Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My View of the Bible- Part 1

A recent comment asked that I talk about my experience reading the Bible this month.  One of the nice things about commenting on a blog post is that, since I get an average of about 0.6 comments per post, there's a pretty good chance I'll read it.

This is something I've been meaning to do, but I've shied away so far because of the sheer scope involved.  The Bible is a several thousand page document with one of the richest interpretive histories of anything ever written (really only the Talmud and the Koran are in the same ballpark).  I'm afraid my analysis will appear cursory in comparison, but I'll do my best to incorporate links to some of the resources I've found helpful along the way.

I must admit that my Bible reading is slower going than I had hoped for- I tend to get side tracked by the likes of C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, Richard Dawkins, and a slew of blogs and other online resources in an attempt to find answers to the questions I come across while reading the scriptures.  Truth be told, I'm about a hundred pages behind the pace I had hoped to set.  As of now, I'm part way through Deuteronomy, and I'm reading through the gospels in parallel with the old testament.

Finally, this post got ridiculously long as I tried to fit in all the reading and research I've done so far.  Its long enough that it now makes more sense to break it into multiple posts instead.  This isn't such a bad thing, since I was never going to cover the whole of the Bible in one post anyway.  This just means you'll see "My View of the Bible- Part 2" sooner rather than later.

General Impressions

1) The first thing I've noticed in my reading is that the cultural and language barriers between me and the Old Testament authors are HUGE.  We don't value the same things, and we don't talk about them in the same way.  I think I've always severely underestimated this fact.  In the past, I've read and interpreted scriptures as if they were written in English by someone who thinks like me.  The reality is much more complex, and trying to accurately interpret even what the author was going for (much less any spiritual truth behind it) is fraught with difficulties.

2) The second thing I've noticed is that so far, the Bible does not strike me as divine.  I do not mean any insult by this, and I do not mean to say here that the Bible is not in fact divinely inspired- I haven't decided what I think about that yet.  I'm merely saying that I don't think the Bible holds up as a "self-authenticating" divine work.  It may or may not be true, but so far, an honest and open reading of the Bible does not lead me to the undeniable conclusion of a divine work.

3) Third, I find that I am repulsed by the morality professed in the Old Testament.  I must pause here and admit that this is one of the cases where its very difficult to separate culture and language with my attitude towards the events described.  As a modern western thinker, I place a huge emphasis on individual rights, freedom, and justice.  Societies at the time of the Old Testament's writing placed a huge emphasis on patriachical structure, corporal success/punishment, and attributing the outcome of every event to the intervention of God.  It is unclear to me how much of what is written is colored this way- for example, how many of the instances where "God said" something were actually God talking, and how many were actions taken by Old Testament individuals that they (quite innocently, by their worldview) attributed to God.  In addition, some of the morally objectionable parts of the Old Testament do not claim the explicit support of God, but rather are silent or vague about his involvement or endorsement.  All that being said, I find it extremely difficult to reconcile the God that I grew up believing in (the "New Testament" God most modern day Christians believe in) with the one described in the Old Testament.  I will cover some specific examples of these moral problems in "My View of the Bible- Part 2"


1) The Creation story in the Bible is in direct contradiction with modern scientific understanding on several counts.  To the Christian, note that I do not say "scientific fact" here, but we must admit that both the preponderance of evidence and the vast majority of experts are now in agreement on the following subjects.

First and foremost, the theory of evolution.  It is true that evolution is "just" a theory in the same way that it is true that Newtonian Physics was "just" a theory.  In fact, I think that quite an appropriate analogy.  While Newtonian Physics turned out to be wrong, it was not wrong in a binary sense- that is, not entirely wrong.  It was wrong in that it did not correctly deal with the the boundary cases of very large or very small objects.  That is to say, it failed the test of being extrapolated beyond the data points available and the time of its inception.  Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, two of the theories that superseded parts of Newtonian Physics, turns out to explain these extremes much better.  But that does not mean Newtonian Physics was wrong in the way that the Phlogiston theory was wrong (or the classic, if mythical, flat-earth theory).  It was more incomplete than it was wrong.  If you're having trouble seeing what I'm getting at, I would recommend this essay by Isaac Asimov titled "The Relativity of Wrong".

I think the serious scientist would concede that evolution may be much the same.  It may be that we uncover something in the future that leads to a better, more accurate view of evolutionary processes.  But evolution is not "wrong" in the binary sense.  It is not the case that Common Descent is a myth, a misinterpretation, or an outright fabrication.

