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The Bible as Myth and History
Posted: 16 November 2009 07:21 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Just a couple of thoughts:


The story of Cain & Abel -

In this story both Cain & Abel make sacrifices to god..  God accepts Abel’s sacrifice of the sheep and refuses Cain’s sacrifice of crops of the field.  Cain then murders (or possibly sacrifices) Abel and while condemned is protected from revenge by this same god.  Then he goes on to found urban culture.
 
It would appear to me that this is very likely a myth from the very early period of the founding of agriculture, when humans were just beginning to construct settled communities, showing the conflict between the two life styles and over time showing the success of settled communities over the previous hunting bands.


Abraham and Isaac

In this story god stepped in and stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac his first born son.  I hear many of us non-believers use this story to condemn religion, because god had first demanded the sacrifice and Abraham was going along with it to demonstrate his loyalty to god.  I have a different slant on this,  from discussion with some scholars of this particular t culture, it seems that human sacrifice was not unknown at this time,  and IMO the purpose of this “myth” may very well have been to stop the practice and therefore a huge step forward for civilization.

While I may or may not be correct in these particular speculations,  my point is the book we know as the Bible is one of the great achievements of humanity.  Even though it is often misused to the point of disrespect by certain religious (particularly fundamentalist Christian groups and yes it has a religious bias, but so did the whole of middle-eastern civilization at the time it was written.  Read as recorded oral history it can give us many glimpses of the founding of our civilization. It has many of the basic principles of justice and duty to our fellow humans at its core.  Therefore IMO it is much to valuable of a collection to just be trashed as “supernatural nonsense.”  It is a tremendous collection of the human experience, as expressed in the terms of the various times it was written and the purposes for which its various parts were written.

Okay you can come and get me know, just remember -  All the gods and all religions were created by humans to accomplish human purposes and achieve human ends.

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All the Gods and all religions are created by humans, to meet human needs and accomplish human ends.

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Posted: 16 November 2009 08:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’m not impressed with its importance as a record of civilization. There are earlier writings by Romans, Greeks, Chinese, the entire library of Alexandria which was destroyed, that are more important. Our laws are not based on biblical text, but rather Roman law. Pre-Christian Rome also had more to do with our civilization. Even Charlamange had more to do with the formation of civilization as we know it now BEFORE his conversion to christianity. We have so much pre-biblical text that refutes much of what is in the bible, although it also supports some of the events…..to a degree. The importance of the text is only the importance our society attaches to it.
We don’t stone adulteresses.
We don’t give out daughters our to be raped.
We don’t sacrifice our children.
We don’t sell our daughters.
We don’t break the heads of infants on the stones.
We don’t send a ferocious she-bear to eat children who have teased someone.
We don’t kill every person in the world by sending an impossible flood on a whim.

My mother used to tell me that we could justify everything we do, good or bad, by using the bible. And she was right.
http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Sermon_on_the_mount

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Posted: 16 November 2009 08:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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garythehuman - 16 November 2009 07:21 PM

...my point is the book we know as the Bible is one of the great achievements of humanity.

No. Not even close. The Bible is nothing more than a collection of myths taken from earlier religions. As literature it is largely plagiarism. As history it is wrong on almost every page. As allegory it is a tale of a childish, petulant, evil deity. Calling it “one of the great achievements of humanity” is nonsense.

You want great achievements? Greek Mythology is better reading. Shakespeare has more to teach on the human condition. Newton ushered in the age of modern science. I’ll take the poetry of Bob Dylan over the Song of Solomon any day of the week. Mark Twain was funnier than anything in the Bible. NASA put men on the moon. Several modern philosophers have much better treatises on ethics and morality than the immoral ideas in the Bible. Mathematics is a great achievement. Music may be mankind’s only unique invention. Other species may find the same physical laws as us, but I bet they won’t Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Stoning homosexuals is not a great thing. Sending your best friend on a suicide mission so you can get his wife in bed, as recorded of King David in the Bible, is not my idea of greatness. Singing songs about how happy we’ll be when we bash our enemy’s babies against the rocks is not great. The Bible is not a great achievement, it is merely a disparate collection of religious texts that loosely banded desert dwelling tribes collected over the centuries. It borrows heavily from each civilization the Jewish tribes contacted, while claiming to be the inerrant holy word of the creator of the universe. The Bible is not a great achievement, it is a malignant cancer. The Judeo/Christian/Islamic religion is immoral to its core, and its core is the Bible.

