So there’s this book called The Bible. New York Times bestseller for nearly two thousand years, mixed reviews. Though it may have the blunt force of a dictionary and occasionally read with the tone of a tractor manual, it is also supposedly coauthored by the creator of the universe. So it has that going for it. Some people proclaim that you should devote your entire life to it as a means of fire insurance, while others advertise it as nothing more than an old book of genocidal fairy tales with a side of crazy creeds – written by desert nomads as a way of distracting themselves from the fact that they lacked air conditioning.
I would like to promote a third perspective: The Bible is a fascinating, bizarre, historical, inspirational, humanistic, comical, and outright thought provoking collection of ancient texts worth learning about. And you don’t have to be religious to agree. If you had told me five years ago that my bachelor’s degree was going to be in Religion with a focus on biblical studies, I would have called the nearest insane asylum to alert them of an escaped patient. For most of my life I couldn’t have cared less about religion, let alone the Bible. After all, I’ve always considered myself an atheist, one who rejects the claim that a god exists. What good would the Bible do me?
But then I began paying attention to the enormous impact religion has in the world, namely those of the Abrahamic faith. Time and time again I saw the Bible used as a tool to support both sides of major issues I cared about such as politics, same sex marriage, human rights, and the education of science…and time and time again conflicting statements were made about what “the Bible says” (I guess a fan base of over 2 billion leaves some room for multiple interpretations). Due to this growing awareness, I decided to take it upon myself to read the Bible with the accompaniment of books by scholars who spend their entire lives deconstructing it. And what I discovered amazed me: behind the all of the monotone “Thou shalts” and “begat-begats” were a wild and ingenious set of writings coupled with an even more fascinating collection of archaeological history.
Come my freshman year of college, I was hooked. Before I knew it I had changed my major to Religion and was reading books on the Bible with the adrenaline of a born again Christian snorting blow whiter than the holy ghost. It seemed as though every time I returned to a familiar Bible tale I was in store for some kind of surprise. I mean, I thought I was well acquainted with the first dozen chapters of Genesis, but needless to say I missed the part about Noah getting drunk and getting naked post ark landing (Genesis 9:20-22) – or that the flood story itself is clearly derived from The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem which predates the Bible by a couple millenia. Or how right after Jesus’ death, zombies rose from their tombs and walked into the city, appearing unto many (Matthew 27:51-53). Why did I not know about this stuff before? How come they didn’t mention any of this in Sunday school? I suppose it’s pretty self-evident.
Chances are you’ve barely cracked the Bible yourself. It is, after all, a little long, monotone, and lacks the modern allurement of a wizard/hobbit/teen vampire protagonist. Moreover, it is commonly held that one must be a practicing Christian or Jew to get anything out of a book constantly preached by the religious demographic. Well, stranger, I’m here to tell you that none of these excuses should prevent you from exploring the most famous anthology of ancient literature ever written. Here’s my pitch…whether you’re religious, agnostic, or a godless heathen, there are two main reasons why you should learn some stuff about the Bible:
Reason #1. It is the most revered book never read
You don’t need me to tell you that for billions of Christians and millions of Jews, the Bible is believed to be the word of God. What should be emphasized, however, is just how often the Bible is used as a catalyst for actions which effect our daily lives, and how little most advocates actually know about it.
Statistics tells us that 3 in 10 Americans say they take the Bible literally. But here’s the grand irony: further polling tells us that while two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible “answers all or most of the basic questions of life”, 28% of them admit that they rarely or never even read it. What this means is that more often than not, those who allow an interpretation of the Bible to influence their behavior are being driven not by biblical literacy but biblical illiteracy; by ignorance. Like a software license, most adherents scroll past the wording and click “Agree.” This is a problem.
The Bible isn’t just an old book that Christians and Jews read peacefully amongst themselves, as strong as that stereotype may be. First and foremost, the Bible is a symbol of power and authority. Like the constitution, it is used as a prop to promote the ideology of whomever raises it above their head. And as a prop, we’ve been conditioned to see the Bible as an unambiguous source; of having one voice – one consistent message on important topics.
Instead of trying to tackle the intimidating text themselves with help from the scholarly community, people tend to rely solely on their parents, priest, or other personal authority figure to tell them what it is they should know about the good book. The problem with this is that a great deal of the text ends up suppressed or twisted for theological agendas, allowing false information to work its way in with ease. Today the result has never been more clearer: millions of denominations with conflicting beliefs – each with members who claim to know for sure what the God’s word says. As biblical scholar Timothy Beal put it, “There seems to be no correlation between reading the Bible and revering it.” Let’s start fresh, shall we? It’s time we crack open the Bible ourselves with an open mind and learn the facts – aided by scholarly consensus. By doing so we’ll be prepared to point out what the Bible has to say about such modern topics as marriage, sexuality, warfare, suffering, the afterlife, the origin of man, and lamb sacrifice.
