The Bible, Rated X


The Bible, Rated X


Article I in a Five-Part Series About a Book so Important They Called it “The Book”


The Bible, were it literally illumined upon the silver screen, would be the most sensationalistic, X-rated expose in history. The Tennessee General Assembly would ban it. No one under the age of 18 would be allowed to view it. The Westboro Baptist Church would picket the premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. Trey Parker and Matt Stone would kick themselves repeatedly for not having produced it. And Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham would hold a joint press conference to declare that God’s judgment was drawing nigh for depicting God’s judgment drawing nigh.


Yet this same book is the sacred text of two major world religions—semi-beloved by at least another—and is considered by one-third of the planet to be the Word of God. Right or wrong, the Bible (or at least the smiley face parts) is also the Public Policy Yellow Pages for millions of staunchly conservative Americans.


Aye, there’s the rub.



Last week, I published an article on the biblical definitions of marriage which prompted commentary on both sides of the political spectrum. To some, I was the mouthpiece of Beelzebub for quoting Bible passages about incest, polygamy and Levites chopping their so-called beloved concubines into fish bait. To others, I had paid pointless heed to a tired book irrelevant to 21st-century life.


The feedback down the middle, however, demonstrated that people are eager to learn more about this ancient, complex text. So I am going to stick with this theme and communicate what seem like essential historical, literary and religious perspectives about the Bible in a series of articles.


But…this will not be your average Sunday morning Bible lesson. There will be sex, lots of sex. And violence that makes The Walking Dead seem bucolic. Not even Dexter has shown a person being sizzled in a frying pan, but the Bible does. Beyond such titillation and terror will be some interesting canonical whodunits about how the Bible survived into the 21st century. In all, a bit of RoboCop, a bit of Basic Instinct, and a dash of whip-cracking Indiana Jones.


Yet at the center of this scandalous literary rolling stone can be found supreme guidance for ethical living. Even Thomas Jefferson thought so—though he thought that Native Americans needed this guidance more than he did. More on that in a bit.


Ah, theodicy.


The Bible:  A Political Tool Used by Political Tools


I respect the viewpoint of those who insist the Bible should not be turned into Public Policy for Dummies (I agree) and who pay it no heed as a religious text or even as an ethical guide. Yet to discount the Bible as “an old book of fairy tales” and to ignore its primacy as a conservative political tool, to my mind, is a terrible pragmatic mistake.


The average progressive is justifiably suspicious when members of the Religious Right force Scripture to align with the corporate missions of Monsanto, Hobby Lobby and Lockheed Martin. Yet it is one thing to sense people are acting as charlatans and thumb memes at them, and another thing entirely to swipe away their political poleaxe and pummel their armor with it.


I mean, wouldn’t it be great to lay at the feet of a Bible-thumping, Koch-touting megachurcher the evidence as presented in Acts 4 and 5 that the model for Christian living appears to be socialism? “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32). Beyond this, how does one interpret the fact that God apparently struck dead anyone who held back funds from the Christian collective (Acts 5:1-10)?


As a Christian, it would certainly make me think twice before applying an anti-social reform bumper sticker to my Lexus. It would even make me think twice before buying a Lexus!


You might not win every argument against fundamentalists by using the Bible, but you will definitely shift the course of the dialogue as well as the burden of proof. More importantly, you might get fundamentalists to begin rethinking their views. And that promotes progress.


By the way, this worked for me. The scales of fundamentalism fell from my eyes only because others were willing to chip away at my closed religious and political worldview for years. And they used the Bible, as well as Christian history, to point out the godawful interpretations to which I adhered. To these people, I am grateful.


In short, the Bible, like any text, is a tool. Our political enemies use it to construct destructive policies. Why shouldn’t we use it to expose hypocrisy and tear those policies down?


The Bible: A Book of Omissions and Emissions


Christian fundamentalists might not be particularly keen when someone likens the Bible to “an X-rated expose” and publicly airs holy writ laundry. But when was the last time you saw Ezekiel 23:20 placed upon a Sunday School flannelgraph?:


There [Oholibah] lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkey and whose emission [זִרְמַת, zirmah] was like that of horses.


Almost across the board, 21st-century biblical translators have chosen “emission” or “issue” to describe what we all know Ezekiel meant—and what one daring biblical commentary describes as “a gushing of sperm.”


However, the New American Bible, which has pontifical scholarly strength and is based on the heralded Novum Testamentum Graece as well as many legitimate ancient manuscripts, herein displays some real translational disappointment—or comic relief, depending on one’s point of view—with the phrase “whose heat is like those of stallions.”


Well, as the old Marilyn Monroe movie title suggests, some like it hot.


Really, though, there’s no getting around the fact that Ezekiel, son of Buzi, is using the language of Larry Flynt to describe unfaithfulness to God as exhibited by the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. But if the NAB translators are going to act so stiffly, someone ought to offer an antipodal translation like “whose Gamete Gatorade was like that of a Kentucky Derby after-party.”


Frankly, I take comfort in the fact that my holy writ does not treat the subject of unfaithfulness as though it were a Lifetime Channel special starring Melissa Gilbert. Anyone who has been through the mess of a marital affair can empathize with Ezekiel’s phrasing. So could this man, unfortunately.


Also seemingly confused by the message of Ezekiel are the paraphrasing editors at Parragon Books, publishers of My First Bible, a cutesy kid’s Bible with Precious Moments-like illustrations of popular biblical tales which, unfortunately, acknowledges nothing of the Old Testament major prophets other than a scant reference to Isaiah. And you can bet your bottom dollar, literally, that of Isaiah’s 66 chapters, Parragon wasn’t about to cover (pun intended) Isaiah 20, which recounts the tale of poor Isaiah, ordered by Jehovah to preach naked for three years just to make a prediction that “Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles” would soon be led into bared-buttock exile.


Parragon instead devotes two pages to Isaiah 9 and 11, which includes the classic messianic prophecy: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6). Yet nowhere in My First Bible, nor in Handel’s Messiah for that matter, do we spy references to bearded, flashing prophets. Even so, Parragon assures us: “Everything that Isaiah promised came true.”


But dang if the folks at Parragon didn’t skip one section of Isaiah that I want my child to learn:


Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)


I shouldn’t give Parragon Books such a hard time. While they refuse to show full frontal shots of Adam and Eve (genitals are classically ensconced behind bushes), there is a daring derriere illustration of the primary pair before the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil. That is progress, as I guarantee we did not see Naked & Afraid-style engravings in Peter Brynberg’s 1797 edition of The Holy Bible Abridged; Or, The History of the Old and New Testament. Illustrated with notes, and adorned with cuts, for the use of children.


Holy Septuagint! Just look at the scriptural stew thus stirred, yet we have only touched two tiny sections of an endlessly complex book that spans thousands of years of history, imagined and real.


By the way, the point of the above was not to show you that the Bible contains references to horse loads and naked prophets, but to demonstrate that whether or not the Bible smells of Divine breath, it is inarguably a human construct. People have always decided what words and passages you can see and should see. This is not always a bad thing; sometimes it’s just an inevitable product of translation. The same problems exist in general literature; imagine being the guy in Finland stuck translating the term “Catch-22.”


And here the Florida League of the South would have you believe that biblical interpretation is so simple. Sigh.


Conclusion and Confession


Well, our time today has expired. We will have to save Mr. Jefferson and his unique biblical translation for the next article in the series. It’s a great story; hope to see you there.


In closing, I have a confession to make. I used the New International Version to quote the above scriptural passages. I am aware of the NIV’s scholarly limitations. Yet my personal childhood NIV Bible is signed by Astronaut Charlie Duke, and I find it impossible to resist using a copy of holy writ touched by one of the few human beings to set foot on another celestial sphere. I think of it as antiquarian props to Galileo. Also, it demonstrates that I’m no different than anyone else: just another human being bringing subjectivity to the hermeneutic table.


I hope this introduction serves a productive purpose for both sides of the political spectrum. The Bible is a work of immense vastness and fascinating complexity. The Bible minces no words to describe human behavior at its worst and best, and it embraces conundrums at every turn. For millions, the Bible also contains the basis for moral living, and along with that comes the temptation by many to use it inappropriately as a tool for theocracy-building. Yet the Bible also can be used as a tool to remind everyone who preaches it to behave and balance themselves.


And all I did was scratch the surface.




The Bible, Rated X: Mr. Jefferson, 666 & Biblical Bosoms


Article II in a Five-Part Series About a Book so Important They Called it “The Book”


Welcome back to The Bible: Rated X! This week we’re tackling the Founding Fathers, the Antichrist and Solomonic T&A.


