In this article I will demonstrate that Christians generally know nothing about their bible. Even if they have some knowledge about bible verses, they don’t know what the verses mean, who wrote them, or why. They don’t know when the book was written, or how it was published. They also don’t know that all these things are important. Does it really matter, you ask? Well, consider any story you ever read – isn’t it important to know who wrote it? Aren’t the writer’s credentials important? Where does the story come from? Is the story reliable?
Now in order to avoid having those sort of questions – which are good – directed at the writer of this article, so the reader can attempt to avoid or circumvent the merits of the arguments provided here, the reader ought to be aware that the entirety of this article is based on the opening chapters of READING THE BIBLE AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME, by Marcus J. Borg*. So if you doubt credentials, or want references, or proof, or professional and scholarly expertise, pick up a copy of Borg’s book, around 10% of its 300 plus pages are devoted to references and notes etc. that fully explain how his rigorous research reaches its various conclusions.
Let’s take a closer look at some of Borg analysis of the bible (all of which, as I say, is backed up by as many as 50 reference notes per chapter).
Contradictions Right Off The Bat
“The first three chapters of Genesis contain two stories of creation, written about four hundred years apart. The first one, Genesis 1.1-2.3, was probably written in the 500s BCE…the second one was written earlier….Genesis 2.4 was…written in the 900s BCE.”* Crucially, the stories are quite different.
The one version talks about the 7 days of creation, including light created on day one, and the sun, stars and moon on day four (For the moment, we’ll let the thought pass that the sun is our prime source of light…).
The second story focuses on the creation of man, beginning at Genesis 2.4. It’s odd that although written first, it’s edited so that it appears in the bible second, because the second story talks about man, and if the reader doesn’t know their bible, placing the creation story of man at the end of gradual process of creation will seem ‘right’. (It also, incidentally, tows the line a little with evolution, which suggests that if the creation of the world took 24 hours, humans beings arrived just before midnight). But looking at the story itself (remember it was written as a comprehensive story in itself, complete, hundreds of years before the next iteration) it’s different. It has a totally different take. The second story (written first) hardly even acknowledges the creation of the world. There’s a little waffle about plants and a garden but that’s about it.
It’s also fair to say that the second story doesn’t compliment the first, but contradicts it. So here we have a problem, right from the get go, as we open the bible on page one. But I bet this is the first time Christians have been made aware of this. And since they don’t like to have their beliefs questions, let’s look at the beliefs of Borg, the guy whose scholarly efforts we’re looking at here.
Who is this ‘Borg’ fellow?
Borg has more than 35 years experience studying and teaching the bible, and from his description of himself, he appears to have been a church going Christian, a Lutheran “until age thirty”, and then a Presbyterian and then…well…what he says now is: “I describe myself as a nonliteralistic and nonexclusivistic Christian, committed to living my life with God within the Christian tradition, even as I affirm the validity of all enduring religious traditions.”
Borg, I notice, is careful to avoid defining himself more clearly than that. The reason is he would like both Christians and atheists (and everyone in-between) to read his book, and presumably to keep his job as a lecturer. But he certainly isn’t a conventional theist, believing in all gods equally sounds like pantheism to me, which is to equate the universe with ‘God’, and is about as general as one can get. The point is, this is where Borg ended up after 35 years studying the bible. To be specific, his studies led him to realise that the bible – in fact – is not particularly special after all. And when you see how it was written, and how badly it was written, that’s an inevitable conclusion for anyone to reach, which is why so many do.
I hope I have already illustrated that by knowing more about the author, Borg, we already have an idea what to expect from READING THE BIBLE AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME. We know his background, and motives, and job, and something about his beliefs. That gives us a lot of insight into what he is saying. Well, in the very same way, it’s important to have those sorts of insights about the bible, which is quite cagey about its writers. There are also plenty of instances where the bible has been edited to make it seem a lot more credible than it really is. But let’s get back to the discussion at hand, and see why the very first chapters of the bible are already a mess.
The Eden Myth Demystified
The creation of Adam (or adham – a Hebrew word meaning humankind) is described in a very long sentence that starts: “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up…the Lord God formed adham from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and adham became a living being.” It should be obvious that this story isn’t the same story as the other creation story in many respects. Firstly it sounds like all of creation happened in one day, or put otherwise, man was created before plants, and only after he was up and running did God make him a place to live; a nice garden.
Interestingly, God gave adham permission to eat whatever he wanted except for one damn thing. This already sounds like qualified free will to me. You can do whatever you want, have fun, just don’t to this particular thing. If the reader is familiar with the movie Inception, he might ponder why God, who ought to know human nature, would know the power of suggestion, and that by planting a thought, you indirectly influence the thoughts of your target. Which is exactly what happens.
The important part of the garden and eden myth is that the motif is all about demonstrating the idea that if mankind eats from the tree of knowledge, he will become like God, and know about good and evil. Borg says “knowing about good and evil” is about knowing about opposites. In other words, man discovering his dual nature. He is a creature, like an animal, yet also something more, perhaps a spiritual being. He is of this world, and also, somehow, above it, separate from it. He is also a male, and not a female (as the case may be). Basically, by eating of the tree, he gains consciousness. Which means the ability to distinguish and discern, to be an individual and see the world as other than itself. In this sense, the myth is a rich and useful psychology. But the crucial point to remember is that the garden of eden myth isn’t about sin or disobedience, but inevitability. It was inevitable that man would become conscious. And once he did, he would be like God (or gods), in the sense that once you are aware of yourself, and what you are not, there are some consequences. Such as anxiety. And the duty to perform a certain role (as man or woman, provider or nurturer). Perhaps we don’t always want to perform these roles that the world dictates we do. But as a God (of a sort) we come into a situation where we inherit a certain amount of power, and with that responsibility. This can feel like a burden.
