Is the Bible a Reliable Guide to Morality?

As I mentioned at the start of Thursday's post, my discussion of the Friedman and Dolansky column about homosexuality in the Bible was really a prelude to discussing this essay by David Lose.

Lose seeks to persuade us that the Bible is in some sense a reliable guide to morality. Beneath the headline, “Is the Bible a Reliable Moral Guide?” he opens:

I know, I know: given that I teach, preach and write about the Bible for a living, I'm hardly the kind of person you think would ask this kind of question. But maybe it's precisely because I spend so much time with the Bible that this question occurs to me. After all, the Bible says some pretty awful stuff, and if you're going to take any of it seriously, it seems like you need to be willing to read all of it carefully.

That seems reasonable enough. We might wonder, though, why the Bible contains so much awful stuff. If we take seriously the idea that the Bible is in some sense the Word of God, we can ask why God has communicated to us in a manner so confusing that elaborate decoding is necessary. Why would God, in seeking to educate us regarding the central truths of human existence -- truths, mind you, which cannot be learned in any other way -- have communicated with anything other than the utmost clarity?

If you ever wonder why fundamentalists and evangelicals are often so suspicious of more moderate approaches to their religion, Lose's statement here is a good example to keep in mind. They believe strongly that the Bible is perspicuous, which is to say that its central teachings should be comprehensible to anyone of normal intelligence reading the Bible in his native language. They do not take kindly to people telling them they need a team of scientists, ancient historians, and literary theorists to tell them what the Bible means. Having worked so hard to liberate the Bible from the clutches of the Catholic Church, they are not inclined to turn it over to a new priesthood.

Lose continues:

So here's the background to my question: I've very much appreciated and learned from the series of posts by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky on what the Bible says about abortion, women and homosexuality. Their scholarly acumen and insight has helped me, and I suspect many others, to understand the context of various biblical passages better and thereby hear the biblical witness on these issues in a more nuanced and faithful way. I was struck, however, by a sentence in their opening post: “The Bible's value, above all, is as a guide to lives. And we mean to all of our lives, whether one is religious or not, whether one is Christian, Jewish, or from another religion or no religion.”

As we saw in Thursday's post, at least with regard to homosexuality we have strong reasons for thinking that Friedman and Dolansky have not helped us to hear the biblical witness in a more faithful and nuanced way. Actually they only gave a strained and highly tenuous reading to provide modern social liberals with a reason for ignoring what seem like unambiguous and remarkably harsh condemnations of homosexuality.

My reaction to what I'm sure they believed was a relatively innocuous sentence was as unexpected as it was unbidden: Really?! Is the primary value of the Bible really as a moral guide? My mind went immediately to the many and various offenses listed in the Bible that call for the death penalty: murder and kidnapping, which perhaps shouldn't surprise, but also adultery, homosexual practice, cursing a parent, owning an animal that repeatedly attacks others, and being a “medium or wizard” -- and all this from only two chapters (Exodus 21 and Leviticus 20). And these, of course, are just capital offenses; there are numerous others that call for losing various body parts or being expelled from the community.

To be sure, there are also many important and salutary laws that we might well heed today, including caring for the most vulnerable, loving one's neighbor, releasing the debt of those overwhelmed by their obligations, always making provision for those who are poor, not taking vengeance on others, planting and harvesting in a manner that today we would call “sustainable,” and not lending money in a way that disadvantages the borrower -- and all of those also from a small set of chapters. (Ex. 22-23, Lev. 19, 25). Think how different our debates about health care, relief for those facing foreclosure, agricultural policy and the regulation of banks would be if we consulted these passages.

The extent to which the Bible really does teach these salutary laws is certainly debatable. For example, the various genocides God personally orders hardly seem like instances of loving one's neighbors. But let's grant that the Bible sometimes gets it right and sometimes gets it wrong on moral questions. My question is: What part of that suggests that the Bible's primary function is as a guide to living? When we see a few decent moral teachings mixed in with a lot of primitive tribal BS, why not simply conclude that the Biblical texts represent the thinking of primitive people laboring without the benefit of divine guidance?

Lose certainly appreciates the basic problem:

Notice, though, that the chapters from which the “good” laws come are disturbingly close to those containing the “bad” ones. And that's just the problem: the Bible seems regularly and simultaneously to offer counsel that we deem both awful and excellent. In what way, then, can it serve as a reliable moral guide? One approach to this question -- the one followed by a majority of progressive Jewish and Christian scholars -- is to place these passages in their original context, explaining their “foreignness” so that we can either 1) understand their highly contextual nature and thereby recognize that they do not apply today or 2) re-appropriate and apply their more salutary content to our context. This approach, as Friedman and Dolansky capably demonstrate, can be tremendously productive. But at times it falls painfully short, for while it may be true that the verses calling homosexuality an abomination, for instance, should be considered temporary and contextual, one needs to question whether this law (and many others) was just at any time or under any circumstances.

Except for the part endorsing Friedman and Dolansky's approach, I agree with every word of this. You already know my preferred solution to dealing with this problem, so let's see how Lose deals with it:

What, then, are those who read the Bible to do? Shall we just pick and choose the laws and commandments that appeal to us and disregard the others? Curiously, I'm tempted to answer a qualified “yes.” I do so largely because I suspect the Bible was never intended to serve primarily as a moral reference. Rather, I think that the Bible comes to us as a collection of confessions of faith of the ancient Israelites and Christians about the nature and character of God and was intended to invite readers into relationship with that God. From that relationship flows a commitment to leading a certain kind of life. Theology, that is, precedes morality, as one's view of God -- angry or loving, judgmental or gracious -- greatly influences how one relates to neighbor and world.

