Some thoughts on Biblical Texts and how they get used

I’ve put in my Glee piece for the TLS and the Guardian commissioned someone else to reply to the idiotic Bea Campbell in re. ‘No Platform for Bindel’, and so I can take a few minutes to talk about something else I have been obsessing with quietly over the past few weeks.

Someone rightly pointed out that right-wing Christianist fundie homophobes don’t regard themselves as obliged to follow the purity codes of the Old Testament about mixed-textile clothing, or diet, and that this is because Paul says Christians are exempt from those codes. This does not explain why they still feel entitled to adopt Old Testament punishments, of course, so it is not quite the knock-down argument that was claimed; it would seem to me that if you are using the New Testament to govern your own behaviour, and the Old Testament to govern other people’s, there is a fundamental inconsistency people should be asked to address.

(And in this context, since we are talking about Christians and Christianists, I think that’s the appropriate vocabulary to use when referring to those books, just as I would try to make a distinction between the Jewish and Christian Bibles even when they are largely the same text, and be aware of the different canons of the various Christian churches. I grew up reading the Book of Tobit as part of my bible, having been reared Catholic, and am sometimes surprised when Protestant friends do not know what I am talking about if I refer to it.)

Meanwhile, Paul…Odd chap, I think we can agree on that, who created Christianity in large measure without having ever met Jesus. A man of his time, with conventional attitudes to slavery and women – and I have never understood why things he said that do not fit with the Gospels get taken so seriously as doctrine. He seems to have thought some very odd things – like that the tendency to bisexuality among Greeks and Romans was a madness caused by worshipping pagan gods. Does this mean he invented the concept of false consciousness? Probably not; it is doubtless somewhere in Plato.

He is, though, far more of a problem for people who believe in biblical inerrancy and fundamentalism than they generally acknowledge. When they need to justify homophobia and the general stigmatization of sexual sin, they have a knockdown quote from Paul to hand.
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God?

Now, those of us who are not Christians can simply ignore all that anyway, but believers have a problem, because they always ignore the later bits of that quite long shopping list. Revilers – Fundamentalists tend to have a nice line in horrible insults to those they disagree with; the claims by Pastor Ssempa in Uganda that all homosexuals are paedophiles obsessed with fisting and the eating of excrement being a case in point. Extortioners – I will just say three words of which the first is Tithes, and the second is Superchurches and the third is Televangelists. Covetous – well, all of the talk about fancy people and Hollywood elites and East Coast liberals that you hear from these people does seem to indicate a certain discontent with being poor and pious, and their preaching of the gospel of success, the idea that making money in the free market is a Christian duty, does seem to raise one of Paul’s deadly sins to the status of a cardinal virtue.

And that is setting aside the question of how many Christianists have a problem with booze, even if they are currently dry drunks.

Paul equates all of the things he regards as sins as being equivalent problems – and if they truely believed in biblical inerrancy, you would expect them to do likewise.

Yet somehow homosexuality, to which many of them are apparently not inclined, is seen by them as a bigger sin than those spiritual sins to which they seem addicted. Someone needs to work out the origin of that particular idea – Jusitinian thought sodomy caused earthquakes and Peter Damian got the mediaeval churh to be hotter on it than had been the case previously – but it is clearly not in Paul, let alone in the gospels, where it is one of the things Jesus never bothers to mention.

Religion becomes toxic, as do other ideologies like radical feminism, when they become a license for hating other people, and treating them as less than human.

I stopped being a Christian decades ago. But some of what I learned as a child has resonance for me still – love thy neighbour as thyself, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, let him who is without sin cast the first stone. The Beatitudes. The Parable of the pharisee and the publican.

Jesus is a man – or perhaps a literary construct, but my money is on his having really existed – who deserves rescuing from his worshippers. Including, let us be clear, Paul, fine as some of his writings are.

*****

Oh, and because I’ve had this argument before with eg autopope, one of the major reasons why I think that there was a historical Jesus is that no one in the succeeding centuries ever raised the possibility that there was not. The Jewish controversialists argued that he was the bastard of a legionaire, rather than that he never existed. Roman historians like Tacitus and buraucrats like Pliny took it for granted that he was real – Pliny in the context of an extended report to the emperor about these pesky cultists. And it is not as if a culture in which one of the ultimate punishments was having your life and work struck from the records post execution as if you had never existed – Augustus did this to a couple of poets – was incapable of claiming someone had not existed even if they had, let alone if they genuinely had not.

