Many Senses

This post may be a bit technical for most of my readers. However, I am fascinated by the human senses, and frequently explore them within my own body. I have long maintained that there are far more senses than generally thought, and this post is about that idea.

First, let’s define what I mean by a sense. In my view, a sense has the following characteristics:

  • It allows us to gain information about the outside world. In that way, a sense is effectively a portal between us and the physical universe in some way.
  • Typically, a sense has a dedicated area of the brain to moderate its needs. In some cases, (such as sight), the sense is so complex that multiple areas of the brain are involved. Often, the use of different areas of the brain is a clue that a particular sense is separate from another sense. This is the case with the sense of touch (or what I call tactile sensation) and the related senses of body sensation and sexual sensation.
  • Senses generally result in sensations that we can experience consciously. That is, we are aware that we are experiencing this sensation. This is certainly true of sexual sensation, for example!
  • Frequently (but not always), a distinct organ of the body is associated with one or more senses. For example, the ears not only take care of hearing, but also balance.

In my own body see at least the following senses at work in my own life:

  • Sight (of course). This is undoubtedly the primary sense for humans, and I certainly rely on it heavily. It is far more complex than most people realize. More on this later.
  • Hearing (of course).
  • Taste (of course).
  • Smell (of course). Again, though, the sense of smell is a bit more complex than folks realize, and is certainly closely related to the previous sense, taste. Actually, most of the sensations that we experience when we eat are smells, not tastes.
  • Tactile sensation. Note that I do not call this sense “touch”. There are very good reasons for this. See the next sense for some reasons why.
  • Sexual sensation. Again, very distinct from what we normally call the sense of “touch”. However, sexual sensations are regulated by a completely different area of the brain from the normal sense of tactile sensation that we feel continuously throughout the day. Sexual sensation only fires if there is sufficient stimulation to cause the release of oxytocin, a neurohormone with fascinating implications for health.
  • Body sensation, often referred to as the sense of pain. Interestingly, the sense of pain is referred to as a sense, but is not typically included in the sense list which we learn in school. Odd. However, body sensation is definitely a separate sense, according to the definition above. Certainly, it uses a completely different area of the brain than tactile sensation. Oddly, the sense of body sensation shares much of the wiring (referred to as the parasympathetic nervous system) with the sense of sexual sensation.
  • Balance. This is a very interesting and complex sense. We definitely use a distinct area of the brain to handle this sense, and we also have an organ in the inner ear which assists with this sense.
  • Duration, commonly referred to as the sense of time. Again, this is often called a sense, but is left off of the typical “five senses” list we learn in school. Which is obviously incomplete, as we see above!

There is probably a spiritual sense as well, but of course I cannot prove that. I have certainly experienced the spiritual sense in my own life, though. More later.

Sweet Poison

Anyone who hangs around me long enough has probably heard me recount a radio piece I heard on NPR. I am kind of an NPR fanatic. You know, sustaining donor and all that. So yesterday, I was rapping with my wife and I brought up this piece on sugar featuring Dr. Robert Lustig on Diane Rehm’s show. The whole gist of the show was about how hopeless it is to fight against obesity when you are eating a diet which is high in sugar.

Which gets into the whole diet thing, of course. You have to understand that I have struggled with obesity my entire life. My parents where both obese. My siblings were both heavy and struggled with weight issues growing up. And so forth. Of course, growing up in the 60s as we did, we ate a horrifically unhealthy diet. Including huge quantities of sugar, especially in the form of soft drinks.

Which gets back to Dr. Lustig. While I disagreed with Dr. Lustig on some points (performing stomach stapling surgery on children being one such point), he did make some other points with which I am in violent agreement. One of these was the way our bodies work with sugar and the flavor sweet.

Basically, if you want to get a baby to eat a salty or tart food, you must introduce it to the baby on average 13 times, and he or she may or may not ever accept it. A sweet food is accepted by babies immediately. Apparently, we are instinctively programed to like to eat sweet foods. According to Dr. Lustig this is because our bodies are designed to recognize anything sweet as safe to eat. Although Dr. Lustig did not point out why this is the case, I can reach into my Anthropology background, and give a very good guess: When plants include sugar in their fruit, they do so because they want animals like humans to pick them, eat them and cast the seeds in their stool. Many, many plants reproduce in this manner. Obviously, making the fruit poison would be counterproductive to the plants survival. For this reason, sweet food is always safe to eat in nature.

