January 19, 2007

The Bible as history-7: The danger of too much information

(For the earlier posts in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6.)

In the series of posts regarding the issue of how reliable the Bible was as history, the conclusion that was reached was that almost all the information before about 650 BCE was probably false. In other words, there was almost no evidence for the existence Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, the exodus, etc. And as the film The God Who Wasn't There points out, the evidence for a historical Jesus is also very weak.

The interesting question is why this lack of historicity of much of the stories in the Bible is not told to people. It must surely be the case that religious scholars are aware of the lack of archeological and other reliable sources of evidence for the major events that are described in the Bible. Religious leaders seem to be treating the relationship of Biblical events to history differently from its relationship to science.

The topic of the impact of science on religious doctrines has not been avoided. This may be partly because science has an unavoidable impact on daily life and its implications for all other areas of knowledge cannot be avoided even if one wished to. But as a result of being forced to deal with science, religious scholars and apologists have managed to finesse the fact that modern science has cast doubt on the miraculous events described in the Bible, so that nowadays a religious person with a scientific perspective can avoid giving any credence to stories about seas being parted, sun being kept still, people rising from the dead, water being turned into wine, and so forth, without being considered an apostate. The success of these efforts can be seen in the fact that the wealth of scientific counter-evidence to the miracles of the Bible has not stopped even many scientists from continuing to be religious. So why have theologians not taken the same attitude with the archeological counterevidence to Biblical history and found similar ways to confront the lack of historical evidence?

Perhaps it is because the actual story of how the Bible came about tells people too much for comfort. As I pointed out earlier, the present day Bible was the codification of documents produced by priests around 650 BCE, long after almost all the events it purportedly claims to record. It was seemingly produced with the goal of convincing King Josiah to enforce strict monotheism on his people, and the strategy worked. But in order to have this effect, the documents created a narrative that emphasized god's obsession with stamping out the worship of other gods. In order to achieve people's compliance, the priests created an image of a god who was fierce and authoritarian, demanded total obedience, and had no scruples whatsoever in committing genocide on people who happened to disobey in any way. It also shows a god who was extraordinarily vain and thin-skinned, needing constant praise and using any slight as an excuse to indulge in wholesale massacres. It is not a pleasant picture of god but as a literary device to scare the daylights out of people and get them to fall in line, it was pretty effective.

If you tell people the real story of how the Bible came about, you would take away much of its power. Take for example the ten commandments, that pillar of modern-day religious fundamentalists who would like nothing better than to have it displayed in every classroom, courthouse and other public places. They are venerated by a great number of people (even if they are less than conscientious about actually following them). For people of my generation, much of its impact comes from the visual image of Charlton Heston as Moses in the film The Ten Commandments going up a mountain and seeing god in the form of lightning etch those words on two stone tablets.

That image gives the commandments an authority that would disappear if people were told that these commandments were hatched in some back room by a group of priests who had a specific political agenda. People could argue that they might be still good ideas and should be observed but there is no question that the story of Charlton Heston Moses getting them directly from god on a mountain gives the commandments a certain heft they would lose if replaced by a more realistic story of them being scribbled in a backroom somewhere by people trying to advance their cause.

The actual history of how they came about, however, explains something that always puzzled me about the ten commandments and that was its curious mixture of grand but vague requirements, combined with quite petty and even impossible requests. (Note: there are different versions (.pdf) of the ten commandments and I'll use the King James' version.)

The first four commandments (roughly "Don’t have any other gods, don't make or worship any images, don't take god's name in vain, keep the Sabbath holy") seem a little excessively self-focused for a presumably omnipotent being, as if god was suffering from an inferiority complex and needed constant reassurance that he was numero uno. But if your main goal in writing the commandments was to enforce monotheism on the population and get people to dump their dependence on other gods, it makes sense to make the list of commandments top heavy with obedience to one god.

Only the sixth through ninth commandments ("Don't kill, commit adultery, steal, or lie") can be considered universal rules or morality and all are easily understood.

The fifth and tenth commandments are vague and not operationally clear. The fifth ("Honor your father and mother") is one that I can enthusiastically support now that I am a parent, while the last ("Don't covet your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, ox, ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s") seems unusually wordy. The wife-coveting thing seems like it could have been subsumed under the adultery commandment, while the rest could have simply been listed as "Don't covet other people's stuff." Envy seems like a pretty minor sin, too, hardly worthy of inclusion in such a major-league list.

One gets the sense that the priests had agreed initially that ten was a nice round number for commandments and that by the time they got to the final one they, like any committee, had got exhausted by trying to get consensus on the other nine, and so just slapped together a laundry list of items just to get it over with so that they could go home and have a beer.

One notable omission from this list is the absence of any prohibition against homosexuality, something that causes present-day anti-gay activists some anguish since they have to go digging in obscure Biblical passages to find support for their cause. Why would the priests leave it out, since condemnations do occur in other passages (such as Leviticus 18:22) that outline detailed rules of behavior? It must be quite irritating to anti-gay zealots that the prohibition against simple envy makes the top ten list while homosexuality does not. My guess is that homosexuality was not uncommon then and existed among the priests as well (just like it does now), and they did not want to come down too hard on a practice that they themselves their colleagues indulged in.

Understanding the history of how the Bible actually came about makes its content much more intelligible to me. But I can see how this knowledge can be quite unsettling to believers and thus why religions that depend on the Bible as the basis for their organization are not too keen on trumpeting this information.

POST SCRIPT: Gary Larson

I can never think of the scene where Charlton Heston as Moses parts the Red Sea in the film The Ten Commandments without remembering and laughing again at the cartoon by the amazingly imaginative Gary Larson, which shows Moses parting his hair by standing in front of a mirror and stretching his arms wide, exactly the way Heston does.


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I'd be interested in hearing your views on other cultures' mythologies and legends and their value as it relates to their "truthiness." If we know (or think we know) that classical gods and goddesses were not "real" and even that some of their stories served political/cultural ends, are the stories then of no value?

Posted by Kathy Ewing on January 21, 2007 08:43 PM


I think the stories have value. They are often very insightful about the nature of the human condition. But to my mind, they are on a par with, say, literature like Shakespeare and Tolstoy, and no more.

Posted by Mano Singham on January 22, 2007 03:16 PM

I figured we would have common ground here. I completely agree that myths (classical myths, other cultures' mythologies, and the Bible) are on a par with literature like Shakespeare and Tolstoy. But to me this is not to devalue them. Great artists (including the great imaginations that created the Bible) have helped make me a believer...(And by the way it's hard for me to appreciate artists such as Bach and Tolstoy, for example, without recognizing the faith that inspired them.)

By the way, I just finished The Achievement Gap and found it interesting, helpful, and very inspiring. Thanks...

Posted by Kathy Ewing on January 23, 2007 02:06 PM