But saying that there was a historical Jesus is not saying that he was God any more than saying that there was a historical Mohammed is saying that he was the Final Prophet of God.

In a way, simply denying their existence is a cheap way of terminating conversations with believers, which may well be a good idea but not what I want to do.

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About rozkaveney

Middleaged, trans, novelist, poet, activist
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31 Responses to Some thoughts on Biblical Texts and how they get used

  1. viggorlijah says:

    There is quite a lovely book which helped answer a lot of my dilemmas about being Orthodox and bisexual – # Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections by Thomas Hopko. Conciliar Press: 2006. (ISBN 1888212756) (Orthodox author)

    There’s another bit you might want to use – that the bible mentions homosexuality rarely, and far far more often, especially Jesus himself, on usury, hypocrisy and cruelty. Usury is something that has just become completely accepted and overlooked. Oh and divorce!

    I picked up a copy of the book of Mormon or one of there big conversion things they hand out – a friend had been given it by missionaries in Cambodia, and it was just – there was a passage that was very clear that sexual sins were deemed much more dangerous and vile than other sins.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Given what you’ve written about Rusbridger, I’m not surprised they picked someone else. However I wish they’d chosen someone who has everyday english as a first language. It’s not quite academic meta-speak, but I feel a desperate urge to edit it so that the points are more clearly expressed.

  3. I have always been deeply suspicious of scripture, and of people who believe an ancient book of dubious provenance that has been through multiple translations can actually be the inerrant Word of God. Much like statistics, you can pull out some piece of it to justify anything you like, as long as you’re willing to ignore little things like context and contradictory evidence and disparate interpretations.

    I also feel that too many people use religion to avoid listening to their own consciences and making their own ethical judgments. Follow the book, follow the leader, and you can have the Answer(s) you need without having to do the hard work of thinking about the question, looking at the evidence, and making up your own mind. A sort of moral laziness, if you will.

    I believe in Jesus, as a person who said some very wise things. I’m not at all certain that I can believe in God, or in any case a God I can worship.

    • calimac says:

      Much like statistics, you can pull out some piece of it to justify anything you like

      This point was put rather memorably long ago in the words “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

  4. calimac says:

    I see no reason to claim that Jesus did not exist. Like Christianists claiming that evolution does not exist, it’s drawing an indefensible battle line out of fear that a more reasonable one would give up the game entirely.

    • sciamanna says:

      It seems more likely to me that he existed. But I think the idea he didn’t is fascinating to explore. For example, I have recently become pretty much convinced that Paul not only hadn’t ever met Jesus (he says so himself), but probably wasn’t talking about a real-historical-human Jesus — whether one such existed or not.

      This is all fascinating and also academic to me, not being a Christian ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. tsubaki_ny says:

    “it would seem to me that if you are using the New Testament to govern your own behaviour, and the Old Testament to govern other people’s, there is a fundamental inconsistency people should be asked to address.”

    May I PLEASE quote this lots and lots? ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. lovingboth says:

    I am always amused when people getting married chose the bits about love in Corinthians as a reading, because of how little they would agree with the rest of it.

    it is clearly not in Paul

    I am not a Bible scholar, but what does “abusers of themselves with mankind” translate as, if not men having homosexual sex?

    • redbird says:

      The question is whether “abusers of themselves with mankind” is in fact a good translation of Greek “arsenokoitais.” A quick google got me one site arguing that the literal meaning would be “the man [specifically male] who has many beds,” and proceeding to argue that this was about promiscuity, not homosexuality. I never studied koine Greek, and my classical Greek is so rusty it is lying in flakes on the garage floor, but if they’re correct that “arsen-” means “male human,” the passage likely has nothing to do with women. (Which may be a comfort to Christian lesbians and bisexual women.)

      And the writer of that passage (whether or not it was Paul) might have been more concerned with multiple partners, and seen them as giving in to lust, than with two men who have settled down quietly together. [But I’m trying to guess the meaning of a writer from a very different culture, whom I have never read except in quoted snippets; don’t lean too much on this.]

      • when i was Christian i did a rather thourough search and lesbians are fine and from all that I can tell the issues with men and men are OT and Old covenant and I like the theory that jesus was gay.

