Tips that Atheists can use for Understanding the Bible
|December 31, 2010||Posted by Anthony under apologetics, atheism, Bible Reliability, Blog, Christianity and Culture, Creationism, General, Jesus, theology|
When I was a high school religion teacher I ran into a bit of trouble because, for the final exam, I expected the students to be able to recall facts from the Bible that we had covered that semester. Yes, I know. If it had been chemistry class, recalling chemistry facts covered in the semester would have been an obvious thing to have on the exam. I think the reason there was resistance to requiring that students know biblical facts is because a lot of people- even parents of kids in Christian schools- don’t actually think the Bible is true. To them, ‘religion class’ is absurd; the only thing one needs to know is that God loves you and accepts you for who you are.
That is essentially ‘Sunday School’ religion, and basically why so many people today are falling away from the faith. After all, it isn’t like its true or anything, right?
So, my title is meant to poke atheists (and get some web traffic 😉 ) but what follows can be useful to anyone, Christians included, who wish to actually understand the Bible. Unfortunately, many people don’t. This is largely because they don’t grasp the over-aching framework of the Scriptures. This is then coupled with the fact that what they do know consists largely of Sunday School versions of popular Bible stories at best or Disney re-tellings of those stories at worst. However, even people who buckle down to read the Bible straight through will likely fail to understand it if they don’t keep some important principles in mind. So, note: if you are an atheist whose knowledge of the Bible stems from nothing more than Sunday School from 1st grade to 8th grade… pay attention.
The Bible, or ‘Book,’ is actually a collection of 66 books …. This fact cannot be emphasized enough. A host of so-called ‘Bible contradictions’ can be resolved simply by noting that something found in- for example- a poetry book (ie, the Psalms) should be interpreted differently than what is found in one of the historical books. If a rock song says, “I want to melt with you” you know that it would be stupid to inquire as to the temperature that this melting occurs and what chemical reactions take place during the process. Because it’s a song, see? If the chemistry book talks about melting you expect that sort of thinking. The genre of the book is very important in making sure you are interpreting it correctly.
It is written by dozens of authors… these authors were writing over a period of some 1,500 years with different audiences in mind, different experiences front and center, etc. For example, the Exodus and God’s display of overwhelming power are the backdrop to Genesis through Judges (and even maybe the books about the Kings) but the Exile and Return are the lurking issues against which Lamentations, Ezra, and many of books by the prophets are framed against. Moreover, when you move into the New Testament, the Resurrection is the nearest event in the rear view mirror, yet even then the event takes place among a people who experienced all of that which I just mentioned (The Exodus, Exile, and Return).
In at least two languages… The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek, with a strong likelihood that at least one or more books were also written in Aramaic. In sum: Jesus didn’t speak English. Neither did Moses. How many times have I heard or read people complaining about the ‘different versions of the Bible’? Wow. It is staggering that this simple fact is not known, let alone given its proper weight. What it means is that a great many people have had to invest loads of time in learning several languages in order to make their best judgment as to how to render it in a language that we can understand. Here again, many so-called ‘Bible contradictions’ go bye-bye when you go right to the original languages. Of course, many new problems emerge, but at least one is in touch with reality.
I once had a King James Only proponent argue his position completely unaware that the original texts weren’t actually in KJV English, but rather were in Greek and Hebrew. I actually felt bad for him as I showed him my Greek NT and Hebrew OT. Sometimes I’m left shaking my head.
By Jews… Speaking of shaking my head, there was this other time when a Jewish atheist scientist mocked me for talking about the Jewish nature of the Christian faith, only to discover that this Jewish atheist scientist- literally, a rocket scientist- did not even know that Jesus and his disciples had been Jews. Wow. Now, I have to admit that my own education covered this fact but did not explain just how important it really is to recognize Christianity’s Jewish roots and underpinnings. From Messianic prophesies to ‘typology’ (ie, the Jewish passover seen by Christians as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus, and then embodied further in the Lord’s Supper) to the context we must read the New Testament, it is a simple reality that you cannot properly understand Christianity if you don’t understand the Jewish culture and nation it emerged from. Sorry, but you can’t.
Prescription versus Description. There is widespread confusion amongst the atheistic ranks on this point. How many times have I had an atheist suggest that any kind of conduct can be justified because some instance in the Scriptures can be found describing that conduct? Hold your horses, kemosabe. If I write an account describing the holocaust, not even the dumbest amongst us would think that the mere describing means that I am prescribing that we all do the same. The Scriptures, both old and new, are filled with instances that are less than flattering to our ‘heroes.’ Rarely are these events accompanied by comments like, “And God said we should all do the same.”
A variety of covenants, or agreements/contracts/testaments are in play. One of the things that really irks me is when atheists insist that Christianity is as dangerous as Islam because it calls on believers to violently enforce their beliefs. This is a level of ignorance and arrogance that blows my mind. In their defense, Sunday School Religion poorly covers the important distinctions, here. The Scriptures contain a number of ‘covenants’, or agreements between God and man or God and nations. The ‘war mongering’ assertion is usually presented by pointing to one particular covenant, where God promised to one particular group of people that they would be given one particular piece of territory, provided they kept a certain set of rules. It doesn’t take brain surgery here to realize that this contract would not necessarily then apply to ALL groups of people regarding ALL pieces of territory regardless of whether or not the rules are actually followed. For, in point of fact, the Israelites failed to keep their end of the ‘contract’ and God punished them severely, effectively dissolving the most important parts of that contract. To then argue that Christians can appeal to that same contract is to descend into the ludicrous. The first clue that there might be different ‘contracts’ in play can be discerned from simply noting that the Bible historically has been understood to consist of two basic parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is an important clue, and should not be disregarded. Indeed, there were many covenants described in the Scriptures and it turns out that there is much to be gained by understanding how ‘contracts’ were understood and executed in the ancient near east.
