Listing entries tagged with Bible

That Analysis Thing

posted on 11.20.2006 at 3:22 PM

Kind of ironic since I've been working on a journalism-review piece heralding the coming of the age of analysis for mainstream news organizations...but the critique I've gotten on the first few chapters of this book is that they are insufficiently analytic. Been trying so hard to maintain an engaging narrative that perhaps I leaned too far in that direction.

Could be more analytic in emphasizing the point made by the various tales I tell -- the story of King Josiah's great god massacre in Judah in the 7th century BCE, for example. The point here being that monotheism grew out of the destruction of -- disbelief in -- lots of other gods. In this draft, I may have relied too much on such points making themselves.

Could be more analytic in looking behind events to their significance -- the political benefits, for example, of centralizing all religious worship in Judah in Josiah's day in the main temple.

Or could be more analytic in dropping a storyline for a while and just making a point: say monotheism, as enforced under King Josiah, as a step, a roundabout one to be sure, in the direction of atheism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:22 PM | Comments (1)

Mamet and Moses

posted on 11.04.2006 at 3:58 PM


In his new nonfiction book, The Wicked Son, playwright David Mamet rebukes, with a gusto and combativeness found in many of his characters, irreligious or anti-Zionist Jews -- "self-hating Jews," seems the term he prefers.

Where to begin? Perhaps with this interesting point Mamet made while discussing the book on WGN radio recently:

If you look at the five books of Moses, the Torah, it's a complete record of the people, the Jews, who don't like it.... The Abrahamic text is about this desert people who had this revelation and fought it tooth and nail every page until the end of Deuteronomy.

Mamet wants us to see this as evidence that faith has doubt under control. That the irreligious can find themselves -- and answers to their doubts -- in the Bible. We might instead wonder if faith can ever escape or subdue doubt -- even among people who claimed the most intimate experience of God. We might wonder if the whole miraculous production wasn't hard to credit even then.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:58 PM | Comments (1)

Missing the Point on Deuteronomy

posted on 09.02.2006 at 8:49 PM

One of the pleasures of this project has been the opportunity to read or reread much of the Bible. This has not always been easy to explain to friends, many of whom have spent considerable energy, particularly in their early teens, avoiding reading the Bible. Still, it is hard to turn a page -- in either Testament -- without getting a new take on a familiar line. a new perspective on an aspect of an old religion or a sense of the complex dance performed by belief and disbelief.

Knowing some history certainly helps, particularly with a book like Deuteronomy, which appeared magically and conveniently one day while the temple in Jerusalem was being renovated and just happened to support every argument the king, high priest and the rest of the Yahweh-alone forces had been making. The message that only one God should be worshipped (Yahweh), in only one place (that temple in Jerusalem) -- put in the mouth of Moses -- is repeated over and over. It is, consequently, in Deuteronomy, more than anywhere, that monotheism is being created. Along the way this one God has to demonstrate that he can handle alone what the whole heavenly host had previously managed: that he could handle weather like Baal, that he could handle fertility like Asherah. The book contains a fascinating mix of threats, bribes and bluster.

David Plotz' misbegotten "Blogging the Bible" feature on Slate, however, manages to read Deuteronomy without any sense of its history and significance. No new perspectives arrive. The screen fills, instead, with the muted gurglings of a writer in over his head.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:49 PM | Comments (3)

Death -- Part IV

posted on 08.18.2006 at 11:54 AM

What might/can/should a nonbeliever think about death? JM commented that I am too hasty in suggesting that atheists "find death pretty tough" -- possibly tougher than believers find it?

Here are some related comments from some very early kind-of, sort-of or not-really atheists (all characters in the second chapter of my book):

Gilgamesh (after his buddy dies)...

What my brother is now that shall I be when I am dead. How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart.

Egyptian song from the third millennium BCE...

Let these things fade from your thoughts. Weeping does not save the heart from the grave.

Anacreon (Greek poet)...

My closing years pass by in haste/Soon I no more sweet life shall taste.

Koheleth in Ecclesiastes...

What a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness!


Accustom yourself to the thought that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil reside in sensation, but death is the removal of all sensation.....There is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life....The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 AM | Comments (12)

Deuteronomy -- III

posted on 08.04.2006 at 1:45 AM

It may not be easy, at this grim moment in world politics, to find signs of progress. But that is where the Bible can be helpful. For it sure seems we have progressed a bit, most of us, from the moral standards it promulgates. I am quoting, once again, the last book of the Torah:

If your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, "Come let us worship other Gods".... Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him, but take his life.... Stone him to death.

No wishy-washy, politically correct indulgence in tolerance here.

And then there is this:

You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your god delivers to you, showing them no pity.

