Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A layperson reads the bible

From time to time David Plotz, editor of Slate, has been offering progress reports on his undertaking to read the entire bible from beginning to end. He has published "Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible," a volume sparked by the Slate project.

Plotz offers some conclusions in a Slate piece, which I excerpt here.

“Should you read the Bible? You probably haven't. A century ago, most well-educated Americans knew the Bible deeply. Today, biblical illiteracy is practically universal among nonreligious people. My mother and my brother, professors of literature and the best-read people I've ever met, have not done much more than skim Genesis and Exodus. Even among the faithful, Bible reading is erratic. The Catholic Church, for example, includes only a teeny fraction of the Old Testament in its official readings. Jews study the first five books of the Bible pretty well but shortchange the rest of it. Orthodox Jews generally spend more time on the Talmud and other commentary than on the Bible itself. Of the major Jewish and Christian groups, only evangelical Protestants read the whole Bible obsessively.

“Maybe it doesn't make sense for most of us to read the whole Bible. After all, there are so many difficult, repellent, confusing, and boring passages. Why not skip them and cherry-pick the best bits? After spending a year with the good book, I've become a full-on Bible thumper. Everyone should read it—all of it! In fact, the less you believe, the more you should read. . . .”

“I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn't really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I'm brokenhearted about God.

“After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

“When I complain to religious friends about how much He dismays me, I usually get one of two responses. Christians say: Well, yes, but this is all setup for the New Testament. Reading only the Old Testament is like leaving halfway through the movie. I'm missing all the redemption. If I want to find the grace and forgiveness and wonder, I have to read and believe in the story of Jesus Christ, which explains and redeems all. But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins. ...”

“The second response tends to come from Jews, who razz me for missing the chief lesson of the Hebrew Bible, which is that we can't hope to understand the ways of God. If He seems cruel or petty, that's because we can't fathom His plan for us. But I'm not buying that, either. If God made me, He made me rational and quizzical. He has given me the tools to think about Him. So I must submit Him to rational and moral inquiry. And He fails that examination. Why would anyone want to be ruled by a God who's so unmerciful, unjust, unforgiving, and unloving?”

WRD: It would seem that the Christians have the better argument; that is, that the atrocities that constitute the towering moral ugliness of the Hebrew Bible have their justification (if that is possible) as preparatory work for the final revelation of the New Testament. This conclusion suggests that the current fashion for severing the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) from its Christian sequel may be misguided. Or maybe not, because focusing on the former set of texts allows the full horror of the unspeakable Yahweh to be clearly seen. To apologize for this vicious brute by saying that his ways are unfathomable is a rationale that could apply to any bloody dictator, say, Papa Doc Duvalier, the current president of Sudan, or any other criminal tyrant one cares to name.

Let us follow Plotz a little farther.

“Unfortunately, this line of reasoning seems to leave me with several unappealing options: 1) believing in no god; 2) believing in the awful, vindictive God of the Bible; or 3) believing in some vague "creator" who is not remotely attached to the events of the Bible, who didn't really do any of the deeds ascribed to Him in the book and thus can't be held responsible for them.

“The Bible has brought me no closer to God, if that means either believing in a deity acting in the world or experiencing the transcendent. But perhaps I'm closer to God in the sense that the Bible has put me on high alert. I came to the Bible hoping to be inspired and awed. I have been, sometimes. But mostly I've ended up in a yearlong argument with God. Why would He kill the innocent Egyptian children? And why would He delight in it? What wrong did we do Him that He should send the flood? Which of His Ten Commandments do we actually need? Yet the argument itself represents a kind of belief, because it commits me to engage with God. . . . Reading the Bible has given me a chance to start an argument with God about the most important questions there are, an argument that can last a lifetime.”

WRD; How can one have a meaningful argument with a creature who probably never existed--and who, if he did, we would wish that he hadn’t?

So we come back to the main question. Why in fact should one read the bible? The answer. it seems, is because it is full of quotations.

In the book of Judges, for example, we learn the origin of the word “shibboleth.” A real gaffe is Plotz’s claim that we learn “the most fundamental ideas about morality.” This absurdity he glosses with the Levitical prohibition of homosexuality, which calls for the death of the unfortunates. Isn’t that a happy discovery?

