Posted: Sep 19, 2013 6:07 pm
by Byron
Thanks to Will for a comprehensive and insightful account of biblical history. I disagree about Pauline authorship, but that need not detain us here.

My introduction looks at the theological absurdity behind claims of biblical accuracy, an absurdity illustrated by witchhunts and antisemitism, followed by an issue of contemporary relevance, homophobia, and a conclusion arguing that Will must defend a miraculous definition of "reliability" to make his case.

Biblical excerpts come from the New Revised Standard Version.


All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Second letter to Timothy

The reason for claiming that the Bible is reliable is found in this quote from a letter forged in Paul's name. Yes, the forgery refers to Jewish scripture, but Christians routinely apply its assertion to the entire biblical canon. The Bible is, we're told, "God-breathed." It is, yet again, a question of authority. Because-I-say-so. Assertion substituted for evidence. Same old jazz.

Here's the core of my position:-

The question of biblical reliability is inseparable from the underlying theology of biblical authority.

Biblical authority comes down to this fallacious claim: the words of the Bible have special weight because they're in the Bible. The authority fallacy is a central Christian dogma. According to Christian orthodoxy, the Spirit of God inspired the biblical authors in a miraculous way, helping them to craft God's revelation while preserving them from error, and Christians revere the fruits of this most awesome of collaborations as holy scripture. Sunday by Sunday Christians chant, "This is the Word of the Lord," and thank God for his revelation. Biblical authority is the subtlest of miracle claims, and with it, the most insidious.

The recurring thread of this debate, authoritarianism, is fully realized in the bibliolatry of orthodox Christianity. All arguments about the Christian bible's "reliability" rest on this fallacious base. If Christianity were rational, it would not enshrine a fallacy as a dogma. It would not have dogma. Q.E.D.

I won't waste my time, or anyone else's, by focusing on the symptom of biblical reliability while ignoring the disease of biblical authority. That's a road to nowhere. Apologists have concocted a saving-throw for every contradiction, error, and howler in their sacred text. The nature of texts ensures that they can never be disproven, any more than they can be proven. Someone determined to impose a meaning on a text will do so regardless of its ability to support them.

If you want to bring down a wall you go for its foundation.

Instead of playing on the opposition's terms within their closed-system, I'll step outside its confines, and look at why biblical reliability is given such weight by Christians. My aim is to show that it's the enemy of reason.

If the resurrection is Christianity's most fantastic claim, biblical authority is its most dangerous.

Malleus Maleficarum

You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.

Exodus 22:18

When the junior senator for Wisconsin was pulled, spitting bile and hate in the name of righteousness, from his pulpit, he embodied the spirit of earlier witchhunts as much as he did their method. Senator "Joe" McCarthy didn't believe in trifles like due process for those on whom his disfavor fell. Neither did the Christian witchhunters whose bloodstained footfall Tail-Gunner Joe sought to continue. Treating accusation as proof, the modus operandi of the witchfinder, is the authority fallacy at its most brutal. You're guilty because I say you are.

Christian witchhunting is so cloaked in folklore and sensation that its terror and extent can be lost. Shrouded in Hammer Horror kitsch, witchhunting conjures images of diabolical lechers in wide-brimmed hats chasing buxom maidens, doubtless flanked by torch-wielding mobs; or else dour puritans (there's another kind?) stalking through colonial Massachusetts, terrorizing meek women prefixed "Goody," alongside the heroic Giles Corey.

Behind these images, half-Witchfinder General, half-Crucible, is the more sordid reality.

To be fair here, Christianity is not inherently predisposed to witchhunting. For most of the Middle Ages, the church scoffed at claims of witchcraft, dismissing them as folk tales and superstition.

What changed?

Although the extent of its influence is debated by historians, Heinrich Kramer and (possibly, his co-authorship is disputed) Jakob Sprenger's bloated 1487 tract of misogyny and paranoia, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) played a substantial role in lighting the fires of the early modern witch craze. It came in the wake of the 1484 papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus, written at Kramer's request, which acknowledged the existence of witchcraft, and granted him, and his fellow Dominican friar Sprenger, inquisitorial powers in north Germany. Behind the Malleus' argument that witches are a real and present danger is a terrible scriptural warrant:-

"Maleficos non patieris vivere."