If I'm understanding Lose correctly, then he is simply rejecting the notion of Biblical inerrancy. There have certainly been many theologians (like Harry Emerson Fosdick and Langdon Gilkey) who have argued that the Bible's revelation is separate from the actual words that appear on the page. In their view, people have experiences of God that they then try to capture, imperfectly with human language. Thus, the Bible's revelation is found in the story it tells about man's relationship with God, but this story is obscured beneath some primitive and fallacious human ideas. I think that's what Lose has in mind.

Personally I don't find that even remotely plausible. I would add, though, that much of the Bible, including the parts that are specifically under discussion here, do not seem adequately described as “confessions of faith” or as invitations to readers to enter into a relationship with God. I, for one, see nothing inviting in the horrible Levitical codes we are trying so hard to circumvent.

Even a cursory read of the Bible, however, reveals that these confessions, written over more than a thousand years, also display tremendous variety in their portrayals of God. Therefore, readers must exercise both discernment and discretion regarding which testimonies seem most helpful and trustworthy, as these critical decisions decisively shape the way one navigates and negotiates the moral instruction of the Bible. Ultimately, the passages that have been most helpful in describing the character of God fashion the critical lens through which readers make sense of and interpret the various and sundry moral commands contained throughout Scripture.

Let us leave aside the fact that people don't agree on which testimonies seem most helpful and trustworthy. After all, religious folks of a more conservative temperament think the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality are mighty helpful in understanding the character of God. I would note simply that this passage is effectively equivalent to saying that the Bible is not a reliable guide to morality. If you must begin your reading of the Bible with an already finely-honed moral sense, then, forgive my bluntness, but what good is it?

Lose now goes on for several further paragraphs, making some dubious historical claims along the way. Let's resume the action near the end of the column:

How does this kind interpretive operation work? To return to our earlier example of homosexuality, one might argue that given both the relatively few verses the Bible devotes to the matter as well as the multiple and diverse understandings of sexuality present in the Bible, one might be best served by not expecting these select passages to resolve our questions. Rather, one might instead turn to other passages about communal responsibility, mutual and loving commitment, and the intricate nature of our human relationships to discern a moral framework within which to discuss these issues. Complicated work at times, even difficult? Sure, but who ever said addressing the complex ethical issues of our age should be easy?

One might more powerfully argue that we simply discard the Bible from our reasoning altogether. If certain verses bluntly condemn homosexuality, while others provide circuitous reasons for being tolerant, and if it's purely a matter of personal preference which we consider to be more important, then what is the Bible contributing to the discussion?

It certainly was not secularists who ever claimed that addressing complex ethical issues should be easy. But religion's representatives have been claiming precisely that pretty much forever. To this day the Roman Catholic Church, to pick just one example, claims to have unique insight into moral questions. They don't act like they think there is anything complicated about abortion or homosexuality. To hear them tell it, they lay down the law and everyone else must choose between following or putting their eternal soul in jeopardy.

Lose is effectively endorsing a secular approach to ethics. We do the hard work of thinking carefully about what is right and wrong on our own, and eschew the false simplicity of religious teaching with its dogmas and claims of divine revelation.

Lose concludes with:

In light of this, it may seem to many that reading the Bible for moral guidance often appears a dicey venture at best. But I nevertheless believe that those willing -- whether particularly religious or not -- to stay with this most peculiar and complicated of books and wrestle with the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly things we find on its pages will be surprised by the relevance of the Bible not only to our moral concerns, but to all the dimensions of our complex and mysterious lives.

I disagree. The Bible has some historical and literary value, but it contains almost nothing of relevance to modern moral concerns. Clear thinking about morality cannot begin until it is placed harmlessly back on the shelf where it belongs. There are countless literary works of demonstrably human origin that are far greater repositories of moral insight than is the Bible.

Tags

Quoting Lose,

"In what way, then, can it serve as a reliable moral guide? One approach to this question -- the one followed by a majority of progressive Jewish and Christian scholars -- is to place these passages in their original context, explaining their âforeignnessâ so that we can either 1) understand their highly contextual nature and thereby recognize that they do not apply today or 2) re-appropriate and apply their more salutary content to our context."

His number 1 is a non sequitor. Trying to contextualize Biblical commands in order to determine which apply today and which do not is NOT a means of determining whether the Bible is a reliable moral guide. Its a means of deciphering what moral guidance the Bible gives, AFTER you've already decided that its a moral guide.

If its not self evident (and apparently it wasn't to Lose), imagine using the same technique on a book that you're certain isn't a reliable moral guide. Lets say, Mein Kampf. First decide how likely it is that you think that Hitler's book is a reliable moral guide. Then ask yourself whether the likelihood you've assigned would rise, fall, or stay the same, if someone provided you with a credible argument that all of the "kill the Jews" stuff was contextually specific to 1930s and 40s Europe, and was no longer binding on 21st century Nazis.

Personally, I can't see how it would make a difference. Even if the commandment were contextually specific to a particular time and place, MY MORAL JUDGMENTS REGARDING GENOCIDE are not.

What I see as Lose's method:

1) Start with a reasonable basic moral code that is practicable in the modern era. (Not one that already endorses violent bigotry.)
2) Read the Bible while keeping an eye out for descriptions of God's character that are relateable.
3) "Enter into a relationship with God" by contemplating the admirable and relateable and inspiring passages, and building up a concept of God that seems to have all the appropriate moral qualities.
4) Interpret the rest of the Bible according to the assumption that the God concept you have constructed is both real and the actual being that the authors of the Bible were attempting to describe and discuss.
5) Since the God concept you have constructed is one that is sympathetic according to modern liberal sensibilities, your interpretation of the Bible will be one that, by and large, claims that God did the sort of things a modern liberal would find morally sensible.

And how an atheist might read any ancient text when seeking moral wisdom:

1) Start with a reasonable basic moral code that is practicable in the modern era. (Not one that already endorses violent bigotry.)
2) Anything that is obviously false should be ignored.
3) Anything that is obviously true, you should acknowledge and move on from, since you don't need the text to tell you about it.
4) Anything that is thought-provoking or inspiring should be meditated on further, until one has reached a reflective equilibrium or decided on a next course of action or study.