Enter the food industry. Dr. Lustig points out that foods like high fructose corn syrup defeat our biological programming: This food is sweet but it is definitely not safe to eat. Instead, in the long term, as can be seen in my own life, it is poison. Even the food industry knows this. But they continue to market this dangerous but wildly profitable food to the public.

I have read and studied so much on diet and nutrition that I figure I probably deserve an advanced degree by now. I have at least read the books on all of the major diet programs, and I have been on most of them. This includes Atkins, Priticin, Ornish, MacDougal, Sears, Fuhrman, etc. In my experience, these guys disagree on almost everything: Some say you should eat a diet low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fat. Others maintain just the opposite: You should eat a diet high in carbohydrates and very low in protein (especially animal protein) and fat. But on one thing all of these guys agree, and that is about sugar, and especially soft drinks.

Everyone in the entire diet and nutrition field (with the exception of shills from the food industry) agree that high sugar foods like soft drinks and heavily processed snack foods are effectively killing us, and are telling everyone this including the food industry. In the process, the entire raft of human diseases that plague us at this point in history (diabetes, arthritis, auto-immunity, etc.) are consuming all of our wealth. You get the idea: Basically we are looking at the end of our civilization if we don’t change our ways.

This is a classic example of why Capitalism does not always work out to our advantage: The food industry has a strong financial incentive to produce and sell very profitable foods like high sugar soft drinks and snack foods. But these foods have a cost and that cost is very, very high. We must fix this somehow if we intend to survive.

More later.

Payoff

In my previous post, I talked about the notion that the bible (which is of course merely a collection of ancient documents) is the “Word of God”, and how this notion has become a critical component to Western European Evangelical Christianity. In several conversations with my friend Ray (who is Christian, of course), I think Ray and I may have teased out a possible reason why this notion became so central to this particular religion. One in which I and many of my loved ones have been enmeshed for so many years.

Ray calls it “Reading by Faith”. I have also heard this referred to as “Pray Reading”, and various other similar terms, depending on the religious context. The assumption is that the spiritual organ that lies within each of us, and connects us to the divine, gets turned on, and suddenly we are able to believe things for which there is no logical evidence. And the first thing you must believe, and for which there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, is that the bible is in some sense the “Word of God”.

Looking at this phenomenon from outside religion, of course, it appears to be very much like mass delusion. There is, after all, no scientific evidence to support the existence of a Human Spirit (at least not without serious questions). Thus, the act of believing propositions for which the evidence is seriously lacking seems, well, illogical.

Enter what I call Suspension of Disbelief (SoD). It is very similar to going to the movies, reading a book, or any other similar form of entertainment. You simply decide to believe what is presented to you, and you are good. You can only enjoy Harry Potter, Star Trek, and the like, by engaging in SoD to at least some degree. I am very good at this maneuver, actually. Anyone who has been to an action movie with me will laugh when they remember how agitated I can get during the fight scenes. This is because I actually lived in a fantasy world for several years (during the time my father was in Vietnam), and thus I have a very overdeveloped imagination.

Anyway, to become a Christian, you simply decide to believe. That’s it. The bible does say that it is “God’s Word” in several places (or at least you can interpret it that way). If you simply do the SoD thing (which, again, in the religious context can be called such things as “Reading by Faith”) then you can accept the bible, warts and all, as the utterance from the mind of God. Believe me. I know. I have done this very thing: I have believed this myself.

Now, the question: Why did I do this? Simple. There was a big payoff. In fact a payoff so huge that it could be said that it saved my life.

The payoff was love.

I was 28. It was 1983. My sister committed suicide by shooting herself in the head with a 38 caliber pistol. I got fired from my job and had basically no way to support myself. My wife was insane and abusive, as well as on her way to becoming a stumbling alcoholic. And I was joining her there. In the midst of all this stepped this older man named Frank.

Frank reminded me of my Dad, actually. I do not know as I sit here if Frank is still alive, although I have regularly tried to contact him. Frank, if you are out there, please let me know.

