring on December 25 is from some 300 years after the time of Jesus.
  • The earliest source we have on Jesus’ birth says it occurred on May 20.
  • Some of the rituals associated with Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, are probably borrowed from pagan religions (religions where people worshipped more than one god).
  • No one knows for sure why Christmas is on December 25, but
    1. One possibility, which Professor McGowan does not advocate, is that Christmas was established on December 25 either to coincide with pagan holidays celebrated at that time in order to spread Christianity among the pagans, or to connect the birth of the Messiah to the winter solstice, when the sun is “reborn” (i.e. when the days start getting longer).
    2. Another possibility, which Professor McGowan thinks is more plausible, is that if Jesus died on the Eve of Passover, his death would have occurred on March 25, and early Christians believed he was crucified on the same day he was conceived.  If he was conceived on March 25, add nine months and you get Baby Jesus on December 25.

What do you think?  My Jewish education taught me a boatload about Judaism and zip about Christianity.  So if you have anything to add, please do so.

Prominent Bible scholar admits to overturning students’ lives and marriages

I guess many of us were aware of this phenomenon, but I think it’s very striking to hear a prominent academic Bible scholar say it publicly: http://www.tubechop.com/watch/1652372.

The truth really does hurt – if you’ve been raised to be an all-or-nothing thinker, that if you don’t believe exactly as you were taught, you are doomed, and that if you expose yourself to other ways of thinking and new evidence, you’re going to hell.  I know from personal experience, as I’m sure some reading this post do.

The truth really shouldn’t hurt, right?  The truth should be fascinating and liberating.  Uncovering the Torah’s contradictions, borrowings from earlier Near Eastern literature, scribal errors, scientific errors, historical errors, later additions to the text, anachronisms, pre-modern morality, etc., should be enlightening and, in my opinion, fascinating, not hurtful.

Indeed, once I got past the many years of stress, guilt, and torment of thinking that I had a problem that needed fixing, a sickness that needed to be cured or at least treated, the truth was marvelous.  It’s delightful to learn the Torah with a more accurate sense of the context in which its authors lived and what they were really trying to say and to use the Torah as our most revealing window into the pre- and early history of my people and its neighbors.  Now, all I am left with is the joy of learning the truth and the feeling of good fortune that I have been exposed to such truth.

But that was only after a decade or so of the truth’s hurting.  And had I gotten married to a religious wife and had kids during that time, the truth would, no doubt, still be hurting.

Parents who send their kids to religious schools where they are taught what they must believe apparently are simply unaware of the potential harm they are guaranteed to be causing their kids.  Either:

a)      their kids’ lives will be overturned , as Professor Propp described, when they discover the truth that those beliefs are no longer tenable, or

b)      their kids will be so close-minded and sheltered their whole lives that they’ll never discover the truth.  Ignorance may be bliss, but if you really want what’s best for your kids, do you really want them to be living their lives being shielded from knowledge and truth?

If only these parents would realize that they are guaranteeing that their kids will have only the two options above, perhaps they would think twice about the type of religious education their kids receive.

An anti-theist double standard

The great thing about being a freethinker is that I just follow the facts, regardless of to which direction they point.

Seems to me that some prominent antitheists are guilty of a logical fallacy (e.g. here), and it goes like this:

Religion causes people to do bad things they otherwise would not have done – e.g. suicide bombings, oppressing homosexuals, promoting anti-scientific teaching in the classroom, teaching kids they aren’t allowed to choose how to live their own lives because they’ll go to hell if they do, etc.

Religion, however, does not cause people to do good things they would not have otherwise done – e.g. Catholic Charities, church-run homeless shelters, people who rid themselves of addictions or illegal behavior when they “find God,” welcoming guests for Shabbos or Yom Tov, giving a tenth to charity, etc.  Good people will do good things with or without religion.

But then why didn’t you say the same thing before – “Bad people will do bad things with or without religion?”

Seems like a double standard to me.  If we’re being intellectually honest, either claim that:

a)            religion causes people to do good AND bad things they wouldn’t have otherwise done, or

b)            religion causes people to do NEITHER good NOR bad things they wouldn’t have otherwise done.

My sense is the facts clearly support a) more than b), but either way, it seems to be a logical fallacy to have it both ways and give religion credit for the bad it causes and not the good.

Of course if a) is true, that means we have to find ways to gain the benefits of religion, or find sound replacements, without teaching our kids things that aren’t true about invisible beings appearing on tops of mountains or men walking on water or flying to heaven on a donkey, etc.

But I’ll get to that in another post. 🙂

The meaning of “meaning,” and why atheists have it

We’ve all heard it: “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no meaning!”