To pick up where we left off in Article I, the Bible is the most quoted yet least understood text in history. It is the Word of God for more than 2 billion-plus people on our Little Blue Planet, and, unfortunately, a Public Policy for Dummies for millions of misguided theocrats across the Fruited Plain. Oddly, the Bible also has enough sex and violence, plus just generally bizarre things to say (unless you’re accustomed to talking asses), to cause editors of Children’s Bibles to go into anaphylactic shock.


As we discussed last time, the Bible, ironically, can be used in the political realm to ward off Christian fundamentalism. With a little research, the average progressive should be able to arm himself or herself with enough ammunition to get fundamentalists to stop dead in their tracks, and in so doing, might be able to advance civilization a step or two. (Now if only we could airdrop Bibles on the Texas Legislature.)


Let’s return to the complex theme of biblical translation.


The Bible: A Founding Father’s Translation Experiment


Some years ago, I worked at an antiquarian bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia. One evening, a patron entered the premises and stated in hushed tones that he was the owner of a rare book of incomprehensible worth he was eager to sell. I listened; Charlottesville is a town where such statements are more than a remote possibility. After all, one of my rare book colleagues once found a signed James Joyce first edition in a recycling dumpster.


The patron leaned in and said he was the owner of an exceptionally rare copy of the King James Bible. Believable enough. I mirrored his lean until our noses were almost touching.


He whispered, “Signed by King David.”


When King James’ dutiful theologians finished one of the most incredible translation projects in history in 1611, King David had been in the grave 2,500 years. When I informed the patron of this fact, he told me he must have remembered the version incorrectly.



Another man from Charlottesville, Mr. Thomas Jefferson, believed the New Testament contained exceptional guidelines for ethical living as presented by Jesus. Tea Partiers should cover their eyes at this point, because Jefferson denounced every miracle in the Bible. Those who suggest otherwise sell Evangelical snake oil.


Jefferson wrote to John Adams regarding his personal translation of the Bible: “In extracting the pure principles which [Jesus] taught …. [t]here will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”


Not surprisingly, you won’t find miracles in The Jefferson Bible, or as he called it, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines as Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrassed with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.


As we know, our third President was no less human than other biblical heroes. King David had Bathsheba; Jefferson had Sally Hemings. And who knows why Jefferson thought Jesus’ teachings were so well-suited to Native Americans. Perhaps in his presidential wisdom he understood that endless cheek-turning from Uncle Sam’s bloody oppression lay ahead for them.


In all, The Jefferson Bible is more a work of biblical redaction than translation, but part of a translator’s job is determining what passages are valid and invalid. In Mr. Jefferson’s opinion—one I do not share—the Bible is more dunghill than diamond.


The Bible: Like Two Unicorn Foals Frolicking in a Field of Rainbow Fruit Flavor


If you haven’t read Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon as it is also called, take a few minutes to peruse this book of quirky erotic poetry, which is dropped as a canonical postscript after King Solomon’s more common works of wisdom, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.


Song of Songs is the book of the Bible that every fundamentalist translator dreads (but secretly hopes he gets assigned to).


If you’ll recall from an earlier article, Solomon was a man about town in Jerusalem, with 1,000 wives and concubines. Anyone in the day who described himself as “a sachet of myrrh lying between a woman’s breasts” apparently was followed mindlessly to the altar.


Solomon was an okay erotic poet, but he was obsessed with breasts. He tells us breasts are clusters of fruit. At other times they’re henna blossoms. Also fawns: twin fawns, gazelle fawns, anything to do with Bambi. And grape clusters.


Here’s my favorite: “I am a wall and my breasts are like towers” (Song of Songs 8:10). I had no idea implants predated the New Testament.


Solomon should have stuck to mammary verse, however. It is hard to imagine any of his wives, or even his concubines, were flattered to discover their hair was like a flock of goats or their teeth were like a flock of shorn sheep.


Meanwhile, Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century French abbot of the strict Cisterian Order, had absolutely no business giving sermons about Solomon’s omnipresent breasts. Here is a passage from one of St. Bernard’s “Sermons on the Song of Songs”:


Now let us try to see the meaning of this commendation of the Bridegroom’s breasts. These two breasts are two proofs of his native kindness: his patience in awaiting the sinner and his welcoming mercy for the penitent.


St. Bernard wasn’t the only preacher in history who wanted us to think twice about breasts. Classical rabbinical teachings would have us believe that the Beloved’s breasts are metaphors for Moses and Aaron. Because, you know, nothing says knockers like bearded brothers. Not surprisingly, when Christianity took theological hold of the Old Testament, the Beloved became a metaphor for the Church—which perhaps explains early Christianity’s architectural predilection for domes.


I could go on about how Song of Songs has been interpreted down through history—including the centuries’ tug-of-war as to whether it should even be included in the Bible. But I don’t wish to drift far from the theme of translation. So let’s examine two English variants of Song of Songs 4:5:


Here is the King James Version: “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.”


Here is the New International Version: “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.”


Let me pose a simple question: If you were a Bible translator and you had to describe the female anatomy erotically, would you liken a bosom to “roes” or “gazelle fawns”?


As an experiment, try it on your next ChristianMingle blind date and come back with the results.


It’s too tempting not to conclude with the commentary offered on this verse by the porcine Presbyterian Matthew Henry, who in 1708 offered the following nugget of wisdom: “If each of these comparisons has a meaning applicable to the graces of the church, or of the faithful Christian, they are not clearly known; and great mistakes are made by fanciful guesses.”


At least Henry knew better than to call two boobs Moses and Aaron.


The Mark of the Beast


Awhile back, I went to the dry cleaner to pick up a suit and some dress shirts. The bangle-bedecked cashier punched up my total and stared at me as though I were the Son of Belial.


“Is something amiss, ma’am?” I inquired.


She pointed at the green digital tally on the register—$16.66—then blurted, “You don’t have to pay that amount, sir! I mean, it containing the Mark of the Beast and all!”


I insisted on writing a check for the precise amount, then bared vampire fangs, shouted incantations from Malleus Maleficarum, sprouted demon wings, and flew in haste to the Whore of Babylon’s secret lair on the other side of town.


Let us now turn to a biblical text that even Iron Maiden groupies know by heart, arguably the most abused text in history: “This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666” (Revelation 13:18).


For the past 2,000 years, charlatans the world over have been using the cryptic final book of the Bible to instill unwarranted fear into otherwise innocent dry cleaner cashiers.


The Book of Revelation has been interpreted by members of every Christian generation to mean that Jesus is returning in glory at any second. Guess what? Each generation has been wrong.


Again, Matthew Henry: “What or who is intended by this, remains a mystery.”


As to the supposed “Mark of the Beast,” here is a fact not generally known: One of the oldest manuscript fragments of the Book of Revelation records the Number of the Beast as 616. Several other important biblical manuscripts, including Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (one of the four oldest extant Bibles, early fifth century CE), also has 616.


Here is a plausible explanation as to why some ancient manuscripts have the familiarly formidable “666,” while others have the totally mild-mannered “616”:


St. John’s Apocalypse was written in code. Not a Tom-Hanks-in-a-mullet-running-around-the-Louvre-solving-Christ’s-love-life code. More along the lines of a Christians-are-being-fed-to-lions-by-the-Romans-so-let’s-keep-this-message-on-the-hush-hush-as-I’d-really-rather-not-be-a-Colosseum-Burger-today kind of code.


The Apocalyptic Beast isn’t Henry Kissinger or Wolf Blitzer or Peter Frampton or any cultural personage whom Pat Robertson would have you fear.


The “Beast” of Revelation was a real person: the Emperor Nero.


As with Latin, ancient Greek and Hebrew numbers are represented by letters of the alphabet. In Greek, the recorded language of the New Testament, the number 666 is represented as chi-xi-sigma; the number 616 as chi-iota-sigma.


Get this: in Hebrew, the letters for the name Neron Kesar (Caesar Nero) add up to the number—you guessed it—666.


But the sadistic Roman emperor was also known simply as Nero—without the final “n.”


Let’s see: The Hebrew value for “n” is equivalent to 50. 666 – 50 = 616. Bingo.


You won’t learn any of this from reading Tim LaHaye’s garbage, best-selling Left Behind series.


Why? Because learning that 666 was merely an ancient Christian codeword for the nefarious Emperor Nero isn’t nearly as fear-provoking as predicting that, any moment now, Mikhail Gorbachev and his turbo-charged birthmark will bludgeon every Evangelical on the planet.


If you’ve been living in fear of the number 666 all your life, you’ve been duped. There’s a term for the fear of this number. It’s called hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.


