Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Hypocrisy and Hubris of Biblical Interpretation

[Note: The following post deals specifically with the Christian religion and the Bible, since that is what I am most familiar with. Whether it applies to other religions and their holy books — and to what degree — I leave for others to decide.]

First, a few premises:
  1. Christianity is ultimately based on the Holy Bible. Sure, you can say that Christianity is based on the teachings of Christ, but those teachings can only be found in the Bible. And Christianity (for most Christians, at least) extends well beyond just the words of Christ and encompasses instead all the moral laws and principles found throughout the entire Bible.
  2. Christians, on the whole, believe that the Bible’s primary purpose is to act as a guideline to show us the path toward salvation. Only by following the laws and moral principles in the Bible can we learn about Christ, follow his commandments* and be saved. So, obviously, it is vitally important to know exactly what the Bible says and what it actually means.
  3. Since the time the Bible was first assembled in its current form, some 1700 or so years ago, billions of people have relied on it to show them the path toward salvation.
  4. God, according to Christian beliefs, is an omnipotent, omniscient and all-loving father who actually wants all of his children (that’s us) to learn and follow the path toward salvation. Sure, we are given free will to choose whether to follow the path or not, but the path should be clear and unambiguous enough to follow if we choose to do so.
OK, assuming those premises are more or less accurate, let’s move on to the hypocrisy and hubris part.

One trend in modern apologetics (“defending the faith” or, as I like to define it, “attempting to logically justify something that is believed for non-logical reasons,” but I digress) is to deal with supposed contradictory, scientifically impossible and/or morally reprehensible passages in the Bible by claiming that one must have special knowledge in order to understand what the passages really mean. This takes many different forms, including the following:
  • One must have studied the original languages in which the Bible was written in order to understand what the passage really means.
  • One must have a deep understanding of the socioeconomic factors that existed at the time the passage was written in order to understand what it really means.
  • One must fully understand the culture of the people to whom the passage was addressed in order to understand what it really means.
  • One must read the “forgotten” or “apocryphal” books of the Bible that were not included at the time it was formally assembled, but really should have been included in order to understand what the passage really means.
  • Etc., etc., etc.
One common example of this approach is when people try to justify things like the approval of keeping slaves as stated in the Old Testament. “No, no,” they will claim, “if you look at the original Hebrew and consider the culture and socioeconomic climate at the time the Old Testament was written, you’ll see that this was actually a very good kind of slavery and not at all like the slavery you are thinking of!” This, despite the fact that these passages were actually used as justification for keeping slaves by Christians in the American South prior to (and, sadly, even after) the Civil War. Gee, what a pity those Christians didn’t have access to the original Hebrew version of the Bible. Or know how to read ancient Hebrew even if they did. Or have any way of knowing what the culture and socioeconomic climate was at the time the Old Testament was written…

Which leads me to the whole hypocrisy and hubris angle.

First, the hypocrisy. On one hand, these apologists believe that an omniscient, omnipotent and all-loving God would require his children to do certain things in order to gain salvation (and avoid eternal torment) and that the only way to learn what those things are is to read the Bible. But on the other hand, they are asserting that is no way for the vast majority of his children to actually know for sure what the words in the Bible actually mean unless they become Biblical scholars, study ancient dead languages, become experts in anthropology, etc. Especially when you take into account that, for the majority of the history of Christendom, believers were actually forbidden to read the Bible (which is why it existed solely in Latin for many centuries). So it is hypocritical to hold people to a standard that they cannot possibly meet while simultaneously claiming that it’s all part of a loving God’s plan for them.

And then, of course, the hubris. Christianity has been practiced in many forms for nigh on two thousand years. Billions of people have been born and died and have failed to understand what the Bible — the one and only guideline toward salvation — actually says. But now, two thousand years later, after all of this, here comes these apologists who are apparently the first and only of all of God’s children to finally understand it all. Just because they are so darn special, of course. And smart. Unlike all those poor deluded saps (e.g., 99.999% of humanity) who got it wrong all these years (oh, well, sucks to be them, I guess!)

OK, so maybe I’m overstating things a wee bit. But the fact remains that any time an apologist claims that they have some sort of special knowledge or training or insight that allows them to know what a Biblical passage really means, in contrast to how the vast majority of Christians have understood that same passage since Christianity began, it is hubris of the highest order. Especially if you think that God actually wanted His children to understand it all along.

* Yes, I am aware that many “Born Again” Christians believe that the only thing necessary for salvation is to accept Jesus.

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