Misunderstandings

A commonly held opinion expressed on the internet goes more or less as follows: “The bible is a poorly translated transcription of poorly translated oral history and folk legends told by stone age goat herders plagiarized from the religious texts of ancient Egypt and Babylon.”

If you think this is right, then I’ve got news for you: you’re both gullible and closer to being an ignorant goat herder than any biblical author.

1. Where the Bible came from:

David was famously a shepherd, but then he also became a soldier and later the king of Israel. Other professions show up among the scriptural authors. Paul was a rabbi, Peter, James and John operated fishing boats that they used to catch fish in large nets. So far as we can tell, none of the biblical authors were noted for being goat herders. None of them were notably ignorant: after all, they could read and write well and they used rather complex narrative and poetic techniques. All that being said, most of the Old Testament authors are actually unknown, so perhaps some of them were rather literate, well-educated goat herders.

Modern scholars do not believe that the Bible was plagiarized from the religious texts of ancient Egypt and Babylon. In fact, the one culture and religious documents that the Israelites clearly did not make use of were the Egyptian documents. For instance, one of the better known of the Egyptian creation stories has the god creating the human race by masturbating. Not quite like anything we see in Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible.

But certainly there is a common cultural heritage between some of the Old Testament materials and the civilizations of Mesopotamia (of which Babylon was one), but most scholars think that is more a consequence of common heritage rather than from any copying from one another. In some cases, the biblical materials are actually consciously criticizing some of the well-known Mesopotamian stories. For instance, the creation narrative of Genesis is a conscious attack on one of the prevailing and popular Babylonian mythologies of the time known as Enuma Elish. Where the Babylonian creation epic posits gods in conflict who created humans as slaves, the Genesis account presents the gods of the Babylonian myth–the Deep (Babylonian Tiamat), the sun, moon and stars–not as gods, but as inanimate objects created by God. Meanwhile, human beings are made not as slaves, but in the image and likeness of God. God then gives the world to humanity to rule over it.

2. Translation and transmission of the texts:

The Bible has better manuscript evidence than any other ancient text, with thousands of copies floating around. There was no grand conspiracy, no control over them, no fiddling or voting on their contents. The books that make up the Old Testament were originally written in either Hebrew or a closely related language, Aramaic. An early translation into Greek was completed around 200 BC. Until 1946/1947, the oldest complete Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Old Testament dated to about 1000 AD. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946/1947, scholars suddenly had at their disposal texts a thousand or more years older than any biblical texts they had up until that point. Guess what? The texts are virtually identical. What’s different? Mostly the spelling, here and there. And the Dead Sea texts are not restricted or suppressed. You can go into any library just about and get them in photographic reproduction or translated. For that matter, you can see them all online at The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library without even leaving your chair.

As to translation, the Bible is not poorly translated. Quite the opposite. There have been numerous translations made over the years and new ones come out all the time. It has, in fact, been translated multiple times into just about every language on the planet. Additionally, most Catholic priests, rabbis and protestant ministers have been trained in the languages of the Bible themselves. The Bible is as well translated as any other work of literature. Certainly some things will get lost in translation—like the puns—but that hardly makes them bad translations. Or do you insist that one can read Goethe only in the original German and Tolstoy only in the original Russian and Homer only in the original Greek, and … well, you get the picture. And the translations differ among themselves in the same way that translations of Homer, Tolstoy, Dante or Gothe differ among themselves. Chances are, if you want to read Dante, you’re better off choosing a recent translation than one from the time of Shakespeare, unless you, for some reason, have a hankering for Elizabethan English. Same goes for translations of the Bible. The still popular King James Version (made in 1611) can be a tough slog for a 21st century English speaker. Just saying.

3. The Bible is misogynistic, encourages slavery, and encourages violence and human sacrifice

Because, says our enlightened and well versed critic who imagines goat herders wrote complex poetry: look at all the stories that have douchebags in it doing those horrible things.

Um.

The science fiction author Larry Niven once got a letter from a reader excoriating him for what some of the characters said and did in one of his books and accused him of being a horrible person. Niven responded: “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot’.” Those who criticize the Bible as if it advocates murder, rape, female oppression, slavery and the like are the sort of people that fit the technical, literary term Niven so aptly applied to his own critics. Now I suppose, for example, that one could read the story about the Levite who allows his wife to be raped and murdered and then chops her into twelve parts (see Judges 19-20), not as a horrible indictment of the anarchy that existed in pre-monarchical Israel, but instead, contrary to all reasonableness, as an instruction manual on how women wish to be treated. But I suspect most people, your average reader, would get the actual point of the story. Those who don’t—well, Niven already explained their problem.

Likewise, slavery is not encouraged in the Bible, though the Bible does mention slavery quite a bit: after all, the Israelites spent some 480 years as slaves in Egypt. And they didn’t seem to much enjoy it. Which may have colored their perception of the institution. Thus, slavery is portrayed as an evil, while getting freed from slavery is recognized as a really good thing–and those who failed to free their slaves tended to get criticized. The image of slavery is subsequently used in the Bible as a metaphor for slavery to sin–and just as God freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, so He can free people from sin and death. Even the theological term “redemption” used in the New Testament (in Greek) means “to be set free from slavery.”

And yeah, Abraham admittedly tries to sacrifice his son Isaac. Try being the operative term. God doesn’t let him actually do it. And the Bible more than a few times later condemns human sacrifice in the harshest terms.

If you read the Bible like Niven’s idiot, then yeah, you can make it out to be a horrible misogynistic, anti-human book. Otherwise, not so much.

4. The Bible contradicts modern science; it says that the world and universe were created 10,000 years ago, that the world is flat, and that the sun goes around the earth

Um, no.

The point of the creation narrative in Genesis (see above) was to attack and criticize the prevailing myths of the time (especially the Babylonian Enuma Elish) and to argue that there was but one God, who made people to rule over the earth, who are all related, and that the one God was everyone’s God, not limited to only one geographic spot or one particular group of people. Despite those who wish to argue otherwise, the Bible doesn’t actually say anything about how or when the universe was made.

Likewise, the Bible doesn’t discuss cosmology, biology, electronics, carburetor repair, whether you should prefer the products of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or many of the other things seem to be such a focus of so many. The Bible’s primary focus throughout, as Jesus would later tell an inquirer (see Matthew 22, among other spots), was to teach people to love each other and to love God.

So it’s really not so complicated—except that Bible uses stories to make its point, and the stories, unsurprisingly, are made up of both good guys and bad guys and lots of bad stuff happens as well as good stuff (stories tend to capture the interest of readers more if there is some conflict, maybe some violence, even some explosions, like Sodom and Gomorrah or the bad guys getting swallowed up by the earth opening beneath their feet). Only a, uh, idiot would imagine that the point of the Bible was to encourage people to do the bad stuff. Do you read Orwell’s 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale and think, “yeah, 1984 is a how-to guide for totalitarians, and the author of the Handmaid’s Tale thinks women should be oppressed and be used only for breeding purpose.

The Bible is a work of literature. It uses the same sorts of techniques as any other literature. I’m not sure why this is so hard for people to grasp. But then, some people really are idiots. So I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not as if no one ever misread any other book, magazine article, or newspaper story, never misunderstood a speech, or pulled a politicians words out of context. And I suppose people even, as hard as it is to imagine, misunderstand and misinterpret the clear words of their spouses, children, parents, friends, bosses, and employees. Who knew?

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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