This leads to much the same outcome. Essentially all that Lose is adding to this process is a moment to convince oneself that the God in the text is both real and embodies all the qualities that you already admired. This "recruitment" step, where you mentally bring God onto your side, doesn't really add anything to your moral wisdom, however. It mostly just clouds the issue by a) allowing you to mix up your own attitudes with God's, b) providing a mechanism whereby you can be more easily convinced to buy into the text's framing ("with your guard down", so to speak), and c) convincing you to assign unique importance to one particular text as the one that puts you in touch with God, even though it is actually a subpar moral guide and your best moral principles have probably come from elsewhere.

By quantheory@gmail.com (not verified) on 04 Dec 2011 #permalink

Hi Jason,
Have You read Foxes* book of Martyrs? How about the historical role of "reading the Bible" concerning William Penn, which resulted in our rights of religious liberty, freedom of speech, the press, and right to a speedy trial by a jury of our peers, or the fact that the Declaration of Independence claims the authority for our countries government to exist comes from natures "God", our "Creator", appeals to the "Supreme Judge of the world", in a firm reliance on the protection of "Divine Providence"(all Biblical descriptions of God), are none of these "of relevance to modern moral concerns"?
When the homosexual topic comes up, the Sodom story of Genesis is the most popular Bible reference of choice, but Ezekiel 16:49 quotes Gods list of Sodom's sins:
Pride (proud to be an American? parade anyone?)
Fullness of bread (obesity problems? fast food?)
Abundance of idleness (got entertainment?)
Failure to strengthen the hand of the poor (big bank bailouts? governments dependence?)
They were haughty (We evolved from slime, answering to no moral authority other than our own human insight?)
And they committed abominations....are none of these "modern moral concerns"? Would for instance observing God's prohibition(in the Bible)on charging interest on money, prevented the banks from becoming "too big to fail", and "in need of taxpayer bailout money"(to be paid back in interest payments by taxpayers)? God said "an even balance, and weight", echoed by the founders in the constitution:Art.1 sec.8:5 & sec.10:1 making gold and silver coin the currency, not paper money printed "out of thin air" to be inflated, deflated, and given to usury, at up to 28%!..not a modern moral concern?
Is it God's abhorrence to child sacrifice to Idols, as a moral precept, that the millions of Americans claiming the right to chose who have sacrificed their unborn to the goddess Liberty, find not applicable today?
I think the Bible does have an application on modern moral concerns, we just don't want to hear it.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22400/22400-h/22400-h.htm

By Theophile (not verified) on 04 Dec 2011 #permalink

"I think the Bible does have an application on modern moral concerns, we just don't want to hear it."

Then again, the bible isn't the only source for such moral concerns.

And doesn't have the bit about S&G and the whole incest thing going on.

@Theophile
"The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, ..."

How about the historical role of "reading the Bible" concerning William Penn, which resulted in our rights of religious liberty, freedom of speech, the press, and right to a speedy trial by a jury of our peers, or the fact that the Declaration of Independence claims the authority for our countries government to exist comes from natures "God", our "Creator", appeals to the "Supreme Judge of the world", in a firm reliance on the protection of "Divine Providence"
Very questionable, such an historical role. Such blessings were arrived at without biblical inspiration out of practical politics, here and elsewhere.

Is "Divine Providence" actually biblical, rather than a late turn of phrase?

In reading this, and Lose's post, I was reminded of the tradition in Judaism to question obedience (in my limited knowledge of Judaism, I'm not a Jew). I did a search and found an eye-opening interview with Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, in Reform Judaism Magazine.

This Q&A, in particular, jumped out, as being relevant to this discussion:

RJM: If we rely on our own moral reason, wouldnât that lead to the slippery slope of moral relativism?

Rabbi Schulweis: There is a risk in being guided by conscience, but no less a risk than following the voice of âcommandedness.â Martin Buber once wrote, âMoloch [an idol to which children were sacrificed] imitates the voice of God.â How can we discern the voice of God knowing that MephiÂstopheles is a ventriloquist, skillfully projecting his voice onto others? A âslippery slopeâ is to be preferred to being cemented in the ground. On a slope I may be able to grasp a tree or rock. But in cement, I am immobilized and subject to the threats of the wilderness.

Full Interview:
http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1438

Could it be possible that the Bible, the OT particularly, is this process of questioning put to paper? That it was never meant to be a moral guide? That it's simply the equivalent of "journaling," by the few who were literate in those days?

If only those who are holding up the Bible, or whatever book, as the sole (no pun intended) guide to morality would inspire their followers to question obedience...

Why would God, in seeking to educate us regarding the central truths of human existence -- truths, mind you, which cannot be learned in any other way -- have communicated with anything other than the utmost clarity?

Oh, that's easy: God is a theologian.

Theophile wrote:

I think the Bible does have an application on modern moral concerns, we just don't want to hear it.

I think you completely missed the point of the post. Jason states there is some good stuff in the Bible, but there's a lot of bad stuff, too. That means the Bible isn't a *reliable* guide to morality.

What's interesting is how you demonstrate the truth of the post. Out of all the horrors in the Bible, you pulled out only a handful of stuff that many of us today would agree with, so you're clearly using non-Biblical sources to help you cherry-pick. If these non-Biblical sources are so great, let's just use them instead. We don't need any Biblical endorsement of them.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

But let's grant that the Bible sometimes gets it right and sometimes gets it wrong on moral questions... When we see a few decent moral teachings mixed in with a lot of primitive tribal BS, why not simply conclude that the Biblical texts represent the thinking of primitive people laboring without the benefit of divine guidance?

Spot on. Lose claims that reading it can result in a person leading "a certain kind of life." But that's the problem; empirically, it doesn't. People adopt many different lifestyles based on their readings of the bible, not just one. Some of those are innocuous, some of them are horrendous, but the variation kills any legitimate claim to their being one clear, consistent message.

