Dr. Kreisman is a retired Professor of Humanities with special interests in literary criticism, the history of ideas, and comparative religion. He is a former Ford Foundation Fellow in Oriental Philosophy and Religion at Harvard University. A more complete account of his background may be seen in Who's Who in America.
People who say they live by the Bible too often by their words and deeds give evidence that they either haven't really read it, or haven't understood it. It is my intention, therefore, to discuss a series of facts about the Bible which may be helpful in clarifying the minds of those "true believers" who tend to ignore or deny any information about the Bible except what is already contained in their belief system, much of which is simply incorrect.
If one believes in God, as I do, then it seems to me that God gave us brains because God wanted us to use them. Not to use the brains we have is, in my book, a sin. To go on believing things which can be shown to be false sets people on the road to disaster. My hope is that this paper will encourage people to look at the Bible in a new light, and will come to enjoy it and benefit from it in new ways, so that it is reborn for them which is the meaning of the word "redivivus" in the title.
First, something must be said about how the Bible was put together. In times past people believed that the Bible was written by God, or else dictated to writers by God. That view died long ago, although there may still be those who adhere to it. We now know a great deal about how the Bible came to be. There are many books on this subject. One of the best and most recent is by Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (Summit Books, 1987). To summarize in hasty fashion: There are four identifiable strands in the first five books, the Pentateuch. These are labeled "J," "E," "P," and "D." As one reads the five books one finds that information is often given twice with somewhat differing accounts. The "J" material uses the word Yahveh to denote God. The scholar who called it "J" was a German, and in German the J has the sound of Y. The "E" material refers to God as El or Elohim.
The "J" material is southern, from Judah. The good people are from the southern tribes, the bad ones are from the northern tribes. The "E" material is northern material; and it reverses the "J" version, so that the good people are from the northern tribes and the bad ones are southern. To illustrate quickly: There are two Joseph stories. In both the brothers are so angry with Joseph that they want to kill him, but they are talked out of it. In the "J" version it is Judah who saves Joseph. In the "E" version it is Reuben who saves Joseph.
"P" stands for the priestly strand. Over centuries priests edited and reworked much of the material. They could not omit anything, but they could add and rearrange. "D" stands for Deuteronomy, the last of the five books. It was discovered in the Temple in 622 B.C. "D" is much later than "J" and "E" and it reworks much of the material in them. Together the five books of the Pentateuch are called "The Law" in Hebrew Biblical discussions.
The first of the serious problems with understanding the Bible arises from the problems of translation of the Hebrew into other languages. This can best be seen through four key instances. The Hebrews called the Law and the Prophets "Berith," which means covenant. When this was translated into Greek, the word diatheke was used. Diatheke means both covenant and testament. When this Greek version was translated into Latin, testamentum was chosen, and in English this became Testament. So, Old Testament and New Testament came to be, where accuracy should demand Old Covenant and New Covenant. There is a difference between a covenant and a testament. The first indicates an agreement between two parties, the second simply indicates conviction.
A second problem in translation occurs with the Sixth Commandment which the King James Version, and most others, translated as "Thou shalt not kill." That's a mistranslation. What the Hebrew text says is "Thou shalt not murder." There is a difference between killing and murdering. Murder is normally defined by society. If one is a soldier in a war, killing the enemy is not murder; neither is killing to defend one's own life. But if you kill your neighbor who hasn't attacked you, that's murder. In Hebrew, the word for murder is "ratsach"; the word for kill is "harag." The Sixth Commandment uses ratsach. Many of the recent translations now correct this and say "murder."
Another vital translation problem: In their desire to tie the story of Jesus back to the predictions of Old Testament prophets, gospel writers seized upon Isaiah 7:14 where they maintained that the coming of Christ was being predicted, as a descendant of David, and as one born of a virgin mother, which is where we get "the Virgin Mary." But the translation from Isaiah is incorrect. Isaiah used the word "almah," which is a young woman. It was mistranslated into Greek "parthenos" which is virgin and thus continued in that meaning into Latin and English. In Hebrew the word for virgin is bethulah.
The last example here has to do with the New Testament's use of the Greek word "agape" (Paul's use, really), which was translated into English in the King James Bible as "charity" from the Latin version "caritas," which meant love or charity. In our time charity has changed its meaning and has replaced the older word "alms" for giving to the poor. Modern translations, therefore, use the word "love" for agape. But there is another problem here. In English we have the one word "love," and can and do say, "I love my mother," or "I love bingo." The Greeks were much more careful with this concept, and they had three words for three different kinds of love. "Eros" was the word for love between man and woman. Our word erotic comes from that. "Philia" is the word for love between very good friends which is why Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love. "Sterge" denotes the love between parents and children. "Agape" is essentially a New Testament word and has been given a variety of meanings ranging from love to benevolence to affection to good will. If it is not erotic love, or love as between friends, or between parents and children, what is it? My own translation would be "civility," that is, be civil, be nice to others.
