Moar Like This Newsweek Article on the Bible, Please

I think I’m in love with Newsweek. Seriously. Seeing a major national magazine carry an article exposing the Bible as the flawed book written and cobbled together by fallible human beings, full of interpolations and mistakes, is outstanding. Seeing it carry such an article without a sugar coating – amazing.

If you haven’t yet, go read Kurt Eichenwald’s intriguing exposé. Here’s a taste for ye:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament. (That’s the same amount of time between the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and today.) The first books of the Old Testament were written 1,000 years before that. In other words, some 1,500 years passed between the day the first biblical author put stick to clay and when the books that would become the New Testament were chosen. There were no printing presses beforehand or until 1,000 years later. There were no vacuum-sealed technologies to preserve paper for centuries. Dried clay broke, papyrus and parchment crumbled away, primitive inks faded.

Back then, writings from one era could be passed to the next only by copying them by hand. While there were professional scribes whose lives were dedicated to this grueling work, they did not start copying the letters and testaments about Jesus’s time until centuries after they were written. Prior to that, amateurs handled the job.

And that’s not even the bit that had the fundies screaming for blood, folks. That’s just one of the many bits that made me sit up and go, “Damn, that Kurt fellow is absolutely right. Interesting!”

In other news, I’m actually reading this bloody book right now. I’m in Exodus at the moment, and cringing every three seconds at how bad it is. It’s not just the moral monstrosity that is the Old Testament god.* It’s not merely the assholishness of the patriarchs. It’s the fact the damned thing is so atrociously writ.** You can tell it’s cobbled-together bits of various sources. You don’t even have to be a scholar to see that. There’s endless repetition that isn’t even poetic. There’s conflicting accounts of the same event, yet purportedly written by a single individual. There’s the sudden segues into genealogies in the midst of stories, which basically look like they’ve been crowbarred in after the fact. And so much more!

Image shows an open Bible with the conflicting verses 6:19-20 and 7:2-3 of Genesis printed over the top. Caption says, "Go home, Bible. You're drunk."

There’s squeamish euphemisms, too. I finally found out what “place your hand beneath my thigh” means. It’s basically dudes saying, “grab my circumcised dick, son, and swear to me!” I can’t wait to talk to the next blue-nosed fundie about this during an argument about smut in modern literature.

There are a couple of poignant bits here and there, a few nice turns of phrase, a few things that with a lot of polish can be told as actual stories, and the Genesis creation tales (both of them) are quite nice in places. But overall, it’s not that great. Infallible, fuck no. Amenable to being taken literally? Only if you’re willing to duct tape and zip tie your brain and leave it locked in a closet as far as this book is concerned. The greatest work of literature of all time? Oh, puh-leeze. The source of all morality? Dude, if that’s where your morals come from, stay the hell away from me.

Reading it has led to another project idea, however, so I don’t feel I’m wasting my time. Much. I merely skim the begat bits. And I’m mostly just reading it in fits and snatches whilst waiting for other things to happen, so that’s a little bit of all right, then. Besides, I can hardly wait to see what horrors await me in the chapters virtually no one reads.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with flat-earth creationists and a bet with Alfred Russel Wallace. Oh, my darlings. You’ll definitely want to tune in on the 12th for that story…

*Fuck you, Richard Eskow.

**h/t Doctor Who

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Moar Like This Newsweek Article on the Bible, Please
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11 thoughts on “Moar Like This Newsweek Article on the Bible, Please

  1. 1

    Lately I’ve been listening to video’s from the bible reloaded on youtube. Two guys reading the bible from Genesis onwards, throwing in some commentary and humour along the way. I’d recommend this if you’re planning on reading the bible. So far I’m surprised at how little I’ve not heard before, at the start I was sure I’d hear some things for the first time but not so far.

  2. 2

    Yale provides free recordings of introductory courses. The have one on the Old Testament and another on the New that I recommend. It’s from a scholarly perspective – in the same vein as the Newsweek article. It helped put a lot of things into context for me when I was reading the Bible. It didn’t stop it from being barbaric… but at least I could get why they wrote such weird stories at times.