Listen to me when I say: Live in hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia no more!


The Bible: Concluding Thoughts on Translation


When engaging in political discourse with Christian conservatives, as a first step, get them to recognize that the Bible is a translated work. Ask them why there are differences between one translation or another for a given text being thumped. Ask them to explain why they use a particular translation. Ask them if they know how or when their translation was compiled. Odds are they have never thought about these things.


Take them on an Internet tour of available translations of the Bible in English. Demonstrate the difference between a good translation and a poor one.


If they use the King James Version—still a fan favorite for fire & brimstone mongers—suggest that while the KJV was a magnificent literary project, it really is the incandescent light bulb of Bible translations. Perhaps they would be interested in trading in the KJV for something more efficiently illuminating. If they insist on using the KJV, then offer that King James forced translators to conform their work to the theology of the Church of England—you know, the church started by that King Henry VIII guy who cut off his wives’ heads.


You could also introduce the fact that whether or not the Bible smells of Divine breath, it is most definitely a human construct.


The New Testament alone is compiled from more than 20,000 complete or fragmented manuscripts in all manner of languages, including Greek, Latin, Sryiac and Coptic. And the earliest extant Bible containing both Old and New Testaments dates only to the fourth century C.E. Don’t worry, we’ll get to Codex Sinaiticus, scholarly skullduggery and other matters of canon in a subsequent article.


None of the above is intended to discount the Bible as a spiritual guidebook. Yet too often such conversations with fundamentalists begin in the peaks of unreason; these steps should add a layer of complexity to your dialogue. If nothing else, you’ll be encouraging a fundamentalist to think about historical processes. And it’s likely been some time since the person you’re talking with has stood at the base of the mountain of his or her religious beliefs and examined them.




I doubt either President Jefferson or Matthew Henry would have attended a screening of The Bible: Rated X. Solomon might have, when he wasn’t busy writing Penthouse Letters. To be honest, there are parts during which I would probably slip out to grab more popcorn—especially during scenes of limitless “begatting.” Yet there are other parts where a twin-towered, wild roe fawn browsing through the lilies couldn’t drag me out of my seat.


In our next article, we’ll talk about the biblical canon. If you think translating is problematic, wait until you learn just how the Bible survived to the 21st century.


Nothing is as simple as “The Bible says so.” The Bible is in fact no less human than Jesus.




The Bible, Rated X: Careful Where You Stick Your Colon


Article III in a Five-Part Series About a Book so Important They Called it “The Book”


[1] In the first two articles in this series, we learned that, contrary to what Rick Warren and Focus on the Family would have you believe, the Bible is sometimes more Penthouse than Guideposts. [2] Between Onan’s speed spilling, Isaiah’s three-year streak of Palestine, Solomon’s boobs fetish and Ezekiel’s horse loads, [3] it can be hard to remember that the Bible is equally socially revolutionary with concepts like debt forgiveness and socialism (dare we say communism?)—to say nothing of the behavioral landmark Golden Rule.


[4] Whether or not the Bible is a book of fairy tales, as some hold, it is without a doubt the most complex text in history and definitely takes expertise to understand in full. [5] But in the hands of religious bedlamites like so many members of the Texas Legislature, [6] all hell can break loose. [7] In fact, someone ought to remind those Lone Star political misfits that if they want to be literally faithful to Scripture, the entire Texas State Capitol should be declared unclean in light of TamponGate. [8] After all, with or without her Maxi-pad: “anything she sits on [during her period] will be unclean” (Leviticus 15:20).


[9] Let me reiterate: the point of this series is not to discount the Bible, but to properly humanize it. [10] I am myself a Christian. [11] It is a call for progressives to arm themselves with enough information to refute fundamentalists with the very text they use as a political thump-bludgeon. [12] In doing so, fundamentalists might just embrace the light of reason, and civilization would advance a wee bit in the process.


[13] Just imagine pulling out these articles next Thanksgiving when the pumpkin pie is being passed around the table and asking Uncle Rob and Aunt Jane why the Old Testament command to tithe (to give 10% of your earnings as an offering) is still relevant but not the prohibition to [14] touch a man who has been spit upon by a bloke who has recently ejaculated (Leviticus 15:8).


[15] As for today, we’re going to spend time discussing the arbitrary division of biblical text into chapters and verses as well as visit a tale of biblical manuscript skullduggery.


[16] You’re probably wondering about all these annoying bracketed numbers. [17] Well, I’m glad you asked.


The Bible: Careful Where You Stick Your Colon


Unless you read the Bible with some regularity, you may have no idea why each biblical quotation in these articles concludes with parenthetical text that includes an obscure word like “Deuteronomy” or “Habakkuk” and is followed by two numbers separated by a colon. Here’s an example:


A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. (Proverbs 5:19)


Want to take a guess who wrote that? Surprise, surprise. King Solomon the jugs-lover.


If you grew up watching Monday Night Football, you might recall that weird guy with the rainbow wig who somehow snagged sweet end zone tickets every game and held up a sign that read JOHN 3:16 during field goal attempts. Just what the heck does “John 3:16” mean?


“John” is the biblical book known as The Gospel of John, one of the four New Testament books that recount the story of Jesus. The “3” refers to the third chapter of The Gospel of John. And “16” refers to the 16th verse of Chapter 3.


Here is the text of John 3:16, arguably the most recognizable Christian text:


For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”


Here’s the problem: more or less, there is no such thing as John 3:16. The delineation of Scripture into clean-cut chapters and verses is a later publishing phenomenon. Much later. French printer Henri Estienne introduced the now commonly used chapter-verse Bible divisions in 1551, more than 12 centuries after the Council of Nicaea, when the biblical canon was close to being declared a finished product.


Jews and Christians of course had been marking special sections of holy writ for cantillation and public recitation for centuries, but let’s be clear: no Christian in first-century Rome was showing up at major Colosseum events with decorated scrolls advertising chapter-verse references from Psalms.


Hey, look over there at that guy in the toga with the amazing Technicolor wig! I think he’s holding a Psalm 104:21 scroll! “The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God.”


Why does any of this matter?


Try this on Uncle Rob and Aunt Jane at Thanksgiving. Ask them to quote John 3:16. No problem. The words will roll off their lips.


Next, ask them about the context of the sentence. Who uttered the words? (Jesus. Maybe they’ll know between the both of them.) Who was Jesus talking to? (I’ll be shocked if they say Nicodemus the Pharisee.) Here’s a really tough one: ask them to quote John 3:17, the next verse. (I will down a can of cranberry sauce if they can recite it.)


Frankly, the next two verses after John 3:16 are theologically problematic. Jesus assures Nicodemus that God didn’t send himself to our Little Blue Planet to condemn folks; then Jesus turns around and declares that everyone who doesn’t believe in him is condemned.


If you have some sense of the Gnostic audience to whom the Gospel of John was directed, you get used to this kind of wobbly Johannine prose. But there is definitely a reason no one puts “John 3:16 through 18” on their license plate. The first verse is a total upper; Billy Graham pronouncing it from the pulpit led to millions of conversion experiences. But one rarely hears anyone talk about the condemnation context surrounding it.


You’re probably used to fundamentalists throwing Bible verses at you as if they were plucking ingredients from The Joy of Cooking. But like any dish, you need the rest of the ingredients for the recipe item to make sense.


Imagine I came running up to you screaming, “One-third cup green shallots! Green shallots, you moron! Or hellfire upon you!” How in God’s name could you deduce by this that I mean Chicken Satay with Green Papaya Salad?


Here’s an even better example of perverse biblical hermeneutic extraction. Like many kids of my generation, I grew up with a fondness for Transformers. Cars that become robots; robots that become cars. Boyhood heaven.


One day in my pre-teen years, I arrived home from school to discover that all my Transformers—toys and comic books—were gone. I ran from my room prepared to alert the FBI of this heinous theft, only to run smack dab into the immovable wall of Nahum 3:17: “Your guards are like locusts, your officials like swarms of locusts that settle in the walls on a cold day—”


My parents sadly informed me: Yahweh had stuck a verse in an obscure Old Testament minor prophet directly related to my toy chest. While Nahum appeared to be delivering a message of doom to pagan Nineveh (of Jonah fame), he was instead foreshadowing 20th-century Hasbro toys.


Thank God my parents didn’t look across the page at Nahum 3:12 (“All your fortresses are like fig trees”), or Fig Newtons would have been banned from our home, too.


That was a turning point moment in my life. I realized there was something dysfunctional with how adults around me were interpreting the Bible. God could not possibly hate the Autobots.


