You may be familiar with Sellar and Yeatman’s wonderful work 1066 and All That, and if you aren’t you should go out and find a copy. It parodies a certain style of history and suggests that we might think we know history, but what we actually remember is a jumbled mishmash of contradictory stories, consisting of half-understood folk accounts of famous events stitched together with fragments of misremembered or invented details that seem to fit.
You may not be surprised to know that this is also true of our understanding of the Bible.
It’s trivial to show that people get very hazy about what’s actually in the Bible – just see how commonly people identify a phrase’s origin as “either Shakespeare or the Bible”, or look at the enormous number of websites addressing this or hosting quizzes asking you to tell the difference. And then there are the phrases and concepts which are constantly thought to be in the Bible, even though they aren’t. Pope Benedict XVI had a good old rant about that.
So what, you say – a lot of those beliefs are common understandings based on tradition, or derived from jokes, or whatever. Which is precisely the point. These ideas are a form of folk tradition, just like the general popular consensus parodied by Sellar and Yeatman that King John was a Bad King, Richard II was an Unbalanced King, and Williamanmary was a Dutch Orange who was a Good King and also a Good Thing.
And so people think the Bible says things it doesn’t, from outright inventions like “God helps those who help themselves” to the apple in the Garden of Eden (the fruit isn’t identified – maybe it was a Dutch Orange), and all the way through to the popular notion of “the antichrist”, a being associated with horns and 666, and apparently formed from many distinct concepts from the Bible.
This gets really interesting in the context of the Gospels, where there may be several different accounts of a particular event, or possibly more than one with passing similarity. These different versions are consistently conflated and harmonised into an apparently unified story that contradicts all of the different accounts in one way or another. The order of events is changed, different people are present, and different things are said and done. Popular accounts of the crucifixion in particular tend towards a hybrid narrative not found in any single Gospel.
One striking example is Jesus being anointed by the woman in Bethany. It’s a well-known story – Jesus is having a meal, when a woman comes along with a huge quantity of expensive perfume and anoints him with it. No one seems bothered, but Judas throws a hissy fit at this outrageous extravagance, runs off and shops Jesus to the authorities. Simple enough, but this account is contradicted by all the Gospels in one way or another.
Matthew and Mark say lots of people objected at the time, Luke says only the host objected, and John has no mention of Judas’s immediate betrayal. They disagree on all the other significant details as well. Matthew and Mark say the woman anointed Jesus’s head, Luke and John say feet. Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree the host was called Simon, but Matthew and Mark call him a leper, while Luke says he was a Pharisee. John, in contrast, says Jesus was visiting the recently not-dead Lazarus.
Only John mentions a name for the woman, calling her Mary. Luke adds an exchange in which Jesus preaches to his host about the importance of gratitude while also complaining that he wasn’t treated like royalty when he arrived. Matthew and Mark appear to have a common origin, but Mark puts a price and a name to the perfume which only otherwise appear in John. Just as with 1066 and All That, these complications are smoothed over to create a new, simpler narrative that ends up as the accepted orthodoxy.
It would be rather fun to rewrite some stories in this style, especially as there are lots of Bad Kings in the Old Testament. Add it to the list of ideas I’d like to explore one day.
I love Monty Python. I used to watch it from an early age, laughing like a drain, and there was a time when I could recite pretty much any sketch on demand. I think I must own just about every Python DVD there is, but I don’t watch them very often these days, because I know it all. Just reading through the description of a show is usually enough, and it’s familiar enough without needing to watch it.
But sometimes I put one on anyway, and it usually surprises me. Just the smallest detail that I’d forgotten about can be incredibly arresting, all the more so when I thought I knew what was coming. It might be Conquistador Coffee, a Man Who Speaks in Anagrams or the Italian Lesson, but I can be caught out by a forgotten sketch or even a line. However much of a fan I am, I never quite know it all.
That’s how I sometimes feel about the Bible. I’ve read it all, I’ve spent a lot of my life studying it, and I often feel like it’s got no more to offer me. But just occasionally, it still has the capacity to take my breath away.
I’ve attended enough church weddings in my life, in various capacities, to have heard more readings from 1Corinthians 13 than I care to remember. I’ve heard it read in ways that were moving, monotonous or just hammy, but however it’s read, I’ve heard it more than enough. It became my only non-negotiable when I got married – I wasn’t having that reading under any circumstances.
