I Take the Bible Too Seriously to Take It Literally – by John K. Chidester
I Take the Bible Too Seriously to Take It Literally
John K. Chidester
August 16, 2015
First Congregational UCC, Mount Vernon
Lectionary Readings: 2 Kings 23:1-7; 2 Timothy 3:10-17
You all know I’m a troublemaker, right? I don’t mean to be, and I don’t always start it myself. But sometimes something comes up—some issue or fracas or something—and I just can’t help myself. I have to jump in and offer my two cents’ worth. Case in point: You may remember this. Last January a man with some significant family ties to this church—in fact, he’d attended a few times with his mother, who was a pillar of this church—wrote a letter to the editor of the Mount Vernon News in which he said some unkind and, quite frankly, inaccurate things about this church, this congregation, and about the Bible.
And, of course, I couldn’t let that stand. I had to get into it and write a somewhat passionate response, and before you knew it, other people were joining in on both sides of the dispute, and it grew into something that—if it were being conducted by computer via e-mail or an internet chat forum—would be called a flame war. And there are two things that make the Mount Vernon News a singularly unsuitable vehicle for that kind of thing: 1) they limit you to a paltry 400 words per letter, and 2) once you’ve said your piece—and you know there will be people piling on to rebut you—you have to wait a whole 30 days—a month!—before you can shoot back! Talk about frustrating.
So, our critic with the family ties to us called us a bunch of philosophers—which, by the way, I don’t see anything wrong with—and he said we weren’t Bible scholars and didn’t know anything about the Bible and blah blah blah, and, of course, he ended up the same way every fundamentalist in Knox County does: bashing us for our stance on the loving inclusion of all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In my very measured and scrupulously academic response, I pointed out that real Bible scholarship is scarce everywhere—including and especially in churches like those our critic embraces—and I have no idea what church he goes to, if any. I said that simply reading the Bible and assuming God wrote it doesn’t count as scholarship. And I said, “At First Congregational, we read the Bible, but we take it too seriously to take it literally.” I hope you don’t mind that I presumed to speak for all of us.
And, of course, I demolished his argument about homosexuality, but I’m not even going to talk about that today because my position is already well-known, and if you want some real scholarship on it you can read Jack Rogers’s book, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality, or L. William Countryman’s book, Dirt, Greed and Sex (which I always want to say is subtitled “These are a few of my favorite things.”) Or you can read any of dozens of other solidly scholarly, Biblically based rebuttals of the anti-gay argument.
No, what I want to talk about today is that whole Bible thing. Do you have to believe that every word of it is historically, scientifically and factually correct and accurate to be a Christian? The short answer is “no” and I’ll tell you why in a minute, but first I want to emphasize something, and it’s this: Don’t ever let yourself be cowed by some ranting, wild-eyed fundamentalist who literally thumps the Bible at you and bellows at you that you have to believe it all, literally and factually, or you’ll roast in hell for all eternity. That’s nonsense, and it’s not in the Bible. Yes, there are passages—our two scripture readings today are among them—that fundamentalists like to wave in our faces and say, “See!?!?!”
Well, first of all, they sort of side-step the matter of the inadmissibility of circular arguments—you know:
“The Bible is without error.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because it says so in the Bible.”
“What if it’s wrong?”
“It can’t be wrong, idiot! It’s inerrant!”
Yes, philosophers can see through that kind of fallacious reasoning. Fundamentalists apparently can’t.
But those passages don’t even say the Bible is absolutely, literally accurate. The passage from 2 Kings isn’t about believing; it’s about obeying. It’s about a time in the history of Israel when a lot of traditional beliefs and practices were stamped out in favor of a rigidly enforced orthodoxy. (And by the way, if you want to really drive a fundamentalist nuts, tell them there’s recent archaeological evidence that Asherah wasn’t just some goddess, but was held to be the wife of Yahweh. That’s right: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had a wife!)
The passage from 2 Timothy is, for my money, even more interesting because it’s the single most quoted piece of so-called “proof” that the Bible is without error. In my response to our original critic I wrote, “Yes, I’ve read 2 Timothy 3:16. It doesn’t mean what you think it does.” And one of the pilers on sneeringly took me to task for that, asking derisively, “What does he think the word ‘all’ means?” Does it mean just some of the scriptures? And because my 30 days weren’t up yet, I couldn’t write back and demolish that guy’s argument in public, but if I could have—if I could have submitted a full-length rebuttal and had it printed without editing it down to 400 measly words—I would have pointed out a few things.
Why did he think I had a problem with the word “all”? “All scripture is inspired by God.” Nowadays that’s usually rendered “all scripture is God-breathed” because that’s a transliteration and it’s not really clear exactly what it means. It doesn’t necessarily mean “inspired”—that sounds like a reasonable assumption, but all philosophers know you can’t go by your assumptions. That’s a form of the (invalid) argument from ignorance: Nobody really knows what it means, therefore it must mean what I say it means. That’s nonsense.
But the word I really zero in on, in that passage, is the word “scripture.” What did my attacker think that meant? Again, there’s a common assumption made by fundamentalists—“of course, it means the Bible!”—but it doesn’t. First of all, the Greek word that’s being translated there is “graphein”—you might recognize those first five letters because they appear in words like paragraph and graphic and biography—and the word, graphein, means literally (and we are being literal here, aren’t we?) writing. “All writing is inspired by God.” 2 Timothy is inspired by God. All of Sophocles is inspired by God. The Complete Works of Shakespeare are inspired by God; your grocery list is inspired by God. Ask a fundamentalist how much sense that makes.