Let’s put this one to rest, once and for all.

What do people mean when they say “meaning” in this context?

Seems to me, when people talk about “meaning,” they mean it in one of three ways:

1)      Something that makes you want to keep living.  Something you’re passionate about.  Something that makes you want to wake up every day.

E.g. “My volunteer work gives my life meaning.”  “Raising my kids gives my life meaning.”  “Seeing the look in my student’s eye when he understands something for the first time… traveling and seeing new places and new people… going fishing with my dad… getting together with my longtime friends once a week… give my life meaning.”

One notices right away that none of these examples – nor any of the other infinite number of examples we could insert – requires God or an afterlife to provide the meaning therein.

2)      Value.  That is, when people say, “Without God, your life, this world, it’s all meaningless!” they often mean, “It’s worthless.” 

Here the assumption is that if something is temporary – such as a person’s life without an afterlife, then it has no real value.

As with #1, this myth is quite simple to dispel.  Feeding a hungry child is anything but worthless, even though the food I gave her is temporary.   Neuroscientist Sam Harris gives a great example of a parent holding a baby:

But the next time someone tries this one on me, I think I’ll just tell them:

“You know I drove for 3 hours to Six Flags, and I’m waiting online for a half hour for the roller coaster, and then the guy in front of me informs me: ‘Just so you know, you can’t stay on the roller coaster forever.  Actually it lasts only for a few minutes.’  I was so upset that I left right then and there and went home!”

3)      Purpose.  That is, when people say, “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no meaning,” they often really mean, “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no “purpose.”  The assumption here is: In order to have a purpose, some being had to have created you with a purpose.  An air conditioner has a purpose – to blow cold air, because someone made the air conditioner with that purpose.  But if no one made you, and you just evolved over billions of years from stardust, then you have no purpose!  Right?

My answer?  That’s great news!!!  If you had a choice between being created specifically to blow cold air or being born with a whole unlimited array of options of who you can be and how to live your life available for you to choose, is there even a question which option I would prefer?  It’s liberating to discover that I have no pre-determined purpose!

It seems to me that those who maintain – and often spread – the illusion that having a pre-determined purpose is somehow preferred are living their lives walking on crutches and want everyone else to do the same.  It may be easier to spend one’s whole life under the illusion that he has a purpose – e.g. to serve the ancient Israelite god Hashem by following the commandments written in a bible as precisely as possible, or by having a fortune teller that tells him what his purpose is supposed to be and what exactly he should do to fulfill that purpose. But just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean it’s a better, happier, or more noble way to live.

But physicist Sean Carroll said it better and more concisely than I could (at 1:11:55 of this video):

So do our lives have meaning?  Religious or not, if I have things in my life that give me meaning (things I’m passionate about) and people, places, things, and ideas in my life that have value, my life has plenty of meaning.

Do our lives have a pre-determined purpose?  Based on all we have learned from the sciences, logic, and modern Biblical scholarship, highly unlikely – and it’s a truly wonderful thing.

Flooded with skepticism

On this very day, Jews around the world are reading Noah’s Flood or Deluge story in synagogues throughout the world. Rabbi Natan Slifkin, a leading proponent of embracing science and history while trying to apply a rationalist approach to Biblical study and religious observance, has written a lot about this topic in his books and in his blog. In his most recent post Dealing with the Deluge, he also cited some other contemporary sources that tackle this issue (beginning by promoting his own book).

The problem I always have with these modern religious approaches that say, “Of course that story is allegorical; it was never meant to be taken literally,” is: Why didn’t you say that BEFORE science left with you no other choice?

As soon as you discover scientifically that the world could not have been created in seven days, humans could not all have come from one human ancestor, a global flood could not have taken place, etc., it seems to me you have two choices at that point:

1) The one who wrote those stories was a human living at a time and place where people believed these things, or

2) God wrote those stories, but He always intended them to be allegorical and in no way literal.

There’s a very good logical basis for choosing Option 1; we have many other examples of other stories written by humans living in a certain time and place with certain beliefs about the world.  But what logical basis do you have for choosing Option 2 instead?

Did the Exodus happen? World’s leading scholars convene

If you have any interest in the question of whether or how much of the Exodus story in the Bible is historical, I just learned of a recent conference on this topic that included some of the world’s biggest Bible scholars, Egyptologists, and Near Eastern archaeologists.  So I just had to share the great news with you that all the lectures are available on YouTube!

There’s a lot there, so I suggest scrolling through the list of lectures and going right to the topic(s) that most pique your interest.

Enjoy! 🙂
(h/t Prof. Aren Maeir)