The letter and the spirit

I was watching some old episodes of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect (thanks to a few dedicated Youtubers) and was intrigued at the reasoning of some of the panel members who were Christian.

These are great for a discussion panel because they always talk a lot and always proselyte (and if Maher has politicians on the show as well everybody talks at once).

I saw exchanges like this:

MAHER: But where does it say in the Bible that Jesus said homosexuality was wrong?

PANEL MEMBER: In the Epistle to the Romans it says–

MAHER: But that was St Paul!

PANEL MEMBER: Well, the Bible is the word of god, and Jesus is god, so it’s all Jesus speaking.

Clever isn’t it? St Paul might conceivably be wrong, but not Jesus, not god. They both agree, oddly enough, that this Christian is right. It must be comforting to know that, no matter how intolerant your views – abortion and contraception are murder, sex only within marriage, white supremacism – god feels exactly the same way. Intolerant too. Critical of others.

If I said that the Roman gods had power over human life, because that’s what ancient sources reveal the Romans believed, and the survival of these sources proves they must be correct, would I get away with it?

Please, if anyone, Christian or otherwise, wants to enter a dialog like this with another, use the methods of historical validation, and don’t forget logic. Misquotation out of context is not an argument.

The argument is not about faith. It’s about tolerance. Some dislike homosexuals, abortion and contraception, and non-whites; others dislike  women, Jews, and black people; still more dislike infidels, Sunnis and Shiites. There’s plenty to hate, and it’s easy to do. You don’t have to quote god. Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, Islam a religion of kindness and generosity.

The Bible (New Testament) is less monolithic, ‘word of god’, than those who quote it so rabidly suppose (the Apocalypse is the only book of hate in the canon, though you can find intolerance here and there in other books if you are diligent. The Apocalypse was excluded as heretical for years by the Church Fathers).

New faith, new gospel

Here’s some beliefs of scholars about the beginning of Christianity and the Bible, ‘the word of god’, that proselyters should take on board. A closer look at Jesus and the Bible reveals some often ignored perspectives.

• Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, is an orthodox Jew. Jesus seems critical of the Sadducees and the Temple worship, and in practice acts like a Pharisee, a teller of stories to illustrate doctrine. His last known act before his death was to celebrate Passover. Had Jesus or the Disciples believed that Jesus was god, he would have been executed by the Sanhedrin not the Roman court.

• A Jew must believe in one god, YHWH. He cannot declare himself god, that is sacrilege. The term ‘son of god’ in the Bible means “holy man” or “prophet”. “Prophet” means ‘moral reformer’, not ‘foreteller of the future’.

• Much of what Jesus says in the Gospels is quotation from the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh. Similar sayings are found in the Torah, from the elder Hillel, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

• The 12 Disciples were also Jews. St Paul mentions in his letters that they objected to his teachings, probably to the doctrine that Jesus was god, who died to save mankind from their sins. This, in Judaism, is heresy, as there is only one god.

• Jewish opposition, the Temple, the Disciples and Jerusalem were all destroyed by the Roman army under Titus in 70 AD. This left St Paul’s as the only Christian church extant.

• It was a belief of the time, 40-70 AD, that the world was about to end. Many looked to some form of salvation. St Paul preached that all would be welcomed in the religion of Christ. If they died before the Last Day, they would be resurrected, their bodies reincorporated, and they would enter Heaven bodily with all the faithful. This made Christianity the most popular of the current religions.

• The points St Paul made about sexuality, including marriage, and homosexuality, need to be taken in this context. Concerns about sexual practices were trivial when preparing for the end of the world. St Paul also said in the Letter to the Corinthians: no matter how skilled my arguments, without love in my heart they are just noise.

• St Paul came from Tarsus, a provincial capital and one of the biggest cities in the eastern provinces of the Empire. As a Roman citizen he would have spoken Latin and sworn fealty to the Emperor. As a man of some culture he would have spoken Greek and been familiar with Greek ideas, including religious ideas about the god who died to save mankind, Adonis.

• Those who joined in the new church formed by St Paul were not just slaves and poor people. Most were familiar with Roman laws, Greek ideas and (at least in St Paul’s case) Jewish religious practices, as well as the rites of Mithras and Isis.

