Chapter 10. The scriptures–written by men and fixed in time.
There’s no surer way to make an atheist than to get someone to actually read scripture. PZ Myers
The Christian’s Bible is a drug-store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes. . . . During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church . . . gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. . . . There are no witches. The witch-text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell-fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain. Is it not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? Mark Twain
Changes in my lifetime.
Although I have lived only a short time, the world has changed enormously. When I was born, a dark-skinned man would have drunk at a “coloreds only” water fountain in some states, now a dark-skinned man, Barack Obama, is the President of the United States.
During my lifetime, laws limiting access to birth control were overturned and birth control changed from a crime to a right. Similarly, homosexuality has gone from being a crime and a disease, to a valid alternative lifestyle, with gays and lesbians having the right to marry in five states and the District of Colombia.
The role of women has changed in my lifetime. I remember it was odd to see women driving trucks or working in certain jobs. Now women are entering leadership roles in all areas of life.
Doctors have gone from promoting cigarettes to condemning them. An old ad used to read:
According to a recent nationwide survey, more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette! Family physicians, surgeons, diagnosticians, nose and throat specialists, doctors in every branch of medicine, a total of 113,597 doctors, were asked the question: ‘What cigarette do you smoke?’ And more of them named Camel as their smoke than any other cigarette! Three independent research groups found this to be a fact. You see, doctors too smoke for pleasure. That full Camel flavor is just as appealing to a doctor’s taste as to yours, that marvelous Camel mildness means just as much to his throat as to yours.
Carbon-dating methods now allow scientists to estimate with great accuracy the age of man-made artifacts. Genetic testing has proved the innocence of hundreds of people wrongfully convicted of crimes, and shown links between the tribes of man.
Telephones have gone from being rotary dialed boxes to mobile devices. Computers have shrunk from room-sized to pocket sized. The Internet has developed into a significant source of information and socialization.
When we look back at movies from 50 years ago, they seem quaint and antiquated. Many of the morals, values and ideas of 50 years ago are out of place today.
The same factor is multiplied when the time period is not fifty years, but thousands of years. The Torah, Bible and Koran are products of their times. Each was written by men and is fixed in time. The scriptures reflect the knowledge and values of their authors, and when they are used for modern guidance they act sort of like a time machine, inappropriately dragging outdated knowledge and values into the modern world.
The scriptures, written by men and fixed in time.
The scriptures that define the “people of the book” were written by men and remain fixed in time. For example, if two thousand years ago, the Bible recorded facts not then known, there might be reason for inquiry into whether it contains some otherworldly knowledge. But in fact, two thousand years ago people believed the sun rotated around the earth and the men who wrote the Bible recorded the belief of their time. Other stories demonstrate that the Bible’s authors thought the earth is flat like a pancake. When the scriptures were written, there were no airplanes, no spaceships and no meteorologists. Flying was the stuff of legend, reserved for characters like Mohammed and his winged horse. Clouds looked fairly solid from the ground and the bearded man lived somewhere above them. The Bible says a tall ladder could reach heaven, and god “sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” Just as one would expect from a book written by men, the earth was perceived as the center of the universe with the sun circling it. God lived in the sky above the earth. Very few Americans act as if the earth is the center of the universe or that god lives above the clouds, yet almost three quarters of them follow a book written by men who thought that way.
Similarly, in accordance with the knowledge and values of men at the time it was written, the Bible endorses slavery. The Bible says:
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
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If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
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If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.
The biblical endorsement of slavery is not only found in the Old Testament. It continues in the New Testament:
All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers. Instead, they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them. These are the things you are to teach and urge on them.
Perhaps progressive when written, the Bible verses about slavery are abhorrent today. The Koran similarly endorses slavery. Slavery is now universally condemned. Religionists would like to ignore the endorsement of slavery in their scriptures, however, it remains there, a product of the men who wrote the book and the beliefs of their times.
The Bible also endorses human and animal sacrifice. Many people are familiar with the story of Abraham and his son, found in Genesis 22:1-18. In that story, god supposedly told Abraham to, “take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” At the last minute, the story goes, god let Abraham off the hook and let him burn a ram instead of his son.
But not all human sacrifice stories in the Bible end up with cooked animals. In the story of Jephthah, in a trade for a victory in battle, the “hero” agrees to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house on his return. In this case, it is his only child, whom he grants a reprieve of two months before making the human sacrifice:
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”
“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said, “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”
“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed.
This story exhibits the fact both that the Bible was written by men and that it is fixed in time. Human and animal sacrifice are not accepted in modern culture, neither is treating girls as little better than animals to be sacrificed in the name of god. But religionists are stuck with these inflexible tales.
Another example is that when the Bible stories were made up, genetics was an unknown science. So the authors had little trouble having all human life originating with a single human, Adam, less than ten thousand years ago. Further, the story tellers had no problem wiping out all humans on earth other than Noah, his three sons and their spouses, again limiting the gene pool around four thousand years ago. Little did the authors know that the stories would be disproved by genetics.
The Noah story raises some fun issues. In that story, god, being angry, had no problem killing all life, including children and animals. But he apparently liked fish, since they would have been spared in a flood. In addition, Noah took no plants on the boat, so what happened to the trees? In fact, the oldest dendrochronology (tree ring dating) now goes back 12,000 years–long before Noah’s supposed flood, and long before the Bible admits to the earth’s creation. The animals Noah supposedly brought on his boat included “every creature that moves along the ground . . . and every bird . . . [and] everything with wings” The authors of the story were unfamiliar with the vast array of life in the world, such as creatures in distant places like Australia and the Americas. How did the kangaroo and slow-moving koala get from Australia to the Middle East? Speaking of slow-moving animals, how did the sloth cross the ocean from South America? How did Noah collect and house god’s favorite creature (since he made so many of them) the beetle, of which there are more than 350,000 species? What provisions were made for the millions of species of microbes–unknown by the men of that time?
All fun aside, the holy books were written by men and reflect the knowledge and values of their time. The Torah, Bible and Koran act as a kind of time machine. They drag forward knowledge and values that belong in the past. Provisions about slavery and animal sacrifice are selectively ignored, but scriptural sexism, homophobia and tribalism are alive and well. It is crazy to allow books written years ago and limited by the knowledge of men of that time, to have so much power over life today.