The Bible is not in chronological order. One may be forgiven for thinking otherwise. After all, Genesis concerns the beginning of the universe and comes at the beginning of the Bible and Revelation concerns the end, and comes at the end of the Bible. However, in point of fact, the books are actually organized in more sophisticated ways that do not necessarily rely on what happened first. As a case in point, many Biblical scholars have concluded that the oldest book of the Bible is actually the book of Job, which comes much later in the Old Testament. Job is older even than Genesis! And the four Gospels, though written at slightly different times, covers more or less the same time frame. Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah refer to the exilic or post-exilic time frame, but come before the prophets that predicted those time frames were coming! So, you see, it can be dangerous to assume that a ‘straight through’ reading of the Bible will ensure that you actually understand what you are reading!
As a quick aside, something that is rarely recognized but is important especially for understanding the books about the Kings in Palestine, is that after King Solomon, there was a fracturing in the royal family. There came a ‘northern kingdom’ and a ‘southern kingdom.’ When the Bible talks about a ‘King of Israel’ during this time, it is a reference to the rulers in the northern kingdom, whereas the rulers of the ‘southern kingdom’ are called the kings of Judah. When the Prophets come chastising various kings, it can get confusing, because in one place they could be condemning a king of Israel and another place they are condemning a king of Judah- and these two kings might actually be contemporaries! To add confusion to the confusion, the northern kingdom was thrown into exile first, to the Assyrians, in 722BC and the southern kingdom didn’t get overthrown (by the Babylonians) until 586/587 BC. So, there was a period where there were no Kings of Israel but there were Kings of Judah. The northern kingdom was scattered to the four winds, but the southern Kingdom, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, were sent into exile more or less intact, and returned more or less the same way. How lucky that that tribe in which the messiah was promised (Judah) would remain largely intact through all that punishment for Jesus to emerge from it! Lucky, I say!
The people in the Bible believed that the events described in the Bible really happened. Even many Christians don’t think that what is described in the Bible really happened. From Adam to Abraham, the Flood to the Exile, to Jonah and the Resurrection itself, many people believe (or behave as though they believe) that the essence of the Christian faith is that God loves you and accepts you for who you are. You can get that from just about any religion… which is why, I suppose, many Christians figure Buddhism is as good as Hinduism is as good as Islam is as good as Christianity: none are actually true, you see, but agree on the one thing that is true, and that is that God loves you. That is not factually accurate, but my point is that this is not the mindset that is exhibited by the people described in the Bible or by those who wrote the books that are contained in it. You simply cannot understand the Bible unless you step into the mindset of those who wrote it- and these people believed that all the stuff they reference actually happened. Many examples could be put forward. Take a gander for example at Deuteronomy, at chapters 6-8 to illustrate, to see what I mean. The whole of that book and much of the later books just can’t be comprehended accurately unless you take as your starting point the view that the writers and the people being written about believed that God had literally, personally, powerfully, delivered the Israelite people from slavery to the Egyptians with indisputable miracles. Moreover, according to these books, God continued to visibly reside and travel with the Israelites. And Christianity emerged from people who believed the same things really happened. Christianity may be carrying the message that God loves you, but it is much, much more than that. Much more.
The chapters and verses and chapter titles were added later. Just a quick note, but its worth reminding the reader that the chapter numbers and the verse numbers and the titles are not actually part of the original text. These were added later to make it easier to work with them.
Which brings me back to one of the points of this post. There are a great many people who think they understand Christianity and the Bible who really haven’t got the faintest clue about what they believe. I here speak of the Christians! It actually takes hard work to understand the Scriptures. It requires research. It requires thoughtful deliberation. If the contents and message of the Scriptures are true, then there is no task more important. If, however, you are an atheist who wants to be taken seriously in your criticism, then it is your duty to make sure you actually know what you’re talking about. If you are a Christian, then you should remember that you have a basic duty to know what you’re talking about as well, before you go around representing Christianity.
I led this post off with an anecdote on a final exam I gave as a religion teacher where I actually expected the students to show that they actually could remember what they had actually learned in their readings. Facts, figures, events, dates, and persons… these sorts of things have fallen out of favor of late, and not just regarding the Christian religion. It boils down to a basic question: what is truth? This, perhaps, is the most important area of dispute these days, for it is common enough to believe that everyone’s truth is as good as anyone else’s truth. Actual particulars are inconsequential when put up against warm and fuzzy notions about human brotherhood and the divine spark. But if Christianity is true, the actual particulars really matter- not just for this life time, but for life everlasting. Jesus was a particular who lived at a particular place at a particular time and made particular claims, which, if true, are game changers. Christians, at least, would do well to keep that in mind.