28 June 2018

Book review -- Christianity vs. the Bible

Things I Never Learned in Sunday School by Nan Yielding (2012)

Most atheists know that the dogmas of Christianity have little or no basis in objective reality.  But it turns out a lot of them don't even have much basis in the religion's own sacred text either.

Nan Yielding became "born again" in her early twenties, spent the next fifteen years in mental subjection to conservative Christianity, and eventually started questioning what she had been told to believe.  Finding that the church had no answers, she started looking for her own, by studying the Bible and other primary sources.  Startlingly, she found that the Bible is not what most Christians believe it is, and she ended up leaving Christianity altogether.  This book, however, is not a personal deconversion story -- it's a systematic explanation of what she discovered and, more importantly, the evidence backing up her conclusions.

To begin with, the religion of the ancient Hebrews evolved over time under the influence of the more powerful cultures by which the Hebrews were dominated in pre-Roman times -- Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic Greek.  Several concepts that modern Christians believe were always part of it were borrowed from Zoroastrianism, in forms quite different from what they have become.  For example, Satan and Hell (each of the two gets a full chapter) don't appear in the Old Testament in anything like their modern Christian versions.  When the passages modern Christians believe refer to them are examined in context and with reference to the words in the original language -- as the book does in detail -- it's clear that they did not mean, and could not mean, what moderns think they did.

The New Testament comes under similar scrutiny.  Passages which modern Christians interpret as prophecies of the distant future (perhaps even our own time), when considered in light of the cultural and political circumstances when they were written, are clearly references to events and persons contemporary with their authors.  The character of Jesus, the resurrection, the role of Paul, the Antichrist, and the nature of God are similarly examined, with similar results.  Modern Christianity, like the ancient Hebrew religion, has evolved over time -- and it has drifted far from its supposed source material.

It's easy, some might object, to assert such interpretations.  But the meat of the book is the supporting evidence it provides.  The basis for each point is carefully explained, and there are 26 pages of endnotes, bibliography, and other resources.  At 170 pages total, it packs a huge amount of information into a relatively short read.  It's well-written and easy to understand, even when discussing concepts not familiar to most people today.  And it's not framed as a debunking of Christianity, but as an inquiry into where its ideas really came from.

There's a saying that the Bible is like those long terms-and-conditions pages you get when you buy software on the internet.  Nobody actually reads it; they just scroll to the end and click "I agree".  Nan did read it, and found that it doesn't say what moderns think it does.  It isn't even about what moderns think it is -- its stories and polemics are addressed to the long-vanished and alien times when they were written, and have hardly anything to say to us at all.

Brief excerpts from the book are here; ordering options are here.  The author's blog is here.


Anonymous PsiCop said...

Re: Nan Yielding became "born again" in her early twenties, spent the next fifteen years in mental subjection to conservative Christianity, and eventually started questioning what she had been told to believe.

Well, there's her problem right at the start! The whole "born again" thing is an example of blowing something totally out of proportion from what it originally was. It comes from John 3, Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus, and is actually a play on words, which only works in its original Greek.

I didn't discover this myself until after I was a "born again" Christian, so devout that I'd taught myself Greek so I could read the NT books in their original language and (most of) the Church Fathers in theirs. It might be of interest for folks to know what I mean when I say it's wordplay. The phrase used in John 3:3 which is usually translated into English as "born again" is γεννηθη ανωθεν (gennéthé anóthen), and it can mean BOTH "born again" AND "born from above." Here's how it plays out within the content of Jesus' discourse (I'll use English, the NASB):

In John 3:3 Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."

In response, as the reader might (knowing the double meaning I mentioned), in 3:4 Nicodemus asks, "How can a man be born when he is old?"

Jesus "clarifies" this, in 3:5, by saying "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Ostensibly that doesn't clear it up, but mention of being "born ... of the Spirit" (aka, in Greek, πνευματος or pneumatos) suggests the way. You see, pneumatos itself has a double meaning, "spirit" or "air, wind." To emphasize this connection a bit, in 3:6 Jesus goes on, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."