Let us go now from the problems of faulty translation to my second major topic which illustrates a variety of errors in the Biblical texts. True Believers always insist that the Bible is inerrant. That is simply not true, and I shall prove the point with a number of examples which anyone can check out with any Bible. It should be said that these Biblical errors have been pointed out over and over again, and there are many books which list them. Here, then, is a brief list of some Biblical contradictions:
From the Old Testament:
Genesis 2:17--God says Adam "shall surely die" if he eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, "in the day that thou eatest." Genesis 3--Adam eats, he does not die. Indeed, see Genesis 4:1 and 25 and 5:3. Adam has Seth at age 130 and lives 800 years after Seth's birth.
Numbers 33:38--Aaron dies on Mount Hor. Deuteronomy 10:6--Aaron dies at Moserah, which is somewhere else.
1 Samuel 16:10 and11-- David is the eighth son of Jesse. 1 Chronicles 2:13-15--David is the seventh son of Jesse.
1 Samuel 16:19-22--Saul meets and loves David. 1 Samuel 17:55-58--Saul doesn't know David.
2 Samuel 6:23--Michal had no children. 2 Samuel 21:8--Michal had five sons.
It is worth noting that the King James translation fudges here and says "whom she brought up for Adriel," but this is a mistranslation.The Hebrew says, "whom she bore unto," and the revised versions so translate it. Some versions write in "Merab" for "Michal," but however read or corrected, the text is simply in error.
2 Kings 24:8--Jehoiachin began to reign at age 18. 2 Chronicles 36:9--Jehoiachin began to reign at age 8.
2 Kings 8:26--Ahaziah was 22 when he began to reign. 2 Chronicles 22:2--Ahaziah was 42 when he began to reign.
From the New Testament
Matthew 1:16--Jacob is the father of Joseph. Luke 3:23--Heli is the father of Joseph.
Also note the variation in the genealogical tracing. In Luke the trace is back to Adam "the son of God." Note the insistence on making Jesus a descendant of David in order to fulfill the "prophecy" in Isaiah 7:14, which, as we have seen above, was mistranslated in the first place. But the largest irony here is that if Jesus was not really the son of Joseph, then he is not in the line of descent from David and the genealogies seem pointless. Matthew 1:18 tells us Jesus is the child of the Holy Ghost. But, to further complicate matters, Acts 2:30 has God swearing to David that the "fruit of his loins," Christ, would sit on His throne.
John 5:22--The Father doesn't judge, the Son judges. John 8:15--The Son says, "I judge no man."
John 5:31--Jesus says, "If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true." John 8:18--Jesus says, "I am he that beareth witness of myself."
Mark 15:25--Jesus is crucified at the third hour. John 19:14-18--Jesus is crucified after the sixth hour.
Matthew 27:5--Judas hanged himself. Acts 1:16-18--Judas fell and burst asunder.
Luke 24:50-51--Jesus carried up to heaven from Bethany. Acts 1:6-12--Jesus carried up to heaven from Mount Olivet.
Mark 16:1-8--Empty tomb found by the Marys; they tell no one. Luke 24:1-10--Empty tomb found by the Marys; they tell everyone.
The point of all this is not that the Bible is not "true." The point is that the Bible is not to be read in a literal manner. Its truth is of a different kind. Those people who say they revere the Bible in one breath, and then claim literal inerrancy for it, simply give evidence that they have not examined carefully what they claim to revere. Further, they insist on literal meaning, until caught in a contradiction, when they immediately shift to a symbolic interpretation or else invent an explanation for which there is no Biblical evidence at all. Well, they can't have it both ways. Literal means literal, and error is error.
The Bible is a spiritual laboratory manual, gathered and forged painfully over centuries of hard experience by many people, a great number of whom were religious geniuses, giving profound insights into human relations with God. It is meant to speak to us at the deepest levels of experience. Since these levels generally lie well below the usual thresholds of human communication, its language is frequently not literal but symbolic, mythic, poetic, in an attempt to convey inner meanings and spiritual truths not expressible in flat, factual language.
The very fact that there are errors, contradictions, inconsistencies in the Bible is a guarantee of its honesty. Edited, as it so often was, it would have been relatively simple to "iron out" the flaws. But the editors dealt honestly with the material because they felt it was sacred, and thus had to be passed on as it was, flaws and all, without tampering. To them, everything that came under the domain of the sacred was of equal value. They defined "sacred" first, and once that was done, the judgment of value was pointless. Today we most characteristically define "value" first and then, on that basis, would assign sacredness. Thus, to them, that Jonah was in the whale's belly was as important as the lesson of Jonah's story. To us, the message of the story is the important thing: that one cannot run from a genuine mission of God; the sojourn in the whale's belly is simply part of the vehicle of the story.