Here's a clue, believers: when you have thousands of sects arguing over which interpretation is obviously and clearly true, none of them are obvious or clear.

We evolved from slime, answering to no moral authority other than our own human insight?

Are you fully prepared to commit to asserting that a particular entity is indeed a "moral authority", given that, according to the standard narrative about this entity, it committed omnicide and commanded genocide?

And if "human insight" is not both necessary and sufficient to provide something approaching moral authority, how does adding an additional entity help in determining moral authority?

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

The Bible has some historical and literary value, but it contains almost nothing of relevance to modern moral concerns. Clear thinking about morality cannot begin until it is placed harmlessly back on the shelf where it belongs. There are countless literary works of demonstrably human origin that are far greater repositories of moral insight than is the Bible.

Another approach might be to think of the Bible as something morally problematic that you can use to help hone your own moral reasoning by reading through it and determining what you think about each message in turn. Obviously there are still better things for this, but fictional genres can be used this way.

By Another Matt (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

I have to admit, I am a bit surprised to see Richard Elliott Friedman providing any sort of defense for any of the bible's horrors, like the death penalty for a wide range of actions performed by presumably consenting adults, and in some cases, the death penalty for the non-consenting victims of some actions.

I still recommend his book Who Wrote the Bible? -- which makes it very clear indeed that the answer to the title's question is not Moses, or any single individual inspired by God, but rather by a disparate group of priests and other religious leaders, at different time periods, and often with very different political goals. Indeed, he makes it clear that the text often results from conflicting factions of priests of the same God inserting denigrating references to other factions. These disparate texts were then collected and joined -- and in some cases interwoven -- leading to the bible we have today.

There is no more reason to assume that any of the laws within the text result from the inspiration of a putative God than there is to assume that modern Wahhabi was inspired by God, or the Iranian laws that condemn homosexual youths to death by hanging were inspired by God, or the Afghan "customs" of killing a rape victim or condemning her to marry her rapist were inspired by God.

The misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia that exist in the bible are precisely mirrored in cultures today that have very similar attitudes, laws, and customs that condemn minorities to be continual victims of a cruel patriarchal majority.

The bible should no more considered as inspired by God than should the Code of Hammurabi, the law code of ancient Athens, the law code of ancient Sparta, the laws of Imperial Rome (in whatever period), the laws of the various Egyptian Dynasties, or modern Saudi Arabian or Iranian or Afghan law.

The bible's value, if it has any, is as an archaeological reference and a historical text giving some insight into what was going on in the first millennium BCE in the Levant, heavily mixed with myths, poetry, and contemporary confabulated propaganda from that same era and place.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

"We evolved from slime"

MOST of us did.

Some are still slime.

(PS why is that worse than evolving from dust?)

Hmm hmm. Attributing all Enlightenment era progress to Christianity is a form of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Just because Christianity was the dominant worldview at the time, and thus determined the vocabulary that people often used to describe moral issues, does not mean that Christianity was actually necessary (or even especially helpful) in making those strides. Certainly, if modern notions of liberty and human rights come from the Bible, Christians took their sweet time in figuring that out.

Honestly, this is as absurd as saying that Pythagoras's rejection of irrational numbers caused his success as a mathematician.

"When the homosexual topic comes up"

Some friendly advice here. If this is how you talk about anything related to gay rights, that's a dead giveaway that either you don't take the issue seriously, or else you take the conservative position. Either you didn't bother thinking up a better description than "homosexual topic", or you're used to slapping the label "homosexual" on anything related to "those people".

"the millions of Americans claiming the right to chose who have sacrificed their unborn to the goddess Liberty"

Well, let's see. Women who have abortions don't actually believe in (or even think about) a goddess named Liberty, and thus no one in their right mind considers this a literal form of human sacrifice. Then there's the problem of fetal personhood not historically coming from the Bible, with many pre-20th century Jews and Christians concluding that the soul entered and left the body through the breath. (Thus denying that fetuses had souls.) Others considered the fetus to be a person at "quickening" (the first signs of movement).

Fascinating, however, that thousands of years of persecution, torture, and execution of gay people can be waved away in a few sentences about what Sodom was "really" about, whereas condeming a practice that mostly only "kills" bits of human tissue with a prefunctional or nonexistent nervous system is a real moral victory for Christianity. Especially considering that both of these arguments (gay is OK, fetuses are people) really gained ground in the 20th century, almost at the 2000 year mark since Christ.

By Sean Santos (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

Rather, I think that the Bible comes to us as a collection of confessions of faith of the ancient Israelites and Christians about the nature and character of God...

The problem with this opinion is that the ancient Israelite and Christian confessors were not the ones doing the collecting; the collecting, editing, and vetting were all done by a conference of political and religious leaders, centuries after all of the stories were written.

As for the original question here: for Bronze Age people living in Bronze Age societies, who couldn't trust themselves, or each other, to think rationally and use consistent, honest and compassionate judgment, something like the OT was probably necessary as an "authoritative source" that everyone could agree on when they couldn't agree on anything else. But we've moved on a bit since then, so we need -- and have -- more and better guides that work for us today.

Here's an alternative way out for Christians: The Bible is deliberately awful as a way for God to test just how much evil people would do if they think it comes from authority â like the Milgram experiment. This is close to an existing (though very non-mainstream) interpretation of the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac.

Unfortunately, for God to give those horrible orders without ever clarifying that it was just a test makes him nonetheless partially culpable for the suffering thusly caused. Such a lesson could have been made with just the Isaac story, followed by a triple-underlined "No individual entity is a source of morality, you dolts! Otherwise you can justify anything, by 'just following orders'! I suppose I should be glad I didn't ask you to commit genocide!" (Followed, why not, by a couple key scientific principles and "But don't take my word for that either!")

