Faith that the Bible is Wrong

David Hayward shared this cartoon that gets nicely at the moral problems with the story of Noah and the flood:

Jeremy Myers wrote recently:

From Abel to Zechariah, from A-to-Z, the Bible reveals the violence of the human heart as we kill others in the name of God. According to Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures are primarily about a revelation of bloodshed.

They reveal what the origins of bloodshed, and how sacrificial religion is often at the root of bloodshed, as human beings kills others in the name of God.

And it is not just evil sinners who are killed in the name of God, but righteous, innocent victims, such as Abel, Zechariah, and the prophets.

Jesus also says that the people in His day are doing the same thing.

This violent murdering of others in God’s name is the constant human sin of every culture and every generation. Yet no generation thinks that they themselves are guilty of it. The people in Jesus’ day say that if they had lived in the days of the prophets, they would not have participated in killing the prophets. Yet the people in Jesus’ day killed Jesus.

Today, we say that if we had lived in the day of Jesus, we would not have participated in killing Jesus. But is this true?

And again slightly later:

In Matthew 23:29-35, Jesus says that the Bible is so violent and bloody, because it reveals what we ourselves are doing in our own day. Jesus says that the Bible is so violent and bloody, not so that we can condemn the people of the past, but so that we can see how we ourselves participate in the same exact bloodshed and violence.

Jesus says that the Bible is so violent and bloody, not because it reveals what God is like (for only Jesus does that), but because it reveals what mankind is like. And therefore, what we are like.

The Old Testament does not reveal God to us as much as it reveals mankind to us.

The bloody passages of the Old Testament provide a better glimpse into the heart of man than they do the heart of God.

This is how to read the violent portions of the Bible, so that when we turn away from them in revulsion, we are trained to turn away from similar violent tendencies in our own heart as well.

I’m not persuaded by every interpretative move that Myers makes, but appreciate his ability to distance the way we think of God today from the way God is depicted in the Bible. Fundamentalists have tried to identify believing the Bible to be factual in every detail with belief in God. Yet today, trust in God may require trusting as well that the Bible is wrong, that stories such as that about the flood are not factual. Fortunately, such belief does not require ignoring the evidence!

See Randal Rauser’s blog for a similar point made about the idea of conscious eternal torment.

An author that was particularly helpful to me in moving beyond an unhelpful biblicism was Keith Ward, and so let me draw your attention to a podcast in which he spoke about the Bible, and a blog post about his view of God. It was Ward’s treatment (in his book What the Bible Really Teaches) of the disconnect between fundamentalist claims of literalism and the predictions of Jesus that he would return during the lifetime of his hearers that was particularly helpful.

See too Pete Enns’ conversation with Jared Byas on the truthfulness of the Bible, and Keith Giles’ reminder that no one believes everything in the Bible, even if some claim otherwise.

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  • David Cohen

    “Jesus says that the Bible is so violent and bloody, because it reveals what we ourselves are doing in our own day”

    What about the passages where people are killed on the deity’s orders? The Book of Joshua describes the Israelites moving from city to city, slaughtering every man, woman, child and animal within them, all at the orders of the deity. I have asked rabid anti-abortion Christians if they think there were any pregnant women among those slaughtered by the Israelites. They always respond by changing the subject.

    The author of this article will likely respond by saying that the events in the Book of Joshua weren’t real, but rather cultural myth. There is even evidence of this in the Bible (i.e. the Book of Joshua proudly declares that the Canaanites were wiped out while the Book of Judges acknowledges that there were Canaanites living in the land.) That doesn’t change the fact that Joshua is pushing the idea that genocide is something good and necessary when the leader declares the the deity commands it.

    Do I really need to explain how problematic that ethic is?

    • I am confused by your comment, since the whole point is precisely that the existence of stories attributing genocide to a deity does not justify either genocide, or blaming a deity for such human atrocities.