Frank was a Christian, and he took an interest in me, this young, intelligent, budding attorney who worked at the same natural gas pipeline company that he did. Frank took me under his wing. He offered me love. He offered me someone to talk to.

And he offered me the bible.

As I have said before, Frank was a very bookish guy. He seriously believed the proposition that the bible is the “Word of God”. And he dedicated an hour per day of his time to a practice based upon that belief: He read the bible cover to cover 4 times a year.

Now, of course, Frank was not reading the bible in the way that I do now. I read the bible as a piece of human culture, nothing more. Frank, on the other hand, used the same technique as my wife. I describe it above. Ray calls it “Reading by Faith”, which is the term I will use, or RbF for short.

The thing is, like I have said previously, most Christians only read about 15% of the complete content of their bible, max. And that’s the good stuff. Bear in mind that the bible is truly fabulous stuff at least 15% of the time. That’s the part that, for want of a better term, I call inspired (in the secular sense of course). The rest of the bible falls into three categories:

  • Appallingly violent
  • Miserably depressing
  • Crushingly dull

At least, it does for me. Your mileage may vary. Depending on your tolerance level, and your commitment to reading the bible. Which in the case of Frank, was very high.

During my long association with Frank, I noticed that he did not ignore the uncomfortable parts of the bible like other Christians did. He read it all. I imitated Frank, and read the bible cover-to-cover many, many times. In the process I learned a lot about the bible. And gradually I got a better picture. The way that Frank and I were reading the bible was driving us crazy. I certainly knew that was what it was doing to me, and I also saw a lot of the same thing in Frank. At the very least, this practice was giving both of us a lot of stress. I personally observed Frank tortured to some extent by one of the more difficult passages in the bible. The early history books like Genesis and Exodus are great for this. Just open one and read a bit. You almost can’t miss it. But one example that I will pick on is Genesis 19, a truly miserable story in the OT, and the passage that was bothering Frank one day long ago.

In Genesis 19 we have Lot, Abraham’s nephew, living in Sodom with his wife and family. Two figures described as “Messengers of Yahweh” (frequently translated “Angels of the Lord”) arrive to warn Lot to flee Sodom. Apparently, the people of Sodom are homicidal, sexually crazed maniacs. (I have never found anyone in my all of travels who remotely resemble the men of Sodom, but whatever.) The men of Sodom try to break down the door to Lot’s house to drag out these two total strangers “so that they could know them” (literally “have sex with them”).

At that point Lot has a startling response. He brings out his two young daughters and declares

No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof. (NIV)

Soooo, it would be “wicked” to have sex (presumably rape) with these two strangers, but it’s fine to rape my two young daughters to death? What is Lot thinking here?

Now, of course Frank had a strong response to this passage. Not only does it seem remarkably cruel, evil even, but it makes no sense. It does not seem to particularly move the narrative along. It just seems to be stuck in there.

The thing that really bothered Frank was that this was in the bible. He didn’t get it. With each and every verse in the entire bible, Frank was trying with all of his heart to extract meaning and significance. And despite years and years of trying, and accreting massive amounts of “insight” onto his understanding of the bible, many, many verses eluded him his entire life, at least up to the point I knew him. And he was fairly elderly then, so this practice had been going on for many years.

What I saw in Frank, though, was a man with a purpose. A man who stood for something. And, most importantly, a human being who was willing to expend energy on me, who was willing to take his time, and give it to me freely.

What he saw in me was a successful, very intelligent young man who was utterly shattered and broken, but who still had enormous potential. Frank invested huge amounts of his time in conversations with me. Over the course of my conversion, which took the better part of a year, Frank and I spoke for hours, many times a week. However, even at Frank’s inflated hourly rate (Frank was also an attorney) this investment was wildly profitable to the Christian Church (if such an institution can be said to exist). I have given wildly, profligately in fact, during my period as a Christian. Thus, strictly as a business decision, the contribution of Frank to my life was a good one. However, I seriously doubt that Frank thought about it in that way. To him, I was merely a young atheist who was in his life, and who he was working with to share his faith. He had done the same thing many times before, and did it after he worked with me. To Frank, it truly was a form of love.