Of course there is rhetoric that later writers have plundered. “It was a joyful shock to me when I opened the Book of Amos and read the words that crowned Martin Luther King's ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”

The Book of Daniel is one of Plotz’s favorites. “First, Daniel is thrown in the ‘lions' den’ and King Belshazzar sees ‘the writing on the wall.’ These are two metaphors we can't live without. [People in East Asia do quite well without these metaphors. --WRD] The ‘fiery furnace’ that Daniel's friends are tossed into is the inspiration for the Fiery Furnaces, a band I listen to [wow, think of that!]. The king rolls a stone in front of the lions' den, sealing in a holy man who won't stay sealed—foreshadowing the stone rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus.”

Instead of spending a year or more to extract these gems, a single evening will suffice. My second edition of the Oxford Book of Quotations contains 28 pages of bible citations in double columns, surely enough to match the fairly pitiful harvest that we finally come down to as a result of Plotz’s labors.

On the other hand, if one wants to spend an extended period of time with the Scriptures one should consult some of the more incisive modern critical commentaries, reading them in tandem with the often-questionable translations. Plotz and others can find plentiful references to these commentaries in the files of this blog.

UPDATE (March 8). Somewhat further on is a somewhat similar report by an English secular Jew. These comments come from a talk given recently at Cambridge, England.

WRD: An atheist in my youth, I began my own struggles with the bible some fifty years ago because of my concern with the cultural treasures of Western civilization, especially in art, music, and literature. Kramer makes this point well: "Some of the richness of Western art and literature and music is lost on anyone who does not possess a good knowledge of the Bible." What he does not say--and what many otherwise fairminded Jews miss--is that this Bible-sourced richness of art and literature has been achieved almost exclusively through the medium of Christianity. Without Christianity there would be no cultural dividend. Since late antiquity Judaism has been an enclave culture, without any direct influence on the outside world. As a rule, the influence of individual Jews on Western culture--which has been enormous since about 1850--has been d e s p i t e rather than because of Judaism. Only to the extent that they abandoned Judaism have these intellectuals and opinion makers been successful and creative. To my suprise, I found that this generalization is even true of such a figure as Martin Buber. His masterpiece "I and Thou" reflects mainly German classical culture, not Judaism.

At all events, having spend some forty years of my life in college teaching this positive biblical influence--through Christianity, its indispensable context--I decided to look at the the other side of the bible: the many poisonous and evil memes it has bequeathed to us. As Kramer notes, the Bible is "too nefarious" to offer any sort of reliable moral guide.

Yet I must disagree with Kramer to this extent. The Bible--specifically the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges--is in fact a t e r r o r i s t document. (See Plotz, above.) Therefore it is no good trying to let the Koran off because of its similar enshrinement of those vile twins, violence and intolerance. Either you give both the Bible and the Koran a pass--a position that is scarcely viable at this point--or you must judge them by the same strict criteria. Unless one insists on burying one's head in the sand, neither text can possibly pass muster.

A problem I have with both Plotz and Kramer is their assumption that one can read bible passages--in the original if one can--and then simply comment on them. This is the sola scriptura error championed (in name if not in practice) by the Reformation. Instead, one needs constant access to commentaries by experts, lots of them, as incisive and mutually complementary/contradictory as possible.

In the past I have been critical of the Mishna and Talmud, with their many arbitrary and fantastic distortions of Scripture. Yet these commentaries have the advantage of creating dialogue. Apparently, Kramer doesn't think so. At all events, it would be far better, in my opionion to read the works of modern scholars such as the Minimalists and the members of the Jesus Seminar. Writings of those kinds are t r u l y challenging.

Here are some of Kramer's remarks:

"I began to read the Bible systematically in early 1982 because I wished to enhance my understanding of philosophy. From the medieval period through the early 20th century, virtually every Western philosopher of any consequence presupposed that his readers were intimately acquainted with the Bible. While studying Philosophy as an undergraduate, I was particularly struck by the fact that nearly all the great figures of the early modern era - Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, George Berkeley, and so forth - were thoroughly grounded in the Scriptures. Their philosophical works invoke Biblical passages and characters with easy familiarity. Even the fervid atheist Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century displayed an impressive knowledge of the Bible. (Nietzsche's The Antichrist is a tour de force of Biblical exposition, however far-fetched some of it may be.) Thus, while I was still an undergraduate, I recognized that I could not fully understand many of the premier texts of the Western philosophical tradition without an excellent knowledge of the Bible.

"I began to study the Bible systematically (for 2-3 hours every day) during my first year as a postgraduate. I had acquired a pretty good knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures as a boy, but now I was setting out to read both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament with the eye of a philosopher. During the first 18 months, I read the Bible from cover to cover three times without writing anything beyond marginal annotations. Thereafter, however, I began to compose a passage-by-passage commentary to make sense of the text as I went along. The commentary - which for the first several years was handwritten - has now grown to approximately 3,000 pages. I've written it purely for my own edification, but over the years I've gradually polished it into something that might eventually be suitable for publication.

