Jesus is a Trope.

I’m taking the unusual step here of breaking in my progression through the Bible to lay out some more of my personal philosophical observations. I laid out my intent in taking on this project in my  previous posts and comments, including why I would approach the Bible from a literal perspective with secondary interpretations of the content. However, some of those explanations seem to be lost on some of my readers, so they deserve hashing out again.

(1) The Bible is literally ridiculous.

There are hundreds of translations of the Bible, not simply in different languages, but with various editors who liberally exercise their pens to make the text more approachable, more contemporary, more aligned with modern culture, better for every imaginable demographic, including children via cartoon Bibles, or whatever their audience calls for. Words convey meaning. Different words convey different meanings, so words are important–critically important. Reading the Bible as literally as possible, meaning in English but as close to literal as translation allows, gives a more accurate view of the original, intended content. We can never know how accurate any Bible is, thanks to centuries of tinkering, the Council of Nicaea, and other events, but we can at least minimize the impact of more recent divergences.

The Bible read literally, without softening for palatability, is fucking ridiculous. It is a poorly written, internally inconsistent, superstitious, bloody, primitive, sexist, racist mess. As some have suggested, I could ignore these indicia of the primitive roots of the Bible. Or I could, as every single textual interpretation philosophy would endorse, consider the author and cultural context of the text as an important part of the interpretation. When I say I am reading the text literally, and when I write my posts, I am not simply picking apart outdated cultural artifacts; I have also been looking behind the text at the morality and theology behind the text. What I refuse to do is what has been suggested as the “smart” approach by some readers: ignore all the parts that don’t fit with the current cultural norms, and simply pick the parts that can be interpreted in this day and age. Why? Because if your religion is entirely dependent on your specific cultural norms, then it is a lazy and shoddy basis for your morality. As I said in response to a comment a few months ago:

If God wrote a book (or inspired people to write a book) that was central to their theology, he should have either (1) made it timeless and relevant to more than just its contemporary culture (in which case you should read it literally), or (2) he should have continued to supplement it or supplant it to keep it relevant to evolving cultural norms. Is his morality universal and repugnant or is it evolving with cultural standards? If the former, what kind of God anchors a static morality in an undeveloped and savage past? If the latter, then why do we need God if he is just codifying things that we humans innately, biologically feel, and he hasn’t bothered to update his outdated morality? The morality of the Bible retards the progression of human morality, it doesn’t advance it.

(2) What makes anyone qualified to parse the literal from the figurative? What makes the cut?

If the Bible is metaphorical and adaptive to cultural norms, who is qualified to parse the literal from the figurative? Some critics say that these stories in the old testament are so far beneath our current understanding of the world that they are unbelievable as anything but metaphors. But are they that much more ridiculous than the New Testament? Is it more believable that a woman became spontaneously pregnant with god’s baby, who grew up to perform strangely petty “miracles” like turning water into wine and multiplying fish? Who says that heaven isn’t metaphorical? What if Jesus is a trope? As humanity progresses and morality evolves, which of your  beliefs survives the march of progress? Just those central to your dogma? Do any?

Is a religion in which you ignore other potential sources of morality, and you in fact actively avoid some, a sound basis for a world view? As I said before, if you have to separate the sublime from the ridiculous in the Bible because it was written thousands of years ago when you could rape a woman as long as you paid her father for it, wouldn’t your time be better spent thinking intelligently about your own personal ethics and morals rather than trying to tease them from the noise of this silly ancient book? For that matter, if the Bible is a product of a certain ancient culture, then why is it still relevant at all? Why wouldn’t I consult a contemporary source of moral instruction? One of my biggest problems with the Bible is that it distracts people from thinking about what is right and good and what maximizes human happiness, because they are trying to divine from this conflicted external source whether or not God says they can eat ham.