My biggest problem with Christianity is that there are millions of Christians who are convinced that the historical context surrounding biblical text doesn’t matter. That is exegetical excrement.


See what happens when you confront fundamentalists with the fact that the chapters and verses are just human constructs introduced by none other than the official Greek publisher to the French House of Valois monarchs. Refuse to let them isolate their holy writ in hyperbaric chambers removed from original cultural and historical context. Watch them squirm.


As to the Transformers, don’t feel bad for me. Not only do I know a lot about Nahum and Assyrian history, but I’m also wearing an Optimus Prime T-shirt as I type.


If what I’ve shared about chapters and verses is still confusing, consider what happens when I take my makeshift Verse 13 from the article preface and pull it completely out of context:


Holy cow! I just read this article on Forward Progressives, and Verse 14 said to “touch a man who has been spit upon by a bloke who has recently ejaculated.”


The Bible: The Monks of St. Catherine’s Want Theirs Back


Constantin von Tischendorf was a 19th-century biblical scholar from the city of Lengenfeld in eastern Germany. That sentence alone may become a cure for sleep deprivation. But hang in there; things are about to get very Indiana Jones.


Tischendorf is arguably the most important biblical paleographer ever. One of his early accomplishments involved the impossible decipherment of one of the four oldest extant Bibles, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, which dates to the fifth century. The Codex is a palimpsest—that is, most of the biblical text was erased and another work laid over atop it. Tischendorf was tenacious and took great pains to get to the bottom of the original language.


Yet that wasn’t Tischendorf’s most important accomplishment. Throughout his adulthood, he scoured the Levant looking for ancient biblical manuscripts. St. Catherine’s Monastery, located in the mountainous desert of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, was a likely treasure trove given its uninterrupted Christian bookmaking service since Istanbul was called Constantinople. Also, there’s a general Moses mystique to the place, as it is located at the base of Mt. Sinai.


On an early trip to St. Catherine’s, Tischendorf was shocked to find that one of the monks had tossed some rather ancient Bible manuscript leaves into a trashcan. (For reference, imagine a staffer at the Nixon Presidential Library casually pitching a few of the Watergate tapes.) Convinced that St. Catherine’s was a manuscript mecca, Tischendorf returned several times, including one trip in 1853 under the patronage of Russian Czar Alexander II.


Here the story gets a bit fuzzy. The monks of St. Catherine’s do not necessarily agree with the history books. What everyone agrees upon is that Tischendorf realized the monks were in possession of possibly one of the 50 Bibles that the Emperor Constantine had commissioned following his conversion to Christianity in 312 C.E.


The monks say that Tischendorf asked to borrow the book, and in the kindness of their trusting hearts, they let him take it. When one visits St. Catherine’s, the monks point to a framed letter on a wall, written in Tischendorf’s hand, which contains a promise to return the manuscript. Like so many Elgin Marbles, Codex Sinaiticus was removed from its centuries-old home never to return. For a time, it was the prized booty of the Russian Czar in the Russian National Library; later, just before World War II, the Russians sold it to the British Museum (now the British Library), where it remains.


When I visited St. Catherine’s Monastery, the monks told me to remind Great Britain that they would like their Bible back. (Prime Minister Cameron, I hope you’re reading this.) I don’t blame them for being rather sore about the matter. On the other hand, the British Government is doing a decent job of caretaking arguably the most important manuscript on Planet Earth.


So, what is Codex Sinaiticus? As you’ll recall from an earlier article, the New Testament alone is pieced together from thousands of manuscript fragments in multiple ancient languages. There is no original Bible anywhere. But Sinaiticus is as close as it comes.


Few scholars today are convinced, as Tischendorf was, that Codex Sinaiticus is one of Constantine’s “Fifty Bibles.” Based on a lot of complex textual detective work, there is no doubt the manuscript was penned between 325-360 C.E. That makes it without a doubt the oldest complete Bible in existence. The only other manuscript in the biblical ballpark is Codex Vaticanus, named after the place wherein it resides.


By the way, Codex Sinaiticus is written in Greek—as is Codex Vaticanus. No one in the Old Testament spoke or wrote in Greek. Neither did Jesus, most likely. But some of the other New Testament figures contemporary to Jesus would have known Greek, such as St. Paul.


Oh, and there’s just one problem. Remember when I said Codex Sinaiticus is “without a doubt the oldest complete Bible in existence.” It kind of depends on what you mean by “complete.” A significant portion of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) is missing. However, the New Testament portion is complete.


Also present are a few books which will surprise Protestants: Wisdom of Sirach, Tobit, II Esdras, Judith, I-IV Maccabees, as well as the Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas. These are apocryphal books.


But are they (a) canonical “God’s Breath” Apocrypha or (b) “stinky breath” apocryphya?


There are apocryphal books included in Codex Vaticanus as well, and one finds apocryphal books in Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, the two other great Greek uncial Bible manuscripts.


Wait a second?! If the four most ancient complete Bibles don’t even match up to the Bible used by Franklin Graham—


Don’t panic. Also, don’t hold your breath. Learning what books made it in and what books got the boot is an article in and of itself. All to say, by the fifth century C.E., the New Testament canon was finally settled, including the Book of Revelation—which is a real shame, given the horseshit hermeneutics that have surrounded that book down through the centuries.


Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians remain in disagreement with Protestants about the books that belong between the Old and New Testaments. These are called the Apocrypha (with a capital A). Sometimes you’ll hear them called the Deuterocanonical Apocrypha. They’re Scripture to Catholics, quasi-Scripture to Orthodox Christians, and just plain weird to Protestants. If you believe the Bible is the Word of God, it’s a bit embarrassing that Christians still can’t agree on all of the books that belong between the covers.


What do I think? I think it’s a damned shame to bounce a book like Judith from the Bible. I mean, what’s not to like about a widow who gains the confidence of an Assyrian general, gets him drunk, beheads him, then drags the head home to show it off to her fellow countrymen before driving the Assyrians out of town. Judith is one of the few female biblical characters who kicks ass a la Linda Hamilton. It is tragic that some have tried to drive her into apocryphal obscurity.


Conclusion to Part III


Malala Yousafzai delivered perhaps the most significant speech of our generation at the United Nations this past week. I’ll let her words speak for her:

I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist: ‘Why are the Taliban against education?’ He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said: ‘A Talib doesn’t know what is written inside this book.’


They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would point guns at people’s heads just for going to school. These terrorists are misusing the name of Islam for their own personal benefit.


Here’s my question: What book was the schoolboy referring to?


To my mind, it’s the Bible, the Quran or any other book of holy writ.


Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists—fundamentalists of any religion—refuse to take the time to learn and consider the cultural and historical context surrounding their holy writ.


The more one recognizes the complexity of one’s holy writ, the more one understands that the quiddity of one’s religion does not consist in chapter-and-verse legalistic interpretations, but in gathering synthesis from a comprehensive understanding of the whole.


By the way, remember that guy with the rainbow wig and the John 3:15 placards? His name is Rollen Stewart. He is currently serving three life terms in a California penitentiary for a 1992 kidnapping. When he was arrested, he was heavily armed and raving about the Rapture.


There is a difference between spouting Bible verses and digesting the full breadth of Scripture. Just saying.




The Bible, Rated X: Stop Pointing Your Rod at Me


Article IV in a Five-Part Series About a Book so Important They Called it “The Book”


Thus far in the series we have covered everything from Mr. Jefferson’s Deism to King Solomon’s euphemisms for adventures in coitus: “I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey” (Song of Songs 5:1). We have discussed the Bible as a political tool, issues in biblical translation, biblical manuscript history, the benign-&-asinine Mark of the Beast, plus a number of other subjects, including how unfaithfulness to God was best understood in ancient times as sex with an Egyptian with the sperm count of the Black Stallion.


This article concentrates mainly on issues of biblical canon.


While a number of individuals, including ministers, have pleasantly shocked me with encouragement (noting how fundamentalism has usurped their beloved religion), a number of non-believers have weighed in with comments along the lines of: “So what? The Bible is an irrelevant tome of fairy tales.”


If you are an atheist, agnostic or practitioner of another faith, you of course have every right to your beliefs or lack thereof. But it distresses me that some progressives do not understand why such a series is critical. Nearly one-third of our nation’s voters are members of the Christian Right: individuals who cast their votes at the polls based on misinterpretations of their holy writ, unaware that these misinterpretations are often presented to them intentionally by those who use them as political pawns. (Or maybe you’ve never heard of The Family.)


