Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 3

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it. This is the follow-up to part 1 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-5Y and part 2 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-6b

Conclusion

Despite writing mostly about the first two books of the OT in my last post, I believe that although those two have a much more mythic feel to them, the ways of reading explained previously can be use throughout the stories in the Books of the Prophets. The general ideas are that god is a real badass, you should listen to him and his messengers or there’ll be trouble such as invasion/exile/destruction. It is also made clear in earlier books that as long as you keep god onside you can pretty much do as you please with the people around you, such as genocide or other various war-crimes. Not to forget the Job story when god (omnipotent?) appears to be gambling with a divine adversary over the will-power of one of his favourites. Essentially do as god tells you without question and the rest is up to you. If one looks at the results, one tends to see that if you believe and obey, you’ll be left alone, if you believe and disobey you’ll be punished but if you don’t believe, you’ll also be left alone by god. As he is meant to be the ‘god of the Israelites’, he doesn’t care if Assyrians of Babylonians believe in him and they seem to do quite well from the worship of idols.

This changes in the NT from religion being about openly obeying laws practises and rituals to being a much more personal and interpersonal religion, how you behave in your daily life toward other people and how you feel becomes much more important than whether you eat the wrong food or work on the wrong day. It is not the word but the spirit of the law that is fundamental to religious life. This is an expected progression from a state of affairs where so many civic and religious officials were corrupt and so many people lived in grinding poverty. Making poverty and asceticism virtues in a world where the vast majority of the population had no other choice but to live in that way would always have been popular but in a world where wealth was beginning to be created by a middle class of merchants and traders unconnected to aristocracy and priesthood, this would become ever more important in maintaining social order.

Finally the points boil down to the stories in the bible being not ‘real’ in the sense of actually happening but being constructs of the scribes writing them. The moral compass given to us in those books was relevant to the time it was written and while many of the guidelines for behaviour are still applicable today, those writers could never have imagine the advances in technology and the immense changes societies around the world have undergone in the years since. Once a person accepts that the rules governing the conduct of semi-nomadic, bronze-age goat-herds have different demands from those of a settled, modern, technologically advanced, global world, one can see not so much that the ways of life described in the bible are necessarily ‘wrong’ but are incomplete due to ignorance.

The writers of those books built stories in order to explain to the masses why they should behave in certain ways rather than others. While Aesop’s Fables, the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the Bible all have clear moral messages in them, none are definitively modern and the methods used to educate children in the ways of the world are now much more complex. Merely giving examples from stories is no longer enough for the modern citizen, people now need explanations and reasons. This is where some of the messages have been lost, why most people no longer believe homophobia, racism or punishments by execution and mutilation to be positive to society. It becomes difficult to give reasons for bigotry when evidence of its necessity is requested. While I do not think that any reasonable person would sincerely advocate discarding all the messages from the bible, I also think that any sane person must allow the laws of the time to evolve with the society to which they apply.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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4 Responses to Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 3

  1. Might be a little biased, but funny, and a little bit accurate too. 🙂

    “It is also made clear in earlier books that as long as you keep god onside you can pretty much do as you please with the people around you, such as genocide or other various war-crimes. Not to forget the Job story when god (omnipotent?) appears to be gambling with a divine adversary over the will-power of one of his favourites.”

  2. cgosling says:

    Good comments. All religions have some sensible ideas and some lethal ones. Christianity like other religions is full of contradictions and atrocities as you well know. Unfortunately, some people need religion. They can’t seem to live happy, useful lives without the help and justification of ancient rule books.

  3. Enjoyable posts!
    I tended to look at the bible as a cultural history for the majority of the OT, with large sprinklings of propaganda “God told us to go kill this tribe…honest” “And then the King had miraculous things happen around him, and bad things happened to his enemies”, which we are still familar with in society today. There are moral lessons, parables, for the time, and as they were human, and we are human, some of these still resonate today, but it is important to view it in light of the time it was written in, and that they were trying to explain the world and what they saw happening
    The NT goes all crazy once Paul gets his hands on it, but up to that point it is fairly handy “Be good to each other” stuff, of course there is the fitting to the old prophecies so exegesis has to be applied, but even Paul is written as letters in response to specific questions from specific groups…Not entirely sure he would have intended his agony aunt column being used as a template for a wider audience.

  4. aynway says:

    I would agree with the scholar Bart Ehrman, that the religion OF Jesus is not much like the religion ABOUT Jesus that developed later. Jesus debated and interpreted the Law just as any good Jewish teacher would have, and even said that the Law would remain in effect “until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). Whether or not “everything” has been accomplished is open to debate, but my thought is that unless and until the “second coming” happens and the entire world sees the Son of Man returning on clouds of glory, not much of consequence (at least historically verifiable) was actually accomplished in the life of Jesus.

    The theology of Paul is anti-law, but it seems to me that that’s because Jesus really did accomplish very little, so Paul interpreted Jesus’ death and alleged resurrection as the “everything” to which Jesus had referred in his teaching. I don’t buy it, though.

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