Few today -- even in the name of the Bible -- would "destroy all." Merely some. Progress.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:45 AM | Comments (2)

Deuteronomy -- II

posted on 07.28.2006 at 7:59 PM

This -- the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- is compendium of intolerance. Various "abhorrent" practices are denounced: serving other gods, human sacrifices, worshiping idols, soothsaying, bowing down to the sun or the moon, intermarrying, crossdressing, inquiring about other gods, worshipping the Lord anywhere but in the temple in Jerusalem. Various "just" punishments are threatened : no rain for crops; a curse upon the issue of wombs; "consumption, fever and inflamation." One "just" punishment, in particular, is commanded: stoning to death.

However, nowhere to be found in Deuteronomy -- among these "abhorrent" practices, which are to receive these terrible punishments -- is failure to believe in the Lord. This God very, very much wants to be "obeyed," to have "His commandments and laws" followed. He does not seem concerned with whether His people think he exists.

Why? A standard answer is that this God, in essence, was secure enough in His existence so that He didn't need His nation to confirm it. Or that not believing in the existence of God (or gods) may simply have been inconceivable at the time. I'll add a third theory: that actual, outright disbelieve was too terrible to even mention.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:59 PM | Comments (8)


posted on 07.28.2006 at 1:16 AM

The temple in Jerusalem was being renovated during the reign of Josiah (639-609 BCE) -- who is treated with as much respect as any king in the Hebrew Bible -- and during the renovations the high priest "discovered" a "lost" text. That, most scholars agree, was an early version of Deuteronomy, which settled as the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible -- the last in the Torah or the books of Moses.

It is not hard to read this text as a justification for Josiah's attempt to consolidate the religion and the kingdom by cracking down on any forms of worship -- foreign, idolatrous, pantheistic, even Jewish -- besides those in the temple in Jerusalem. Monotheism was sharpened, if not invented, in the process:

The Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him.

Weren't too many religions in the 7th century BCE devoting themselves to morality. But Deuteronomy takes some significant steps beyond "thou shall not kill":

I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Still, the intolerance for other religions in this text is total:

Tear down their alters, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from the site.

And the treatment the Lord orders for local conquered nations is, even by contemporary standards, extreme:

You shall not let a soul remain alive.

Maybe we shouldn't be that surprised by what currently goes on in this area between peoples who profess to revere such texts.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:16 AM | Comments (1)

Atheism and Meaninglessness

posted on 07.21.2006 at 1:24 PM

Ecclesiastes makes much use of the Hebrew word hebel, הבל. This refrain begins and closes this book of the Hebrew Bible:

"Utterly senseless" says Qoheleth [the sage quoted in Ecclesiastes], "Utterly senseless, everything is senseless!"

The word translated here as "senseless" is hebel. You've heard it given as "vanity" -- but that relies on an out-of-date use of that word, one that doesn't imply a mirror fixation. "Meaningless" is another good candidate or, perhaps, "emptiness." "Vapor" or "vapors" would be more literal translations.

I'm thinking that this use of hebel introduces an important theme in atheistic thought -- one that may become the major theme of my third chapter. Surely, disbelievers have surrendered much meaning and sense: that good actions will be rewarded in an afterlife, for example; that we're all here for a purpose. What is left for the nonbeliever looking for purpose besides "vapors"?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:24 PM | Comments (5)


posted on 07.07.2006 at 11:49 PM

I'm new to the wonders of Koheleth, the cynical wise man who speaks in Ecclesiastes, and his version of carpe diem:

There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink and enjoy their toil.

It gets tougher:

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your meaningless life, that is, all the meaningless days he has given you under the sun, for it is your reward in life and for the toil that you do under the sun.
All that your hand finds to do, do with your power, for there is no action or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going. (Translation by Tremper Longman III)

Ellen F. Davis reports that one Vietnam chaplain said this -- the term "meaningless" (hebel) appears in more than 30 passages -- "was the only part of the Bible that his soldiers were willing to hear."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:49 PM | Comments (2)

Thou Shalt Know Thy Commandments

posted on 06.20.2006 at 3:42 PM

The Congressman, Lynn Westmoreland, who sponsored a bill requiring display of the Ten Commandments in Congress, could only name, on the Colbert Report, three of them.

(thanks Ben Vershbow)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:42 PM | Comments (4)

The Six Commandments

posted on 06.19.2006 at 3:46 PM

David Plotz, on Slate, is "Blogging the Bible":

Please forgive me for the following sentence, which is, I realize, a point made by approximately 3.28 billion people before me: If you had to summarize morality into a few sentences, the Ten Commandments is about as good as you can do. The last six commandments--honor parents, don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't bear false witness, don't covet--pretty much cover it.

