by Sara Manasterska
(Hello! I’m Sendai Anonymous, and this is my very serious post about Biblical literalism, in which I prove that it doesn’t exist.
Take that, Biblical literalism!
It really is serious, though. I actually surprised myself =_=)
It’s always been rather vexing to me to listen to the self-proclaimed “Biblical literalists” prattle on about how liberal Christians are so totally evil and sinful and will go to hell darn it, and how coffee-house Christianity is wrong, wrong, wrong, sinful, and wrong.
The thing is, the Biblical literalists are interpreting the Bible at least as much as the pick-and-choose liberal Christians they so despise, or even more. They do what any believer does: they pick those passages of their holy book, which will validate their pre-existent beliefs and notions about morality and ethics, and how the world should work in general. As with the more liberal believer, what really matters is: what will my family think? will my mum disown me? will my peer group make fun of me? will the teacher praise me? and the like.
There is also a marked tendency to skip “literal” readings when such readings are obviously absurd, as in the case of the Earth being flat and Earth being in the centre of the universe. On the other hand, when the theory competing with the “literal” reading of the Bible is difficult to understand and/or counter-intuitive, the literal reading will often be preferred, as often happens in the case of creationism and evolution.
The means by which the “literal” interpretation is achieved are usually the following:
1. Outright denial.
2. Misunderstanding and misinterpretation of arbitrarily chosen passages, including contextomy (by which I mean not just the usual quote-mining, but also every reading or interpretation which does not account for the cultural context in which the passages read or interpreted were written, and using the modern interpretation of some words, such as “homosexuality” whenever it conforms with preconceived notions of the reader) and false generalisations (generalisations do not constitute a literal reading after all).
3. Ignoring the passages that are found inconvenient, not conforming to the pre-existent notions, or absurd.
1. Outright denial
Denialist tactics in Biblical literalist movement include a wide variety of discourse techniques, but in my opinion, the most likely to come across are the King-James-Only movement and the it-does-say-so-because-I-say-so.
The King-James-Only is a bizarre movement in the English-speaking countries with no other European analogies I can think of(1). The movement claims that KJV of the Bible is the divinely inspired version of the Bible for the English-speaking world or the “second revelation”, and thus, other versions and translations have no precedence, even the original Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek one.
This is absolutely irrational, because one of course would assume that our knowledge of the relevant languages has grown greatly since the times of king James thanks to, for instance, the progress made by various archaeological expeditions since XIX century, where new texts, new text versions were discovered and/or acquired, which enabled philologists to conduct comparative studies, and so on. Also, having a larger source material enables a linguist to research the meanings of rare words (and there are a lot of them in Leviticus, for instance, and on the whole there are as many as 1500 hapax legomena in the Old Testament) with more accuracy.
However, some of the errors in the KJV of the Bible conform with the self-proclaimed literalists’ worldview. On the other hand, because the archaic language makes it more difficult to read and understand, the access to information is greatly hindered, which facilitates the further maintenance of fundamentalist worldview.
The it-doesn’t-say-so-because-I-say-so strategy is obviously a form of wishful thinking, where a believer engages in a form of circular reasoning by stating what amounts to “I think that (insert behaviour perceived as sinful by the speaker) is a sin, because the Bible says so, so the Bible says so”. Usually, no amount of presenting actual evidence(2) has any result whatsoever.
Because the mere thought of delving in fundamentalist forums in search for quotes(3) again makes me twitch, here is the link to Fundies Say The Darndest Things, where most of the discourse strategies that I mention are used.
2. Misunderstanding or misinterpretation
Misunderstand and misinterpretation can largely be divided in two main categories.
The first one is, let’s call it, cultural contextomy, where the reader forgets his or her source text was written over 2000 years ago, and that the words used in that text had then different connotations than they have now.