Because of this, the offer that Frank made was completely irresistible. I was exactly what has been described by Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity as the ideal recruiting prospect for early Christianity: Isolated, lonely, desperate, and starved for human contact. It is possible that Christianity may have saved my life, as it did for many of the early Christian converts during all of the plagues in ancient Roman cities that Rodney Stark so eloquently describes. More on Rodney and his incredibly important contribution to my life in a later post.

The deal I made with Frank, which I suppose I secretly knew when I did it, was to receive access to a community, a support system, and most especially an emotional support system, in exchange for believing a few extremely implausible (but not provably wrong) propositions. Like that the bible is the “Word of God”. Which is, as I like to say, the Mother of Them All (TMotA). In terms of “foma” at least.

And why is that particular foma so important? Simple: Because it leads to all the rest.

If you believe, I mean truly believe, that the bible is the “Word of God”, then you will believe all kinds of improbable things. I have done it. Many folks in my life have done it. Entire doctrinal and theological card castles have been built around this initial single foma.

My daughter recently told me about some of the heated theological debates which were occurring in the Baptist church where she and her boyfriend sometimes attend. I suggested that she simply make the following statement during this sort of discussion:

You realize, don’t you, that the bible is a work of human culture and not the “Word of God” in any sense. Right?

At that point, all theological disputes should disappear. Because SoD will cease, assuming that this statement is believed. At least, that has been my experience. I was no longer able to buy the notion that the bible is the “Word of God” at some point in my journey (I have tried to figure out when this occurred, but so far it escapes me). My studies of the bible and the manuscripts upon which it is based eventually spilled over, and my faith in the bible as the “Word of God” simply collapsed. Once that happened, all of the other foma fell away as well. This included the following improbable notions, all of which I believed passionately up to this point:

  • Evolution is just a theory.
  • Marriage is an institution ordained by God in which one man and one woman live together their entire remaining lives and raise a family.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ is the only legitimate expression of God’s love on the Earth.
  • Your Hindu housekeeper is going to Hell because she has not accepted Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior.

More later.

Truth Believer

My wife is awesome. She is in the bathroom right now, singing her heart out with her headset on. It’s great. I’m sitting in our home office right next door and I can hear her going nuts in there.

We had a very significant talk last night. I made it very clear to her (as I will again) and wish to let all of my friends know that I am not trying to talk you into believing like me. (Well, maybe just a little.) Let me explain.

I do not want my Christian friends to stop being Christian, just like I do not want my Hindu friends to stop being Hindu. I had an employee a while back who was awesome named Shashi. Shashi is a great guy, and his wife Shree is also precious. Both of them are Hindu. When they found out that I was practicing yoga, they embraced me, gave me books, showered me with gifts, and the like. I would never ask Shashi and Shree to come to a Christian meeting, anymore than I would invite my Christian friends to go to yoga (unless I get a clear message that they are open to this).

What my wife has done is to cross over into a state in which she is very tolerant of people of other faiths. We talked about another friend (the wife of an aggressively Christian church friend named Gopal) who we will call Shruthi (not her real name). Shruthi was also a very wonderful person. She was beautiful, charming, vivacious, funny, and all that. She was also Hindu. Because her husband Gopal was aggressively Christian, he was putting enormous pressure on her to convert. He basically thought she was going to Hell. In fact, the prospect that his wife would go to Hell was driving him crazy. He proceeded to recruit other folks in the church (including my wife and I) to “witness” to Shruthi in order to convince her to “receive Jesus”.

My conversation with Shruthi was an absolutely pivotal moment for me: I realized that I no longer wanted Shruthi to become a Christian. I liked her as a Hindu. She told me that she was happy as a Hindu, that she regarded it as a path to God, and she did not understand why “you Christians” were always telling her otherwise. She was a bit annoyed actually. She made it very clear to me, though, that she was not interested in becoming a Christian and preferred to stay as she was. And I found that I agreed with her, and that I was happy to leave her alone in her Hinduism.

At that moment, I realized that I was no longer the same kind of Christian as Gopal. Last night my wife told me that she had an identical conversation with Shruthi with an identical outcome: She also did not believe that Shruthi was “going to Hell” and had no desire to convert her to Christianity. So I guess she did the same thing as me without realizing it.

