The difficulties translators have with any text should be a reminder of how painfully inadequate any language is as a mediator between two different brains. So much depends in context.
> Perhaps the first person to openly suggest otherwise was Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish philosopher, who daringly wrote that the books of the Bible ought to be studied in just the same way we would study Greek and Italian poetry.
This, 100 times. I am not a religious person at all. However, it makes me extremely sad if self-proclaimed "atheists" make fun of the the Bible / Torah / Koran by pointing out how unrealistic almost all of the texts are. Of course they are unrealistic - but so are the works of Shakespeare, or Dante, or Goethe, or any great poet in the last 3000 years. Yet nobody would ridicule Dante for assuming that hell lies in some cave in Tuscany. If you just dismiss these religious texts as opium for the dull medieval masses, you might miss some deep poetical truths about mankind that just cannot be stated explicitly because of the shortcomings of any human language described above.
I generally agree with your take on how we should read these texts.
However, nobody (that I know of) has been using Shakespeare to justify preventing me from buying whiskey on a Sunday.
These texts are read as literal truth by the people where I live (rural Texas) and used to justify some pretty heinous things.
So at the same time that we might wish to read these books as literature, I understand the impulse to dismiss certain modes of reading these texts as harmful.
I don't know many folks who hate the literature itself, though I'm sure they exist somewhere; however, dismissing some exegetical modes seems reasonable to me.
As a European who is pretty naive on this issue, I am slowly realizing how controversial my original post was as I am reading the responses here. I now regret writing it.
You shouldn't, you were completely correct, just not aware of how correct you were.
> And current christian dogma is that the law is no longer required to be kept (Grace). So whatever mainstream christian religions do today in terms of what they "allow or do not allow" is just whatever they decided they wanted to allow or not allow.
There's some truth to this and there's some over-simplification in this. There's a long, anguished tradition in Christianity with regard to figuring out what was meant by Christ coming to fulfill the law. James the Just, brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, was clearly of the opinion that the Law was still valid and must be followed. Paul held that the Law had been superseded, though having been a pious Pharisee he can't help himself from re-introducing 'superseded' things back into the true and moral way for the new Christian community to live. That Pauline Christianity is the norm these days is very much due to the actions of the Romans in 70CE+.
I'd argue that most sects, at least at their outset, are attempting very earnestly to discern the Will as best they can but slight differences in emphasis will have outsize impact over time. Consider that the difference between Lutheranism and Catholicism can convincingly be argued to be rooted in an emphasis on Augustine's notion of the Individual Before God in the former and an emphasis on Augustine's notion of the Church Before God. Look at all the difference in relationship to worship that has blossomed out of that.
> So these people are not reading the Bible and taking it literally, they are reading the Bible to get ideas on how tell others to not do, or do, whatever they approve of or don't approve of.
Some do. Others behave this way because they've never lived outside of sect-specific hegemony, let alone Christian hegemony and it doesn't occur to them that they're enforcing a very specific way of life that should be chosen. Others follow a very ritualized faith and are, at some level, aware that it is only ritual and therefore fear people outside of the ritual. Kierkegaard spent a good chunk of his life thinking about this kind of ritualized worship and its degradation for the faith of a community.
I've read, though I can't for the life of me remember where, that the best thing for Christianity will be the utter destruction of Christendom. I quite agree.
> It is rather...what would Christ say, Pharisaical?
This would likely be Scribe-ish, given the lawyerly behavior. Luke and John tended to paint the Pharisees in a bad light -- amusingly, often, as stand-ins for the Romans -- but Jesus was sympathetic to the devout, even if he was unsparing in his criticism of hypocrisy.
Likewise, there is a great deal of biblical interpretation that goes off the rails and opposes Jesus' teachings as well as Old Testament (Torah/Tanakh) precedent.
As for historicity - the Bible has been repeatedly found to be accurate on many issues. Parts of Leviticus even read like a survival guide for a species which includes what today would be considered food safety standards, quarantine procedures, etc. Highly effective practices for a nascent culture.
I was surprised when I read the Old Testament myself, since it was nothing like what I had previously thought. Unless a person reads it himself, it's effectively impossible to understand the impact - it is no normal book, no simple collection of poetry or wisdom.
Western civilization is build upon a Judeo-Christian value foundation, yet we hardly have a conscious connection to it anymore - many only have a vague notion of all religiouns having some element of truth. Even the scientific method is a magnificent tool that is described biblically: we are to test everything! Regardless of which translation is read, the core message comes through powerfully - it is easier to accept when we admit to not knowing everything; humanity as a superorganism is like an overly-confident teenager.
I have found no other teaching that denies its followers any humanly-possible way to enter heaven/paradise/transcendence - I am not aware of anyplace in the Old Testament that describes a process for getting there, only atonement; Jesus explicitly stated that it is impossible for man to get there on his own. Other beliefs put a balancing scale in the mix, where doing more good than bad is what gains entry.