"At very few junctures in my commentary does my atheism become apparent. Poking holes in Biblical claims about God is far too easy and is thus uninteresting. Instead, my commentary seeks to understand those claims from the perspectives of the people who advanced them. I'm continually asking why the writer of some book of the Bible would think that the ascription to God of a certain quality or command or action or accomplishment is so important.

"My original aim of improving my understanding of Western philosophy has been realized. Though I don't write on theology or the philosophy of religion, my study of the Bible has significantly shaped my thinking about a number of issues in the areas of philosophy on which I do write. Over the years, however, that original aim has come to be supplemented by other reasons for my avocation as a Biblical scholar. Such an avocation not only improves one's understanding of Western philosophy, but also greatly enhances one's understanding of Western culture more broadly. While the Bible has heavily influenced many philosophers, it has likewise heavily influenced countless artists and writers and composers (among others). Some of the richness of Western art and literature and music is lost on anyone who does not possess a good knowledge of the Bible.

"A further benefit of Biblical study lies in the literary magnificence of many parts of the Bible. The exquisite story of Joseph and his brothers in the final quarter of Genesis is itself sufficient to ensure the Bible a place among the greatest works of world literature, yet a number of other Biblical narratives are at almost that same level of supreme excellence. Much of the Bible's poetry (in Job, quite a few of the Psalms, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and so forth) is among the finest produced in any language. Thus, although long stretches of the Bible are tedious or repellent or baffling, a student of the Bible encounters many literary jewels as well.

"Familiarity with the Bible broadens one's mind in a number of respects. Coming to grips with cosmological assumptions and ethical assumptions very different from one's own is an edifying venture. Moreover, anyone who peruses the Bible with intellectual honesty cannot fail to be aware of its many shortcomings, some of which are egregious. One's awareness of those shortcomings can temper one's criticism of other religions. Consider, for example, the current propensity of Muslim extremists in various parts of the world to engage in murderous mayhem. On the one hand, the claim that their evil acts of carnage have nothing to do with Islam is simplistic at best. Anyone who has perused the Koran with intellectual honesty will be aware of the hideous passages on which the Islamist fanatics can and do seize in order to 'justify' their terrorism. On the other hand, the perception of a basic divide between the Koran and the Bible in this respect is likewise simplistic. The Bible teems with as many ghastly passages as the Koran. It lends itself to being cited in support of iniquities just as readily as does the Koran. . . .

"The abundance of rebarbative passages in the Bible is another reason for atheists to familiarize themselves with it. Although my commentary seldom gives voice to the atheistic repugnance that I feel toward God, my systematic study of the Bible has made me thoroughly familiar with the numerous discreditable aspects of the Biblical texts. Thus, I can retort knowledgeably to believers who suggest that moral principles are in need of God and the Bible as their foundations. Even if the correct basic principles of morality were somehow in need of foundations, the Bible would be too nefarious for the purpose. Those principles would not be strengthened by being associated with the genocidal directives of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, or with the scurrilous fulminations of Christ against his opponents, or with the Stalin-like gloating of the God of the New Testament at the thought that everyone who has not been sufficiently deferential toward Him will suffer torture for all eternity.

"Lest the foregoing paragraph may seem too glum, I'll conclude with a relatively light-hearted reason for studying the Bible. A perusal of the Biblical texts reveals a host of common sayings that have taken on meanings very different from their original meanings. Hence, a knowledge of the Bible is invaluable for anyone inclined to be pedantic. I could offer more than twenty examples of the sayings that I have in mind, but I have space here for only one. In Deuteronomy 8:3 and in Matthew's and Luke's gospels (with Christ's response to the first temptation), we encounter the aphorism 'Man does not live by bread alone'. In the present day, that maxim is almost universally taken to mean that bread is necessary but not sufficient for human flourishing. In its original Biblical context, by contrast, the maxim means that bread is sufficient but not necessary for human flourishing. (In Deuteronomy, bread was unnecessary because God sent manna instead; in the gospels, bread was unnecessary because Christ was able to survive on purely spiritual sustenance.)

"In sum, I recommend Biblical study not only for the serious reasons recounted above, but also because it is a wonderful basis for pedantic one-upmanship! "

(Matthew Kramer, Professor of Legal and Political Philosophy, Churchill College, Cambridge.)



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