Let us move on to another topic. I am constantly amused by the kind of right wing Christians who push strenuously for prayer in the schools. Let us look at what Jesus had to say about prayer. This occurs in Matthew 6:5-7:
"When you pray you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men ... But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret ... and in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do...."
The message of Jesus is perfectly clear: prayer is an individual thing. One prays best in one's heart. Public prayer is hypocritical. Prayer in the schools would be in violation of Jesus's view. So, for that matter, are the prayers we get from preachers on TV.
Another quote from Jesus. I bring this up because just a few days ago I talked with a door-to-door missionary who told me that with the coming of Jesus the Old Testament was completely superseded. This is what Jesus had to say about that, from Matthew 5:17: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them." The law, of course, consists of the first five books of the Bible, and the prophets take up most of the rest of the Old Testament, from Samuel and Ezra through Malachi.
Moving to another topic: abortion. The Biblical authors were not hesitant to crack down hard on anything they felt was a sin. It is interesting that there is no mention of abortion anywhere in the Bible. Today people who are against abortion count a fetus as a person. On this there is some Biblical testimony. It occurs in Numbers 3:15. God is instructing Moses on how to take a census of the Levites and He says, "Number ... every male from a month old and upward shall you number them." Not newborn, certainly not in the fetal stage. Women weren't being counted, and I'm sorry about that. But the point is that God doesn't think one is countable until one is at least a month old.
Next, I shall discuss a quotation from the Gospel of John, 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son ...." This causes me to make five observations: The first is that God's moral standard will exceed the moral standards of humans at any given time. This is to say, practically, that God will never have worked by any human moral standard which humans themselves have outgrown. Human moral standards themselves show an evolutionary progress in the direction of greater refinement and sensitivity. We grow up toward God, as it were. Thus, at one time, by primitive moral standards, men sacrificed their offspring as a means of pleasing God. We have since learned better. This means that human sacrifice was never a valid divine standard. To attribute action of this sort to God is seriously to devalue god.
Therefore, to conceive of a God who sacrifices His Son is primitive, brutal, and degrading, and cannot, on its very face, possibly be true. Consider the following points: It is a basic moral precept in all major religions that one is never justified in sacrificing someone else for whatever good end or purpose. Can we expect less of god?
Among us, a loving and moral father would never willingly consent to sacrifice his son. Can we expect any less of God?
If God is, as Christians maintain, benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, is it conceivable that He would be forced to sacrifice His Son (assuming that He had one in the sense used here) to gain His desired ends? This implies that God was inept at structuring the situation. Surely this is to sell the divine power short. We have God being forced to an act of brutality. In our best moral codes we say that the end does not justify the means. Can we say less of God?
If God is benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, and we maintain that the sacrifice was merely a "seeming" sacrifice which was salvaged by God's love and justice, then we turn the whole procedure into a gruesome game, a travesty where God gulls the public by faking a sacrifice which is really no sacrifice at all. For it is of the nature of a sacrifice that it is unredeemable for him who makes it. If one sacrifices one's son, but has the power to bring him back again, then there was really no sacrifice in the first place. When God does this, we can only, in modern terms, call it a scam. For God can have His cake and eat it too. He gives "his son," and He takes His son back! Where, then, is the sacrifice?
All of this leads me to conclude that the quote from John is unsound and untrue as a basis for any sort of moral theology. It may be objected by some that the quote really represents a "mystery." This is to abandon any possible human meaning altogether, and substitute gibberish where nothing means what it says or says what it means. At that rate anything can be claimed. We refuse to accept semantic garbage of this sort in our own affairs; why should we tolerate it in divine affairs? At least we can assume that God, having given us reason, expects us to use it to the best of our ability.
Our quote represents a savage level of morality which may have been acceptable 2,000 years ago, but which we have since gone beyond. As long as people continue to think in terms of bloody sacrifice, it will be no wonder that they make such a bloody mess of their daily lives. With a savage and brutal theology we ensure the continuance of savagery in human affairs.
I submit, therefore, that as a theological precept this is revolting and retarded, and that the race, in its higher reaches, has already passed beyond it. We must assume that God is yet ahead of us. Which means not only that our quote is not true, but never was or could have been true.