Basically, I'm imagining something like LÃnjì Yìxuán's famous line, "If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him." 

Of course, having written that above, I see I was "semi-ninja'd" by Another Matt. Several hours ago. (My long posts plus other obligations tend to make me post lateâ¦)

David Lose, quoted in the OP by Jason, said:

Shall we just pick and choose the laws and commandments that appeal to us and disregard the others? Curiously, I'm tempted to answer a qualified âyes.â I do so largely because I suspect the Bible was never intended to serve primarily as a moral reference.

Once again, a moderate theist demonstrates themselves to be just as fundamentalist as a literalist. What makes me say this? While disputing the inerrancy of the literal text, Lose affirms the inerrancy (or something close to that) of its authors. We can't just let them be people like everyone else at that time, making things up like everyone else â oh no, they were sophisticated and knew better than to claim that a bunch of pronouncements were the final word in ethics (despite superficial appearences to the contrary).

American liberals sometimes do the same thing with regards to our country's founders, and it really frustrates me. Like "Oh, protesting the government is in the spirit of the Founding Fathers, and therefore I'm being patriotic, and in the right. Yes, that happens to be true â but so what? By what means did you locate "USA Founding Fathers" as "basis of right and wrong"? And by what means does one locate "Biblical authors" or "God" as same?

Is it better to "pick and choose" from the Bible? Certainly. But not "because the Bible was never intended as a moral reference". Even if it were intended as such, whether by the ancient Israelites or by Yahweh himself (yet still had exactly the same content we know it to have) it would be better to "pick and choose".

Theology, that is, precedes morality

Not only is this odious, it's illogical. If theology is more important than morality, then that must itself be a moral principle, or derived from one. No matter what, "morality" has to precede everything else, in the sense of determining various "oughts".

In the gospels Jesus himself speaks against divorce. If that was not meant to be guidance, what else was he not serious about?

If it was the later Christians who were in a relationship with Jesus, yet managed to misquote him on this issue, what other sayings have they botched?

Anybody interested in using scripture as guidance should also read the mental acrobatics and contortions Paul performed to make his case against the OT law. This is the same Paul that says women shall have no authority over men and be silent.

This is the same Paul that says women shall have no authority over men and be silent.

To be somewhat charitable, I've seen it argued that that particular piece of unpleasantness is a later insertion by someone wanting to invoke the authority of Paul for his own misogyny. It's certainly inconsistent with the egalitarian attitudes towards women implied or explicitly stated in the epistles attributed with more certainty to Paul.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

Yes, Paul also allowed women to become church leaders. But then again, maybe the whole virgin birth thing, or resurrection, were also sections inserted by well-meaning scribes.

Yes, Paul also allowed women to become church leaders.

Which means that either Paul contradicted himself completely, or someone else wrote the part that said that women should not become church leaders.

The whole epistle in question is disputed as being by Paul for other reason, IIRC.

But then again, maybe the whole virgin birth thing, or resurrection, were also sections inserted by well-meaning scribes.

Because there were gospels that said that Mary was not a virgin, or that Jesus was not resurrected?

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

In the gospels Jesus himself speaks against divorce.

Yes, but: a) he admitted there were valid reasons for divorce; and b) he also spoke against mindless, rigid application of the law. I really don't think Jesus would have a problem with two people agreeing to a fair divorce settlement, provided no one is harmed and the kids (if any) are taken care of. I also don't think Jesus would have a problem with people agreeing to change their marriage and divorce laws to reflect an evolving concensus of justice.

By Raging Bee (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

Because there were gospels that said that Mary was not a virgin, or that Jesus was not resurrected?

Should there be, in order to consider the possibility that these sections may also have been inventions? After all, we do not see anywhere near the required integrity to transmit crucially important messages for later generations. (Pseudonymous writings, forged letters, gospels not accepted into the canon, etc.)

Whether or not the Bible is a reliable moral guide ultimately rests on the integrity of the Bible. If the integrity of the Bible is not in question, why is there a discussion at all? Just obey everything it says.

Raging Bee: I am glad to meet the one who has finally figured out what Jesus meant regarding divorce. You've outdone all the churches and people of the past hundreds of years.

Anyone really interested in this topic would do well to read Hector Avalos's book The End of Biblical Studies, where he shows how meaningless the academic industry of biblical studies is and seeks "liberation from the idea that any sacred text should be an authority for modern human existence." Although Avalos touches on the morality found in the Bible in a number of places, his chapter 6, Biblical Theology: The Pathology of Bibliolatry is particularly good.

By Richard Thomas (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

Hector Avalos's book The End of Biblical Studies

I read his previous book "Fighting Words" and wasn't impressed much. In addition to the nebulous thesis of the book, there was a section towards the end that consisted of an anti-Christian diatribe. While I overall agreed with his view, I thought it was inappropriate for a vaguely scholarly book. I have no faith in his objectivity.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

Should there be, in order to consider the possibility that these sections may also have been inventions?

I'm not suggesting that they're not inventions, but rather that they are not inventions by an attributed author who did not actually believe in them, given that that author had elsewhere espoused a completely contradictory view.

Whether or not the Bible is a reliable moral guide ultimately rests on the integrity of the Bible.

I reject that the bible is a reliable moral guide regardless of its putative "integrity".

If the integrity of the Bible is not in question, why is there a discussion at all?

Heh. Everything about the bible is in question.

Just obey everything it says.

Since the bible does contradict itself, you can do almost anything and its opposite, and call that "obedience". But that contradictoriness arises because there were multiple authors involved.

My argument has only been the very narrow one that one of those authors is disputed to have been the author of another work attributed to him, in part because of a contradiction in views espoused in his more firmly attributed works and in the work in question.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

[Fundamentalists and evangelicals] do not take kindly to people telling them they need a team of scientists, ancient historians, and literary theorists to tell them what the Bible means. Having worked so hard to liberate the Bible from the clutches of the Catholic Church, they are not inclined to turn it over to a new priesthood.