I believe it is incumbent upon all progressives to gird themselves with sufficient information to disarm Christian fundamentalism. These Modern Day Crusaders are ransacking liberty and freedom as we speak across the Fruited Plain. Just look at North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, etc., et al. Panic about Sharia Law should be the furthest thing from our minds, when Evangelical theocracy is an actual threat.


Are we simply “to hope” religiously fanatical legislators out of office? (As a reminder, the Egyptian military is not going to come to our rescue.)


The ground game of politics in the 21st century is information, not battle axes. And it’s high-time Christian scholars start blowing the roof off of idiotic fundamentalist hermeneutics. I hope this series will inspire progressive theologians to step forward and start calling a religious turd a turd.


Also, I imagine somewhere in Ottumwa, Iowa, there’s a guy named Floyd. Floyd is already dreading his annual Thanksgiving Weekend trek to Fullerton, California, to visit his sister, brother-in-law and their four children. Every year, Floyd listens to their right-wing religious bloviating while he fills himself with turkey and stuffing, but he has no clue how to counter their nonsensical beliefs.


This series is for all the Floyds out there. While the pumpkin pie is being passed around the table this year, see if your right-wing relatives can offer a counter-explanation for why the Mark of the Beast was clearly a code word for Emperor Nero (Revelations 13) or how the biblical paradigm for Christian living should be something other than communism (Acts 5).


The Bible: Canon as in Rods Not Balls


Back to canon. Since this word is going to be bandied about in this article, we may as well define it, lest the reader keep wondering whether he or she is about to be bombarded with balls. No, not the kind of balls one finds in Deuteronomy 23:1: “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” I’m talking about “canon” as in unit of measurement.


“Canon” is a Greek term that perhaps is best understood as “measuring rod.” Down through time, the word has gathered the connotation of “standard.” As in, the canon of Western literature: Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, et al.


The “biblical canon” is a reference to the independent ‘books’ that make up the multi-century anthology project known as The Bible. Certain books were let into the club, certain books were excluded. An example of an excluded book is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a 2nd-century CE manuscript which portrays a Little Lord Fauntleroy Jesus blowing up snakes and smiting neighborhood boys for bumping into him. Another book that did not make the New Testament canon is the Syriac Infancy Gospel, a much later (6th century CE) manuscript which features a Christological poopy diaper that has the power to heal.


The Bible: Scratch ’N Sniff Divine Breath on Vellum


While at times Roman Catholicism and Protestant Evangelicalism stand side-by-side in the contemporary American political arena, at the end of the day, they remain very divided on the notion of Holy Scripture.


If you are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, God can speak to you through the Yellow Pages if the opportunity presents itself—especially if a pope or bishop happens to be the editor-in-chief. But if you are Protestant, God has limited his omnipotence for speaking infallibly to Sola Scriptura: through Scripture alone.


How do we know this? Because the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to a guy named Timothy.


The New Testament contains two letters to a Mr. Timothy, Paul’s close companion and underling in evangelism on various treks to Greece and Asia Minor. In fact, Mr. Timothy ultimately became Bishop of Ephesus, a city famous as that Ancient Wonder of the World with a temple devoted to fecund Artemis, goddess of the zillion boobs (wouldn’t Solomon be jealous?).


At any rate, Paul the Evangelist told Timothy in a letter that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness….” (II Timothy 3:16).


Ask yourself the following question: Do you think that the Apostle Paul, when sitting down to write this letter, would have agreed that his private letter to his prodigy was the divine word of God? Beyond this, do you think St. Paul was referring to documents, such as the Gospels themselves, which weren’t even penned yet?


If so, I wonder what the God of Ages meant to communicate to all future generations of humanity by Paul’s final sign-off to Timothy to get back to Rome before winter. What deep spiritual meaning is to be found in the call for Timothy to hurry up or stock up on moon boots?


One little ink-scripted sentence penned 2,000 years ago has become a justification of generations of religious misinterpretation. Let that be a lesson to all of us before clicking SEND on any email we haven’t bothered to proofread.


The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, at least to my mind, is one of the more mindboggling concepts in the history of religion since ever it occurred to humans to start offering oblations to sun discs and desert jackals. How is it possible to delegate ultimate theological determination to a book which, in actuality, has no master copy? (See discussion of biblical manuscript history in Article III.) Upon arriving at a biblical textual variant—of which there are hundreds—how does one determine which passage is “God-breathed” and which is profane?


Whoa! Now wait a second. Sola Scriptura is a bedrock theological foundation for many Christians who are not devotees of Michele Bachmann. True. So let’s hear Protestants out. The 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith states the following: “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”


For what it’s worth, “Scripture” in the Westminster Confession is defined as the canonical Protestant Bible: Genesis, Exodus, on and on to good ole 6-1-6 Revelation. Sorry, Judith and Maccabees, you’ve been demoted to the minors.


Well, just what is this Westminster Confession of Faith?


It’s nearly impossible to condense a century of Protestantism into two paragraphs, but here’s my best shot. In order to scion a son, Henry VIII split from Rome and created the Church of England. Simultaneous to Henry’s marital bed religious revolution, Martin Luther and John Calvin were busy thumbing their noses at Rome more due to serious gripes about indulgences and simony than for personal sexual purposes. However, lest one think Hank VIII and the Protestant Reformers were bedfellows against the papacy, Luther once called King Henry a “pig, dolt and liar,” while King Henry’s man, Thomas More, called Luther an “ape” and claimed that he was “the shit-pool of all shit.”


Yet 100 years into the establishment of Protestantism in England and Scotland, things were already screwed up to the point of needing yet another reformation. (Humans can always be counted on to screw up any legitimate reform.) Enter the 1640s, the Westminster Assembly as commissioned during the reign of Charles I, and its five Solae (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus and Soli Deo Gloria), plus its condemnation of the Pope as the Antichrist and the Roman Mass as idolatry. (In just a matter of time, we will probably see such a bill introduced by the Texas Legislature.)


I’m going to let Reformation scholars weigh in fully via social media comments, but it seems pretty fair to state that the insipidity of American Evangelicalism, whether or not Rick Warren, Franklin Graham or Jimmy Swaggart are aware of this fact, owes an awful lot to wayward application of the Westminster Confession of Faith (and its cousin creeds of the time). When everything is just “Sola” me and the Holy Spirit, there’s an awful lot of room for hermeneutic abuse.


I hate to waste nearly 1,000 words on the subject, but I believe it is important to know the history behind why your Evangelical neighbor down the street pickets your local gay bar with a sign that reads “GOD HATES FAGS. MATT. 9:4-6.”


Your neighbor, through the Holy Spirit, and with some help via the delineation of Scripture into chapters and verses by the official 16th-century Greek publisher to the French House of Valois monarchs, Robert Estienne, turns to the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 9, Verses 4 through 6, then scratches the calfskin page and from the fragrance of God’s breath thus released, discerns the Almighty’s hatred of homosexuals.


Let’s turn again to history to consider why we’re in this 21st-century hermeneutical mess.


By the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church, like so many American financial services companies, had pissed off so many people that the Protestant Revolution legitimately arose and declared, “Enough! As we can’t trust Rome anymore, the only thing that makes sense to trust is the canon of Scripture itself and the Voice of God guiding our interpretation of it.” Frankly, who could blame the Reformers?


Well, I can, for one, seeing as the great Reformer John Calvin had a supposed hand in the execution of Michael Servetus, a controversial theologian and also the first man to describe the function of pulmonary circulation! At least Servetus learned that if you crossed Calvin, you ended up on a fiery stake that burnt flesh no less severely than an Inquisitional barbecue.


Anyway, just so you know, there’s a rich history behind why isolated Bible verses and little else matters so much to American Evangelicals. Despite the fact that there’s no master copy of The Bible. Despite every other point made in this series. Even despite those who cannot enter God’s holy tabernacle because they’ve been so unfortunate as to lose their penis (see above, but definitely not below).


The Bible: The Biblical Canon in 666 Words or Less


We’ve spent so much time on Protestantism that we’ve hardly had a moment to devote to Eusebius, the Council of Nicaea or the Council of Trent.


By the time of Jesus, the 39 books of the Old Testament were locked and loaded as Judaic Scripture. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) was well-established. When Jesus showed up at synagogue as a boy, these were the books he heard recited. Except for the scroll of Song of Songs, which was kept in a curtained room in the back for Jewish adult males over the age of 40. (That’s a joke, but only sort of.)


If you want to read more about the history of the Old Testament, I recommend Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? I do not necessarily endorse all of Friedman’s theories, but it’s a quality primer on the subject.


If you’re looking for a solid Thanksgiving Dinner Old Testament canon question to ask your Evangelical family members, ask them who wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Odds are someone will reply, “Moses.” Simply suggest that this may not have been possible given that Deuteronomy 34:5 describes the death of Moses, and it is usually very difficult for a person to write about his own death.


