Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Hebrew Bible, Jeffersonized

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.” Thomas Jefferson on religious education.

In my religious pieces I am seeking to liberate--if this is possible--a residue of genuine wisdom from the enormous mass of dross that encumbers the foundational documents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this effort I find particular inspiration in a similar endeavor of Thomas Jefferson with regard to the gospels of the New Testament.

As a young man, Jefferson had come to doubt many of the teachings of the Anglican church in which he was brought up, beginning with the doctrine of the Trinity. In his skepticism, of course, he participated in the general trend known as the Enlightenment. While he dismissed the idea of the divinity of Jesus, he continued to regard the Galilean as a great teacher, even though he was to some degree hobbled by the superstitious beliefs in which he had been brought up.

Jefferson held that the figure of this authentic Jesus could be retrieved d from the four gospels of the New Testament by bracketing and setting aside the considerable amount of dross encumbering those documents. Accordingly, in 1804 he drew up a list of passages that he considered worth preserving according to his criteria. In contrast to the more painful work of contemporary scholars, such as those of the Jesus Seminar, he saw no great difficulty in making the necessary distinctions. Isolating the genuine moral teachings of Jesus from the rest was as easy as gathering “diamonds from a dunghill.”

He then took two identical printed copies of the New Testament and went at them with scissors. As he cut out the excerpts, he pasted them in a register, the whole amounting to 46 pages.

Some years later he concluded that a scholarly version was needed. In 1819, towards the end of his life, Jefferson got together a more extensive collection of New Testaments. From these he produced a quadrilingual version, with columns in Greek, Latin, French, and English.

In 1983, as part of its “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series,” the Princeton University Press published a scholarly edition of these two texts. Perusing this book, I concluded that a similar effort might be attempted with the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.

In this ambitious attempt at purgation I would exclude all passages that are marred by ethnocentrism, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, and superstition. Obviously, this is a challenging project. For the present I offer only a tentative effort at slimming down the book of Genesis.

The two Creation stories (1-2:4) must be excluded, as neither is in accord with modern science.

The story of the temptation of Eve and its consequences (2:4-3) is misogynistic in its singling out of the woman, serving in this way as a prelude for the patriarchal subordination and degradation of women that mars so much of the Tanakh. The Lord goes walking in Eden to cool off in the evening breeze. Evidently the heavenly air-conditioning system was on the fritz.

The story of Cain and Abel, the first murder is scarcely edifying. As one commentator remarks, [t]he whole books of Genesis revolves around death, killing, and the threat of death. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, and from the pit the slaughtered Joseph’s coat ‘declares’ his guilt” (37:31-4). This is magical thinking: blood cannot “cry out.”

The Flood (6-9:17) was occasioned by sexual transgression, when the sons of the gods copulated with the daughters of men. Geology provides no record of such a universal inundation. And of course there would be no way for the vast array of animal species to fit within the limited space of the Ark as described, and indeed of any such Ark. The earth itself is the only adequate Ark.

The bizarre story of Ham’s uncovering his father’s nakedness and the consequences for his descendants (6:18 ff.) is racist and possibly homophobic.

The Tower of Babel account (11) is to say the least an improbable explanation of humanity’s many languages. In suggesting that Hebrew was humanity's first language it gave a highly misleading signal to the emerging science of linguistics.

The Abraham narrative (12ff.), intended to establish the primacy of the Israelites, is ethnocentric. Abraham himself is a man of cruelty and superstition. Abraham’s treatment of his women, Sarah and Hagar, is despicable.

The heavenly beings who visited Abraham at Mamre (18) are not credible.

The notorious Sodom story (19) is homophobic. Despite much searching, no archeological evidence has been found of the destruction of Sodom and the other four Cities of the Plain.

The command to sacrifice Isaac (22) is barbaric and disgusting, unworthy of any deity. Abraham’s willingness to carry the command out is equally despicable.

Isaac’s blessing of Jacob (27) is ethnocentric.

The rape of Dinah (34) is misogynistic, the reaction to it disproportionate.

Joseph’s getting guidance from dreams (37ff.) is superstitious. Don’t try this at home!

The custom of temple prostitution (38) is odious. Note that Jacob takes it as a matter of course that Tamar could be such a prostitute.

The behavior of Potiphar’s wife (39) is a stereotype of the lustful woman. More misogyny.

Jacob’s last words (49) are foundationally ethnocentric.

After this purgation, what is left is possibly acceptable, but not too edifying. The remaining material contains genealogical data, impossible to verify and sometimes asserting impossible claims of longevity. Some narratives, such as Cain’s murder of Abel and the story of Lamech, are perhaps plausible, but unpleasant.

"Faith-based" individuals, whether Christians or Jews, will sometimes concede the existence of some of the masses of noxious rubbish that lurk within their Scriptures. They assert, though, that there remains is an authentic core of wisdom that we must retain and indeed revere. Somehow, they feel that the “Bible as a whole” is something that we must revere. Such uncritical reverence is precisely what we must avoid, since so much of that whole is pure rubbish.

What is the authentic core that remains from this flensing of Genesis? Not very much, as far as I can see.

Perhaps one should start, as Jefferson did, at the other end--by compiling a list of passages in the Hebrew Bible that are in fact inspiring. These would include the Psalms (many of them at least), portions of the prophets, and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as perhaps a few other passages. The result would be a small book, maybe even smaller than the New Testament, but perhaps worth having.

Over against this modest yield must be set the enormous harm--the suffering inflicted on hundreds of millions of human beings--by this entire set of “holy scriptures” cherished by the Abrahamic faiths. The Jewish contribution, as the first and longest compilation, deserves special attention and, where appropriate, obloquy. For that reason those who admire the whole of the Bible, without distinction. deserve especial scorn. Here I stand with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

In short, there are not many diamonds in this enormous dunghill.

PS. Steve Wells, maintainer of the site has actually performed the task of Jeffersonizing the entire bible. He provides detailed skewering of each book. Interestingly enough, he agrees with me that the book of Genesis has no "good stuff" at all.


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