Since the air and wind are "above," it should be clear Jesus indicated a meaning of "born from above," not "born again" back in 3:3. But much later in this discussion (3:31) he nails it down: "He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all." Here, the initial "from above" is the same word from 3:3, anóthen, but in this context there is only the single meaning.

When Christians say they're "born again," it's only because they have no idea what John 3 was about. The wordplay only works in Greek and is difficult to translate directly to English or for all I know into any other language.

28 June, 2018 10:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

PsiCop: The misunderstanding doesn't surprise me since modern interpretations of the Bible are riddled with such misinterpretations. However, it's curious that the author of John would have used such wordplay when reporting a conversation which, if Jesus existed at all to have it, must have been in Aramaic -- or is it claimed that Jesus could speak Greek?

28 June, 2018 10:57  
Anonymous PsiCop said...

Excellent point. For the most part, it's unlikely Jesus spoke anything other than Aramaic. Having said that, though ... some folks in the Levant were bilingual, depending on locale (certain large cities, especially on the coast, had Greek speakers). Note, not far from Jesus' own Galilee was a district (the Decapolis) which had many Greek speakers, too; it bordered the Sea of Galilee on the south & southeast. So it's possible, though not probable, Jesus might also have known Greek.

Note, "Nicodemus" is a Pharisee who had a Greek name, the implication being that he spoke Greek. (Yes, there were Greek-speaking Jews in the Greco-Roman world. It's just that most of them weren't in Judea where Aramaic was the prevailing language.) Assuming there was such a person and that Jesus spoke with him, it's possible, given all of this, the two could have conversed in Greek.

That said, let's step back and keep in mind that the entire gospel of John was written in Greek. That includes all dialog, without regard to whoever is speaking. The only Aramaic in it is a title (rabbouni, "teacher") in v. 20:16. Really, does it make sense for us to assume its author translated all the Aramaic that Jesus and others spoke most of the time into Greek, but then penned literally, faithfully, what Jesus and Nicodemus said to each other in Greek?

It's not impossible, but it just doesn't seem likely.

No, I think John 3 was the author's invention. This conversation is inspired by traditional Hellenic didactic in which a teacher/sage presents something which is initially confusing to someone who's essentially a stand-in for the reader, then teases things apart, being alternately confusing and clear, and ends by firming it up and brushing away the mis-meanings that could have cropped up. John's author used "Nicodemus," a Greek-speaking Pharisee, as the stand-in. This may have been a foil, or contrast against which to layer Jesus' teaching.

28 June, 2018 12:25  
Blogger neal said...

Perhaps the spatial and the timelike get mixed in the translation. Not exactly trading places. Just a working.

28 June, 2018 13:18  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Christianity has hidden and obscured the historical origins of its sacred texts for centuries so as to more easily con the gullible into thinking it is the literal word of god.

28 June, 2018 20:10  
Blogger pygalgia said...

Joseph W. Campbell's "History of the Bible" does a very good job of breaking down the translations, both contemporary and historical. Most of Jesus's word were in Aramaic or Hebrew, but the likely earliest records of them were written in Greek. Later, they were translated into Latin. Which leaves a lot of room for distortion.
Of course, most Americans assume Jesus spoke English just like a real American.

28 June, 2018 22:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

PsiCop: Yes, no doubt the report of the conversation was very much a paraphrase -- especially considering it involved a probably-fictional character.

Neal: Good shrooms?

Debra: Fortunately, we now have the tools to ferret out the realities behind their deceptions.

Pygalgia: Nan does quite a lot of comparing modern interpretations against the words in the original (or oldest available) language versions. Mistakes and misunderstandings abound in the conventional concepts of what the Bible says.

29 June, 2018 16:14  

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