Judaism & Christianity focus on relationship, not religion. This grace is also what gets a person into heaven, since nobody can buy or work their way in - it is a gift for anyone who accepts God. This is different from mercy - being lenient when another is due punishment. Mercy is reducing a fine; grace is opening a door for a child who is struggling to do so himself - God gives us both since we're guilty and yet still children as a whole.
Additionally, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob pursues humanity instead of the other way around elsewhere. What other god serves rather than demands, only asking us to do the same?
 If it is a white bright spot on the skin of his body, but it does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and the hair has not turned white, then the priest is to quarantine the person with the infection for seven days. ~Leviticus 13:4
 Jesus looked at them and replied, “This is impossible for mere humans, but not for God; all things are possible for God.” ~Mark 10:27
 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God ~Ephesians 2:8
 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? ~Matthew 18:12
One of my fond childhood memories is not being able to buy this cheap, blue, plastic squirtgun because it was Sunday.
I'm pretty sure that's not in the bible either, but theocrats gonna do what they do.
Just like it never says anything against stem cell research or homosexuality.
There is no motivation in the teachings of Christ to burn people alive. Quite the contrary.
Last time I checked, there weren't nations willing to go to war and religious orders wiling to persecute and murder people based on the works of Shakespeare, Dante, or Goethe.
> In fact, making such a decision is called a leap of faith, and they're not to be taken lightly.
Here you're formulating an argument which presumably states that it is good to take a leap of faith, indirectly claiming that "a deity will intervene" is a valid assumption one should take when making decisions.
This is distinctly not what an atheist would do. This is exactly the kind of decision that one would make only if they thought a deity can intervene.
>most of the time, I act the same way anybody would.
"Anybody" includes atheists. So when I say "act like an atheist", you do understand that the word "like" implies a comparative analogy, yes?
You don't act like an atheist sometimes. (Like when you made this comment.) You do other times. Not sure what's being misrepresented about your beliefs here.
In fact, I feel as though I said "to be an X, you must jump off a bridge", and you shout up "I never jumped off a bridge, but I am an X!" as you plummet into the river below me. Like... you just literally did what I said you had to do to be the thing you said you are. I'm not sure how there's anything wrong with what I said just because you are unaware of what assumptions you are making.
One doesn't have to presume, you could just ask. God can intervene, or not. Assuming intervention is not normally done. When it happens, it's usually for the better, and in a way that one didn't expect. This is generally called serendipity. Assuming serendipity will happen is a good way to get it to never happen, most believers will tell you that. I personally find serendipity all the time, but never where I assume or expect.
Assuming it will happen is a leap of faith and is not necessarily a good thing. God may decide not to intervene and leave you to your fate. Nonbelievers simply describe such things as luck, but believers ascribe agency to what others consider to be random events. That is the difference you're looking for, and if you don't want to be accused of misrepresenting theism, you should just stick to that.
Let's put this in D&D terms. God is the dungeon master, I am a player character. What you're saying is tantamount to saying I'm expecting the DM to just save me from the consequences of every stupid decision I make. I'm saying, no, I just ascribe agency to the DM's actions. The difference might not mean much to you, but it's very important to a believer.
You are making a false equivalence here in equating belief with assumption of intervention.
> "Anybody" includes atheists. So when I say "act like an atheist", you do understand that the word "like" implies a comparative analogy, yes?
> You don't act like an atheist sometimes. (Like when you made this comment.)
I think anybody, atheists included, would want to explain their position. I'd be curious as to exactly in what way I'm not acting like an atheist by responding here. I have a position, I am explaining it. An atheist would have a position and they would want to explain it.
Even though the position is not shared, the underlying impetus to action is the same. Therefore I am acting like anyone, including an atheist. The specific position, atheist or theist, only affects specifics, not essence. I'm acting like an atheist, in that the essence of what we're doing is similar, but the specifics differ because of the necessary difference in position.
> In fact, I feel as though I said "to be an X, you must jump off a bridge", and you shout up "I never jumped off a bridge, but I am an X!" as you plummet into the river below me. Like...
We don't need to concoct a silly hypothetical analogy, we can simply use your words. You said theists assume God will intervene, and that's how they make decisions. This misrepresents how theists operate. I am explaining that difference. Atheists act the same way all the time, when theists misrepresent their views.
>I think anybody, atheists included, would want to explain their position. I'd be curious as to exactly in what way I'm not acting like an atheist by responding here. I have a position, I am explaining it. An atheist would have a position and they would want to explain it.
An atheist would not explain the position that you're explaining. The existence of a commonality doesn't preclude any differences. I'm simply arguing that the differences exist and are very important when understanding what people believe.