In another sense, the garden of eden myth is about the path that takes one through a sort of coming of age of reason, of consciousness, which each and every person must follow. We start off in paradise, loved by our parents, and then are slowly expelled into an uncaring world, and one filled with consequences for our behaviour. The rest of the bible, says Borg “is to a large extent the story (and stories)…of the human predicament and its solution. That is at the end of page 81, and the end of chapter 5, and what follow are 36 notes referring to various sources (that’s 36 notes just for Chapter 5).
Let’s continue. One of the aspects of the creation story are the refrains “And God saw that it was good.” In latin: Esse qua esse bonum est. What it actually means is ‘All that is is good.’ All that is – sounds like we’re talking about the universe again. I know many people believe this, that God is everything, and they think it makes a lot of sense, but they don’t bother to think it through. Is the worm eating out a child’s eye somewhere in Africa also good, especially from the child’s perspective? Viruses, which seem not entirely living mechanisms, and can lay waste entire ecosystems – are they good? What about evil (if there is such a thing) – is that good?
Borg says that “I am…convinced…that the bible (he uses a capital letter ‘B’) – like everything else expressed in words – is a human construction…I see the bible as a human response to God.” Think about what that means for a moment. If the bible is a human response to God (the idea of God) does that mean God is real, or that our ideas about God are real? And as we know, Borg believes God is the same as the universe. In other words he is saying the bible is sort of an ode to the great unknown. He concludes: “The bible tells us about how they (the Jews) saw things, not about how God sees things.” Borg also asks: “What are the chances that ancient Israel’s stories of creation contain scientifically accurate information?” Borg says: “About zero.”
Borg goes on to point out that even if we give the bible a little credit for not being perfect, and still see it as a ‘somewhat divine’ product, we still run into problems. For example Moses was chosen by God, and later God decided to kill Moses. You may remember Zipporah circumcises his son and then touches Moses’ feet with the foreskin (Eeew) with the result that this puts God off, and “the divine intent to kill Moses vanishes.” The same happened with Abraham and Isaac. Of course, if God did that to you (if you are a parent with as child, and God asked you to kill your child to test your faith) today you’d be locked up in jail and the key thrown away. What kind of God comes up with sick schemes like this? Couldn’t he ask you to run to the nearest horizon and back to prove your faith?
Or try to solve a puzzle? Or square off against a lion. But why is God so into filicide? Something he himself eventually pulls off, to the great admiration of all. Really?
So, the foreskin-foot-fable is obviously shows some of the particular cultural imperatives and folklore that the bible is infused with. Anyone who seriously believes that foreskins applied to the feet can be used to ward off evil (in this case, God, in a bad mood, like a child playing with a magnifying glass, and you are the ant he intends to burn) – well, such a person is clearly deluded.
“Why would God want to kill Moses – especially since Moses has been chosen by God and is doing what God commanded him to do?” Borg says: “The question is impossible to answer…and suggests a capricious and malevolent God.” Borg goes on to say that calling this: “God works in mysterious ways” is a “dodge, not an adequate response.”
Earlier on in his book, Borg presents the following question:
“Does it make sense that the creator of the whole universe would be known in only one religious tradition, which (fortunately) just happens to be our own? Moreover, such a claim is difficult to reconcile with the centrality of grace in the Christian tradition. If one must be a Christian in order to be in a right relationship with God, then there is a requirement. By definition, then, even though we may use the language of grace, we are no longer talking about grace.”
This is not to say that the bible is entirely “not true”. Metaphors and metaphorical narratives, Borg says, “can be profoundly true even if they are not literally or factually true.”
This article is getting long, and both and I have other things to do. It may be effective to start to conclude with the very first sentence of the bible here, near the end of this article. The bible calls itself the Word (with a capital “w”) of God. Not the ‘words of God’. Borg says this is a crucial difference: “If the bible had used the latter phrase (words of God) then one might reasonably claim that believing the words of the bible to be God’s words is intrinsic to being Christian. But,” Borg continues, “the use of a capital W and singular suggests a different meaning. Namely, ‘Word’ is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense.”
When you wish upon a star
In the most basic way the bible seems to be about ‘promise’ and ‘fulfilment’. Moses leads the people to the promised land. There is the promise of a birth of a child, there is the promise of life after death, and victory over evil etc. The implication of this promise fulfilment is simply wish fulfilment. But as we know, God is not an insurance policy, certainly not while we are alive (bad things happen to good people). Thus Christianity must be ‘death insurance’. This is perhaps the most tempting thing to believe in the bible, because so much is at stake, and this is why we want so much for it to be true. But this is also clearly a book – and a fascinating one – told by ordinary people, to us, ordinary people. It is our human response to our exposure to the universe. But to take it literally and see it as anything more than a meaningful narrative is dangerous, and a disservice to your fellow man.
There is plenty more to say on this subject. If you are interested, and would like to understand your bible better, Borg’s book is a good place to start. Why not order it on Amazon.com and form your own opinion? It’s informative without having an agenda. And Christians may well find themselves understanding the bible for the first time, which may be a little like eating of the tree of knowledge. 500 years ago very few people owned or could read their own bible. Today that has changed. The tree of knowledge has expanded into an enormous tree of life. In just the same way that God instructed man not to eat from the tree of knowledge, we all know it was inevitable that he would. The same applies to our knowledge of the bible.
Quoted from READING THE BIBLE AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME, by Marcus J. Borg*, HarperCollins, 2002.
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