You have a text that is the foundation of your religion, the source of morals and ethics that is central to billions of people on this planet. People base their lives and deaths on this text. Wouldn’t you rather have something that doesn’t have so much hate, fear, anger and slaughter in it? The thing about religion, and religious texts, is that they carry a premium: that they are sacrosanct and unimpeachable. They are inflexible. People will literally die and kill based on what they find between the covers, and so no, I don’t want to skip over the nasty parts. I am airing all this shit, and if you want to consider that a naive or lazy way to read the Bible, then I can’t help you.

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14 thoughts on “Jesus is a Trope.

  1. I like this. The ‘if I can’t read it and take it for what it says, what’s the point’ approach is correct in my opinion for the reasons you state plus the fact that if I personally have to supplement it by deciding which parts are good and which are not then I’m doing all the morality deciding and the book is no longer fit for intended purpose. It is, be default, a defective product, the manufacturer is nowhere to be seen, and all the sales staff are confused about what exactly to tell you about the product. In short, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

  2. There are reasonable answers to all of these issues and questions. Just probably not enough time or space to give them all here.

    Let’s start with the Bible text. I don’t know where the idea came from that the Council of Nicea changed the text of the Bible. That is itself a trope that keeps getting repeated and repeated even though there is absolutely no evidence for it.

    The Council of Nicea did screw up Christian doctrine for all the centuries that followed. However it had no effect on the text of the Bible. We have many texts and several solid translations of the Old Testament (which is what you’re covering now) going back several centuries before 325 AD, when the Council of Nicea took place. Comparing those texts and translations shows that although there are a few variants and a few lost lines here and there, in general the text we have has been quite stable since before the time of Jesus. The textual evidence for the New Testament is somewhat less solid, but even for that, there are so many surviving texts that we have a pretty good idea of what was original and what was not. And the Council of Nicea had nothing to do with it. At most. that council may have made some decisions about which books to include and which not to include in the Christian Bible. But the texts themselves were unaffected by Nicea.

    As long as we have fairly reliable original texts, recent translations don’t matter very much. There’s always the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts available, and we can go back to those texts any time we want to in order to check what it does and doesn’t say.

    Young’s Literal Translation does provide a pretty good English text for close Bible study.

  3. Now, it’s not a question of skipping parts of the Bible we don’t like. Though it’s true that some Christians tend to do that, it’s beside the point for serious biblical scholarship. It is very true that there are many stories in the Bible that are repugnant to our modern, enlightened sensibilities. That doesn’t mean we should skip them. But we should read them in the context of their times and culture, and not anachronistically expect stories written in cultures that existed two to four thousand years ago to comply with modern cultural norms. The question in reading these ancient stories literally is; What did these stories mean in the context of their times and culture?

    Many things that to us seem outrageous and brutal were simply facts of life for people who lived several millennia ago. For example, to most cultures in that day in that region of the world, it was perfectly reasonable to execute a man’s entire family–his wife (or wives) and children–for offenses that he alone committed. That was the cultural norm. What was shocking to them was when God pronounced (in Ezekiel 18) that this practice would no longer be tolerated.

    This also begins to respond to the issue of the Bible not developing over time. Only someone who has not actually read the Bible, or has not paid attention while reading, could say that there was no development of moral and spiritual teaching over the course of the Bible. The Prophets revise and abolish many old morals and practices. The Gospels represent a paradigm shift in morals and religious practices. The sweep of the Bible story is a story of God revising and revealing more as the culture developed enough to accept better views of things.

    In other words, the Bible is not a static document. It is a story of human development from primitive times to a time period of 2,000 years ago. And I think we today are smart enough to continue the arc of the story into the present.

    • That, of course, raises the question of whether man is the creation of god or god is the creation of man. If the Bible is a living document, and the doctrine is constantly evolving, then the concept of god is evolving, and rather than being the tangible, universal thing that people want in a deity, “god” becomes merely a concept, a thought exercise, a lens. Not a real thing.

      • Maybe it does mean that. I am open to that possibility. Are you open to the possibility that God is not real?

        Also, there is scientific proof of the universe. I’m still waiting on proof of God.

      • Thing is, there really isn’t scientific proof of the universe. It is simply a useful assumption we make. The only thing we know for sure is that our own consciousness exists. Everything else is less than certain.