The most striking example which illustrate this would be “homosexuality”. In fact, there is no word for “homosexuality” as we understand it anywhere in the Bible. What is in the Bible, though, are various words which mean “having sex” or “having an anal intercourse” – depending on the participants – and some verbs whose interpretation as “male homosexual prostitutes” or “male cult personnel who has sexual relations with other men” is highly uncertain(4). The reason for the lack of word for “homosexuality” is that there was no concept of ‘homosexuality” as we understand it today(5).
The ancients’ concepts of sex, gender, and sexual orientation greatly differed from ours. Even if the preference of some people for homosexual relations was noticed, it was not explained as innate, but in terms of individual (and if it was a preference for being the passive partner – perverted) inclination. In short, an anal intercourse between two men was considered to be a threat to the established social conventions, because one of the male participants had to undertake the “passive” role, which was for the ancients female. Please note that what is meants by “social conventions” is actually “nature”. The disturbance of social order was perceived as a direct threat to the survival of community, which was true especially during the time when the Bible was only the holy book of the Jewish community, dispersed and/or surrounded by other peoples with quite similar cultures.
The word “nature” itself was understood in antiquity different than now. The philosopher Seneca lists as unnatural, contra naturam, things such as warm baths and potted plants(6). This is also the sort of nature that Paul means in 1 Corinthians.
Thus, when Paul and others mention their disapproval of homosexual sex, they do not in fact disapprove of the homosexuality as we understand it today. In the Old Testament, the disapproval is aimed only at the anal intercourse of two males, because of the power exchange and role reversal that it entails. The disapproval of homosexual sex in the New Testament was greatly influenced by the Jewish opposition to Greek and Roman social practice, in which the homosexual relationships were often unequal and exploitative.
An often misunderstood Biblical passage is the story of Sodom, in which often the homosexual aspects of the affair are wrongly overplayed. The reason why God decides to punish Sodom is not because its inhabitants were having the evil gay sex (eyeroll), but because they were inhospitable, arrogant and xenophobic. In any case, the last straw consisted not of homosexual sex, but an attempted rape (Gen 19:5), which the fundamentalists prefer to forget whenever they are outraged, and drone on and on about God hating the gays. And somehow, one hardly ever sees many instances of heterosexual rape from the Bible being used as an argument against heterosexuality.
The second example of misinterpretation, this time by generalisation, is Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, parts of the so-called Holiness Code:
18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them
The above statements are then used by “literalists” as a proof that “homosexuality is a sin”.
This is not the literal meaning of the text, though. The literal meaning is “anal sex between two males is an abomination”. No matter how you look at it, anal sex is not equivalent with homosexuality. Furthermore, as we can gather from the passages about the slightly homoerotic friendship of David and Jonathan, kissing between males apparently is OK (1 Samuel 20:41-42). Thus we have fundamentalist Christians distorting their source text by making generalised, not literal interpretations that conform to their preconceived notions of homosexuality being wrong.
3. Arbitrary choice of relevant passages
Further proof for fundamentalist believers picking-and-chosing about as much as any other, more liberal believers, can be seen in the way they arbitrarily pick and choose Biblical passages to fit their agenda.
In Leviticus, the censure of male/male anal sex is part of a longer list of sexual transgressions, which contains also incest, intercourse during menstruation, adultery, sex with animals, child sacrifice to Moloch and the calling of ghosts and spirits(7).
What is striking about the list is that the modern day “literalists” aren’t quite as vocal about sex with your wife during her period being as much of a sin as “homosexuality”, and why is that so? Because it’s absurd? But then, why homosexuality being a sin is not?
(This is where I gleefully repeat my mantra about preconceived notions, but I guess, by now, everybody’s got my point)
Similarly, of two creation(8) stories included in the Bible, the fundamentalists prefer quoting the one where woman was created from the man’s rib (Gen 2) rather than the one where man and woman are simply placed in the garden (Gen 1), because they want to make a point about woman being inferior or subordinate to man(9).