Remember please that one of the cardinal points of the Christian faith (at least the aggressively evangelical Christianity that my wife and I were both involved in) is that anyone who has not accepted Jesus into their heart and dedicated their lives to Him is going to Hell, pure and simple. For this reason, we as Christians should try with all of our hearts to get all of our “lost friends” to pray the sinner’s prayer and accept Jesus into their hearts. Implicit in this attitude is the idea that Jesus is the only valid and legitimate way to God, and that Hinduism, Buddhism, and all the rest are simply lies. Again, the idea that Christianity has a monopoly on the truth.

Given that I no longer wanted Shruthi to accept Jesus, I realize now (even more than I did then) that this meant that I no longer was a Christian, as my religious group defined that term. I was something different. I call this thing I have become a Truth Believer.

Move later.

The Big Lie

My wife hit me with this one yesterday: “You know how you talk about the Big Lie? I want you to blog on that! Please!”

Actually, I was kind of planning on easing into this one. But she generally gets anything she wants from me (I’m soft that way). Like I said, I am pretty crazy about this woman.

Anyway, the Big Lie. I touched upon this a bit in one of my previous posts entitled The Compiler. In that post, I state the following:

Problem is: This preacher has been to seminary, and in order to graduate from any reasonably reputable seminary in the US, this preacher would have to learn everything that I have just said above. Hermeneutics (i.e., the interpretation of ancient texts, including the bible, for which we have only copies of the originals, and in which the copies do not agree) is a required subject in all reputable seminaries. Thus, this preacher is effectively lying, or at best withholding critically important information. You are being mislead if a preacher tells you that your current, modern translation of the bible is the “Word of God”, regardless of whether or not you believe the words of Paul to have been inspired.

And therein (as I like to say) is the rub: For some strange reason, this preacher is telling his flock a big fat whopper, and he presumably knows that is a very naughty thing to do, given his religious training. So why does he do it?

I remember the intro to Richard Elliot Friedman’s book Who Wrote the Bible in which he related a story about how he came to a Christian church to talk about the Documentary Hypothesis and where the bible comes from generally. At the end of his talk, an elderly woman approached him who appeared to be slightly incensed. She demanded with some heat to know why in all of her years attending a Christian church, she had never heard this information before. Which struck Richard Elliott Friedman as odd (Friedman is Jewish, and the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, so attending Christian meetings is not something I would imagine he would do very much). However, once he looked into it, he realized that the typical Christian is shockingly ignorant on Hermeneutics, which is, as I have said before, is a required class at any reputable seminary in the US (if not the world). Wikipedia defines Hermeneutics in this way:

Hermeneutics broadly, is the art and science of text interpretation. Traditional hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of written texts, especially texts in the areas of literature, religion and law. A type of traditional hermeneutic is biblical hermeneutics which concerns the study of the interpretation of the Bible.

You get the idea. It is simply not possible to seriously study the “art and science of text interpretation” in the context of the bible without learning the stuff I have said earlier on this blog. Therefore, the likelihood of the physical leather bound book the preacher is carrying as being “The Word of God” is about as great as the earth being struck by a comet. And, again, the preacher knows this.

So, again, why do all of the professional religious folks lie about this? Simple: The truth does not sell. And that is what religion has become: A money making organization, which is, effectively, a form of entertainment. More on this in my next post.

Compiler

In my last post, I promised to discuss other problems with the idea that the bible is the “Word of God”, especially with respect to the collection of books referred to by Christians as the Old Testament (often called the Hebrew Bible by folks who are not connected with Christianity, such as myself).

In order to do this, I must introduce the concept of Source Criticism, which is another thorny issue of the bible: This is simply the question of who wrote the various books of the bible. This brings up a rather controversial subject which I will touch on briefly, before turning to the issues of the Old Testament.

Paul is once again an excellent example. It is very likely that Paul wrote many of the books attributed to him, including Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and so forth. However, the authorship of the so-called “Pastoral Epistles” (i.e. I and II Timothy and Titus) is in grave doubt, despite being traditionally attributed to Paul. The reasons for this have to do with inconsistencies between the writings of Paul in the books we know he wrote (for example Romans) vs. these books. Remember that all we have is the text of the available manuscripts. Only by comparing the texts of the various books attributed to a given author, and exploring differences in style and content, can we attempt to determine if a book was actually written by the author to whom it is attributed.