        About God, of course it’s possible that l’m wrong and God doesn’t exist. But aside from my own experience–which can’t be transferred to anyone else–I find that the phenomena we observe and experience make more sense if God exists than if God doesn’t exist.

  4. Why was the Bible written in those times and not in ours? I would suggest that it was precisely because those were the most brutal and brutish times. If God wants to speak to humans, God has to speak not only to the best and the brightest, but to the lowest and most backward. If the Bible consisted entirely of enlightened modern philosophy and science, it would go right over the heads of 95% of the world’s population even today, and would be largely ignored.

    As it is, the Bible deals with both the best and the worst human states. And that is something it must do if it is going to effectively speak to the entire population, and not only the highly educated elite.

    • You see, that’s just the thing, I am acutely aware that God in the Bible is tied to whatever culture is writing about him. That’s one of the problems I have with the theology and philosophy of god. Depending on who was writing the book, god can be a tribal enforcer, a harsh disciplinarian, permissive, standoffish, a remote concept or an active participant in human affairs. God looks less and less like a tangible, universal being, and more like a product of the human mind. A byproduct of the human need to make sense of existence, and a product of whatever mind is trying to perceive him. If god is in the eye of the beholder, than you and I are equals. You believe in god, so he exists for you. I don’t believe in god, so he doesn’t exist for me.

      • What you’re talking about is our varying ideas about and perceptions of God. Our ideas of who God is no more determine whether God exists and what God is like than our varying theories about the nature of the sun over the ages determine whether the sun exists and what its actual nature is. The sun continues to exist and be what it is no matter what crazy things we may think about it.

  5. I could keep going, but that’s enough for now. It is unfortunate that you were steeped in fundamentalist thinking, and were not exposed to more intelligent ways of reading the Bible. Keep in mind that the very idea that the Bible must be read literally is only a couple centuries old. It arose in the 1800s in response to the advent modern science. Before that, and especially before the Protestant Reformation, it was simply assumed that the Bible had deeper, spiritual meanings. Many Christian theologians wrote whole books expounding on deeper meanings in the Bible. So not only is a purely literal reading of the Bible a low-level mode of reading, suited largely to the uneducated masses, but it is also a very recent innovation in the two thousand year sweep of Christian history and theology.

    • I have to say, I resent that you consider my reading of the Bible to be shallow and “suited to the uneducated masses.” I don’t know how you read the Bible, but I’m guessing that a chapter-by-chapter reading and analysis of the Bible is more than 99% of Christians can honestly say they’ve done.

      • I do give you major kudos for giving close attention to the Bible in a way that neither the average Christian nor the average atheist does.

        However, the strictly literal, ahistorical method of reading it that you’ve inherited from your fundamentalist past does not do the text justice. And though I’m sorry it is offensive to you, the highly literal way of reading the Bible developed within the past two centuries by various evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders and sects does appeal mostly to people who are not well-educated. How else could they cheerfully reject so many of the major findings of modern science, instead getting their “science” from an ancient book that was never intended to be a science textbook? It is simply not an intelligent way of reading the Bible. Even secular Bible scholars have more intelligent ways of reading the Bible than that.

        I’m not saying you have to believe in God or believe that the Bible is divinely inspired or anything like that, if you don’t want to. But if you are so interested in the Bible, at least expose yourself to the best modern scholarship about it. And I don’t mean scholarship by atheists who have an axe to grind against the Bible. There is plenty of good, modern Biblical scholarship that will open your eyes to much of the textual, literary, historical, and cultural background and content of the Bible. If nothing else, the Bible is one of the best preserved literary records of human cultural, moral, ethical, and religious development over a period of many centuries.

        I agree with you that the attitude toward the Bible that you grew up with is indefensible for any modern, rational person. You are well rid of it. I would suggest that you finish the job, and leave behind the one-dimensional view of the Bible that you grew up with. Begin to look at the Bible from a more objective and informed perspective. There’s plenty of good material out there.

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