If you're not buying what I'm selling, and you want to see convincing evidence for Common Descent yourself, I would recommend talk origins.  I've read through several of their articles (though certainly not all), and they go into great detail about the evidence for evolution.  Frankly, I am not equipped (nor is this blog the appropriate place) to talk authoritatively on a field of science that you can literally spend your life learning and still not know everything.  But I am personally convinced with a high degree of certainty by the arguments for evolution.

Secondly, the age of the earth.  Rather than try to put this in my own words, I shall simply quote this view given by a theistic evolutionist, with which I wholeheartedly agree:
There are too many scientific disciplines that state that the earth is more than 10,000 years old. Astronomy, genetics, linguistics, geology, plate tectonics, and archeology all say it is a lot older. The probable figure is about 4 billion years for planet Earth, and roughly 3 billion for life itself. We base our conclusions on appearances and scientific observations. The weight of evidence from all these disciplines is too much for me to dismiss. I do not find at all credible the assertions that the earth is only 10,000 years old and all the natural processes occurred within that time. (Bishop Ussher calculated 6,000 years old, and the Flood at 2348 BC.)

One often reads the statement that "evolution says the earth is billions of years old." This statement is incorrect. Astronomy and geology say that the earth is billions of years old. Evolution draws on these disciplines for an estimate of the time in which the evolutionary processes can work. This point is important in order to realize the breadth of the quarrel about the age of the earth. If you assert that the earth is only 10,000 years old, you are disputing far more areas of the natural sciences than just a portion of biology.

Some young-earth creationists assert that the earth is 10,000 years old, and others assert that the earth is 6,000 years old. That's a big difference: 4,000 years, or 67%. Bishop Ussher's chronology, derived from the Bible, clearly states that the earth is 6,000 years old. Extending the age to 10,000 years conveniently places the date of Creation and the Flood beyond the oldest trees, and beyond the pyramids and dynasties of ancient Egypt. I have heard the following accusation from young-earth creationists: You are interpreting the Bible in the light of science; you should be interpreting science in the light of the Bible. (I have not heard a Bible verse to back up that charge.) 10,000 years is not what Bishop Ussher said. What is the reason for changing his number? Creationists who claim 10,000 years, unless they do so for purely Biblical reasons, should hear that same accusation ringing in their ears at least once.

Third, the idea of Noah's Ark and the global flood.  Simply doing the math for the story of Noah's ark reveals it to be completely unfeasible.  According the the Bible, the ark was constructed to be 450 feet x 75 feet by 45 feet, with a lower, second, and third deck.  I saw no mention of a roof, but lets give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the roof also serves as a deck.  So that's 4 floors of 33,750 feet, so 135,000 sq feet.  That's approximately 2.8 football fields (not including end zones).  According to John Woodmorappe in his book "Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study" (sorry no citation here... I can't find the original article I used for these numbers.  However, some quick google searches yield these two  (Christian) sites, which seem to corroborate the number), there are 16,000 different kinds of animals that Noah would have to fit on the ark.  Since he's writing a Christian book arguing for the feasibility of the ark, I think he can be relied upon to give the most favorable estimate he can in good conscience.  That's roughly 8.5 square feet for each pair of animals.  According to Woodmorappe, 15% of the 16,000 animals are the size of a sheep or bigger, which is roughly 2500 animals. Ignoring all the other animals, and ignoring the fact that some animals are much, much bigger than sheep, that's 54 sq feet for each pair of sheep-sized animals (that's a 9' x 6' cage).  That's simply not enough room to spend the 6 months or so the Bible says they were stuck there.

So the most generous estimate we can give, without counting room for humans to live, ignoring the 85% of animals smaller than a sheep, ignoring the enormous creatures like the elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, and giraffe (not to mention dinosaurs, which according to young-earth Creationists were still around at this point), and before accounting for food storage, exercise room, and waste disposal, says that the "two of every animal" theory is out the window.  All this fails to consider whether 8 people could take care of that many animals, how animals might get to Australia or North or South America after the flood, how some animals adapted to particular climates could survive (e.g. polar bears, penguins, etc) and how long it would take (or if it's even possible) for both vegetation (which we haven't even mentioned!) and animals to repopulate the earth.  And we have not yet considered the fact that the water required to cover mount Everest (Genesis 7:19-20 "all the high mountains under the whole sky were covered with flood water. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them 15 cubits deep"), or even a reasonable sized mountain range, simply does not exist in the world today.

Ultimately, you can find Christian sources that try to argue for this being possible.  But none of them use actual math.  They use lots of handwaiving.  After doing the math myself, and reading the arguments on both sides, this one's not even close.  It fails the gut reaction test, it fails the math test, and it fails the reason test on at least (by my count) six different challenges.  The only way you can claim this account is literal is to accept a litany of miracles that go completely unremarked upon in the Bible itself.  And if we're willing to accept "Miracle!" as a valid answer, particularly when the Bible makes no explicit claim of a miracle, then we've lost all basis for even thinking critically about the Bible.  And that makes it of no use to someone who doesn't already believe it to be true.