    Here’s the links:
    Intro to Old testament: http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145
    Into to New Testament: http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-152

    Available as video, or mp3 download (so you can listen during your commute!)

  3. 3

    I used to be one of those “It’s not the Good Book but it’s a good book” types when I didn’t want to hurt feelings, but damn, it’s not a good book. It desperately needs a rewrite and a good editor. I wouldn’t change the ending though. Not every story needs a happy ending, and 144,000 men eternally bowing and scraping to a monster is quite a terrifying end.

  4. 4

    “Translation of translations of translations” isn’t true, though reflexively anti-Bible screeds on the nets never fail to say or imply it. All major modern translations of the Bible begin with the Masoretic text (MT) for the OT (informed by the Septuagint) and the Koine greek for the NT. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has revealed that the MT remained remarkably stable through more a millennium of copying in Hebrew, though it also revealed, or confirmed, that there were multiple Hebrew texts circulating by the 1st and 2nd centuries BC, and that the Septuagint was not always based on the strand that became the MT. (The Samaritan text is the third major identified vorlage, and examples of texts based on all three are among the DSS).

    To me, more than faulty translation per se (though many particular translations are bad *cough*NIV), the issue with understanding “what the bible really says” is the fact that so many of the texts that comprise it come to us pre-interpreted, laboring under the weight of (mostly)-Christian doctrine, but also under centuries of Jewish exegesis. The main issue with modern translations is that they “flatten” the text the same way the KJV did, rendering diverse material with stylistic uniformity, and with a few exceptions (the ESV and the NRSV) they smooth out or conceal problematic terms rather than explicate the process of translating them.

    Quibbles aside, I agree that it’s encouraging to see such forthrightness on the topic in a mainstream publication like Newsweek.

  5. 5

    The comments on the Newsweek article are really painful. A lot of them amount to “this article is so wrongitty wrong it wrongs very wrongness at its core of wrongfulness.” Oddly, they forget to explain what parts of the article are wrong. I’ve studied a fair bit on textual criticism and most of the stuff he’s describing in there is very well known and more or less incontrovertible. He didn’t even get into the bits that there’s disagreement about. So much for “wrongitty wrong.”

  6. 6

    I wish you luck on your project, Dana. I made the commitment to read that damn thing a couple years ago, ended up using the “Living” Bible my wife’s parents gave her when she was but a kid (and that she of course… never read) – basically the full bible with Baptist explanations of what all those quirky passages are really, no really supposed to mean. It took over a year (the explanations were as verbose as the original text) – I was horrified, bored, and/or entertained on every page! Also, learned about how many folks name their kids after biblical (fictional) characters and how many biblical words and phrases are in our modern lexicon. But I overall found it to be a useful exercise to increase my understanding of what it actually says vs what people think it does. It also got me to read some counter-apologetics that mirror what the NW article summarizes. I would bet my bottom $ most of the bible defenders commenting on the article have not read it, like nearly every xtian I have ever met.
    Lastly, one of my favorite bibles is the Brick Testament – tells the whole story in way less time with SO much more humor! And, its all done in lego characters.

  7. 7

    Dana, I’d like to reccommend Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. I won’t say it’s the most definitive authority. Asimov wasn’t a professional Bible historian, of course. And it’s about 50 years old, so it misses out on a lot of new research and more scientific conclusions than were available back then, but I still think it is a great place to start understanding the Bible, and I found it a fun read. It’s what enabled my conversion from an agnostic to a full-fledged atheist.

  8. 10

    The comments on the Newsweek article are really painful. A lot of them amount to “this article is so wrongitty wrong it wrongs very wrongness at its core of wrongfulness.” Oddly, they forget to explain what parts of the article are wrong.

    damnit, I can’t even get the comments to show up in my browser.

    :(

    was looking forward to a good laugh.

  9. 11

    Tabby:
    Yeah, it’s definitely not a good book.
    When Christians talk about the “Christian worldview” or “biblical morality”, I often wonder how they define either one, given the horrors of the Bible.

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