In the case of the Pastoral Epistles, there are many problems. Perhaps the most glaring issue has to do with the passage in I Timothy 2:11-15 relating to the role of women in this church:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent…

The issue is that there is a glaring inconsistency between this passage and Romans 16, which contains many personal greetings for women, one of whom is identified as a deacon, another as a co-worker, and another an apostle. In order to reconcile I Timothy 2 with Romans 16, we would have to assume that either Paul was incredibly inconsistent in this area (almost insultingly so, given his greetings of these women in Romans), or radically changed his views regarding women between the times when he wrote Romans vs. I Timothy. Another scenario that seems more likely than these is that I Timothy (as well as II Timothy and Titus) were simply not written by Paul, but rather by someone else who wants us to think that he / she is Paul. In the biblical scholarship community, this person is generally referred to as pseudo-Paul.

The technical term within biblical scholarship for a book like this is “pseudonymous”. It is common in present times for an author to write under a false name: In ancient times, apparently it was fairly common (although it was considered naughty, as it is now) for writers to write under the name of another actual person, thereby borrowing their credibility and reputation, a form of identity theft, if you will. Hence the Source Criticism problem: If a book was not written by the apostle to whom it is traditionally attributed, what does that say about the authority and divine inspiration of the book? Many would maintain that a book which is a forgery and thus based upon a lie, cannot by definition be divinely inspired.

The Source Criticism problem plagues many of the books of the New Testament to a greater or lesser degree. These include all of the gospels and the book of Acts (all of which are actually anonymous books; the authorship attributed to them is simply traditional), as well as Hebrews, James, the epistles of Peter, and, of course, the book of Revelation.

Getting back to the Old Testament, there is a critically important difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament in the area of both Textual Criticism and Source Criticism: With respect to the New Testament it is possible to have a conversation in which we discuss the authorship of these books, as well as imagine discrete events where the books of the New Testament were written by a single person. Thus, we could, theoretically, listen in on the Divine Conversation, assuming we could travel back in time, and read the mind of the apostle as God spoke the book into his (her) mind. With the New Testament, we can at least attempt to discover the content of the Divine Conversation in some way. The trouble with the Old Testament is that this is simply impossible. Let me explain.

When I was beginning my search, I wandered into the Duke Divinity School Bookstore in Durham, NC, the city where I live. One of the first books that caught my attention was Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliott Friedman. I found this book simply irresistible. Friedman describes the Documentary Hypothesis, which is presently the best explanation we have for how the Old Testament came to be. Another excellent book on this subject is A History of God by Karen Armstrong. I have been reading a lot of Karen Armstrong recently, and I will admit that I really like her. She seems to “get it” with respect to this stuff very well.

One thing pointed out by Karen Armstrong, which is somewhat implicit in the entire Documentary Hypothesis idea, is that the God of the Old Testament was originally a pagan god, and evolved over the course of centuries into the monotheistic deity that we have today. As you may know, the God of the Old Testament is frequently referred to as El, often with suffixes like El Shaddai, and El Elyon. It turns out that there was a pagan god in Canaan at the time of the Jewish patriarchs named El. Further, this pagan god had many of the same suffixes as the God of the Old Testament. There is also some evidence (a bit more sketchy than El) that Yahweh, the other name frequently used to refer to the God of the Old Testament, was a pagan god as well. El was a sky god and a storm god, similar to Zeus in the Greek tradition or Jupiter in the Roman tradition. The center for the cult which worshiped El was around the area that is now Shiloh in Northern Israel. Yahweh was probably a god of craft, smithery, and the hearth, similar to Hephaestus in the Greek tradition or Vulcan in the Roman tradition. The pagan god Yahweh also had a daughter, the Canaanite goddess Sophia, who was the goddess of wisdom (similar to Athena in the Greek pantheon and Minerva in the Roman). Sophia is frequently referred to in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, where her name is translated “wisdom”. However, she is uniformly referred to in Proverbs as an actually person, and always in the feminine. The center of worship of Yahweh was in Jerusalem in Southern Israel.

There is a fascinating tie-in between the Canaanite god El and the God named El in the Old Testament which is contained in Exodus 32. Here, when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law, the children of Israel quickly turned back to paganism and asked Moses’s brother Aaron to make an idol for them. Aaron fashioned a golden calf (actually a young bull). The Canaanite god El was also represented as a golden bull in the archeological record. Apparently, Moses was worshipping Yahweh up on the mountain, while the children of Israel were worshipping El down in the valley!