It might be more accurate to say that they don't believe themselves inclined to turn it over to a new priesthood. In fact, of course, many conservative Protestants are perfectly happy to rely on convoluted interpretations of scripture provided by human authorities. Price, Morris and other YECs tell them that Biblical history involves vapor canopies and coconut-eating T-rexes in the Garden of Eden. Darby, Scofield and Tim LaHaye tell them that Biblical prophecy speaks of a coming pre-tribulation rapture and a UN takeover by the Antichrist. Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn tell them that that the gospels are all about how Jesus thought being rich was really awesome.

All of this is as strained and nonliteral as anything the Catholic Church has ever come up with, but provided you simply assert that it's the "clear and plain meaning of Scripture," plenty of fundamentalists and evangelicals will accept it.

I would note simply that this passage is effectively equivalent to saying that the Bible is not a reliable guide to morality. If you must begin your reading of the Bible with an already finely-honed moral sense, then, forgive my bluntness, but what good is it?

Well, even those of us with finely-honed moral senses aren't usually absolutely certain of the answer to every moral question. It's not unreasonable that if you approach the Bible with (say) a 21st-century liberal morality, you might find some ethical arguments or insights which fit well with that morality, but aren't things you've managed to come up with on your own. I can believe that a lot of Christians have experienced that, though I haven't.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

In addition to the nebulous thesis of [Hector Avalos' Fighting Words], there was a section towards the end that consisted of an anti-Christian diatribe.

Oh, the humanity! How could someone writing a book about the origins of religious violence criticize Christianity? How utterly shocking and appalling!

While I overall agreed with his view, I thought it was inappropriate for a vaguely scholarly book. I have no faith in his objectivity.

You have got to be kidding me. In a field in which open adherence to the Christian faith is de rigueur, you think Avalos is required to justify your "faith" (guh) "in his objectivity"?

In that book and every one of his others, Avalos is making arguments consisting of evidence and reasoning. Whining about the fact that heâhorrors!âhas critical things to say about Christianity rather than pointing out some substantive error you believe he has made is simply ludicrous.

"Because there were gospels that said that Mary was not a virgin"

I've heard that the word translated into "Virgin" is more likely to have meant "Young Woman".

So in a sense, the gospels DO say she wasn't a virgin (or at least leave the question open).

You see my name is Lose
Cherry-picking is for fools
But that's the way I like it baby
Maybe I will live forever

And don't forget the joker...

"Because there were gospels that said that Mary was not a virgin"

I've heard that the word translated into "Virgin" is more likely to have meant "Young Woman".

So in a sense, the gospels DO say she wasn't a virgin (or at least leave the question open).

If I recall correctly the "virgin" vs. "young woman" question regards the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Isaiah, where the Greek word "parthenos" (virgin) is used for a hebrew word that basically means "young woman."

There's more controversy among churches about whether she remained a virgin for her entire life - it's established doctrine in the early churches but not in all the protestant ones. It hinges on the question of Jesus's "half brothers." If you can stand to read it, there's info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perpetual_virginity_of_Mary

By Another Matt (not verified) on 06 Dec 2011 #permalink

I've heard that the word translated into "Virgin" is more likely to have meant "Young Woman".

Gah!

People have been arguing this point for the past two thousand years, and it's not likely to be settled any time soon.

The word in question is the Hebrew term almah -- usually considered to mean "young woman", by Hebrew scholars -- in Isaiah 7:14. There is also the Septuagint translation of Isaiah into koine Greek, which uses the term parthenos, usually considered to mean "virgin".

The writers of the NT, of course, used and referred to the Septuagint translation of Isaiah, since they themselves were writing in koine Greek.

The question of what almah means, and what the author of the verse meant when he used it, is what is debated.

So in a sense, the gospels DO say she wasn't a virgin (or at least leave the question open).

No. Both gospels which refer to the matter of Jesus' birth, Matthew and Luke, leave no doubt whatsoever that they both believe that Isaiah 7:14 referred to a virgin magically becoming pregnant via an invisible person with magical superpowers slipping magical ectoplasm into her.

Since no-one is arguing that the author of Isaiah is also the author of either Matthew or Luke, the matter is not pertinent to what I was trying to argue.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 06 Dec 2011 #permalink

I think the last paragraph could be expanded or better yet even removed . What exactly do you think the Bible's value is? What are the other works which are better than the Bible that are not influenced or derived and still western. You are contextualizing your self rather than the topic.

To say a cultural reference does not guide moral values of a culture requires much more heavy lifting. that statment is like trying to say that a dilithium crystal would fit nicely in place of a gas tank on my hover bike.

By Ted Sbardella (not verified) on 06 Dec 2011 #permalink

Rieux wrote:

In that book and every one of his others, Avalos is making arguments consisting of evidence and reasoning. Whining about the fact that heâhorrors!âhas critical things to say about Christianity rather than pointing out some substantive error you believe he has made is simply ludicrous.

Interesting that you substituted "critical things to say" for the word I used, "diatribe". ;-) A diatribe is an emotional outburst, which, in Avalos' case, involved a good deal of frothing at the mouth. His basic argument, that religious belief creates scarce resources, is stupid, because he demonstrates that the term "scarce resource" can be stretched to fit pretty much anything. When a theory can explain anything, it explains nothing. Whether his data is accurate, I cannot say, but given his clear bias, I don't trust it.

We make fun of religious folks for being so accepting of nutjobs as long as they have the same goals, and I'd like to believe that we're above such things. Avalos embarrasses me.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 06 Dec 2011 #permalink

We have no idea what a jesus christ would think, if It lived at all, it was thousands of years ago. It didn't write anything, Its fable is the creation of other authors. The christian's book can be used to justify anything; positive or negative. To use That Book as a basis for morality is disgusting. Jesus christ was in favor of killing the children for dog's sake.

He'd be thinking "isn't it dark in here?".