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Malleus Maleficarum is a mix of pornography and hate speech. The instructive thing is how the Bible, backed by the authority of the church and, most terribly, the power of the confessional state, was marshaled to its cause, and how people under the thrall biblical authoritarianism responded. The Malleus made arguments, yes, but biblical authority was the steel in the glove. Anyone who dissented could find themselves accused of going against God's will as expressed in scripture as interpreted by the magisterium. Defend a witch and burn alongside her, alongside him. So powerful was the Malleus that even the church's eventual condemnation couldn't halt its spread. The authority of ecclesiastical bureaucracy lost to something more potent: the ability to infuse your will with the power of scripture. Cloak your desires with biblical texts and you become God's mouthpiece.

As McCarthy showed, religion isn't necessary for a witchhunt, but hysteria, moral panic and authoritarianism are. The dogma of biblical authority doesn't create our worst aspects, but it does fuel them, fuels them until people hang and burn. Authority smothers reason.

The problem isn't the Christian bible per se. The problem is the way in which the canon of scripture is used, the weight of authority invested in it. As a text, scripture is inert, harmless in itself. Only when we start arguing that finite human opinions are infallible does it become something else.

The horrific timeline of Christian antisemitism illustrates just how bad the something else can get.

"Perfidus Iudaeus": The Deicide Libel

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!"

Matthew 27:24-25

This short passage from the anonymous gospel attributed to the apostle Matthew has been used to justify the slaughter of millions.

Antisemitism became so embedded within the Christian imagination that the Second Vatican Council thought it necessary to absolve the Jewish people of Christ's murder. Christian antisemitism was premised on racial guilt for deicide. All Jews, said this evil doctrine, carried a blood curse for rejecting and murdering their god. "Christ-killers" deserved no mercy, and received none.

I will not insult the intelligence and decency of those reading by arguing why blood-guilt and collective punishment are irrational and barbaric. These were mainstream Christian positions for 2,000 years.

Modern, post-Holocaust apologists for biblical authority will howl in protest, as well they might. The verse has been taken out of context! It was a corruption by the church! (Protestant) The church never taught that, not really. (Catholic) Matthew was a Jew, as was Jesus, Paul, and all the apostles, it's absurd to suggest the gospel was intended to be antisemetic!

Well, perhaps. The point missed by the passage's defenders is that it doesn't matter. As post modernist critics enjoy telling anyone who'll listen, a reader isn't bound by authorial intent. The biblical authors are dead in more senses than the obvious. Readers inject meaning. When any text is given authoritarian weight, any agenda that can be read-in to it is duly empowered. Whether it's the hunting of witches or the murder of Jews, if it can be made to fit, people will suffer and die. As interpretation is inherent to all text, there will always be latitude to turn them into a weapon against a vulnerable minority.

Here is the crowning irony of biblical authority: it empowers not the text, but the people who interpret the text. It doesn't check demagogues: it hands them a weapon.

Biblical authority isn't the most fantastical illustration of Christianity's irrationality. It is, however, the most dangerous, because it injects the opinions of men with the power of the Word of the Lord. It turns hatemongers into God's mouthpiece. Nothing could be more unreliable, more irrational, or more dangerous.

Today, it's a danger manifest in scriptural gay-bashing.

Homophobia: A Biblical Abomination

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

And with that passage same-sex fucking becomes a "salvation issue" for millions of evangelical Christians. From a rational perspective, Paul of Tarsus isn't even wrong. No premise is offered. Paul nowhere says why same-sex copulation is a sin that denies people their inheritance of the kingdom of God. He just asserts that it is. Because-I-say-so at its purest.

Christians tried to inject reasons into the authoritarian biblical condemnation of homosexual relationships, illustrating, once again, that they don't operate on their claimed terms. Once, they claimed to have evidence that homosexuality was harmful, but as more and more people shook off the chains of two millennia of Christian homophobia, and came out to their family and friends, the attempts at reason dropped away in all but the most bigoted cases.