Reason #2. It is a captivating read with an equally fascinating history
When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, “Why god? Why me?” and the thundering voice of God answered, “There’s just something about you that pisses me off.”
― Stephen King, Storm of the Century: An Original Screenplay
Objective significance aside, it can be rightly argued that the Bible is worth reading simply for ability to be wildly entertaining and extremely thought provoking – much of which derived from literary details that are often concealed or ignored during your Sunday sermon. You’ll discover things that make you laugh, raise your eyebrows, and feel inspired. I often receive confused looks when people learn that while I am not religious myself, I have a B.A. in Religion and read and talk about the Bible with great enthusiasm. I enjoy nothing more than sharing interesting information soaked deep within the pages of the big book, as well as relevant material found outside it. For instance, many people are surprised to learn that:
- God uses his powers to make a donkey talk (Numbers 22:28).
- In an older tradition, “Elhanan son of Jair from Bethlehem killed Goliath”, not David (2 Samuel 21:19).
- There were many other gospels written about Jesus which did not make the cut into Orthodox cannon. One of my personal favorites is The Infancy Gospel of Thomas which tells of Jesus’ childhood, during which he disobeys his parents and kills common folk who rub him the wrong way.
- In the original ending to the Gospel of Mark there are no accounts of seeing Jesus after his resurrection. Instead it ends with the women fleeing from the tomb, too afraid to say anything to anyone. We know this because our earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts end at 16:8. In other words, verses 16:9-20 were a later addition.
- The Apostle Paul didn’t believe in the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus, thus the reason why there is no mention of an empty tomb in his letters. Rather, Paul believed Jesus was raised metaphysically into a new spiritual body which the righteous shall also receive upon his return (Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Corinthians 15:50).
- The early Christian movement run by James and Peter in Jerusalem clashed heavily with Paul’s Christian mission, fighting over whether followers of Jesus had to become circumcised and follow the Torah or not.
- The biblical narratives give many historical accounts that scholars now agree never happened, having been contradicted by archaeological and textual evidence. These include such notable events as the Exodus out of Egypt, the many conquests of Israel under Joshua, the huge empire of King David, and the world-wide census of Caesar Augustus.
- Yahweh originated as a junior member of the divine pantheon of gods in Israel’s early polytheistic history, inheriting the people of Israel from the higher god El Elyon (Deuteronomy 32:7-9). Later, he ascends to the throne of the pantheon, replaces El Elyon (“God Most High”), and declares war on the other gods (Psalm 82:1-7, 29:1-2, 89:5-7). A major shift toward monotheism does not transpire until the late seventh century BCE, a few decades after the Babylonian exile.
Judging from such factoids, it may seem that this website is devoted to stripping believers of their faith. However, that is not at all the case. The reason why the general public are ignorant of such information is because it is as theologically controversial as it is interesting. It is vital to point out that while much of the information taught here clashes with traditional and extremist views of biblical interpretation, all of it is nonetheless upheld by scholars who are themselves religious. For a great read on how one can accept provocative facts about the Bible and still remain faithful to it, check out The Human Faces of God by Christian scholar Thom Stark.
I should emphasize, however, that biblical ignorance and misconceptions don’t belong to a single demographic, for the media and secular community is also guilty of spreading a lot of bunk, such as the claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were going steady (thanks,
Obama Dan Brown). One excessive theory that has become quite popular in the last decade thanks to the internet is the claim that Jesus never even existed; that he was invented by Hellenistic Jews by adopting mythological traits of other “dying and rising gods.” While there are a very small number of credible individuals who, I would argue, make an actual scholarly attempt to justify this theory (namely Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price), the truth is that the majority of writers in support of Jesus mythicism do not hold relevant degrees and neglect fundamental facts about the Bible and the theology it emerged from. Their motives generally appear to parallel those of fundamentalist Christians, in that they believe in dubious claims regarding scripture because they eagerly want to discredit it.
Case in point: I’d like to see biblical ignorance decrease. Why? Because (1) the Bible continues to be a book with unparalleled influence, and (2) its suppressed facts are too interesting and entertaining not to share.
So sit back, pour yourself a drink of something kosher, and allow me to show you what’s so good about the good book.