The Documentary Hypothesis assumes that the people centered around the cult of El in the North developed an oral tradition which included a creation myth, a flood myth, and all the rest, all couched in terms of the dominant god being El. A similar oral tradition developed in the South around the god named Yahweh. In the 8th century BCE, the Assyrian invasion occurred, and the Northern people were decimated. A remnant made it to the South as refugees (the tribes of Benjamin and Judah in the biblical account). For a couple of centuries, the Northern and Southern people lived alongside each other in the area described in the Old Testament as Judah. Then the final invasion occurred in the 6th century from Babylon, and all of the remaining inhabitants (consisting of a mixture of the Northern and Southern cultures) was thrown into exile in Babylon for 70 years. Finally, when the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, some of the territory which is now Israel was restored to the former inhabitants, and they were allowed to return and rebuild the temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem.

At this point, we see the Old Testament suddenly burst onto the scene. Which is just weird, frankly. The Documentary Hypothesis assumes that there was a person referred to as the Compiler. The identity of this person is the subject of much debated, but Richard Elliott Friedman believes it to have been Ezra the High Priest. One of the challenges this person would have faced would be the diversity within the Israelite community. He needed to create a way for the people to gel around a common set of beliefs. For this reason, the Compiler took the oral tradition from El (referred to as the E voice) as well as the oral tradition from Yahweh (referred to as the J voice), and wove them together into the Old Testament books we have today. Richard Elliott Friedman points out that this was one of the greatest works of human genius in history. It is very possible (easy actually) to trace both the J and E voices (as well as the other two voices referred to as the priestly, or “P” voice, as well as the Deuteronomist, or “D” voice).

Here is the rub: If the Documentary Hypothesis is true, then there is no discrete point at which the books of the Old Testament were written. Instead, they were compiled from previous sources. These original sources were oral traditions and thus have been lost. Further, there may have been numerous versions of these oral traditions. For this reason, discussing things like Textual Criticism and Source Criticism with respect to the Old Testament is simply nonsense. There is no way at this point for us to ever determine the original content of these books. And for this reason, referring to the Old Testament as the “Word of God” is also simply nonsense at this point.

In my next post, I will get into more detail about the religions (and there are more than one) that are contained in the bible.

Divine Conversation

In my previous post, I presented the arguments my friend Ray used to justify the proposition that the bible is the “Word of God”. I actually left one out. Here is the complete list:

  • Folks who believe that the bible is the “Word of God” are happier in general than people who do not.
  • These folks are also generally nicer than other folks, although sometimes they can be naughty.
  • Thus, the concept of the bible being the “Word of God” has been good for people generally.
  • The men who wrote the bible were trying really hard to do the right thing, given the context of their culture at their time in history, in creating the laws and such that they did. Thus, it is possible that the books they wrote are the “Word of God” in some sense. Certainly, they deserve the status of being authors of the “Word of God” more than anyone else does.

Note that last one. It’s really important and I will be talking about it a lot in this blog. Given that it is impossible to actually prove that the bible (or any other work of human culture for that matter) is the “Word of God”, what is required is to assume (some would say invent) an event in which the content of a particular book of the bible is whispered by God into the mind of a man (or possibly a woman!) at some point in history. I call this idea the Divine Conversation, and it is central to the idea of biblical inspiration.

There are many examples I could choose, but I will pick on Paul. I rather like Paul, actually. I understand him fairly well I think. We can be  pretty sure that Paul wrote the books of I and II Corinthians. (We are definitely not so sure about some of his other supposed works, as you will see later in this blog. By the way, when I use the term “we” in this blog, I generally mean folks like me who like to study this stuff, and are up on ancient languages and the like. Other than extremely conservative religious communities, there is an emerging consensus about much of this stuff, as you will see if you keep reading this blog.) In addition, we think that we know about when and where Paul wrote the books of I and II Corinthians. Certainly, one can imagine Paul sitting there in the ancient Asia Minor of that time and dictating these letters (it seems likely to many that Paul used a secretary, possibly due to poor eyesight). If we could travel back in time to that moment, we could, possibly, capture at least one side of the Divine Conversation between Paul and God.