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Posted: 16 November 2009 09:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I agree with fotobits. I have personally never been a big fan of the Bible as a work of literature. I will always prefer the writing of Seneca, for example, who lived around the time of Jesus, and the Epic of Gilgamesh from the earlier times, which reads much nicer than the messy Old Testament. That said, I do like the story of two sons in Matthew, but that’s about it.

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Posted: 16 November 2009 09:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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You certainly can’t use it as a behavioral guide! It often contradicts itself after several ‘verses’.

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Posted: 16 November 2009 09:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Re Cain and Abel:  The story of the sacrifices, and much of Genesis, is a retelling of the older Hellenic myths of Prometheus.  In the earlier telling, Prometheus (the Titan who created and befriended mankind) helps men by tricking the Olympian Gods into turning down a useful sacrifice of grain and vegetables, and accepting a worthless, but delicious smelling, sacrifice of roast hide, bones and fat. 

I did a quick write-up of it here:  http://skepticalperspectives.blogspot.com/

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Posted: 17 November 2009 05:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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fotobits - 16 November 2009 08:26 PM

No. Not even close. The Bible is nothing more than a collection of myths taken from earlier religions. As literature it is largely plagiarism. As history it is wrong on almost every page. As allegory it is a tale of a childish, petulant, evil deity. Calling it “one of the great achievements of humanity” is nonsense.

Well, this is too strong a conclusion. The Bible does contain masses of original material, especially once you look past Genesis. “Plagiarism”, anyhow, is not the right model for how literature was routinely borrowed and repurposed throughout antiquity, by every culture. And while Biblical history is clearly completely fictional in the earliest books, much of the history of the latter Israelite kingdoms is considered at least reasonably correct, as I understand it.

It’s more of an uneven work of literature, IMO. There is plenty of dead boring, digressive stuff, e.g., all the descriptions of the tabernacle and sacrificial rites, as well as the silly and often horrid laws, not to mention the whacked out nonsense of the latter prophets. But there are also some very well written pieces of literature as well, e.g., the stories of Joseph and King David, and I’m quite partial to Ecclesiastes, which barely mentions God at all.

What it’s not, of course, is a book teaching us anything much about morality. Yhwh’s personality, part of what makes him such a great character, is that he’s clearly so evil. Now, that does make taking it impossible to take as a book displaying the moral rectitude of God. But OTOH it does make it good literature.

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Posted: 17 November 2009 05:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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garythehuman - 16 November 2009 07:21 PM

Abraham and Isaac

In this story god stepped in and stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac his first born son.  I hear many of us non-believers use this story to condemn religion, because god had first demanded the sacrifice and Abraham was going along with it to demonstrate his loyalty to god.  I have a different slant on this,  from discussion with some scholars of this particular t culture, it seems that human sacrifice was not unknown at this time,  and IMO the purpose of this “myth” may very well have been to stop the practice and therefore a huge step forward for civilization. 

That’s OK if the story is clearly understood as a myth and a cultural artifact. The problem is that most people want to salvage the story and its concept of God simultaneously. There is no salvaging a “God” who would ask a father to make a human sacrifice of his son. The ends cannot be brought together: the moral and immoral elements cannot be reconciled.

garythehuman - 16 November 2009 07:21 PM

While I may or may not be correct in these particular speculations,  my point is the book we know as the Bible is one of the great achievements of humanity. 

What do you claim was achieved? What will you acknowledge were the costs?

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Posted: 17 November 2009 10:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The problem is that most people want to salvage the story and its concept of God simultaneously.

This is an important point.  Important enough that it deserves data to back it up.  I can’t find that data.  I can find surveys that show an unsettling number of Americans believe in Hell, or God, or that the Bible is inerrant, but surveys can’t tell you if those people understand what they are saying.  Surveys don’t take time to define those terms.  I don’t have the data either, other than anecdotal evidence from people who, once they started to really study the Bible, became atheists.  I’m not sure how you can even collect that data, although the general trend toward atheism over the past few decades speaks for itself. 