Or not. Is coveting thy neighbor's house, wife, etc. -- which seems (unless something has been lost in the translation) merely a jealous thought -- as immoral, say, as ignoring thy neighbor's plea for help? Is bearing false witness as immoral as cheating or back stabbing or exploiting or enslaving or starting an unnecessary war or befogging peoples' view of their lives with mumbo jumbo about supernatural beings? I will have nothing bad to say about the injunction to honor parents; however, doing unto others as you would want them to do to you -- not included in this version of the list -- seems a bit more elemental and far-reaching. Approximately 3.28 billion people, as we know, can be wrong.

What would be a more persuasive six or ten (Plotz has left out all the "jealous God" and idols and sabbath stuff) commandments?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:46 PM | Comments (12)

Your Father, Which Is in Heaven

posted on 06.18.2006 at 8:45 AM

Religion wants to substitute itself for (all?) other aspects of life. It provides new, sometimes counter-intuitive (sometimes lovely) meanings: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." It provides a new, seemingly, counter-intuitive, morality: "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." It asks men and women to live in a new kingdom: "The Kingdom of Heaven" to which "I will give unto thee the keys."

It can even substitute for basic family relations, as we were reminded when President Bush explained to Bob Woodward why he hadn't asked his experienced father, the former president, for advice on Iraq:

"He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength." And then he said, "There's a higher Father that I appeal to."

This notion that there is a substitute Father is indeed in the New Testament: "And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven."

All the biblical quotes here are from the New Testament (from Matthew, actually). The Hebrew Bible certainly enforces its own substitutions, but they seem less radical, less thorough. And earthy parents are not entirely replaced: "Honor thy father and thy mother."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:45 AM | Comments (7)

Trashing the Bible

posted on 05.22.2006 at 4:47 PM

New York Magazine certainly qualifies as mainstream. David Edelstein is its film critic. This is from his current piece:

I'd call it biblical vengeance, but even the Bible isn't this perverse.

It is hard to imagine the "Holy Book" offhandedly being called "perverse" in such a publication thirty years ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago. We are supposed to be living through a religious revival. But look closer and this is the sort of thing you find.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:47 PM | Comments (1)

The Bible as Not History

posted on 05.15.2006 at 11:52 PM

davidandsolomon.jpgNot only no evidence that there was ever an Abraham, but no evidence that a nation of Jews was ever in, let alone dramatically escaped from, Egypt, and no evidence that there was ever a Solomon or a great Jewish kingdom with a spectacular first Temple.

The archaeological evidence is reviewed in a new book, David and Solomon, though the authors seem to be bending over backwards not to offend the Biblically inclined.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 PM | Comments (0)

A Teleology of Disbelief -- 2

posted on 04.21.2006 at 10:13 AM

A couple of thoughts are helpful if you want to see the world as "progressing" toward nonbelief: First, you might want to view the current apparent resurgence of religion as a mere counter-trend, a hysterical reaction to a global march toward secularization, a blip on the curve. Second, you might want to develop a theory that religion itself has been growing more diffuse, gods getting increasingly "wan."

That latter thought can, in turn, be buttressed by the notion that the New Testament represents some sort of step forward from the Hebrew Bible. The old bellicose Deity of Genesis and Exodus, who demands only adherence to the Law and sacrifice, has been replaced by a Father and Son who demand "faith," good works done in secret, morality in the "heart" not just in practice. It helps, in other words, to view Yahweh as louder, more visible and the Son's Father as more a reticent resident of the heart.

However, here's the often provocative Harold Bloom, in his usual literary reading, to mess up that view of progress from Old Testament to New. (This from Benjamin Balint): "The aesthetic dignity of the Hebrew Bible," Bloom writes, "is simply beyond the competitive range of the New Testament…. In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest." And Bloom, less originally, sees in the Trinity a step back to polytheism.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:13 AM | Comments (2)

Religion and Historical Truth

posted on 04.13.2006 at 4:58 PM

New York Times columnist David Brooks uses "the Exodus story" today as an argument for a transformative idealism (in a debate with himself):

The Exodus story reminds us that human beings can transform themselves and their situations. It reminds us that people who embark on generational journeys are the realistic ones, because they are the ones who see all the possibilities the future contains.