Of course, therein lies part of the rub. It is likely that any such conversation (if it occurred at all) would be completely subjective. Thus, not only would we have to be time travelers, we would have to be mind readers as well. But by being time travelers, we could undoubtedly capture at least Paul’s side of that conversation, and thus get to enjoy the original, unadulterated words of Paul.

And that is how we get to the Textual Criticism Problem: The manuscripts of I and II Corinthians that we have access to are very far removed from the time that Paul wrote these books. The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are from the middle of the fourth century, and the vast majority of ancient manuscripts are far more recent, and well into the period when all dissent regarding theological matters had been suppressed. (I will discuss the loss of freedom of thought in the early Christian church further in this blog.) Thus, it is likely that the later manuscripts were heavily corrupted by corrections due to theological disagreements. (More on the divergent theological views of the New Testament authors later.)

And remember that there was no mechanical reproduction at that time. All books had to be copied by hand. Early on, prior to the development of the Christian canon, the copying was apparently not so good. (You have to remember that less than 1% of these folks were literate, and much of the copying was by illiterates who were simply copying shapes.) Eventually, once the Christian church evolved, developed a canon, and got organized, the manuscripts became more uniform, resulting in what is referred to as the “Majority Text”, which is the version of the New Testament that is used by Christian bible translators to create the modern bible translations we have today. (Frequently, more liberal bible translators will refer to the divergent, earlier New Testament texts of the New Testament in footnotes.)

Modern Evangelical Christians love to bash what they derisively refer to as “Higher Criticism”. They ignore the obvious issues relating to the New Testament text itself. Instead they (and I was among them) retreat into the Majority Text as representing the authoritative and correct version of the New Testament. The problem is that you are required as a believer to take this on faith, and once you begin to study the issue, any faith in the Majority Text quickly collapses. In the end, the frustrating and rather unsatisfying conclusion that I have drawn after years of study is that it is possible that there was, indeed, a Divine Conversation between Paul and God (certainly, we cannot prove otherwise, barring the invention of both time travel and mind reading). However, there is no reliable and proven way to know with absolute certainty what the actual content of that conversation was. Thus, while I cannot disprove the idea that the books of I and II Corinthians are divinely inspired, at least in the original, uncorrupted version dictated by Paul, that version is irrevocably and irretrievably lost to us. What we have left is only an educated guess, an echo of that Divine Conversation if you will. Depending on the specific verse, this guess can be quite confident, or it can be nothing more than a best guess from several, equally plausible, readings. The bottom line is that the number of textual differences among the New Testament manuscripts is greater than the number of letters in the entire New Testament, and the variances among the texts include some extremely serious discrepancies for which there is no satisfying resolution. (We will be discussing these exact issues further on this blog.)

And therein lies my issue with modern Evangelical Protestant Christianity. I have personally attended many Christian meetings where a preacher holds up a leather bound bible and passionately tells the faithful that this is the “Word of God”. I would submit, based upon the discussion above, that the leather bound book the preacher is holding (which is a translation into a foreign language of a compilation of the original language from numerous ancient manuscripts, with all of the issues I identified) is not the “Word of God” in any reasonable sense, regardless of whether the original Divine Conversation was inspired. That is to say, it actually does not matter whether or not the original version of the books of I and II Corinthians were inspired: We do not have those books. What we have is some evidence of the content of those books. Perhaps if the preacher said: “This book contains an echo of a Divine Conversation! if we read this book, we might be able to guess the content of a book which issued from the mind of God!” But, of course, that does not sell.

Problem is: This preacher has been to seminary, and in order to graduate from any reasonably reputable seminary in the US, this preacher would have to learn everything that I have just said above. Hermeneutics (i.e., the interpretation of ancient texts, including the bible, for which we have only copies of the originals, and in which the copies do not agree) is a required subject in all reputable seminaries. Thus, this preacher is effectively lying, or at best withholding critically important information. You are being mislead if a preacher tells you that your current, modern translation of the bible is the “Word of God”, regardless of whether or not you believe the words of Paul to have been inspired.

In my next post, I will further explore the issues of reliability in the bible, especially with respect to the collection referred to by Christians as the Old Testament.