So, what about people, like me, who want to salvage something, who studied the Bible and felt it wasn’t all bad?  A lot of the comments above are responses to those who believe in an inerrant Bible, or a consistent God story.  I find much of anti-religious sentiment to be directed toward that.  But what about those who weren’t looking at it that way in the first place?  Like the original question in this post? 

I think there are a lot of people going to church right now who are not fundamentalist.  I think that will continue to increase.  I took the basic course for Lay Speaker this weekend, and the only person there who was anywhere near fundamentalist was one of the leaders. At one point he asked, “what is the most important thing in your life right now”.  Most of us said something along the lines of family.  He said, “it’s Jesus” then made a speech, while we just stared at him and waited for him to move on.  And these were people interested in church leadership, not just Christmas/Easter Christians.

The recent phenomenon of church participation has been that young people get fed up with their old clergy and quit.  Then they have kids and wonder how they are going to raise them, sometimes choosing to return to church.  That was not a strong movement and does not appear to be continuing, but I think the underlying question of how to teach morality still remains.  Obviously there are many good sources to do that, and there are many poor practices throughout Christian history that we should abandon.  My stand is that the Bible has a place in those teaches, if it is used correctly.  It could take a while to figure what “correct” is.

Sorry this is going a little long, what I really wanted to add to Gary’s list ( a good start IMHO), is the NT.  What other mythology has a story like Jesus?  Virgin birth - stolen, resurrection - nothing new, historical inaccuracy - okay. Not important to me.  Gods have come down in human form in many myths, but are they completely human, to the point that they doubt themselves?  Do they accept their fate of a violent death and tell their followers not to fight?  Do they act as healers and teachers or as warriors?  Do they engage and debate their leaders?  The Passion narrative has all of that, making it a pretty rich story, worth passing on.

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Posted: 17 November 2009 10:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Lausten - 17 November 2009 10:13 AM

What other mythology has a story like Jesus?  Virgin birth - stolen, resurrection - nothing new, historical inaccuracy - okay. Not important to me.  Gods have come down in human form in many myths, but are they completely human, to the point that they doubt themselves?  Do they accept their fate of a violent death and tell their followers not to fight?  Do they act as healers and teachers or as warriors?  Do they engage and debate their leaders?  The Passion narrative has all of that, making it a pretty rich story, worth passing on.

Every mythological story has some features to it that are unique, and sure, I agree that it should be passed on, although not taken as “gospel”, as they say. The story of Jesus is basically the story of a late Jewish prophet who believed that the apocalypse would come and usher in a new anointed Jewish ruler (the “messiah”, along the lines of King David) for the end of days, and that it would happen in the lifetimes of his followers. As such he was a minor figure, interesting but deluded.

With that came a lot of fake magic tricks, fake exercises in healing that abound in the Gospels, etc. It’s telling that Jesus was least effective in his home town, where presumably people were most familiar with him. The problem is that so much of Jesus’s story depends on the magic tricks, the supernatural elements. And I don’t find that particularly laudable or interesting; it’s sort of the opposite of a human interest story, more like an ex post facto attempt at marketing the movement by his followers.

Just to take one other option around the same time period, I think the mythology of early Buddhism is significantly more compelling and interesting. But maybe that’s just me.

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Posted: 17 November 2009 11:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Actually, Doug, even Leviticus is rewritten for the Hebrew culture and came from the Hammurabi.  The more you dig, you find there really isn’t anything original in the Bible, not even in the N.T.  The only thing different is that it is written to a specific cultural, adding various places and alike that they can relate to, to appeal or what have you to that culture.

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Posted: 17 November 2009 11:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Lausten, where could we expect to get the data, considering that the point is the holding of contradictory ideas simultaneously. People aren’t going to report that. I don’t have studies but I have observed it, repeatedly.

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Posted: 17 November 2009 11:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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The problem is that so much of Jesus’s story depends on the magic tricks, the supernatural elements. And I don’t find that particularly laudable or interesting; it’s sort of the opposite of a human interest story, more like an ex post facto attempt at marketing the movement by his followers.