      • jessie_c says:

        Especially when the whole “gay” thing in Leviticus and elsewhere was aimed at temple prostitutes and worship practises of then competing religions. The “sin” was worshiping another diety, not the sex. But that’s been lost throughout the centuries. So many people have been taught the lie that they all believe it’s truth now.
        And then there’s the hipocrisy of anti-gay Xtians not follwoing rest of Leviticus while keeping the gay stuff active just because it fits their prejudices…

    • calimac says:

      I read Roz as saying that what was “clearly not in Paul” was elevating homosexuality to an importance above other sins which Paul condemns in the same list but which Christianists brush off or ignore entirely.

      • rozkaveney says:

        Yes. that was precisely my point – he condemns all of these sins, including the spiritual ones, equally.

        Another possibility as to what he was on about may have been the Roman and possibly Greek upper-class habit of sexually abusing slaves when bored.

  7. docbrite says:

    You’ve written a fine and helpful piece for this conflicted queer Catholic. I’m bookmarking it and expect to come back to it often. Thank you.

  8. theperkygoth says:

    Biblical interpretations

    I have a personal belief system which started out as Christianity and ended up as Mostly Chrristianity Stuck Together With Particle Physics, Bits of Paganism And New Age Thinking (the best description I could come up with.) I see the Bible as a useful source of inspiration rather than THE COMPLETELY INFALLIBLE WORD OF GOD (TM). As an interesting excercise once I looked up Bible verses pertaining to vegetarianism. I quickly found two or three to argue for and two or three to argue against vegetarianism. That settled it for me. (I don’t have a copy of which verses I found, I just looked, but most were in Genesis IIRC)

  9. shadowkat67 says:

    There’s a book out entitled The Historical Jesus – which does a fairly decent job of separating what could be considered historically documented record (or fact, although I’m hesistant to use the word) from pure fiction/embellishment in the Bible.

    Examples – include the unlikelyhood that the Roman’s issued a census (they didn’t tend to do that back then or not in that way, that came much later?)

    • The weird bit about the census is the idea of requiring everyone to go back to ‘the lands of their ancestors’ to be surveyed – hence Joseph having to drag his pregnant wife all the way to Bethlehem because he was ‘of the line of David’. That just doesn’t make any sense – it would be like insisting that anyone with, say, the surname Rochester could only be on the electoral role in that city.

      • cmcmck says:

        It might have seemed sensible whe ‘home’ for most people was Rome, but the empire, like Topsy, just growed.

        As it happens, Rochester (UK) IS my home town and I write my poetry under the pen name Marianna Rochester- does that count? :o)

      • coraline73 says:

        My understanding is that there was no census or taxation of this kind – however, the various prophecies relating to the birth of the Messiah referred to his being born in Bethlehem (Micah) and ‘of the line of David (Isiah) – so there is a strong possibility that the story of the census is a way of ret-conning Jesus’s birth and personal history to comply with the prophecies.

      • sciamanna says:

        The problem as I understand it is that there had to be both Betlehem as you mention, but also Nazareth (because of “he will be called Nazarene”, can’t remember who said it). So having the family move for the birth was a neat solution.

        The earliest gospel (Mark, by widest consensus) has nothing about the birth (or childhood).

        Of course invention in the Gospels doesn’t prove Jesus didn’t exist. But it does make trouble for literalists.

        (What I had heard was that *either* he was born at the time of the census of Quirinus, 6 CE, *or* he was born under Herod, who died in 4 BCE. But again, as above)

    • calimac says:

      One of the favorite Christian arguments for the existence of the historical Jesus is the hard data in the gospels: that his birth was in the reign of Herod and of such-and-such a governor of Syria.

      Problem is, from the historical evidence we have at hand, those two guys’ terms of office seem not to have overlapped. 4 B.C.E., which is usually given as the year of birth [and which itself mocks the year-counting system based on it] is a compromise estimate, not a firm date.

      • rozkaveney says:

        In my novel, I am choosing to discard the idea that the ministry happened in Jesus’ 30s. I rather like the idea of his being a stroppy young guy of twenty or so.

      • msdori says:

        *claps hands in delight*

        “Stroppy” is a perfect word!

        And may I link to this post? You’ve exactly gotten how I feel about the subject, especially Paul. (I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when he walked into that meeting and said, “Hey, guess what, guys, I’m one of y’all now!” Knowing fandom as I do, I’m pretty sure that did not go at ALL the way it’s reported in Acts…)

        Also, I love that you make a distinction between Christians and Christianists. I’ve been saying for a long time that some of the right-wing fundamentalists are not actually Christians, and now I have a term for them.