As to the New Testament canon, the singular text on the subject is Bruce Metzger’s The Canon of the New Testament. It’s an expensive scholarly work, yet worth one’s time if one has a hankering to learn more about the subject. Here is a used bargain bin link to this title.


The Council of Nicaea is often cited as a general chronological landmark for the establishment of the biblical canon. In 325 C.E., the Emperor Constantine, following his conversion to Christianity, ordered Christian bishops to convene in modern day Iznik, Turkey, to arrive at a matter of consensus on a variety of theological issues. (Consider this an early Catholic-Orthodox Westminster.) Not long thereafter, in 331 C.E., Constantine thought it would be a good idea for the Empire’s official religion to have 50 Bibles formally published. This period in the fourth century is also the dating of the oldest extant Bible, Codex Sinaiticus.


Anyone worth his or her salt in biblical scholarship can list several dozen non-canonical texts that were floating about in the three centuries leading up to this point and that claimed authorship by someone close to Jesus or one of his apostolic successors. Beyond this, there were works like The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve), written within one century of the life of Jesus and which Church Fathers like Eusebius considered worthy of canonical status. The Didache belongs to a corpus of works known as The Apostolic Fathers, which are evidential texts of Christianity in its cultural infancy but which ultimately did not make the canonical cut.


Unfortunately, for Evangelicals, nothing in The Didache is worth a Sola Scriptura hoot, including the classic Early Church exhortation to “hate all hypocrisy and everything that is not pleasing to the Lord” (Didache 4:12). Evangelicals must instead contemplate the Apostle Paul’s cautionary warning that Mr. Timothy purchase snowshoes before it is too late to travel to Rome (II Timothy 4:21).


Finally, there is the Council of Trent. No, this is not a lost Monty Python film. It was a Roman Catholic strike against Protestantism, held a mere 18 years between 1545-1563. Here the Roman Catholic Church, in its De Canonicis Scipturis, decided for once and all on the biblical canon (despite the fact that 31 of 55 voters either voted “nay” or abstained); validated Jerome’s wriggly 4th-century Vulgate Bible translation; and tossed into the street such spurious texts as the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul as well as such trusted Apostolic Father texts as The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistle of Barnabas and The Didache.


As a final note, the reasonably spurious Apocalypse of Peter happens to appear in the Muratorian Fragment, the oldest canonical list of the New Testament. The Muratorian Fragment states that the Apocalypse of Peter is no longer allowed to be read in church services. (If only it had said the same thing about the Book of Revelation, then Kirk Cameron would be out of a career.)


Really, though, the average Christian fundamentalist would be disappointed to learn that St. Pete’s Apocalypse fell shy of the canonical cut. In it, the people of heaven are described as Aryans with milky skin, curly hair and sartorial garb made of angelic lux. Here, everyone sings in perfect harmony, like so many AM radio Republican bullet points. Conversely, evildoers are the traditional liberal bastion of lesbians, women who have abortions for a hobby, and folks who playact Song of Songs out of wedlock. Clearly St. Peter’s Apocalypse was actually written by an ancient equivalent of Glenn Beck.


The Bible: Canonical Conclusion


Every election cycle, millions of Americans head to the polls and cast votes sincerely convinced that the Holy Spirit backs conservative politicians with Jesus in their back pocket. The basis for their fundamentalism is, tragically, a miniscule understanding of the complex history of their own religion.


I believe many fundamentalists would begin to see the light (and find a richer personal faith) if the right person came along in each of their lives to show them that they have built their spiritual foundation on sandy ground. They are being duped by religio-political “charlatans in leisure suits” and honestly believe that everything about their holy writ is as simple as the latest Promise Keepers tweet.


But we aren’t going to get members of the Christian Right to see the light by mocking them with taunts about the “fairy tale” nature of the Bible. That will only serve to drive them to the polls with greater blind enthusiasm.


We must instead take the time in one-on-one encounters to sow the seeds of critical thinking. That is the purpose of this series: to provide you and Floyd in Ottumwa with some useful information for your next encounter with that certain person in your life who just happens to believe the Bible is nothing less than a theological Joy of Cooking.




The Bible, Rated X: From Adam’s Snake to the Horny Beast


Article V in a Five-Part Series About a Book so Important They Called it “The Book”


In the few months since the X-Rated Bible made its last appearance, Christian fundamentalism has predictably reared its head like so many multi-headed, horny beasts out of an Johannine apocalyptic sea. It seems that humanity only ever needs a few weeks to raise the question as to whether it deserves its sentience, the hallowed Imago Dei.


At times like these, we are compelled to consider the wisdom of the greatest (and most unlikely) theologian of our age, Woody Allen, whose words burn with prophetic urgency when proclaimed by the great actor Max von Sydow. Allen actually has more intelligent things to say about God and religion than any preacher I have ever heard. So if the murdering adulterer King David can be labeled “a man after God’s own heart,” I don’t see why the atheist auteur should be denied an honorary M.Div.



Thus far in the X-Rated Bible series, we have covered—rather, uncovered—everything from Solomonic boob-o-mania to wandering bare-buttocked biblical prophets, from Mr. Jefferson’s denunciation of the miracles of Christ to the Indiana Jones backdrop of biblical manuscript history.


This week, we turn our attention to biblical bookends: the Beginning (Genesis) and the End (the Apocalypse of St. John, or Revelation). With this essay, the series arrives full circle with further thoughts on the Bible as a political tool.


If one wants to understand the heart of Christian fundamentalism; the motivation of its leaders; the mindless adherence of its followers; and the vast, nonsensical political movement it inspires, it is critical to note that the religion itself, founded on the life and teachings of Jesus, has been transformed by the Radical Right into a Cult of Cash, Cosmology and Apocalypticism.


In this new branding of anti-intellectual Christianity, the Evangelical chief priests (preachers, politicians and corporate overlords) eschew critical thinking and instead divine mandates for the masses through selective extispicy of Scripture.


This is hardly the first time this has happened in the history of religion. No matter the religion, when Simple Praxis (caring for the poor, being kind and helping others, the fostering of diversity and environmental balance, etc.) is discarded for a Cult of Knowledge, a Culture of Control always results. Controlled lives, controlled purse strings, controlled votes.


Goodbye Golden Rule. Hello Golden Calf.


That’s quite the execration to digest. Moreover, what does it have to do with the Book of Genesis and Revelation? Let’s spend a few paragraphs breaking it down.


The Bible: “What is Truth?”


One of the most dramatic dialogue exchanges in the Bible is between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the fifth Roman prefect of Judaea (John 18). (For those who discount the Bible as “a text of fairy tales,” you may wish to consult Philo of Alexandria, Josephus and Tacitus before denying Pilate’s existence. I’m no fan of fundamentalists, yet neither am I a fan of the unschooled who dismiss biblical historicity wholesale due to personal theological beefs.) While Pilate ascertains whether or not to condemn this strange Galilean to crucifixion, the accused asserts that he is a King of Truth, to which Pilate famously replies: “What is truth?”


Perhaps no three greater words are uttered in the Bible. At least Nietzsche thought so.


I have never interpreted Pilate’s proclamation as a man considering a serious philosophical issue. Instead, I read Pilate as a man fed up with an imperfect world. Here he is, a powerful Roman official, long overdue for replacement as the provincial procurator, contemplating freeing this lowly, bruised Jew before him. Yet this “King of Truth” is making it nearly impossible to be helped. Hell, it’s almost as if the man wants to be nailed to a tree. So Pilate throws up his arms in frustration: “Quid est veritas?!”


Oh boy. I’ve really kicked the Evangelical hornet’s nest now. Lending sympathy to Pilate must be ten times worse than suggesting that there’s no such thing as a biblical definition of marriage.


One thing is certain. Pontius Pilate would have made a lousy fundamentalist.


Because Fundamentalists always know.


They know the precise age of the universe, and they know precisely when the Earth will cease to spin. They know which Middle Eastern nation should be razed with missiles, whether or not they can locate it on a map. They know why your aunt has cancer (probably due to an unresolved sin), and they know the name of the demon responsible for sabotaging your car’s transmission.


Insomuch as nature abhors a vacuum, fundamentalists abhor question marks.


So what? Lots of people want to know things. Scientists, for instance. Indeed, but here’s the difference. Scientists utterly depend on (heck, enjoy!) the process between the question mark and the eureka moment of discovery. However, Christian Fundamentalists, like so many greedy mortgage bundlers, refute process.


Where do we come from?