Just to take one other option around the same time period, I think the mythology of early Buddhism is significantly more compelling and interesting. But maybe that’s just me.

Thomas Jefferson would disagree about the magic tricks, as well as many Unitarian Univeralists.  Jefferson was so bothered by the miracles, that he removed them and created his own version of the gospels, and still found it valuable. I agree the stories were at least enhanced, if not completely made-up ex post facto, but why? Why did the writers want to market the stories? My guess is it had to do a lot with how he died. Many leaders have spoken a message of peace, but he lived it right up to the end, at least that is the story.

Even the resurrection was likely tacked on later. The earliest manuscripts of the earliest written gospel, Mark, only say that he had risen.  The stories of him walking around and talking to people came later. I take these as symbolic, like Obi Wan Kinobe, transcending to a higher state of being.

I don’t want to play “whose God is better”, not that you are. I am not an evangelist. If a historic train depot in my town was about to be torn down, I might fight to preserve it, but that doesn’t make me a follower of the Holy Whistle. Again, not to single you out, but I find this a common theme among my friends who are well read and non-Christian.  They will say how wrong it is to follow one god, then almost immediately tell you which one is their favorite and why.

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Posted: 17 November 2009 11:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Lausten, where could we expect to get the data, considering that the point is the holding of contradictory ideas simultaneously. People aren’t going to report that. I don’t have studies but I have observed it, repeatedly.

Exactly, I tried to say that, but probably sounded like I was just challenging.

I got an A in statistics, but I took the shortened version during summer session. I don’t think it can be done by simple questionnaire. Someone who was very good at it might be able to design questions that ask for opinion and test Biblical knowledge at the same time, but that would still be subjective because of Biblical interpretation.

Daniel Dennet recently did a study of practicing clergy that have become atheist (and are still practicing). It was all confidential and done with interviews. Very interesting.

Dennet speech on his study

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Posted: 17 November 2009 12:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Lausten - 17 November 2009 11:43 AM

Thomas Jefferson would disagree about the magic tricks, as well as many Unitarian Univeralists.  Jefferson was so bothered by the miracles, that he removed them and created his own version of the gospels, and still found it valuable. I agree the stories were at least enhanced, if not completely made-up ex post facto, but why? Why did the writers want to market the stories? My guess is it had to do a lot with how he died. Many leaders have spoken a message of peace, but he lived it right up to the end, at least that is the story.

Even the resurrection was likely tacked on later. The earliest manuscripts of the earliest written gospel, Mark, only say that he had risen.  The stories of him walking around and talking to people came later. I take these as symbolic, like Obi Wan Kinobe, transcending to a higher state of being.

I don’t want to play “whose God is better”, not that you are. I am not an evangelist. If a historic train depot in my town was about to be torn down, I might fight to preserve it, but that doesn’t make me a follower of the Holy Whistle. Again, not to single you out, but I find this a common theme among my friends who are well read and non-Christian.  They will say how wrong it is to follow one god, then almost immediately tell you which one is their favorite and why.

Right, I know about the Jefferson Bible. Certainly there were some good things that Jesus said in the NT; I do not claim it is completely without value, nor that it was entirely magic tricks. I was simply responding to the mythology of the Jesus story taken as a whole: I believe it has significant weaknesses, enough that I am not personally much of a fan.

Re. tearing down the train depot, it sort of depends for what that’s meant to be a metaphor. I don’t believe the Bible should be burned nor banned, indeed I think it deserves ongoing study within departments of history and literature. And I don’t really have much problem with liberal practitioners who take the NT as mostly symbol and metaphor, as you appear to be doing. But the more literal interpretations of the Bible do amount to something in need of tearing down—less a train depot than a house of horrors.

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Posted: 17 November 2009 12:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Mriana - 17 November 2009 11:22 AM

Actually, Doug, even Leviticus is rewritten for the Hebrew culture and came from the Hammurabi.  The more you dig, you find there really isn’t anything original in the Bible, not even in the N.T.  The only thing different is that it is written to a specific cultural, adding various places and alike that they can relate to, to appeal or what have you to that culture.

There are sentences, paragraphs and concepts here and there, of course. But most of the Bible is original work.

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