      • David Cohen

        I think I made my point fairly clear. Its all very good to say that the deity of the Bible does not promote genocide, yet there it is in the Bible that said deity does. Closing your eyes will not make those passages go away.

        • So you agree with me, then? Your tone somehow still makes it sound as though you don’t.

    • Iain Lovejoy

      One of the points of the Book of Joshua is that it was written centuries after the Book of Judges and after not only the conquest but (in the main) after the Israelites had lost again the entire kingdom Joshua conquered. It can’t be pushing the idea of genocide being good because it is talking to an exiled people who have just been fortunate to escape genocide themselves (a frequent fate of conquered people at the time).
      There are a number of themes being brought out. The principle one I suspect is to compare and contrast the (deliberately exaggerated) fate of the Canaanites with that of the Israelites: God has not abandoned the Israelites as, unlike the Canaanites, their lives have been preserved in exile, and this is a promise they will return.
      The book also concentrates on the Canaanites attempts to defeat Joshua with amassing huge armies and forming powerful alliances to crush him, and yet nevertheless being utterly defeated. I suspect this is to underlinethe point that Israel was not defeated through lack of military might, or because their foreign allies let them down, but because they had abandoned God.
      A further theme, brought out also in Deuteronomy, is the Israelites’ contamination with Canaanite culture and worship. This is where the more horrible bits (to us) come in. The idea of sparing the inhabitants of a city that refused to surrender and was taken by storm is (I believe) largely a complete anachronism. In the ancient world if the city forced them to storm the place, the conquering army was expected and indeed basically considered entitled to kill and destroy anything that they didn’t want to keep as loot for themselves. The “commands” to kill everything are not commands not to show mercy, but to take no Canaanite slaves or possessions into Israelite homes as loot. I put “commands” in inverted commas because these are really retrospective warnings from the (defeated and exiled) authors of the Bible to their own ancestors as to the results of their taking up Canaanite ways which the authors had just experienced. It’s like shouting “don’t go in there” to the protagonists in a horror film, knowing it is futile as you know what is going to happen.
      A final theme which I think is present in the conquest stories in the Bible is the futility of military conquest, no matter how total. Joshua is apparently completely victorious but even his exaggerated (and exaggeratedly brutal) purportedly total conquest is an almost immediate failure, as the Israelites almost immediately abandon God for Canaanite deities and find themselves enslaved and oppressed by the Philistines.
      I would say that the point is that is the Bible that is the word of God, not the events portrayed themselves. The events are being used (and manipulated) by the authors to make theological points and it is a mistake to start by reading them as a literal account and then take the message from what you think actually happened, rather than treat the stories as essentially accounts of historical or pseudo-histotical events being used in a similar fashion to parables as llustrations of a particular point.

  • John MacDonald

    I think the Gospel of Mark represents a radical re-imagining of the nature of God from the God of the Old Testament and the guilty, naked Adam who (God) was interrogating and accusing (and saw man as a sinner), to one who is primarily a loving father who was not concerned with an endless series of animal sacrifices, but rather judged us according to whether we loved Him and one another. In Mark we read:

    Mark 12:28-34 The Great Commandment:

    28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

  • Marshall

    appreciate the cartoon drawing, which illustrates what-all may simmer-out in the admixture of human moral ideas/ideals with the Love of God. Today, Myers is wandering in a philosophic no-mans-land where nothing is ever to truly be resolved. It seems an odd thing, even a mystery or parable: how history unmasks a religious system which grew up by-way-of getting things so wrong, and-so consequently men began to build another religious-philosophical system of ideas to replace it; all within the circle of laying claim to Jesus; mixing post-modern ideas with threads of Christianity to become the invention of yet another Rome.

  • Realist1234

    ‘Yet today, trust in God may require trusting as well that the Bible is wrong, that stories such as that about the flood are not factual.’

    – Yet Jesus said, ‘Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.’