You have got to be kidding me. In a field in which open adherence to the Christian faith is de rigueur, you think Avalos is required to justify your "faith" (guh) "in his objectivity"?

Yes, actually, I do, and for good reason: if you're speaking as a scholar, and want to be heard, understood and respected as such, then you bloody well need to maintain your credibility, because any lapses on your part will be used against you by the majority whose beliefs you're questioning. That may not be fair, but it's a fact nonetheless.

We Pagans have someone in the same position: a professor of ancient history, who's shown himself to be very Pagan-friendly, and may be a Pagan himself, but can't come out and announce his loyalties, because, as a professor, he has to maintain at least the apperance of academic detachment.

Whether or not the Bible is a reliable moral guide ultimately rests on the integrity of the Bible.

That depends on what you mean by "integrity." We also need to show integrity in our criticism of the Bible. If we take the Bible as a collection of writings by people who wanted to pass on what wisdom they accumulated, and establish a moral code usable in their time and place, then the Bible has "integrity" as a "guide" -- provided we also understand that "guide" does NOT mean "sole definitive or authoritative source." There's no need to debate whether it's the Inerrant Word of God first; we can use our rational capabilities to decide how useful it is to us -- as a "guide" -- without it having to be either Inerrant or total crap.

Raging Bee: I am glad to meet the one who has finally figured out what Jesus meant regarding divorce. You've outdone all the churches and people of the past hundreds of years.

Don't you think it's kinda hypocritical to get snarky with me for doing the same thing everyone else here is doing?

If we take the Bible as a collection of writings by people who wanted to pass on what wisdom they accumulated, and establish a moral code usable in their time and place

You certainly can pull the christian handy book apart and come up with something that might appear that way. However, if you look a It as a whole, there is no way that could be the reason It was assembled the way It is. The christian handy book is far more about control and justification for oppression. Instilling an underlying fear into the masses. The christian bible is a disgusting book.

I couldn't agree more.

If one accepts the definition of 'morality' as being a code of behavior that includes both ethical and ritualistic guidance (e.g., do not kill, do not have non-marital sex), then the Bible contains numerous codes with varying degrees of conflict with each other. Furthermore, they put God in the unpleasant position of being both immoral and unethical.

For purposes of educating the young, 'biblical morality' is a meaningless waste of time. Its political value as a code is self-evident, however.

As someone who was raised fundamentalist Christian and earned 2 degrees from the most notorious fundamentalist university in the United States, I can tell you that The more sophisticated my understanding of morality has become, the further and further I have mode away from The Bible. The Bible presented simple answers for simple times. Much of those answers were designed to keep people in line, not to provide a coherent, consistent ethical framework - nor an understanding as to *why* certain behaviors were more moral than others.

If someone's reference for ethical behavior is truly limited only to the Bible, this may be a good reason to question the integrity of their moral framework.

Never mind the fact that there of millions upon millions of people in other cultures, who have never cracked a Bible, who nonetheless manage to lead remarkably moral lives.

Dear Jason,

Came here for the first time via Andrew Sullivan's blog and just wanted to compliment you on a very well-written post. I'll be stopping back regularly in future.

I've got to say -- and this is by no means a dig at you or your argument -- I can't believe we're still having this same old back-and-forth. It's almost 2012 for crying out loud. I first started reading up on these issues about 15 years ago and can't begin to count the number of times I've seen this particular debate rehashed. A Bible-believer, more sophisticated than many, recognizes that the morality of the Bible is dubious at best, and mounts a tortured defense of the divinity of the Book. A secularist makes the blindingly obvious point that if the Bible is simply the product of human work, its inconsistencies are not problematic. The Bible-believer basically agrees but holds on to his belief through increasingly vague and wishy-washy formulations.

Your version of the secularist argument is succinct, logical and nicely done. I have a lot of sympathy for David Lose and his agonized efforts, but really: isn't it time that these folks (however well-intentioned they might be) just give it up?

By E.Hatt-Swank (not verified) on 11 Dec 2011 #permalink

From the article and all the comments it would appear that everything is relative to the time of history in which we find ourselves, and the dictates of an earlier time cannot be relied on to guide us in the circumstanses which we find ourselves regardless of the contaxt of religious or secular origin. I say let God, or reason, speak to each man according to his need and circumstance but let each man act within the social contract (Rule of Law) of which he is a subject. If his belief varies from the social contract then he must seek to change it or leave it behind and seek others of like mind to create an acceptable social contract under which he can comfortably live according to his own understanding of morality. So it was with Abraham, the Israelites, the early Christion church, our nations Founders, and so on and on. This is human history and whether one takes ones cues from God or man it will always be thus. SO WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL!!!!!!!!

Is it really fair to ask why God didn't communicate to the various writers of the Bible in a clearer fashion? After all, if the story is to be believed, then God spoke pretty frankly to Moses, handing down a few simple rules, and just look at how difficult it is to agree on what those commandments mean, or even which ten are THE proper ten!

It's pretty easy for someone who is not a Christian or Jew to reject the Bible as a reliable moral guide, on the basis of its many inconsistencies, confusing suggestions, and ideas that even seem morally repugnant. However, try picking up any of the classic works of moral philosophy, Eastern or Western, and see how much better you can do with those problems. Try it with Dostoevsky, or any other literary work that offers moral insight. What if Christians believed that Socrates had been inspired divinely? Would we have to say he was a lousy moral guide?

In short, I think maybe the problem is that people have certain ideas of what a reliable moral guidebook would be like, and when the Bible doesn't satisfy those ideas, they reject its value. But maybe the problem is with your initial assumption.

The reason why the Bible is written in a convoluted language and requires the interpretation of scholars is because the people who wrote and compiled biblical texts were highly intelligent people, who wanted to use their intelligence to control everyone else.

