What value does the Bible have?

June 14, 2010

Insomnia strikes again (2 days before an exam, woo!), so I’m going to write a shortish piece. It’s probably no surprise that I do not consider the Bible to be a good historical document, particularly to be used as proof of miracles or the resurrection or anything like that. The gospels were written decades after the resurrection, in many of the cases the documents are of unknown authorship, it’s clear that the writers had a theological or political bias, we have no originals and the collection was later edited to filter out anything that was not consistent with the dominant theology. But what other value does the Bible have?

Let’s start with historical value. Yes, I just said it’s not good evidence for miracles (in fact no written document would ever be good evidence for miracles), but what about other stuff? I’m not sold one way or the other if the Bible can be used as evidence for the existence of a guy called Jesus, but I wouldn’t be too opposed to saying that it could. I base that on Galatians rather than the gospels, which was written around 10 years after Jesus is said to have died, is addressed to a group of Christians in modern- day Turkey, and seems to imply that the early church was getting fairly organised in a relatively short space of time. I suspect that a complete fabrication would have a harder time spreading so fast, but I could go either way. Paul also does not mention any miracles apart from the resurrection and his famous road to Damascus experience.

There are other parts of the Bible that could also serve as historical documents, such as the parts told in Kings and Chronicles. There are huge sections of those four books which basically go ‘the Israelites made God angry so God sent their enemies to defeat them in battle’ or ‘the Israelites made God angry so God sent a plague’. Take away the mystical explanation for material events and you have a basic outline of Israelite history.

The Bible is also widely sourced as a beautiful literary work. Obviously a translation isn’t going to have the same effect as the original or all the other translations, and beauty is a fairly subjective thing anyway (I don’t like the KJV at all, for example), so it’s a difficult thing to claim, but there are many parts that most people appreciate. Regardless of whether the Bible has literary merit of its own, it is extremely widely referenced in other works. The Song of Solomon alone (which IIRC only takes up about 4 pages in a normal-sized Bible) has inspired a whole literary submovement in the Spanish mystics (a group which is often credited with kicking off the Spanish Golden Age), and also influenced an awful lot of other artists of various stripes. You can’t fully appreciate Shakespeare either without a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible. Certainly there is some value there.

But how about morality? We can all pluck out examples from the Old Testament about stoning people who work on the sabbath, children who talk back to their parents, and staying away from women on their periods, among lots of other things, but many Christians will say that we have to look at the New Testament, particularly the teachings of Jesus. I find very little positive about the teachings of Jesus. Off the top of my head the only thing I can think of is the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Sermon on the Mount is largely a bunch of bad advice, most of his parables are about the Son of Man, and the advice that he gives to various people is to sell all their belongings, leave their families (or hate them, depending on how you read it) and follow, not worrying about possessions because God will care for them in the same way he looks after the birds. In short his teachings are not to think about the future. Now that would be fair enough if Jesus was going to return within maybe 10 years or so, but we’re almost 2000 years down the line now and he’s still not back. If we’d been following Jesus’ teachings to the letter for all that time we’d be much worse off. They were very bad teachings.

Of course you can find Bible quotes to justify any moral position – that’s why it’s so often called the Big Book of Multiple Choice – but my main problem with the morality found in the Bible is its supposed source. Not just God but authority in general. That’s bad because we’re not supposed to think about why something is wrong, it’s wrong because an authority figure says so. So we’re learning absolutely nothing about what morality is, and quite frankly we’re not talking about morality at all; this is obedience to authority. When people talk about the moral framework of John Stuart Mill, they don’t just take his word for it, they examine the utilitarianist system and see if it stands up to scrutiny. Another problem with taking moral values from authority is that it means you have black and white morals. One thing is right and the opposite is wrong, when I think you’ll find the reality is a bit greyer than that.

These two objections are assuming, though, that Christians follow the moral code that they find in their Bible, which of course they don’t. The vast majority of Christians pick and choose the parts of the Bible that they want to follow. They’ll say that the Old Testament Law was nullified by Jesus’ sacrifice, but that’s not true, only the sacrificial laws were overturned (as in ‘I did not come to break the Law but to fulfil it’). Even if it were true, what about the poor morals contained in Paul’s writings, for example, where he says women must sit at the back in silence when men are teaching? Or what about in Matthew 15 when Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for not stoning unruly children? How about the whole notion that thinking about something can be morally wrong? Christians choose the parts of the Bible that they believe are moral and throw away the rest, but on what basis do they do that? Clearly they have a set of morals that is outside the Bible. So why not just skip the Bible and use that in the first place?

Ramble over. I think I’ll try and go to sleep now.

Love Letter

December 16, 2007

I want to do more contructive posts, honestly I do, but the bible bashers keep giving me hilarious leaflets to take the piss out of. Today’s one is called “Father’s Love Letter: an intimate message from God to you”, and was left on the bar in my work so I brought it home to tell you lovely people about it. At first I thought it was some kind of incest erotica but that’s my dirty mind for you. You can view a similar copy at this site, by clicking on the “Generic Greeting Card” link at the top. Unfortunately it’s not exactly the same, and the bits that are missed out on the dowload are the bits I want to focus on, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, it’s printed right in front of me.

Regardless of what I think of the content of the message, I must give the designers due credit, it’s really clever how they’ve constructed this leaflet. The way it’s written is that every sentence of the letter is a direct quotation from the Bible, with the Bible reference printed right after it. The result is a letter which is only slightly disjointed but generally makes sense (as much sense as this drivel could, anyway), and it means the writers are at least superficially justified in saying that this letter is from God.

Right, now to the bad bit; what’s written by the author after the letter.

Would you like to come home? All you have to do is simply believe that Jesus died in your place to make a way for you to be born into his family.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it has exactly the same problem that Pascal’s Wager does. Who among us chooses what we believe? It’s not a conscious choice, so what’s the point in this leaflet? It’s got no evidence, it’s not going to convince anyone (or at least I hope it wouldn’t). Either someone believes or they don’t believe, and none of them get to choose. That’s not how it works.

The following words might help you express your thoughts to God.

Excuse me? I don’t think I’ve ever read anything as patronizing and insulting as that line. Not only does the author think I can make a conscious choice to have faith or to not, but he’s telling me what to say as well? Telling me how to “express my thoughts”? As though he knows what my thoughts are going to be? What’s next, is he gonna tell me what to think? (What am I saying, of course that’s the next step, that’s religion for you). They can bloody well piss off!