Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Helping Atheists Understand the Bible: An ntroduction.

My atheist Twitter friend, (Lets call him TA) liked the answer I gave to one of his previous tweets (Luke 12:47-48: Was Jesus in Favor of Slavery? )so much  that he gave me another "problematic" passage. Here is his tweet:
Here is the passage in which he finds reason to think that Jesus advocated the killing of children:

Matthew 15:1-20

That Which Defiles

 1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’”
10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

It is obvious TA heeded the advice from my previous post: "when quoting the Bible: a text without a context is a pretext". As you can see this time he gave a whole chapter as "context"! However, I feel that perhaps he over reached a bit. Looking to his passage, it is clear (to me) the only relevant parts are the ones I underlined in the text, so I will limit my comments to these. I was going to include my response in this post but it was getting to long so I will address my answer in a future post.

However before delving into this text, I feel some preliminary statements about the reading the Bible (Or any ancient work for that matter) are in order. Many atheists (and many Christians too!) make two fundamental mistakes when reading the Bible. First, they approach it as if the Bible was composed in the same manner as any other modern work of literature. Why shouldn't they follow this approach? Simply put, the Bible is not a book. The Bible is a collection of documents, composed by many peoples at different times and influenced by many different societies and cultures. The history of the Bible spans from about 1600 B.C to 120 A.D. During this time many were the hands, minds and voices who contributed to this work, with their own styles and levels of inspiration. When reading this work, consideration must be given to all these people, times, and cultures, especially when trying to find the universal principles this work presents.

The second mistake some people make when reading the Bible is what in hermeneutics is known as  "Presentism" or "the uncritical tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts".  We saw an example of this when TA claimed Jesus advocated slavery because he used the first century, Judaic concept of slavery as examples in his preaching. In TA's presentist mind Jesus' cavalier attitude towards slavery  meant  tacit assent to this institution. TA ignores the fact that 2000 years ago slavery was part of the social and cultural fabric of the time, and that Jesus is just using what his audience knew about this institution to convey an idea. Absent in TA's interpretation of the text is the consideration that this institution was vastly different to what we understand as slavery, like the fact that people could sell themselves into slavery to pay debts, or to have a master to take care of them. It is needless to say that biblical scholars and serious scripture students are always avoiding, presentism. A quick advice to my atheist readers: If the experts don't interpret this way, perhaps it is best for you not to do it either.

So the question is then: How should we read the Bible? For the serious student, it is of the utmost importance to realize that the Bible can not be read like a regular book.When teaching about Holy Scripture this is the very first principle I give my students. In the Bible you encounter all sorts of literary styles; some of which are not in use anymore. Among these you encounter: historical works, song collections, poetry, law codes, genealogies, liturgical texts, apocalyptic literature, and many others. If you do not know how to read these, or the differences among them, perhaps you might be better reading a book ABOUT the Bible, before you actually read the Bible.  To me the best approach to follow when reading Scripture is this: read it as you read the newspaper.

When one reads the newspaper, one never reads the editorial in the same way the sports section is read; or the cartoons, the gardening section, or the obituaries. And most people do not start with page 1A and end on page 20E. People tend to read the sections that interest them the most first, and then finish the less important sections later or even completely ignore some. Like the Bible, each newspaper section has their own style which, if not respected, could lead to a lot of errors and mis-interpretations. Imagine what would happen if people were to read the Obituaries in the same way they read the Cartoons section!. This is why when atheists make outrageous claims about the Bible, some Christians with scriptural knowledge find these statements embarrassingly laughable. Quick advice to my atheist readers: When reading the Bible, or any ancient work for that matter, one must respect the "voice" of the document, while seeking the universal truths this voice is trying to convey.

I would like to make one last point. Just because the documents collected in the Bible are the product of different ancient cultures. This is not to say that the inspired ideas these people received do not apply to us, on the contrary it is very easy to show that these principles are in fact universal and that they are as much relevant to us as they were to them.

By now you might be thinking: What does all this biblical interpretation stuff have to do with the original post? Well, these preliminary considerations will be of great help when I answer TA's tweet, which I will do in a future post.

"Viva Cristo Rey!!"