When I said "act like an atheist" I meant it. I meant act exactly like an atheist -- make the decisions they would be expected to make -- up to and including the decision of what specific positions they might take up defense of.
> An atheist would not explain the position that you're explaining. The existence of a commonality doesn't preclude any differences. I'm simply arguing that the differences exist and are very important when understanding what people believe.
Now it's you that's nitpicking. The specifics only matter when you want them to matter. When they're inconvenient to you, you simply say you don't want to have a religious discussion. If you want to say what theists do and why, you're having a religious discussion. Because the reasons are important.
Me saying I'm acting like anyone would is right in line with how everybody else would use that phrase. If I get mad at something, it's just like everyone else getting mad at something, even if the reasons why I'm getting mad are different. Acting like someone is not doing exactly the same thing. Postgres has a LIKE operator, and it's not the equivalence operator.
I'd be having the exact same discussion if we were talking about what makes an auto mechanic and auto mechanic. Particularly if someone started by trying to argue that saying "I am an auto mechanic" is the only relevant fact to the matter. To be an auto mechanic, you have to act like one. That is, you have to do the things which fit the expectations and meaning of the term.
That's it. That's all I've been discussing this whole time. You keep trying to drag it into the weeds because you're offended or something. Lets end this tedious conversation already.
> A person is an atheist because of the specific things they do to be one.
That claim is... fascinating. It hearkens all the way back to the beginning of Christianity. Faith, what you call belief, is what makes you a Christian. According to you, works, actions, is what makes you an atheist. Most atheists tell me that it's lack of belief / faith that makes you an atheist. You're literally the first atheist in my 15 years of exploring the space that has said to me that it's actions that makes you an atheist, not lack of belief. I have never even once contemplated that atheism could be so like Islam in this way. So understand that your claim is quite the interesting one to me.
So are you saying that there are atheists in name but not in deed? That there are atheists who don't toe the party line, so shouldn't be considered "real" atheists? Because that's the space you're inhabiting here when you claim it's by action and not by belief.
It would be a rather fun debate space to play in, markedly different from the usual one where I have to take ever finer slices out of what the meaning of "belief" is so as to show that the atheist's position necessarily reflects belief instead of the lack thereof, and then showing that the "agnostic atheist" is belied by his actual debate style rather than his stated (non-) beliefs.
Furthermore, we often have to justify our decisions to other people or against our own moral principles. Belief is what your brain does with prior knowledge and experiences that you have, and it is often invoked to justify decisions made with experience. On the other hand, we sometimes have to justify decision that are based in ignorance. We have a really good word for this: hope. Usually you're just getting lucky. Or you say "I did this because I didn't know what else to do, and I didn't know how to find something better." (You can also call hope a sort of emotion, if you're just commenting on other peoples' decisions rather than evaluating your own.) You're hopeful that it will work, even if you don't have any knowledge or experience that it will. Usually, this is not ideal. You'd always rather do the right thing because you know what the right thing is, rather than doing it on accident. There's no way to teach your methods of victory if you only win your battles on accident!
Faith is not belief per se, nor is it hope, though it looks a bit like both on the surface. Faith is what happens when you say it is good/important to make decisions based on hope. It is the promotion of ignorance as a virtue, rather than as an unfortunate fact of life which we must work to overcome. Faith is a particular belief that hope is better than knowledge, at least sometimes.
If you're having unsatisfying discussions with atheists, it is probably because you're failing to make these distinctions. Most atheists will tell you they believe things. Those beliefs are based in knowledge and experience with the world. They will also tell you they have hope. They will not tell you they have faith, because they don't want to promote ignorance as a virtue.
I don't think atheists would have a problem with anyone treating the Bible (or any religious text) as literature, since there would be a lot less religious violence in the event that religious doctrine couldn't be cited as an absolute authority.
But, many modern Christians insist that the Bible must be taken literally, and that it should be taught as science, or presented as an alternative to science. Those are the people atheists are making fun of, and they deserve the ridicule.
> If you just dismiss these religious texts as opium for the dull medieval masses, you might miss some deep poetical truths about mankind that just cannot be stated explicitly because of the shortcomings of any human language described above.
What Karl Marx meant by that is not that religion makes people stupid and compliant (although sometimes it kind of can,) but that people use religion to soothe the burdens of life in an unjust and cruel world... and that the illusory comfort offered by religion often stands in the way of making real societal progress. People who believe that God alone will punish the wicked and reward the righteous and that every event, no matter how capricious or unjust, is part of some divine plan, will simply tolerate the world and trust God to change it, rather than try to change it themselves.
And yet much of what could be considered progressive moral change in society has occurred in spite of religion, either through secular or scientific ideas pushing against religious authority and supernaturalism, or through reform within the religious community itself.