“Dammit, enough of this Lambda-CDM concordance model crap! The recipe’s right there on page one of The Biblical Joy of Cooking. Now where did I put that bag of Funyuns? I’m missing the third quarter.”


After all, who wants to get bogged down in the innumerable theodicies of biblical history and daily spiritual life? No one wants to spend his or her Monday nights contemplating why high school students have been ripped to shreds on their way back from a gospel music event, any more than anyone wants to struggle with the fact that the Old Testament Tetragrammaton, the Bush-Burning Author of the Ten Commandments and the liberating Year of Jubilee, also had an occasional hankering for infanticide.


Kind of spoils the Funyuns. 


“You bet it does! It interferes with my Lemon-Fresh Joy Ultra-Concentrated belief in a Santa Claus Deity! Now please go away. I have Beanie Babies to sell on eBay.”


What is truth? There are days when, like any Roman Prefect, I simply throw up my hands. As should any Christian, or practitioner of any other religion, who faces the world squarely and honestly. It’s okay; God doesn’t mind.


But Fundamentalists are, somewhat understandably, afraid not to know. Not knowing makes life complex. Fundamentalists don’t just want answers. They need answers. They need The Truth. Just as badly as this guy.


Such a worldview has immense political consequences. Or maybe you haven’t paid any attention to Senator Ted Cruz pounding his verger’s staff on the floor of the U.S. Senate. (If ever there was an “anti”-Christ.)


You have to hand it to the Evangelical chief priests. They have done a remarkable job of convincing tens of millions of Americans that they have simple answers for Everything Politics & Religion A to Z, answers which derive straight from the Scratch ’N Sniff Oracle of Scripture. Here are your enemies, here are your friends. Here are the right kinds of love and the wrong kinds of love. Here are the good wars; here are the people who deserve to be murdered by drones. And here is where you should send your hard-earned cash.


But the only way you can really keep all the sheep penned and baaing peaceably—in order to maximally enjoy Mammon’s bounty—is by exercising the existential crook and flail of Origins and Ends.


If fundamentalists know anything, it is most definitely where we came from and where we’re going.


The Bible: Biblical Bookends


Without its two bookend texts, Genesis and the Apocalypse of St. John, the Sacred Writ of Christianity would have a lot of explaining to do. If people had problems with the way The Sopranos ended, imagine how they would feel about a New Testament that ends with a Tweet-length epistle from Jesus’ cousin, Jude. Timothy LaHaye would have had a pickle of a time striking end-of-the-world fear into anyone with a Tribulation series named after a Beatles’ tune.


Perhaps it has never occurred to you, but misinterpretations of just two biblical books, Genesis and Revelation, are responsible for the lion’s share of whacky fundamentalist headlines. Very few Kool-Aid cults are centered around Habakkuk. Consider how often off-kilter Christianity makes the news because of entrenched positions on Creationism, Sodom & Gomorrah, and bizarre theories about Armageddon. Case in point these two recent headlines:


One recent poll shows that one-third of Americans believe that “the threat of airstrikes against Syria” is cryptically recorded in Scripture, whilst just this week we learned that Texan creationists are about to turn the Lone Star State’s high school biology textbooks into Garden of Eden pop-up books. (Don’t pull the tab on Adam’s snake.)


Tradition holds that Moses wrote Genesis, along with the other four books of the Pentateuch (the term for the first five books of the Old Testament). This tradition has always cocked its share of eyebrows; Tostatus, the 15th-century Bishop of Avila, reminds us that it would have been very difficult for Moses to write about his own death (Deuteronomy 34).


On the other end of the Bible, tradition holds that St. John the Evangelist wrote Revelation while in exile on the Isle of Patmos. I have been to Patmos, and it is easy to understand why this small dot in the Aegean Sea makes a good exile candidate: it doesn’t even have a Trader Joe’s. Whether or not St. John authored Revelation, it is pretty clear that someone in the first century CE wrote it. (See the discussion in Article II about the numerological references to Emperor Nero as the Antichrist.)


No matter who they were, the authors of Genesis and Revelation were exceptionally fond of metaphor and saw little, if any, distinction between myth and Truth. Most important of all, I believe they would be horrified to learn how Pat Robertson and the Texas Legislature have been using their words to manipulate their fellow human beings.


Below follows some personal testimony with respect to these two oft-misinterpreted texts: how my fundamentalist hermeneutic of the Bible’s alpha and omega books matured based on scholarly study. Hopefully some of these things will come in handy at the Thanksgiving Table in a few weeks when you and your fundie relatives are sitting around munching on pumpkin pie, no longer able to keep your opinions about religion and politics to yourselves.


The Bible: Everything You Ever Needed to Know about Genesis in 1,000 Words or Less


The year is 1983. I am a fifth grader at a conservative Christian private school in Minneapolis. My science class assignment is to write a paper that proves the Creation Account in Genesis is “scientifically accurate.” No: consider the available resources at hand and make the best possible assessment of the facts. But: no matter what you do, little ten-year-old boy, prove that Genesis literally means what it says. Now go find Mt. Ararat.


As everyone knows, the essence of Christianity is proving that the world is just barely older than some of the world’s most ancient olive trees. Jesus said that during the Sermon on the Mount. Right?


Budding writer lamb that I was, I penned the “winning paper” and earned the right to present it orally to multiple classes. I remember that the paper cited an article about the Paluxy River Mystery, where human footprints supposedly are embedded alongside dinosaur tracks. (Thirty years later, after a quick Google search, I realize that not even hardcore Creationists buy this crap any longer.) My teachers, parents, even my pastor, patted me on the head. I had proved The Truth. Of course, when I started asking how Noah had squeezed sauropods onto the ark, everyone told me to go outside and play with my friends.


One decade later, while browsing the library shelves at the conservative Christian college I was attending in St. Paul, I stumbled upon a slender volume entitled The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most ancient works of literature. The narrative tells the adventures of Gilgamesh, demigod of Uruk (modern Iraq), and includes a number of Mesopotamian cosmological myths. I read the book cover to cover while standing in the stacks, and browsed through several other related books, including Alexander Heidel’s classic work, The Babylonian Genesis.


Lo and behold, who is this Utnapishtim fellow? Seems to have a lot in common with Mr. Noah. Asked by Enki (God) to construct a giant boat that will serve as a refuge for animals and humanity from a pending deluge. Hmm, that’s odd, Utnapishtim also released a dove from his boat to see if the waters had receded. Well, now, I wonder if Moses ever considered suing for plagiarism.


That afternoon had a remarkable impact on my interpretation of Scripture. It dawned on me that the author(s) of Genesis weren’t writing anachronistically to disprove Darwinism. They didn’t give a flip about the age of the universe, nor were they interested in producing a play-by-play account of life on Earth. They were simply writing a tract on monotheism in response to the polytheisms of the day.


Hey, you Egyptians over there who worship the sun and jackals and hippos! That’s silly! You do realize the sun and animals originate from something else, right? And you Sumerians, you think you have a flood story? Hold on, wait until you hear about this dude Noah. Yeah, we know, we know. He had a son named Ham, and we don’t eat pigs. Laugh it up. But our Garden of Eden is way more titillating than your Enuma Elish creation myth. Eve was naked!


The point of Genesis is an overarching message that human beings are dependent on God for existence and providence. Then, along came this guy from Ur named Abram, and here’s the legend of how the Israelites ended up in this land called Canaan.


That’s it. That’s the whole point. Genesis is a series of campfire stories.


That doesn’t mean that there isn’t historicity contained within the first 50 chapters of the Bible. But readers were never intended to read Genesis the way a viewer approaches Judgment at Nuremberg, expecting transcript history.


However, if you’re a fundamentalist, Genesis has to read like a documentary. Otherwise, there’s a grotesque amount of uncertainty. And Fundamentalism is in the business of knowing.


If the world wasn’t created in seven days—including plants before the sun—that means scientific inquiry is as close as we can ever get to “knowing” our Origins. While science is fine and dandy when it comes to cancer screening and designing bridges, who can stomach the idea that humans started out as inelegant hominids in the Olduvai Gorge rather than Abercrombie & Fitch models in the Gardens of Giverny? To say nothing of the concept of Original Sin and the Fall of Man—and especially the Fall of Woman! Wait, what the hell do you mean that men and women have the same number of ribs?! That’s blasphemy! (Vesalius figured that one out back in 1543 with his De Humani Corporis Fabrica. But definitely bring up the rib question at Thanksgiving. You’ll be shocked at the responses you hear.)


