The Bible isn’t a divine text—it’s a messy history book

Published in The Gleaner on 12 Mar 2014 5 min read

Let’s assume there is a God.  What’s more, let’s assume he’s everything he’s cracked up to be—omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent.  Nothing misses Big Daddy, am I right?  Outasight.  He is alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the lion and the lamb, the dog’s bollocks and the cat’s pajamas, the only witness to every event in the history of the planet.  No problem.  Well, just one tiny nitpick—with such an impressive resume, what was so fascinating about a bunch of squabbling Arabian goat-herders?

The Bible, for the six billion of you who’ve never read it, is the definitive account of God’s obsession with the Iron Age land allocation of the Middle East, and the sky-high bill he ran up chatting with its inhabitants.  Clearly, it was his insecure teenager phase, which explains why he imitated the cool gods.  Zeus, Jupiter, Ra, Odin and Huitzilopochtli all had pet civilizations; why not Yahweh?  Maybe that’s why the world turns—it’s leftover momentum from that big spin he gave us, before his fat metaphysical finger landed on Persia.

Modern Christians tend to jettison the Old Testament like an early rocket stage

Whatever his reasons, he got very hands-on, spiting, smiting and Canaanite-ing his way to glory.  From leaving the sprinkler on for Noah to lighting the match in Gomorrah, God was living every generation like it was his last.  This angsty, adolescent God of the Old Testament poses a big problem for modern Christians, who tend to jettison it, like an early rocket stage, in favour of the more palatable New Testament.  You know, The Bible II—featuring Jesus Christ, superstar!

No matter how you slice it though, God wasn’t hiding behind mysterious ways.  He was large and in charge, knocking down Jericho and knocking up Mary.  But for the last forever, including all of visually recorded history, we’ve got…  nothing.  Nada.  Niente.  A couple of bleeding statues and Mother Teresa.  If this is the same guy, he either has the Guinness record for brooding silences, or them Israelites were some lying mother-farmers.

Which between you and me—a chasm of reason and evidence—is the truth.  Like the other 129 million books man has created, the Bible is just something people wrote to make sense of the world.  Nothing more, nothing less.  And when you’re ignorant of meteorology, medicine and macroeconomics, it’s tempting to reach, like Michelangelo’s Adam, for God.  They didn’t have David Attenborough and the BBC to explain plagues of locusts.

The Bible is the longest game of Chinese Telephone we’ve ever played

The Bible, far from being etched in stone, is in reality a somewhat arbitrary collection of stories originating from the 2nd century AD.  Collated from several sources, copied repeatedly by hand, translated from Hebrew into Greek into Latin into English, edited and annotated, reinterpreted and reinvented along the way, subject to the whims and politics of priests, kings and priest-kings for two millenia, it’s the longest game of Chinese Telephone we’ve ever played.  Whatever authority it started with has been diluted from wine into water.  Even today, the gospel truth depends on your denomination, with some texts accepted, some conveniently rejected, and others, like the Dead Sea scrolls rediscovered in 1948, simply forgotten.

And the source material was nothing to write Homer about, what with people turning into pillars of salt.  The original authors put local laws and embellished oral histories to papyrus—stories of migrations and famines, rules on cattle and women—and took licence with the rest.  For that reason, the Bible is a fascinating document, imperfectly preserving the beliefs and myths of bygone Mediterranean society.  Unaware we would later invent bookstores, it tried to be everything at once—genealogy record, celebrity biography, historical account, lifestyle guide and Lentil Soup for the Soul.

As for stories of Jesus, just as no religion now can compete without a website and a Twitter feed, no religion then could compete without a charismatic godman and some decent miracles.  All the cornerstones of Christianity—shepherds and stars and a manger, virgin mother, Sunday worship, twelve disciples, dream communication, symbolic eating of flesh and blood, the cross, resurrection during the winter solstice and so on—were borrowed without apology from older sungods and contemporary paganisms.  Those religions and deities, like Mithra, Glycon and Osiris-Dionysus, were beaten in the marketplace and then faded away, leaving the chronicles of the victor to become the bestselling book of all time, still moving 100 million copies a year.

Read the Bible if you want.  But for God’s sake, don’t put any faith in it.

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