In 2 Timothy it’s virtually always translated as “scripture” and every fundamentalist thinks that means the Bible because they don’t know there was no Bible when those words were first written. (And by the way, just to drive the fundamentalists crazier, those words weren’t written by Paul. 2 Timothy wasn’t written by Paul—it says it was, but it’s demonstrably a forgery, just like 1 Timothy and Titus and Ephesians and Colossians and 2 Thessalonians. All forgeries, not written by the Apostle Paul. That’s the conclusion of actual scholarship. We can talk about that another time, if you want, but I’m leaving it there for now.)
So, yes, there were Christian and Jewish writings before 2 Timothy appeared, but they weren’t gathered into the uniform collection we know today. They existed in a variety of forms, most of them were completely anonymous, and there was precious little agreement as to what was “sacred” and what was not. And there certainly was no New Testament canon until the 4th century, long after its separate documents had first appeared.
So, what was the writer of 2 Timothy referring to when he used that Greek word “graphein?” Well, there’s a certain likelihood that he meant the Septuagint, the Greek language translation of the most revered of the old Jewish writings—and which looks very much like a Greek version of the Old Testament we know today. But that’s another assumption. The real answer is that we don’t know precisely what he meant by that passage—and beware the argument from ignorance!—but he certainly didn’t mean the New Testament, because it didn’t exist.
And that’s what I meant when I said, “It doesn’t mean what you think it does.”
Another participant in the flame wars of 2015—a lady whose first name was Constance—wrote in to chide me about trying to change or twist the meaning of God’s inerrant word. This was after my 30-day waiting period so I could write back, and I did, although, once again, I had to pare my response down to only 400 words. But I pointed out that changing and twisting the Bible had been going on for a long, long time—in fact, even before the Bible became the Bible.
For instance, the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel we know as Mark (it wasn’t written by Mark) ended at chapter 16, verse 8. The women who discovered the empty tomb fled in terror and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. That’s where the original version of Mark ended. This gospel originally had no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Verses 9 to 20 were added decades later and one manuscript has a different ending altogether. And verses 9 to 20 include one of the most bizarre passages in the entire Bible, describing what good, believing Christians will do: (verse 18) “they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.” There are churches in Appalachia—the snake handlers—that actually do this because they think the Bible told them to. They handle rattlesnakes and water moccasins and they drink strychnine in their worship services, and a good many of them have paid for it with their lives. And those verses were simply not part of the original gospel.
The earliest manuscripts of the Fourth Gospel, which we know as John—and no, it wasn’t written by John–don’t include the story of the woman taken in adultery. It was added much later, and I think that’s a shame because it’s one of my favorite stories about Jesus, but it’s a forgery.
How about contradictions? Paul’s conversion experience on the Damascus Road is reported three times in Acts (9:3-8; 22:6-11; 26:13-19). The descriptions don’t match. Did Paul’s companions see the light but not hear the voice (9:3-8) or hear the voice but not see the light (22:6-11)? You tell me. (Acts 26:13-19 appears to be yet a third version of the story that omits any mention of blindness, doesn’t say if the companions heard or saw anything, and quotes a line from a play by Euripides.)
Or take a good, careful, unbiased look at 1 & 2 Thessalonians. If you pay close attention you’ll see that they make opposing statements about the expected second coming of Christ. Either it “will come like a thief in the night”—which is to say, suddenly and without warning–or it “will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed.” That’s part of how we know 2 Thessalonians wasn’t written by Paul (1 Thessalonians almost certainly was by Paul). Nowhere else does Paul mention anything remotely like a man of lawlessness or a rebellion or any kind of sign to warn that the Second Coming is about to happen. 2 Thessalonians is a forgery.
I could go on like this for hours, but you get the point. And again, it’s the philosophers that have to point this out: If a book or document makes two statements that are contradictory—they can’t both be true—then at least one of them has to be false and the notion of Biblical inerrancy simply collapses.
Okay, enough with the abstruse historical-critical scholarship. How about the more pressing question in many people’s minds: Can you be a Christian without believing in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible? Well, first of all, what choice do you have? If it’s riddled with contradictions and all sorts of bizarre nonsense—and trust me, it is—how can you possibly—without sacrificing your God-given powers of intellect—believe that it’s all absolutely true? And, secondly, the Bible doesn’t say you have to believe it all or you’re not a Christian and you’ll go to hell. That’s not in the Bible.
And beyond that, somebody needs to point out (and it might as well be me!) that nobody holds the copyright to Christianity. There are literally thousands of separate, distinct denominations of Christendom, all of them believing they’re the only true and correct version of the faith, and none of them hold the copyright to Christianity. The Pope doesn’t. The Eastern Orthodox patriarchs don’t. Neither does Pat Robertson or James Dobson or Mike Huckabee or Rick Warren or Joel Osteen—NOBODY holds the copyright to Christianity. And that means that you get to decide for yourself. Thank God we live in a free country, where (at least in theory) you’re free to tailor your beliefs and your understanding of religious faith and practice to your own observations and conclusions.
So, how do we do that? How do we decide what’s true and right? How do we decide what path to follow? Well, here’s a radical notion: How about we use the brains God gave us?
This is what I propose we can do to take the Bible seriously without taking it literally. Read it. Study it. Ponder it. Then take as our own those precepts that have the greatest moral weight. And these are my suggestions: That the only law is the law of love (Gal. 5:14), that we call no one impure or unclean (Acts 10:28), that we do not pass judgment (Matt. 7:1-5), and that we seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).