I think where people went wrong with this is that what at the heart of it people really want to mean is that the Bible is something they use to base their life around. Then other people come along and tell them that science is what they base their lives around. And instead of realizing that the two are different and there is inherent value in both, they responded by saying, "Well, my Bible is science."
At their heart, religious texts are accumulated wisdom that has held up over many generations. It is different from science in its ability to predict the world, but fairly similar in the way it can guide personal experience and expectations within the world.
That seems like an odd stance to take given how much mayhem, misery and death religion has caused but to each their own, I guess.
Scientific and enlightenment principles got a huge push from the Bible. The Bible makes certain truth claims that make science possible, such as the claim that there is a physical universe that is worth studying in its own right. Many other belief systems emphasize that you can only know the physical through the metaphysical.
Neither my comment or the quote by Marx were referring to Marxism or advocating a society based on Marxism.
And no, a philosophy that rejects religion can't be based on theocratic authoritarianism, because theocratic authoritarianism draws its claim of authority from divine right.
>The Bible makes certain truth claims that make science possible, such as the claim that there is a physical universe that is worth studying in its own right.
The Bible claims that God created the earth and the universe in seven days, man directly from the dust of the earth, and woman from the rib of the first man. The Bible's claims certainly do not make science possible. No one needs the Bible to claim that there is a physical universe worth studying, to see that this is the case.
On the other hand, people still believe evolution is heresy because of Genesis, and will pray themselves and their children to death believing God will cure them and that modern medical science is sinful. Belief in miasma theory and Platonism, while not Christian, were religious in nature and held back progress in various scientific fields and public health.
Religion may hold value in society as a medium for spreading cultural identity and moral teachings, but deserves no credit for the cause of science, except perhaps as the means by which early scientists and philosophers approached inquiry (as a means of better understanding God's creation.)
But even then, the inevitable result was not to understand God, but to expose and dismantle the facade of religion, claim by spurious claim.
This, a thousand times.
It sounds like the ancient culture wasn't living up to the modern reader's expectations for how ancient literature was supposed to be read, so they burried some nuts so that the other modern readers could find them as they expected to.
1 Kings 12:10 The young men who had grown up with him replied, "These people have said to you, 'Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter.' Now tell them, 'My little finger is thicker than my father's waist.
Little finger means his penis.
The King James version has remained popular as a result of its wonderful prose - to see someone approach the Hebrew Bible from a modern angle with the same intent is very interesting - I'll be having a read.
Quality Freudian slip here.
There's a lot more nuance involved.
Reading the KJV gives you difficulty because the translation was made in 1615 and the English language has changed significantly since then.
There is the issue of expressing the original thought. Already I've edited this post several times.
Then there is the issue of the surrounding context which will be different for different people. Even for people in the same culture at the same time in the same place.
Then the issue of the attitude of the reader. It's not uncommon to get different meanings from the same text on different days.
Now with the Biblical text we have copies of text from a different time, culture, and language. I like how this article shows how hard it is to handle even one sentence.
Now add that the Bible was written in a few now-dead languages, with 1900-2200 years since it was first written, and you are going to get a lot of differences in thought, much of which requires you to have knowledge that you are not going to be able to come up with thinking through it yourself.
Two examples of how fast things can change:
1. When I first went to Germany the word "geil" explicitly meant someone who was attractive, or good at sex. So it was not really part of polite speech. 10 years later I went back to the same part of Germany and the word now was used in normal conversations and meant "really good", without any sexual connotations.
2. If you look at American Pilgrim literature you see a lot of references to "God is great", usually alongside the phrase "God fearing" when talking about religious people. This is because just a few hundred years ago the word "great" in English specifically meant "powerful" in a violent way. Nowadays if you listen to a Christian sermon in the U.S. they will still say "God is great", but will be talking about how gentle and loving God is.
Language can move really fast, and thinking that you understand something that someone wrote hundreds of years ago without a good interpreter is unrealistic. There is always going to be an interpreter in the way. And one who just "translates the words" is not doing you any favors.
So, in your translation, you'll still have the main disadvantage of relying on the translator, while gaining nothing.
I really like this sentence from Douglas Hofstadter: "Every word in this sentence is a gross misspelling of the word 'tomato'."
There are so many ways a translator could go with that.
The idea of engaging in a dialogue with the Bible is very important. It should not be viewed as books set in stone, but as living documents that speak to us today.
'Then said he unto them, Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.' (Matthew 13:52)
If you haven't read the Bible in the original Hebrew here's an analogy: imagine the tactile, raw feel of Robert Frost, how the language he employs and the deliberate choice of words makes his poems feel as if they rhyme. Now compact all that into the extreme terseness of Emily Dickinson.
My weekly highlight is the public reading of the Prophets in the synagogue every Sabbath. The language, the rhythm, it's beautiful.
He, as an atheist, tries to present it in the raw form, without "explaining the hidden message" or any religious interpretation (neither Jewish nor Christian).