Genesis is epic and replete with wonderful morality tales. I’m particularly fond of Balaam’s ass, and I admit that I relish the conundrum of Sodom and Gomorrah. Can someone please tell me why Lot’s poor wife was turned into a saltshaker, whilst Lot himself later fathered children by his own daughters yet was never transformed into a table condiment?


But the fact of the matter is: there is not one single word in the Book of Genesis that the orthodox Christian is beholden to in order to practice his or her faith. Ultimately, Christian living is dependent on interpreting the life and teachings of Jesus. Not on talking snakes.


That does not mean that Genesis is irrelevant to the Christian life. Genesis is in fact loaded with Truth. But that Truth isn’t readily apparent. It is Truth that must be earned with critical thought.


And so, all of these untold billions of dollars wasted on Creation Museums and recreations of Noah’s Ark and science textbook debates are just that: wasted dollars by the chief priests of Evangelicalism who are bound and determined to deliver precise answers on Origins to the bleating sheep who cannot be bothered to think that life ever could have started any other way than just how Genesis describes it. Pass the Funyuns.


Genesis is a campfire tale. An invaluable saga of a campfire tale. But a campfire tale nevertheless.


The Bible: Everything You Ever Needed to Know about Revelation in 1,000 Words


If Genesis is a campfire tale, then the Book of Revelation must be the ultimate campfire ghost story. Right? Completely and utterly wrong.


It is difficult to imagine a more abused text in the history of humankind than Revelation. The one thing the author of Revelation did not intend to do was scare the shit out of the reader. Of course, nary a Christian generation has passed without Church leaders using the text as if it were a theological Wes Craven script. But that’s not what the author intended. First and foremost, as scholar Richard Bauckham reminds us, Revelation should be interpreted in the context of its genre: it is a letter. And at its heart, a letter of comfort.


Put yourself in the sandals of a first-century Christian. Not one day has transpired since the crucifixion of Jesus that his followers—especially those who lead the movement—aren’t hunted down for execution. Consider yourself lucky if you are merely stoned a la the martyr St. Stephen. While crucifixion is a common sentence under the Roman Empire, it seems like the Romans are turning death by tree into a creative art form for Christians.


Then comes the fire of Rome in 64 CE, for which the “blood-drinking” Christians who refuse to honor Caesar and partake in public sacrifices assume the misdirected blame of Nutjob Nero.


Some scholars debate whether Christians were martyred wholesale as much as ecclesiastical tradition claims. True, things weren’t as bad then as they came to be in the third century under Emperor Diocletian, but they certainly weren’t peachy keen. And they were bad enough for Christians in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to start passing around a cryptic letter that, when decoded, assured believers that better times lay ahead. (If you would like a modern example of the “function” of Revelation within the Early Church, consider how John Steinbeck’s novel The Moon is Down was secretly passed around Norway during the Nazi Occupation: “Steinbeck’s goal was to produce a fictional work that would raise the spirits of those who were under Nazi rule.”)


Now skip ahead to the better days. In the year 312 CE, the Emperor Constantine beholds a cross on a battlefield and thereafter proclaims Christianity the official state religion. Times are good. There’s a lot to do: build churches over temples, organize councils of bishops, determine the biblical canon. “You know, the Bible really needs a zinger ending.” “What about that Apocalypse of St. John?” “Heck, anything’s better than ending with Jude!” Voila!


Skip ahead a few more generations. Twiddle your thumbs. Christ still hasn’t returned. Darn. Hey now, what’s this I read about Seven Seals and Whores of Babylon and Plagues and the Archangel Michael battling dragons? And dang, that 666 sure is strange. (Never mind that sometimes it’s 616.) Who’s this Antichrist chap, anyway? And did you catch that? Only 144,000 people are guaranteed tickets to heaven. On the count of three, everybody panic!


Suddenly Christianity’s coded comfort codex is turned into an Agatha Christie whodunit. And each passing generation, further removed from the text’s original intent and increasingly anxious that Jesus has not yet returned as long ago promised, interprets Revelation more and more as an Hollywood disaster film. As one of my theology professors once put it: “In the past millennium, not one generation has gone by without Christians insisting that the Book of Revelation points to Christ’s imminent return, and that all of the text’s cryptic references can easily be mapped to the current political world. And every single generation has been spectacularly wrong.


If you think I’m making this up, I’m not. Presently, President Obama rides the wave as the most popular Antichrist contender. Here’s another article worth reading, then quickly forgetting. And yet another.


A few decades back, Henry Kissinger was a popular Antichrist target. A decade from now, it may well be Hillary Clinton. And on and on and on. Again, the words of my professor: they have all been spectacularly wrong.


While it is tempting to chuckle over the most pathetic game of operator in hermeneutic history, I invite you to spend your high school years, as I did, under the threat of Revelation coming alive before your very eyes. In 1986, when I was 13, Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness hit bookshelves across our nation, at which point the imagination of unmoored Evangelicals cracked open like dropped rotten eggs. Simple mechanical breakdowns were now attributable to demon servants of Baphomet hell-bent on dragging you and your neighbors into eternal flames. In my high school and college hallways, rumors abounded as to the identity of the Antichrist: Michael Dukakis, Ross Perot, you name it. At any moment, the Seventh Seal would be broken, and you had better hope your name was amongst the 144,000 destined for salvation (Revelation 7). This 1988 movie didn’t help, either.


Who has time to think about a pending trigonometry exam with Armageddon just around the corner? I practically dreamed of the halcyon days of the Paluxy River Mystery.


Sadly, across the Fruited Plain tonight, tens of thousands of children will toss and turn in bed, scared to sleep because parents or pastors have stirred their imaginations to the brink with apocalyptic babble. If time travel were an option, I would drive the DeLorean to Patmos and beg St. John to toss his letter into the garbage heap. “Sorry, John, though this letter might bring Moon-is-Down comfort to a few suffering souls, you have no bloody idea how many lives are going to be ruined once people lose your epistolary secret decoder ring.”


Again, Revelation was originally a letter of comfort. The entire point is: no matter how bad things get, Christians, there are better days on the horizon. Trust in God. Stay vigilant. Maintain your faith.


Given the helter-skelter circumstances in our world today, can you think of a more relevant message of Truth?


The Bible: Where Do We Go From Here?


Over the course of five essays, our main goal has been to open the reader’s eye to the remarkable complexity of the Bible. It is not the cookbook text that the Evangelical high priests proclaim it to be. It is not simple. Neither is it chaste. It is at times an X-rated labyrinth of theodicy—with no easy answers.


If you want to stand up to fundamentalist irrationality and the politics that it inspires, you need to understand the Bible. You need to be able to engage fundamentalists at foundational levels in terms they will understand. If you do, you just might be able to guide some of them to enlightenment.


Or you can just spit raspberries at your computer screen and harangue fundamentalists with Facebook memes. Surely that will change the world.


As a final thought, there are many readers who have responded to this series by declaring the Bible “a mere book of myths and fairy tales.” Even if you do not believe in the historicity of various parts of the Bible, or even most of it, I would encourage you not to discount the power of myth. Also, keep in mind that there was a time in the 19th-century when archaeologists like Henry Austin Layard were hell-bent on disproving the historicity of the Bible—and were in fact floored to discover that so many of the places that the Bible bespoke—the great cities of Nineveh and Babylon—actually had existed.


I hope readers who fall into the category of naysayers are willing to consider the following: the Bible, along with other Sacred Texts, like the Quran and the Vedas, are always going to be abused manuscripts. The Truth within them, however, should not be discounted due to that abuse. It takes the better man, the better woman, to arrive at this position.


The real tragedy is when sacred texts end up in the hands of men and women who, for whatever reason, feel compelled to control the lives of others, rather than allowing that Truth to work itself freely upon the lives of those who need it. That does not mean that there was a worldwide flood, that Samson tore down a Philistine temple with his bare hands, that the sun stood still for a day over Gibeon, or even that Christ rose from the dead.


We are all free to choose our own spiritual journeys—even if that choice is to have no faith at all. All should choose, and choose wisely.



I’m not sure what this series will do to help the tens of millions of Christians who have been lied to about the Bible or who have never taken the time to try to understand it. But these words now float out there in the ether, waiting to be found.


Maybe the best way to conclude is to remind people that I used to be a fundamentalist. Because of some very special people in this world who engaged me in the same spirit of this series, I saw the light. Confronting the complexity of the Bible did not destroy my faith; it in fact strengthened it.


There is nothing to be afraid of. The Truth always welcomes question marks.



{Originally published as five separate articles on the website Forward Progressives from July 2013 to October 2013. The website recently closed down without maintaining an archive. The series received more than 1 million views.}



Clip to Evernote

You must be logged in to post a comment.