Forget for a moment that the "idealistic" position, as presented by Brooks, involves undertaking the Iraq War. My question is why an event as historically unproven as the Israelite exodus from Egypt can be treated as fact, when any use of a similarly sketchy history, not backed by religious testament, in a newspaper like the Times would earn a barrage of critical letters. Or are we to think of the Exodus as a "story" -- as in fiction?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:58 PM | Comments (11)


posted on 03.23.2006 at 11:05 PM

You don't have to get too far into your average holy book or testament before something fails to add (unless your calculator adjusts results based on faith) up. Here's the early-twentieth-century anthropologist Roy Franklin Barton: Michelangelo.pieta.jpg

There is much that is inconsistent and contradictory in religions generally, because they grow by accretion through many, many ages and kinds of culture, from mingled emotions, timidities and hopes and in the minds of different individuals and peoples.

I think of Jesus -- or rather the many, many Jesuses -- when I think of such inconsistencies and contradictions. (Though there are, to be sure, examples in all faiths; Barton is talking about headhunters in the Philippines.) Born a Prince/Born a Carpenter. Son of Man/Son of God. Revolutionary/Ascetic.Turn the other cheek/Not peace but a sword. Messiah/Sacrifice. Kingdom of God Soon/Kingdom of God After I Die/Kingdom of God Many, Many Generations Hence.

Most Christians, and even many non-Christians, have a favorite Jesus. (I venture to say that it is hard to read the Gospels without finding something to like.) Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to cut up the Gospels -- taking out the parts he didn't like. (I've heard two version of what those parts were: all the supernatural stuff or everything except Jesus' own words.) Even Nietzsche takes a brief break from pummeling Christianity to roll out a kind of Buddhist, naif Jesus, of whom he seems quite enamored. This game has been played, on quite a high level, by artists too, of course.

Garry Wills has a new book, What Jesus Meant, which promises to present some interesting Jesuses, cause Wills is an interesting thinker. The review in the New York Times, by Jon Meacham, however, mostly just trips over various contractions.

My favorite Jesus: The would-be Messiah who, finding himself dying in pain on a Roman cross, cries out (his last words, while alive, in Matthew): "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me." (Slavoj Zizek, not surprisingly, likes him too.)sophia_jesus.jpg

The deeply sad, if not disgusted, yet somehow also resolute and caring mosaic Jesus in Istanbul's Aya Sophia also intrigues me. Maybe because it manages to bring together a selection of the contradictions and inconsistencies in one believable Face. Might the painting be a reminder that such a selection could have coexisted in the Man Himself? Sure. Plenty of lower-case men and women manage to embody a bunch of contradictions. But, in Jesus's case, that's hard to square with the various supernatural perfections.

Is there a Jesus of whom you're particularly fond? Or, perhaps, a favorite contradiction in the various accounts of His life and death?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:05 PM | Comments (6)

Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction

posted on 03.02.2006 at 5:30 PM

One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.

Wieseltier spends most of his review of Daniel Dennett's book in a poorly camouflaged retreat.

Dennett's book argues that there are biological explanations for the human inclination toward religion. Wieseltier, instead of arguing, as so many have for so long, that religious belief is the product of revelation or good sense, never disputes this point.

GOD -- wan.JPGInstead, he repeatedly and heatedly insists that Dennett, in his flattening "scientism," is missing the essence of religion. However, when it comes time to indicate what that might be, Wieseltier's claims for religion turn out to be remarkably feeble or, to use his term, "wan." Note the grand defense of religion contained in this question:

"Why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?"

So the truth that Dennett is missing is that religion is just another form of "human" -- not superhuman -- "expression"? And that religious texts should no longer be taken as "literally" true but just read as allegories or mined for metaphor? My God! Wieseltier has forced Dennett and all them other reason-besotted atheists to view Genesis as sometimes compelling...fiction.

Is this where the debate now stands? If God is no longer the literal god of the Bible; if God is no longer making covenants or sending a son; if God has no beard, no form, no gender; if God doesn't punish the wicked or reward the righteous; if God doesn't offer a Kingdom, with eternal life; what's left? A rich tale?

Has the recent history of religion, despite all the noise now being made by the increasingly desperate orthodox, not been a poorly camouflaged retreat?

For other takes on Dennett (and Wieseltier and Hume) see here and here and here.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:30 PM | Comments (4)

Christmas Contradictions

posted on 12.24.2005 at 10:40 PM

One of the factors that contributed to the centuries-long period of questioning of religion (which may, or may not, be ending now) was the advent of critical study of the Bible.

Isaac Le Peyrere in France in the seventeenth century wondered, for example, where Lilith and Cain's wife came from if Adam was the first man. He wondered how Moses, if he had indeed authored the first five books of the Bible, could have written about his own death.

And many have noted apparent contradictions in the various accounts of Jesus' life. Indeed, it was concern about such contradictions that seems to have started quite a few atheists -- among them Charles Bradlaugh, who will be a major character in my book -- on the road to disbelief.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:40 PM | Comments (3)