Though Jesus himself was not particularly brilliant, and by his life and death cleary demostrated that he had no idea how to manage people effectively, his followers, the more conniving ones with the intelligence more suitable for life on earth, were actually able to utilize him for their own benefit and exert influence on those, who can't even read properly.

"SO WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL!!!!!!!!"

The big deal is twofold:

1) Religious fundamentalists want to use the Bible (their reading) as the law to be implemented in the country (in this specific case, the USA) to enforce morality. Therefore whether the bible CAN be used as a guide to law because it is the true source of morality is rather important to work out before you start using it to define law.

2) Religious fundamentalists insist that they are the only moral people and that atheists, especially, are inherently immoral. Since this is based on the fact that atheists have no bible and they do, the role of the bible as a moral authority is important.

There are also others who are persecuted because the bible insists they are teh ebil.

Abortion doctors and homosexuals (lesbians are fine, though, as long as they don't look after kids) are the most common examples.

Your reading on how morality needs to be set in the society is spot on, and an entire chapter on that subject is in Dawkins' The God Delusion (The Changing of the Moral Zeitgeist, IIRC).

Fundamentalists want us to go back to the stone age, however.

Suzy @43:

Is it really fair to ask why God didn't communicate to the various writers of the Bible in a clearer fashion?

Yes its fair, because he's God. When humans don't communicate clearly, we can chalk it up to imperfection. Since 'imperfection' is not an option for (the standard conception of) God, either he meant to be unclear or it's not a message from God.

Try it with Dostoevsky, or any other literary work that offers moral insight. What if Christians believed that Socrates had been inspired divinely? Would we have to say he was a lousy moral guide?

But the point is they don't claim divine inspiration. Whatever moral failings they have, it is no big deal to say the author made a mistake in one respect or another. Unless you are willing to say God makes mistakes, lack of clarity is going to be a serious theological issue.

I think maybe the problem is that people have certain ideas of what a reliable moral guidebook would be like, and when the Bible doesn't satisfy those ideas, they reject its value.

People have a certain idea of what God must be like, to be God. Benevolent; perfect; omnipotent; omniscent. The bible's teachings aren't consistent with that idea. The three possible solutions are: (1) go the fundie route and claim everyone is reading it wrong any time an inconsistency crops up; (2) claim its divinely inspired but our idea of God is wrong (e.g., he's not benevolent, or he's not perfect, etc.), or; (3) claim its not actually divinely inspired.

Since explanation #3 is observationally consistent with every book in existence, that is the one empiricists gravitate towards.

Suzy,

It's pretty easy for someone who is not a Christian or Jew to reject the Bible as a reliable moral guide, on the basis of its many inconsistencies, confusing suggestions, and ideas that even seem morally repugnant. However, try picking up any of the classic works of moral philosophy, Eastern or Western, and see how much better you can do with those problems.

Assuming you don't mean this rhetorically, you can do a whole lot better with many of them. Plato, Aristotle, Tsunetomo, Bentham, Millâ¦the works of any of those guys are more understandable and self-sufficient. Do they also contain morally repugnant ideas? Usually, yes. "Classic" works are almost by definition old, and even the most enlightened folks from the past usually believed some nasty stuff by our standards. But no one here has claimed that any of those books is a completely reliable guide to moral behavior either. Personally, I doubt such a book has ever been written.

Still, if I had to choose, I'd back Mill or Locke or Spinoza as moral guides over the Bible any day.

Try it with Dostoevsky, or any other literary work that offers moral insight. What if Christians believed that Socrates had been inspired divinely? Would we have to say he was a lousy moral guide?

Well, yeah. Plato's Socrates is inconsistent, at least from dialogue to dialogue, and he's anti-democratic and advocates censorship, propaganda and slavery. He communicates a lot of valuable ideas, but "What Would Socrates Do?" is a pretty crappy rule for you and I to try to live by. Then again, would you expect the literary creation of one dude from ancient Athens to be an infallible guide to truth and righteousness?

And Dostoevsky wrote a lot of books, and they reflect his evolving morality over his lifetime, hence sometimes contain mutually incompatible moral stances. They're all worth reading, but they can't all be the correct guide to morality. Nor, again, would you really expect them to be. Plus, most of his output was fiction, and the "point" of good fiction is rarely unambiguous.

But both of these are still far more suited to be reliable moral guides than the Bible is. The complete works of Plato or of Dostoevsky were at least written by a single person. The Bible was written by dozens of people, across several centuries and multiple cultures. It's as if you took twenty pages each from Dostoevsky, Twain, Plato, Ayn Rand, L. Ron Hubbard, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and the Civil Code of Quebec, stapled them all together and called that your moral guide.

In short, I think maybe the problem is that people have certain ideas of what a reliable moral guidebook would be like, and when the Bible doesn't satisfy those ideas, they reject its value. But maybe the problem is with your initial assumption.

What do you find problematic about it? If you don't think that a reliable moral guidebook should be self-consistent, clear and free from morally repugnant ideas, I'm not at all sure what "reliable" means to you!

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 17 Dec 2011 #permalink

"People have a certain idea of what God must be like, to be God. Benevolent; perfect; omnipotent; omniscent."

It's amazing that a perfect creator can be so imcomptetent at creating at the same time. You would expect a perfect being to produce something perfect, but all you see is the opposite of what the Bible teaches you: "A good tree will yield good fruit, a bad tree will yield bad fruit" or "A bad tree will not bear good fruit".

If you judge the producer by the products they produce, then God must be totally rotten!

I hope many of you heard of an incident when a human baby was abondoned by his parents, and adopted by a pack of wolves. When he was finally found by a group of people, he was probably in his 20s, what they saw was quite surprising.

This person was completely adopted to the life style of these wolves, including their way of locomotion, diet, behavior and communication method. There was absolutely no infuence on the part of this person on wolves whatsoever.

Obviously, this person had absolutely no human knowledge, including the knowledge in the Bible, such as morality.
Human morality was absolutely useless to him.