Despite that, and my irritation at the way it’s so often understood to refer to romantic love, I have to admit that it’s a brilliant passage. Along with the description from Galatians of the Fruit of the Spirit, it’s something that attracts me like a siren call, holding out an image of who I could be, and how I ought to behave.
When I’m under pressure or feeling irritable (like recently, when I was organising a birthday party for small children), I keep coming back to passages like this. Despite everything, they have a deep significance to me, and inspire me to be a better person in a way that’s unlike anything else. I recognise the description, and I want to be that person.
Image courtesy of Billy Alexander, used with permission
So God told Joshua to go to Jericho, but there were some other people living there already, who God didn’t like so much, so He genocided them out of the way, which just shows how much He loves us, doesn’t it, children?
My boys have a fairly large collection of Bible stories in one form or another, all written for or targeted towards young children. These various books all tell the same handful of stories in their own way, and it’s astonishing to see just how many of those stories are fundamentally unpleasant – tales of murder, genocide, death and destruction. Here’s a sample of the most common stories:
Jonah – God sends a message to the city of Nineveh, ordering them to worship Him or face the consequences. His chosen messenger objects and flees, not because of a moral objection to violent coercion, but because he wants those nasty foreigners wiped out and fears that if he delivers the message, they’ll end up worshipping his God. So God has him swallowed by an enormous fish until Jonah comes round to His way of thinking.
David and Goliath – A delightful war story for tiny tots, this heartwarming tale tells of how an entire army was scared of taking on an enemy giant, but no one seemed to mind sending a young boy to face him. So David came to be a war hero by killing a man in single combat. And then the rest of the Philistine army was brutally slaughtered.
Daniel – Held captive in a foreign country, a young man is condemned to be eaten by lions. But God saved him in the end, so that’s not really so bad, is it?
Walls of Jericho – God chooses somewhere for the Jews to live, but unfortunately some people are living there already. So He arranges to make the walls of the city collapse so that the inhabitants can be slaughtered.
Noah’s Ark – An old children’s favourite. The jolly story of how God decided He’d screwed up first time round and put too much evil in the mix, so attempted to purify His perfect creation by drowning all but 8 people. Oh, and some animals. Look, animals! Nice, fluffy, cute animals…
Many parents, especially Christians, are very worried about young children being exposed to violence and disturbing themes in books and on TV, but for some reason those parents seem to positively encourage exposure to Bible stories that are far worse. Interestingly, though, while murder and genocide are fun for the whole family, Bible stories which involve sex don’t get a mention – clearly, that would be entirely inappropriate!
Whether you’re a literalist or not, why would you think these were suitable stories for young children? No one would consider genocide and murder to be bedtime reading in any other context, whether the stories are fact or fiction. As ever, it seems that horrific acts become innocuous and even charitable when God does them.
But I’m not prepared to give God a free pass. I’m no fan of Mary Whitehouse or her methods, but it’s fascinating to consider what she might have made of the Bible if she’d approached it in the same way as the many publications and broadcasts she complained about. So I’m going to start a new project to investigate that question, called the Blue Pencil Bible.
Have you ever tried to zoom in on a digital picture to examine some detail or other? I did once, out of curiosity, and was astonished at the results. At normal size, the picture looked like it was as detailed as you could wish, but even at double magnification, you can clearly see pixellation. Zoom in much further, and it barely looks like a picture at all, more a collection of coloured blocks. Looking closely at the detail shows that the picture isn’t nearly as detailed and precise as you might have thought.
All of which is a very dodgy analogy to lead into another moan about religion. The Bible makes all sorts of claims which look harder and harder to believe in the more you examine the details and practicalities. I couldn’t honestly say whether I ever believed them in a strictly literal sense, because I tried not to think too hard about them, but I was never all that worried about treating them as holy mysteries. When I started thinking about the detailed hows, whats and whys, though, it broke the spell and they stopped making any sense at all.
Starting from the beginning, the virgin birth. Ecumenical Christian theology is that Jesus is God’s son, “begotten, not created”. Leaving aside the mindboggling mechanics of the conception (possibly the one time when crying out “Oh God” during sex might be entirely appropriate), we can rule out parthenogenesis due to Jesus’s sex, so where does the additional DNA come from? Does God the Father have DNA? Wouldn’t that make him a part of His own creation, rendering the incarnation unnecessary? But if God doesn’t have DNA, it either belongs to someone else, or it was specially created, either of which is a theological no-no.