• St Paul made his converts west of Cilicia, in the provinces of Greece. His letters were written in Greek about 40-60 AD to churches he had founded there. Other letters in the New Testament, and the Gospels, were written later, probably in Greece, about 70-120 AD, in support of St Paul’s work. It is unlikely these writers would have had any direct knowledge of Judea, or spoken Aramaic or Hebrew. The result was a composite portrait, that of an observant Jew who was somehow the founder of a new religion.

We don’t know exactly what Jesus said. The Gospel account was written as much as 100 years after his time. But more is to be gained by focusing on his statements on love and forgiveness.

Many of these above points have been derived by scholars who have read Aramaic, Greek and Latin sources, and become familiar with contemporary social and political structures. They are all generally accepted, and can be found mentioned in many Bibles that include a commentary.

The Bible is not a single document. The writings of which it is formed were carefully selected to support a developing theology. The selection was not complete until the fourth century AD. Many hundreds of documents, largely Gnostic in nature (and including at first the Apocalypse) were rejected as not orthodox.

Far from being the ‘word of god’, it took 400 years to reach its final form, in an age and in cultures obsessed with metaphysical speculation. No contemporary Christian today could follow the arguments, for instance, advanced by some on the nature of Christ, or of the Trinity, and hotly debated by others. There were riots and murders, it was not a reasoned debate.

The word of god has also been translated into hundreds of languages. From Greek into Latin by St Jerome, where the word ‘virgin’, in Greek ‘nubile and unmarried woman’ became in Latin a permanent state of Mary the mother of Jesus. Jerome also introduced the Latin names of the participants: Joshua became Jesus, Miriam became Mary. Translation is not easy. Quoting the Bible in English for example should be done at all times tentatively, not dogmatically.

And the Bible should not include the ‘Old Testament’. This is the Tanakh of Judaism, a different religion altogether. The Tanakh is a witness to the Covenant made between YHWH and Moses, that the Hebrews were the Chosen People (though history shows otherwise). The ‘Old Testament’ is a statement about Judaism, and is not relevant to Christianity.

Most importantly, the Bible should not be quoted, as the word of god, or even for what it is, a collection of ancient documents containing major spiritual insights, without reference to context. To pick bits and pieces from it to justify attitudes of questionable morality is to invite disbelief. Censure of others’ behaviour is not morality; it is a device of control, of power.

Just nitpicking

Lastly, here’s a humorous piece (unfortunately anonymous) showing the dangers of justifying behaviour by making selections from the word of god.

“Laura Schlesinger is a US radio personality, who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show. She recently said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination, according to Leviticus 18:22. [She got this response].

Dear Dr. Laura: thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it an abomination.

I need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Leviticus.15: 19-24. the problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

5. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Leviticus. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. Can you settle this?

6. Leviticus. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

7. My male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus. 19:27. How should they die?

8. I know from Leviticus. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

9. My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Leviticus.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Leviticus. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging. Your adoring fan, Homer Simpson-Caldwell”.

Big picture, small print

“Word of god”? I prefer Gandhi’s idea: “We are not Hindus; we are not Moslems,” he said. “We are children of god”.

Or perhaps we could go back to Leviticus, the bit we missed, Leviticus 19:18: “you shall not take vengeance, but love your fellows as you do yourself”. This is quoted by Hillel the Elder, St Paul in his letter to the Galatians, and also by St Matthew as the teaching of Jesus. All three said it was the whole of the Law. So it must be important. More important than accusing mothers who have had an abortion of being murderers, or telling homosexuals they are an abomination.

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus took it a step further, and urged those who heard him to love their enemies. Always a timely saying in the Middle East.

And god spoke to Muhammad with the same message: “Show kindness to parents, relatives, orphans, the needy, the neighbouring kinsman and the neighbours who are not of your kind, the companion, the traveler in need, and to the slaves you own…”(Quran 4:36). And again, “Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith.” (Hadith or Saying of Muhammad).

Clearly there are as many followers of Islam not reading the Quran as there are Jews not reading the Tanakh or Christians not reading the Gospels.

The important bits are there if you look for them. “You without sin, you throw the first stone”, Jesus tells the men (probably all adulterers) gathered to stone a woman to death for adultery, according to the law (Gospel of St John), That’s the word of god, timely advice that we each participate in others’ faults.

There’s no point in reading the word of god if you are only going to look at the small print.

©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.



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