  10. cmcmck says:

    “Religion becomes toxic, as do other ideologies like radical feminism, when they become a license for hating other people, and treating them as less than human.”

    You couldn’t have hit the nail harder on the head if you’d tried! My own move from the C of E to the Religious society of Friends (Quakers) came in my late teens when the former couldn’t comprehend my trans nature and politely asked me to vanish. People still make this request as we know only too well.

    The sweet humanity and decency of ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’ makes a lot more sense to me than a certain other book :o)

  11. “… Jusitinian thought sodomy caused earthquakes …”

    *blink*

    Ok, I don’t care where science was or wasn’t in Jusitinian’s time, but that should result in an F, and instructions to have a long think in the playground about what ey just said and how they came to that conclusion. …or maybe more enlightenly, some practical instruction about human anatomy. Seriously, what did ey think vagina’s had to prevent penile insertion into them causing cataclysmic disasters?

    (…or was ey actually saying that god had an OCD about punishing sexual adventurers with indiscriminate tectonic activity in their vague locality? …still an F though {unless ey could show his workings})

    “… But some of what I learned as a child has resonance for me still …”

    For a number of year …actually a decade… I’ve posited that many such resonances and ‘reflections of (foundation-level) humanitarianism’ in christian texts (and similarly in other abrahamic religions) are there for the very simple reason that such humanitarian thought or ethics theory is like maths, a natural and inevitable result of careful thoughtful deduction. The latter being with spacetime dimensions, and the former being with human interrelations. I put forward the fact that both of these have been independently discovered/”invented”, and then lost, repeatedly through time and across the planet, as evidence for them being mere memetic understandings deduced from the study of inherent systems, as opposed anything that someone or some culture once “invented” to fill a priorly eternal void.

    Sorry, I hope that doesn’t sound patronising or such like.

    As per Jesus fact v. fiction, I think there could have equally been a Jesus who was a leading philosopher and medic, as one who was, to be blunt, psychotically delusional yet charismatic, but short of some en-mass timetravel tech, we’ve done to dust that we will never know and that the only Jesus that is with us, is the meme attached to various Abrahamic dogmas and texts.

    To go internety on you: what is Ceiling Cat? – Ceiling Cat is simultaneously the idea of Ceiling Cat in everyone’s head, and, the potentially multiple conglomerations of similar ideas in the shared discourse.

    • jessie_c says:

      “… Jusitinian thought sodomy caused earthquakes …”

      “Did the earth move for you, too?”

    • ‘reflections of (foundation-level) humanitarianism’ in christian texts (and similarly in other abrahamic religions) are there for the very simple reason that such humanitarian thought or ethics theory is like maths, a natural and inevitable result of careful thoughtful deduction.

      That one worried me for a very long time, when I was rejecting religion but coming up against the fact that much of the ethical system that was taught me still makes sense, along the lines of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ I couldn’t accept that it had come from nowhere, by fiat of some deity, therefore it had to be a provable principle.

      Turns out that applications of game theory to co-operative resource management translate into that kind of ethics. I am now comfortable enough that I’ll let someone else write the game theory bible; like life, evolution, the origins of the universe and all the other things that people turn to religion for, my secular belief system accounts for it.

    • rozkaveney says:

      The latter being with spacetime dimensions, and the former being with human interrelations. I put forward the fact that both of these have been independently discovered/”invented”, and then lost, repeatedly through time and across the planet, as evidence for them being mere memetic understandings deduced from the study of inherent systems, as opposed anything that someone or some culture once “invented” to fill a priorly eternal void.

      All true of course, but the version of those eternal truths one learned at one’s parent’s knees, and the particular accidents of biblical story, hymns, incense and so on that go with it, the comfort food religion if you will, will almost inevitably be closely associated win your head.

  12. sockkpuppett says:

    Having been *trapped* in a fundamentalist household for many years of my life, I found it astounding and disturbing that a person could get up in my church and confess to having murdered someone and would have been forgiven and accepted in that congregation. BUT! Had he confessed to having had homosexual thoughts? He would have been ridden out on a rail.

    I still believe in God, and one of the reasons I still believe in Him is that he got me out of that horrible, guilt-ridden, hateful life. I think I’m probably a heretic now, at least to those people (and my mother).

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