When I covered South Korea in the 1990s, the standards of accounting were so low that independent auditors, reviewing the annual results of the nation’s top conglomerates, issued disclaimers on them. In much the same way the Defense Department’s own inspector general every year declares the Pentagon’s murky financial statements to be incoherent, void of credibility.
It is time to apply a similar health warning to the bible. From the start, the Revealed Word exposes itself to be of specious authority and of a sloppy multiplicity of authorship. In Genesis, we are told the world was created in six days even though the sun did not appear until the third day, making the whole process of indeterminate length. We read that Adam will die the day he eats the fruit of the forbidden tree, only to learn a few chapters later that he and Eve live long, if somewhat hardscrabble lives after the Fall. To punish Cain, the eldest son of Adam and Eve, in perpetuity after he murders his brother Abel, God imposes a mark on the killer “to prevent anyone who finds him from slaying him.” It is an oddly gratuitous gesture given how, with Abel dead, Cain and his parents are the only ones left on Earth.
There is the account of the flood, clearly poached from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates the biblical version by generations, and the so-called Battle of Jericho as rendered in Joshua, when the Israelites on God’s command blared the city walls into rubble with their horns. This, despite overwhelming archeological evidence that not only did the walls not collapse under such conditions, there was never much in the way of walls to begin with.
Even the synoptic gospels of the New Testament betray profound differences in their interpretations of Christ’s ministry, death and ascension. There is reason to believe that all but a handful of the Pauline epistles were written, not by the apostle Paul himself, but by franchisees years after his death. In 1 Timothy, for example, Paul is to have instructed women to “learn in silence with full submission,” adding, “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man.” How to reconcile this with a sixth-century cave rendering in central Turkey depicting Paul celebrating mass alongside a woman, in this case St. Thecla? As biblical scholars John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed remarked in a 2004 book on early Christianity, “Pauline equality was negated by post-Pauline inequality.”
A recent book by Bart Ehrman further advances the theory of the bible as a politicized palimpsest. In his 2005 book “Misquoting Jesus: The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why,” Ehrman laid out forensic proof that much of the gospels were doctored by supplicants of an increasingly intolerant church. Now, in “Forgery and Counter-forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics,” he argues that a good share of the entire New Testament was retroactively distorted through selective edits and elaboration. In its journey from papyrus scrolls to Gutenberg’s printing press, it seems, the bible was transformed from a bundle of Bronze-age folkloric myths into a doctrinal canon enforced by an authoritarian and militantly sexist priesthood.
Here thoughtful readers may reasonably ask: What of it? Do not all religions embellish their narratives so as to more efficiently awe and manipulate their flock? What is Abraham’s god, after all, but a new species of deity objectified by religious elites in their image for the purpose of cultural hegemony?
The answer, as Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in a recent review of Ehrman’s book, is that “Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, is a ‘Religion of the Book’.” Or, put another way, they are particularly presumptuous scriptures of record. Unlike the more elastic sensibilities of Hinduism and Buddhism, the Hebrew god delights in his jealousy - so much so that his laws and man’s would inevitably collide. Thus the pledge to Abraham - “to your descendents I give this land [of Israel]” - however fabulist, becomes the seedbed for decades of ruinous war and dispossession. The jihadi slaughter that punctuate Joshua, Judges and I Samuel are claimed as precedent for the sectarian wars that devastate the Middle East today. For bible literalists in both East and West, Old Testament violence is not so much a tragedy as an obligation. (Think of American Christian Zionists who urge their sons to “fight for Israel” in preparation for the Second Coming.)
Earlier this month, Time magazine featured a story about two Israeli archeologists who determined that Abraham could not have employed a camel as the biblical accounts have it because domesticated dromedaries did not arrive in Mesopotamia until centuries after he lived. Having listed a host of similar biblical inaccuracies, the story concluded happily that the book’s hazy history was part of its charm. “We needn’t understand these accounts as literally true,” the story quotes one biblical scholar, “but they are very rich in meaning and interpretive power.”
Fair enough, but if the bible is a fable let’s call it one, the better to preempt those who would embrace parochial folklore and mythology as reference points for policy-making.