Now, Christian homophobia is the dogma that dare not speak its name. The irrationality of biblical authority is at its starkest in the reactions of Christians confronting what they insultingly call an "issue." Witness the awkward, twitching attempt at welcome to be found amongst contemporary evangelicals:-

"Why of course, homophobia (its existence now acknowledged) is wrong! Come in, gay and lesbian people, you are welcome in church, most welcome. Why no, of course, God doesn't hate you! Please forget such wicked things, those who voice them are no true Christians; we doubt they're even Scotsmen. God loves you! God loves friendship. Friendship? Why yes. You see, God makes demands on us all, gay and straight. For us straights it's the discipline of marriage; for you gays, the discipline of celibacy. Not equivalent, you say? Well I suppose not, but God is demanding. Not fair? God knows better than us. He has his reasons. What harm does a sexual relationship with your partner do? Well, it damages your relationship with God. How do we know this?

"It's simple.

"The Bible tells us so!"

And there it is. Behind its veil of faux-concern and insincere-regret for past wrongs, evangelical Christianity won't budge in its condemnation of same-sex lovemaking. It just really, really hopes that you don't ask. These days, it's not even "hate the sin, love the sinner," but "love the sinner, and pray you don't have to call it a sin."

Evangelicals find themselves in the ridiculous position of condemning gay relationships for no reason whatsoever, but feeling unable to budge from their condemnation, out of a fear that to do so would undermine biblical authority. Homophobia might have motivated their obsession with a few scattered texts, but they now find themselves trapped by it, ensnared by the monster they created. Scripture reliably led them into the most senseless cruelty.

They'll shift eventually, of course, just as they shifted over divorce, and are in the process of shifting over women in authority. At some point, the cost of gay-bashing will become too great for them to bear, and it'll be decided that the Bible always supported gay relationships and equal marriage, just as it was always against slavery.

What Paul really meant was ...


The things that yo' liable
To read in the Bible,
It ain't necessarily so!

Ira Gershwin, "It Ain't Necessarily So," Porgy and Bess

As I argued in the introduction, there's no point in addressing the consequence of biblical reliability while ignoring the cause of biblical authority. To do so leaves you playing a rigged deck. No contradiction is too extreme to be "explained" by some ingenious exegesis from a conveyor-belt of clean-shaven evangelical scholars with $2,000 suits and $10,000 smiles. "Matthew and Luke set their nativity stories ten years apart? Why no, when you look closely at the text ..."

This game can be played all day long, and it is. People make careers of making the Bible into what Christian dogma needs it to be.

Although I've focused on biblical authority through a protestant lens, scripture is held sacred throughout Christianity. All that changes is the dogma's implementation. Catholics buttress it with the magisterium, the teaching authority of the church, itself buttressed, since the end of the 19th century, with papal infallibility. The catholic argument at the time of the reformation wasn't that the reformers were wrong to invest the Bible with such weight: just the opposite, it was that the Bible was so sacred that it needed the authority of the church to interpret it correctly (and, since it was the church that authenticated the canon to begin with, scriptural authority was meaningless outside the magisterium). Your because-I-say-so is trumped by my because-I-say-so. My fallacy beats your fallacy. Irrationality in perfection.

Since Christian scripture is so diverse, canonical status being attached to the texts long after they were written, it's a nonsense to make uniform statements about the Bible's reliability, The Christian bible is no more or less reliable than any other library of varying date, provenance and authorship. Referring to this body of work as a unified whole with consistent characteristics frames the debate in supernatural terms. It's as absurd as making claims about a bookshelf's reliability. If the irrational concept of biblical authority wasn't in play, it wouldn't occur to frame the question thus. The act of arguing that the Bible is reliable is in itself irrational.

The canon's reliability varies depending on authorship, and, even at its best, is subject to the flaws and biases inherent to all people, bound as we are by a finite perspective limited by time, place, knowledge and experience. If Will is arguing that the Bible's reliability is of a normal human kind, he's not defending orthodox Christianity, and will have conceded this part of the debate. If he's arguing for a supernatural, "God-breathed," reliability, he'll be addressing biblical authority in-depth. In either case, I look forward to his rebuttal.