Dealing with a gospel quotation brings up the Gospels as our next topic. Many people read the Gospels thinking that they are reading history. But the gospels are not history in any realistic sense. What they really are, are marketing documents. Those involved set out to sell the Pauline notion of salvation through Jesus on the model of the mystery religions, especially Mithraism, with which Paul was familiar as a central feature in the Greek culture he knew. This was done long after Jesus' death, by people who did not know Him. To sell their message they did not hesitate to tell stories and to put words into the mouth of Jesus in order to further the cause.
Insightful people have known for a long time that Jesus could not possibly have said all that he is reported to have said in the gospels. Our own Thomas Jefferson recognized this almost two hundred years ago and produced a version of what Jesus probably said, which has been published. In 1991 Stephen Mitchell published The Gospel According to Jesus, (Harper, 1991) in which we get a recent modern idea of what Jesus might really have said.
The best work on this topic came out two years ago, done by Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, (Macmillan, 1993). It is titled The Five Gospels because it includes the Gospel of Thomas, which was discovered in 1945. The Jesus Seminar is a group of 200 scholars from all denominations. All of them have the requisite linguistic capacities in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, etc.;all are Biblical scholars. After years of study they have concluded that "no more than twenty percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus were uttered by him."
I emphasize the fact that the people in the Jesus Seminar are scholars. I define a scholar as one who sets out to discover truth in a field by objective and unbiased exploration, going wherever the facts lead. I make this point because fundamentalists claim that they also have "scholars" who disagree with the Jesus Seminar. But those people are not in any sense scholars. There is, indeed, a specific label for them in theological circles. They are called apologists. Their function is to defend the doctrines and ideas of the church. They do not seek truth, therefore, but start out by accepting the very things which true scholars seek to prove. They are not objective, and they reject science; unless, of course, it happens to work in their favor.
I come now to my last topic, which will have a half-dozen subtopics. There is a question which needs to be asked in all religions, but especially in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What is the sense of trying to be guided by documents and injunctions which are, for Christians and Jews, two to five thousand years old? They grew in another culture, another time and place, in a different and quite limited knowledge of the world and its people. They lack many of the understandings which have come about over the centuries.
This can be illustrated in the following examples. First, the flat earth concept. The Bible is based on the erroneous idea that the earth is flat. Isaiah 11:12 and Revelation 7:1 speak of the "four corners of the earth"; that is to say, they see the earth as flat and square. This is amplified by 1 Samuel 2:8, "For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and He has set the world upon them." The image is clear, a flat, square earth rests on pillars. We now know this isn't so.
A second example comes from evolution. If one believes in God, why have difficulty in seeing evolution as God's method of working in the world? Everything we know about the history of the world shows constant and continuously evolving sensitivity and moral insight. It is as if we are being pushed toward higher and higher achievement all the time. Perhaps God too is evolving. The Mormons have a saying which has intrigued me ever since I first heard it many hears ago. It runs, "As God once was, man now is; as God now is, man may become." That's a theory of spiritual evolution in one sentence.
I touch on a third subtopic: slavery. Slavery is recognized and accepted in both the Old and the New Testaments. We have since come to see that slavery is wrong, a bad moral mistake. Here is another area where we have outgrown the Bible.
Next, homosexuality. Homosexuality is strongly castigated and severely punished in the Bible. But we are finding increasingly that there is a genuine biological basis for it. More and more evidence is being developed that the physical makeup of homosexuals differs from that of those we regard as "normal." This, it seems to me, changes the outlook. If people are born that way and cannot help themselves, it makes no sense at all to punish them for what they can't help. Not only does it make no sense, it is morally repugnant.
Switching again, a phrase I often hear these days is, "life is sacred." I don't know who first came up with that, but it certainly isn't Biblical. In the Bible, one sees God himself taking life (the first-born in Egypt) and instructing the Hebrews to wipe out whole tribes. He had no hesitancy in commanding that, and obviously didn't think that life was sacred.
Also in nature (created by God) just about every creature preys on other creatures or is preyed upon. Billions of sperm are produced, billions of eggs are laid and come to life only to fail to survive. Just a small, very small, fraction of sperm, eggs, life forms get to survive. Indeed, whole species have come and gone on the earth since the beginning of time, and more will go despite efforts to preserve them.
Finally, some comments on "Love they neighbor." Many people think Jesus invented that, but he was just repeating Leviticus 19:18. Here is a rule that was promulgated for a people who shared the same ethnicity, the same language, the same religion and even then it was hard to obey. Now we try to apply it where everything differs. My neighbor may come from a different ethnic group, speak a different language, and have a different religion. Is it any wonder that we may have serious problems with each other, let alone "loving thy neighbor"?
This essay was originally developed and delivered as a Sunday Service presentation for the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ashland, Oregon, on August 6, 1995. Copies available for a small fee by calling the Fellowship office.