Similarly, although relevant passages of Leviticus are used as evidence for homosexuality being a sin, the passage about eating sea food (Leviticus 11:9-12) being an abomination, and the passage about wearing mixed fibers being an abomination (Leviticus 19:19) are never mentioned(10).
When the literal interpretation of the Bible clashes with what we can experience empirically every day, the easier to understand the competing theory, the higher the likelihood that the literal interpretation of the Bible will be abandoned in favour of the competing theory. As we can see, there are relatively few flat-Earthers who back who their claims with Biblical quotes, but the creationist movement is as robust as ever. This is because it is much easier to understand that Earth is not flat than it is to understand natural selection, and also, because the fact of Earth not being flat has an enormous impact on our everyday lives (when we travel, and so on), which is also very easy to perceive. The same can be said of the geocentric versus heliocentric theory; that, contrary to what the Bible says, the heliocentric theory is true can be easily explained to anyone; understanding the main tenets of the theory of evolution requires much more effort.
Why the fundamentalists depend on their preconceived notions is quite easy to understand. First of all, one usually learns about morals and social norms from their parents and from the authority figures in one’s social environment. This process takes place far earlier than the learning of the contents of the holy text. A three-year-old may be told that they shouldn’t have fights with other children, and they can hear his or her parents often talking about “faggots” or using vocabulary pertaining to sexual orientation as swear words and so on, but they will hardly know anything about the contents of the Bible (or any other holy book for that matter). By the time they start learning what the contents are, they will want to look for validation for the views their parents instilled in them. Some of them will be disappointed by what they have found, some will see the inconsistencies and contradictions, and decide that it might not be the truth after all, and the rest of them will remain fundamentalist Christians.
The Scripture Project @ The Reason Project has a nicely annotated and tagged Bible, Quran and the Book of Mormon.
Boswell, John, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century <— about Christianity and homosexuality from the LGBT perspective.
Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World <— about the Ancient Near Eastern religions and their attitude towards homosexuality, written largely from a purely scholarly perspective, without Christian apologetics or anything like that.
(1) If anybody else can think of such analogies, I’d be of course very grateful for any information.
(2) In this case, something as trivial as quotes.
(3) I did it once. It wasn’t fun. Had to drink several litres of coffee to make myself feel better =_=.
(4) arsenokoites and malakos from 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, where the words are listed among the vices, and used to be translated as “sodomites”, on the assumption that the former meant the active partner, and the latter the passive partner in a homosexual relationship. However, the meaning of arsenokoites may be “man who sleeps with everyone” as well as “one who sleeps with men”, and malakos is usually used as an adjective, and means “effeminate”, a characteristic which was in the ancient times often associated, but not equivalent, with male “passive” homosexuality.
(5) As late as in the period between WWI and WWII the existence of lesbians was explained by theories postulating the existence of “third sex”, which would consist of women sexually interested in other women (Nowadays, “third sex” is used in a very different meaning).
(6) This and many more examples I owe to Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World.
(7) The co-occurence sexual transgressions with the child sacrifice and interaction with spirits made some scholars propose that the list contains a sexual transgression in religious context, and that anal sex, too, was only forbidden in cult (the explanation why there was anal sex involved in any cults and what cults these were would be excessively tedious for a non-specialist, but in all probability, the cultic personnel of the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna/Ishtar and Syrian Ashtarte included males whose function might have included having sex with other males in ritual context. Either that, or they were eunuchs. Or, they were eunuchs who had sex with other males in ritual context. The assyriologists are quite divided on the issue.), however, it is rather improbable.
(8) Creation, what a filthy word.
(9) That sort of inconsistencies and contradictions make Biblical literalism absolutely logically impossible. You can’t believe two contradictory statements at the same time.
(10) One has to wonder to what extent exactly this strategy of picking the “right” quote from the Bible influenced the creationist quote-mining strategies. In any case, the find-the-right-quote-and-you-win sort of mentality had already been there.