Maybe you don’t see the problem, so how about some miracles? I’ve mentioned before that I remember being baffled when I was about 7 (before growing up and learning to ignore the obvious) by the feeding of the 5,000. How did it work? What would you have seen if you’d been standing there, watching? Was it like a sleight of hand every time Jesus broke a bit off? In fact, the question in all of these cases comes down to this: what would the theoretical “perfect observer” actually see? Put in those terms, I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer to any of these questions.
Or how about Jesus’s resurrected body? We’re told it was a physical body, not just a spiritual one. That would be consistent with the claims that people touched him and he ate food (does this mean he also used the toilet?), but he still had his wounds, so why wasn’t he still dead? Was he a reanimated corpse? And physical bodies don’t tend to walk through walls or look unrecognisable for unexplained reasons. But then, if he could walk through walls, who rolled the stone away and why? This all leads me into thought processes reminiscent of the explanation of why Jesus was not a zombie. (Warning, satire!)
And then there’s what might be termed the “werewolf problem”. Werewolves don’t wear clothes as wolves (obviously!), but when they become human again, that means they’re naked and have to find clothes, because naked humans tend to attract attention. So when Jesus was resurrected, and left his graveclothes neatly folded, what did he wear? Did he skulk behind bushes like a character in a dodgy sitcom until he found a house where someone had carelessly left clothes out to dry? The thought amuses me, but it doesn’t exactly sound like a triumphant resurrection.
Finally, my favourite, what happened at the ascension? Luke, generally claimed as the most sober, factual evangelist and almost universally regarded as the author of Acts, records the event as Jesus literally rising into the sky, until he was hidden by a cloud. This is still regarded as mainstream doctrine, despite the obvious problems. If he just rose in the air, where did he go to? Did he hide behind a cloud so he could disappear, or is he still heading straight up at the same rate, stuck in space and expecting to find heaven just around the next asteroid?
Any explanation that takes this story literally quickly boils down to either deceit or absurdity. Rising in the air is either for a cheap effect, followed by something less dramatic out of sight, or else it leaves the resurrected Christ drifting in space. No doubt he can manage without oxygen, being God and dead already, but he certainly won’t have got very far since then. If he was travelling at 10mph, for example, he’d only be twice as far away as the Sun after 2,000 years, so maybe we should send a probe to look for him. And interestingly, if he intends to come back the same way, as the Bible claims, a spot of careful observation would give us plenty of advance warning.
Of course, it’s possible that the problem lies with the doctrine that’s been imposed on the accounts – I notice that much of the time, the problem is exacerbated (or even created) by doctrinal claims. Strangely, it seems that a substantial number of people are quite happy to belong to a church which tells them things they think are just daft, so maybe there’s no incentive for the church to restrict its claims to the realms of reality or common sense.
Of course, if anyone could provide some actual detail on how these things are meant to work, I’d look at that, but if extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, that should include at least a nod to the mechanics, rather than a shrug and an attempt to protect the modesty of incoherent beliefs with a veil of mystery.
Considering that everyone agrees on what the Bible contains (give or take a few disagreements around the margins), it’s amazing how much disagreement there is about how to interpret it, and the overall message of the book. That’s not just down to a small lunatic fringe – whole denominations have entirely different understandings of what passages mean and what to do about it, and are convinced that they’re right. Even literalists who would argue that every word is God’s unambiguous holy writ are capable of disagreeing with each other, and I’ve yet to meet one who treats Matthew 26:26 as the unambiguously literal text he/she claims the Bible is.
All over the world, people seem to be reading very different things in the Bible. Conservatives see a stern, vengeful God. Liberals see a fluffy, cuddly, inclusive God. Both either explain away or simply ignore passages which disagree with their basic interpretation. Politically, it’s claimed as support for left-wing and right-wing policies. Famously, the basic message Margaret Thatcher took from the parable of the Good Samaritan was that the Samaritan was only good and helpful because he had money.
And then there are all those people with books to sell, who are convinced (quite genuinely, I’m sure) that there’s clear evidence in the Bible of previously concealed gnostic revelations, from the Bible Code and various numerologists to Jesus having an affair with John (the disciple whom he loved). Given a bit of work, it seems that you can make a case for almost any interpretation of the text, even if you’re the only one who’s convinced. (See my post on Genesis for an example)
I’ve got a theory that how you interpret the Bible, like what you see in a Rorschach inkblot, says a lot about you. Now that the standard inkblots and common interpretations have been published, creating fears that it may be possible to “cheat” in a test, maybe the Bible could be used instead.