2) Since a liberal (allegorical) reading of Genesis, combined with Theistic Evolution, seems to get around the scientific problems in the old testament, I feel that I must spend a bit of time enumerating my problems with these two ideas. (I'm doing this in list form to save space)

-Genesis says that plants were created before the sun and stars.  This might work in the young-earth model, where one day without sunlight ain't going to kill you (although the temperature might...), but it most certainly does not work in the old-earth theistic evolution paradigm.  Plants flat out cannot exist without sunlight.  It seems we must accept that not only is this section of the Bible allegorical, it is also plainly inaccurate

-To use the Theistic Evolution model, we must account for "bad" creatures- creatures like tapeworms, Ebola, parasites, etc.  Moreover, we must account for the fact that these must have existed while Adam and Eve were still in the garden of Eden.  So, all that talk about perfection, no pain and suffering, and no carnivorous animals in the Garden of Eden that Christians are so fond of?  Just kidding!

-In the Theistic Evolution model, then, the Garden of Eden doesn't make sense except as an allegory.  Humans were not undying, nor were we somehow free of evil.  We were just humans.  And the "fall" wasn't anything spectacular, because there were already bad creatures and pain and death in the world

-If this is the case, then the doctrine of Original Sin seems to fall apart (I confess that I never really bought this doctrine to begin with, even as a Christian.  I wonder how many other Christians feel the same way?)  We can still have the model of God imparting a soul onto humanity, and of the first humans disobeying him and thus falling from his grace, but we are left without the grandiose language or imagery of man polluting a perfect world through his sin.

-All this seems to say we cannot take the first half of Genesis even a little bit literally.  But then, what CAN we take literally?  I think there's a huge problem here- if we didn't have science, we would (and indeed, we used to) believe something totally false about where the world came from.  Hence, the claim of Biblical Infallibility is falsified.  Or rather, saying the Bible is "infallible" is of no use to us if we can only justify it after the fact by reinterpreting the Bible to fit what we know to be true.  Frankly, the Bible is big enough and vague enough that we can interpret it to mean just about anything we want, so if we're going to go down the road that we have to reinterpret the Bible when we find out things about the world that are ACTUALLY true, then Biblical Infallibility isn't actually a meaningful claim.  I'm not saying that an infallible Bible should give us additional knowledge about science- I'm just saying the Bible shouldn't be leading us to false conclusions, which is clearly what the first half of Genesis does.

- Moreover, this portion of the Bible reads to me like a historical account.  Here I go back to what I said earlier, that there's too big of a cultural and language gap between me and the Biblical authors for me to properly say what should or should not be taken literally.  And I think the presence of so many young-earth creationists tells us that that's true of the experts as well (or, alternatively, the Bible a load of bull).  In light of this, we must ask the question: What else that we consider literal might in fact be allegorical? What about the resurrection of Jesus?  I don't *think* that part is supposed to be allegorical, but then I didn't think Genesis was either (Paul, of course, argues against this, so we may take it that at least one early church leader said otherwise)

3) Finally, I want to quickly ask and answer the question: Must the Bible be infallible to be "true" or useful?  I say no.  We don't hold anybody or anything else to the "infallible" standard.  Textbooks are true.  Science is true.  My family is trustworthy.  My reason is trustworthy.  All of these are useful, but none of them are infallible.  It seems to me an over-zealous and unnecessary claim to make on a religious text.  Moreover, it seems to me to clearly not be the case, at least for the Bible.  But the only way I actually see this as a problem for Christianity is if the Bible claims infallibility for itself.

I guess what I'm saying is that, while errors in your Holy Scriptures are not good, I have a hard time disqualifying a religion because of some historical inaccuracies.  The Bible was written by humans, copied by humans, and translated by humans.  At what point did humans become perfect?  The only way you can make this claim is to say that God actively controlled hundreds of different people throughout history and prevented them from making any sort of mistake.  This seems to me quite a bold, and indeed unnecessary, claim to make.

Next time, I'll cover some specific objections I have to several sections of the Pentateuch, along with some contradictions I see in the Gospels (hint: read the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3).  And, since this is starting to sound pretty negative, I'll also make sure to talk about some of the positive things I see in the Old Testament scriptures


  1. Did you ever end up doing a "part 2" to this?

    1. Hi claritaspastor,

      I didn't... I got indefinitely sidetracked (as is my habit) and I ran into two other issues:

      1) There are enormous amounts of literature for all this already- I don't really have the years of academic experience to be able to add anything new
      2) The problem space is too large. There's too much going on, and I couldn't give a good account of the Old Testament without leaving out hugely important parts (or spending the next several years of my life doing it)

      I'm definitely disappointed that I never finished at least writing through the end of the Pentateuch (my notes go up through the end of Numbers, but I never made it past Genesis on the blog).