    – even if the Flood was not literal (I think there is good argument to believe it was a catastrophic local flood rather than world-wide, based on the Hebrew), at the very least Jesus is not denying the lesson to be learned, and that is both about us and God (His judgement).

    ‘Jesus says that the Bible is so violent and bloody, not because it reveals what God is like (for only Jesus does that), but because it reveals what mankind is like.’

    – Im confused. When exactly did Jesus ever say this?

    • There is certainly a contrast between what Elijah did, calling down fire from heaven, and what Jesus considered appropriate, much as there is a contrast that Jesus makes between what God views as ideal and what Moses permitted.

      • Realist1234

        Yet Jesus never denied that God was the author of, for example, the Flood, nor the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah etc. Both were due to God’s judgement, not man’s. Indeed He used those examples of how people were judged by God to warn others of the coming judgement. I do not see how you can come to any other conclusion unless you purposefully ignore or warp His words. Jesus never once denied God’s working as described in the Old Testament.

        Re Elijah, Jesus made clear His purpose. To argue that because God the Son did not do this, that or the other whilst on earth means that God did not do this, that or the other during OT times ignores the specific purpose for which the Son of God came. Though it should be noted that many understand the subsequent destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in AD 70 as a direct result of God’s judgement on that generation who rejected the Messiah, as Jesus warned.

        • I think behind your comments is an assumption that if Jesus or the Gospel authors held a particular view, then we too must hold it, and do so in precisely the way that they did. I would suggest that that is not only not necessary, but not possible.

          But be that as it may, in treating elements of the law of Moses as a concession to hard hearts, and an act by Elijah as meriting the exclamation that the disciples don’t know what kind of spirit they are of (Luke 9:55) certainly does seem to place Jesus at odds with the alleged working of God as most understood the scriptures of Israel. I note that some manuscripts unsurprisingly omit those words in Luke, precisely because of that significance.

          • Realist1234

            ‘I think behind your comments is an assumption that if Jesus or the Gospel authors held a particular view, then we too must hold it, and do so in precisely the way that they did. I would suggest that that is not only not necessary, but not possible.’

            – no, there is no assumption behind my comments. I was specifically arguing that there is no evidence that ‘Jesus says that the Bible is so violent and bloody, not because it reveals what God is like (for only Jesus does that), but because it reveals what mankind is like.’ You haven’t provided any evidence to support that assertion. In fact it seems you have just done what you (wrongly) criticize me for, in saying ‘Jesus says…’ which you then hold to! But of course Jesus said no such thing as Ive shown.

            Regarding Moses, yes some instructions as given to the Israelites were indeed ‘concessions’, rather than God’s perfect will, but Im not suggesting otherwise. But that is quite different from asserting that some of the violence/destruction that occurred in OT times was not from God. It was always in judgement against man. It was man’s behaviour that lead to God’s judgement. But the act of judgement and the consequences were of God.

            Regarding Elijah, again Jesus rebuked His disciples because yet again they were showing their ignorance of His mission, which was primarily for salvation. He knew the cross was His path, and nothing else. I also do not see why it is of significance why most manuscripts do not have ‘just as Elijah did’. The implication is the same, concerning calling fire down from heaven. I do not know if James and John mentioned Elijah, though I wouldnt be surprised if they did as they had previously (in Luke just a few paragraphs before this) witnessed, along with Peter, Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. Given that experience, Elijah was no doubt still in their minds.

            Interestingly, just before this episode, when Jesus sent out His disciples to proclaim the kingdom, he told them to ‘shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them’ in any place where they were not welcomed. So to Jesus, judgement was real.

          • I plan on writing a blog post about this sometime soon, following up on the story. But for now, I would simply say that it is both naive and unrealistic to suggest that behind any human being’s comments, including your own, there are no assumptions being made…

          • Realist1234

            Perhaps, but then the same would apply to you!

          • Of course – who suggested otherwise?!