      If you're looking for references, I've found Bob Seidensticker's Cross Examined to be pretty solid on New Testament historical challenges, and Ken Daniels' book why I believed does a pretty good job at least glossing over a lot of the difficulties in the Old Testament (at least the ones that cause the most hand-wringing to modern sensibilities), specifically here (Daniels also recommends The Bible and the Ancient Near East as a historical source for the Old Testament.) I've also been recommended The Hero of a Thousand Faces as a historical comparison of Jesus with mythological figures (haven't read this one yet, it's sitting on my book shelf)

      Fair warning, all of those sources are heavily slanted towards Atheism :) I found it extremely difficult to find serious attempts to rectify the Bible with history, since the vast majority of scholarly Bible work for the last 2000 years has been done by Catholics, and they don't take the same hard-line stance toward Biblical infallibility that many Protestants do.

    2. Biblical study is one of my weak spots in my Catholic knowledge. I know I already asked you a similar question, but where does the Catholic position on the Bible fit into this? The biggest Catholic Bible scholar I know of right now is Dr. Scott Hahn.

      I'm majoring in Philosophy and Theology right now, so hopefully I'll learn how to find my answers as I progress through college :) Thanks for your help!

    3. My understanding of the Catholic position on the Bible- and I'm not a Catholic, so take it with a grain of salt- is essentially "The Bible is good, accurate, and inspired by God, but it is not infallible." They don't hold to the position that the Bible is literally correct in everything it says. So from their perspective, it's ok if there is some historical hyperbole (the number of Jews that fled Egypt in Exodus, whether or not Egypt actually controlled Canaan during the Exodus, the worldwide flood, the literal 7 day creation story, the different versions of Jesus' birth presented in Matthew and Luke, etc. etc.)

      Catholics have the freedom to do this because they maintain the Authority of the Church as a parallel source of knowledge. From a Protestant (fundamentalist) perspective, the Bible is literally all they have to work with (Sola Scriptura), so it darn well better be accurate to the letter, or their whole theology is in trouble. Some Protestants have moved away from Biblical literalism, but it's awfully hard to come up with a coherent religion when your one and only Authority source is stripped of it's Authority (I still haven't heard of one)

      This is actually one of the problems I see in Catholicism as well- it has two (main) Authority sources (scripture and the Church), and I think the evidence shows that neither is an effective source of truth. The history of the Catholic Church is a BIG deal.

      The standard comeback here is that humans are flawed, and the Church is made up of humans, and even though it's not perfect, it is still a reliable reflection of God. This fails for me on two counts- first, the Church is claiming to be a holy, divinely inspired institution with divinely inspired knowledge. It's not good enough to say "well, we're human, so...." because if the Church is capable of just flat out being wrong, then the claim of divine inspiration is stripped of all meaning, and the Church stripped of her Authority. You can't claim authority- "this is true because I say so"- one moment, and turn around the next and say "ok ok, past!Church was wrong." If past!Church was wrong, how can we possibly trust present!Church?

      Second, the history of the Church does not seem to bare out the claim that it is holy or set apart. There's lots of examples of Church corruption, ranging from the crusades, the inquisition, the imprisonment of Gallileo, etc. to Papal corruption (Popes Steven VI, John XII, Benedict IX, and Urban VI). There are also some modern day examples where I'm pretty convinced the Church is flat out wrong- its stance on contraception and gay marriage in particular come to mind. This is not to say that the Church hasn't also produced some wonderful people who've done amazing things- just to say that the claim that the Church is divinely set apart, or has some divine knowledge imparted to it, doesn't seem to hold water.

      Also worth noting that there are lots of really smart Catholic people who know Catholic history better than I do and are still Catholic.

      Good luck on your own journey! There's lots of good Catholic blogs over at (and some good atheist ones too)

    4. Wow, thanks for such a detailed reply! I don't yet know much about Church history myself, so that'll be something I look into :)

      As to the contraception/gay marriage issues, (you may have heard of him already), I find that Marc Barnes at BadCatholic ( does a great job explaining the Church position on these issues, if you'd like to check him out. I know him personally because he goes to my school, and he's a pretty smart guy.

      A good one about contraception is probably this one:

      And a good one on gay marriage (especially the links he puts at the bottom) is this one:

      PS- Thanks for the Reductionism post! I'm off to read that right now :)

    5. Oh, and just for fun, I'll throw in a personal favorite post of mine. Read it if you get the chance :)