Let’s Give the Bible a Second Chance . . . By Changing It

The Bible is stuck with a lot of bad history, science, and poor ethics. Let’s amend it Constitution-style.

Why do I prefer our United States Constitution to the Bible? Lots of reasons, but I’ll focus on one. The Constitution allows for do-overs. Its authors understood the document to be imperfect and made provisions for future generations to amend it.

Alas, there is no such biblical escape clause. What you see from way back then is what you get.

Neither the Constitution nor the Bible included freedom of religion, equal rights for women, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or the abolition of slavery — but today, through amendments, the Constitution does. We also have a democratic form of government that allows for progressive laws that our 18th-century founders might not have considered or desired.

So what about those who believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, yet can’t reconcile some portions with a loving deity? It’s difficult to justify passages about killing witches, slaying all women and little children in a city, the blood of Jesus being on all Jews and their children, killing homosexuals, and many more. Even biblical literalists now try to interpret some of these passages in more enlightened ways.

Not only is slavery nowhere condemned in the Bible, but some have used Noah’s curse of Canaan to justify it. (“Cursed be Canaan [presumed black]! The lowest of slaves will he be to his [presumed white] brothers.”) Since nobody today condones slavery (and groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have even apologized for promoting slavery), interpretations abound. For instance, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis says Noah’s curse had to do with a rebellious son, not skin color.

Apparently, it’s easier for some Christians to be on the moral rather than on the scientific side of history. Albert Mohler, who Time called the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U. S., believes that the incredible Adam and Eve story goes to the heart of Christianity — because the whole point of the crucifixion and the resurrection was to undo Adam’s original sin, and that without a historical Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense.

Treating the Bible as a history or science book makes many Christians as uncomfortable as accepting all the biblical pronouncements about women, Jews, gays, slaves, and smiting. The Bible describes a young and flat earth with four corners resting on pillars at the center of our universe. Every piece of “science” in the Bible is wrong.

I’m inspired by Thomas Jefferson and the Dalai Lama to suggest a new approach to biblical problems. Thomas Jefferson amended the Christian Bible by writing a version that left out miracle stories and included only what made sense to him. Jefferson referred to what remained as “diamonds in a dunghill.” The Dalai Lama said, “If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly.”

There are secular “bibles” for atheists, and that’s fine. Atheists and humanists accept that they are part of a natural world, the result of unguided evolutionary change, and that ethical values are derived from human needs and interests and are tested and refined by experience. No supernaturalism is needed. I’ve written a piece on biblical fables, where atheists can still find moral lessons in the traditional Bible as they do in Aesop’s fables.

But I’m proposing something different here — an amended bible devoid of passages that many God believers ignore, are embarrassed by, or interpret as the opposite of what the words say. This would not be a bible where poet William Blake could say, “Both read the Bible day and night, but thou read black where I read white.”

Who should write this new bible? Perhaps a committee of God believers who view the traditional Bible as inspired, but not inerrant, along with scientists and ethicists as advisors. After discussion, they could vote on what to include and exclude.

Is this heresy? No, it’s tradition! Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century brought church leaders together at the Council of Nicaea, and they voted the “word of God” into existence. And so it could be with my proposed second-chance bible for progressive religious believers, who have informally been treating the Bible as if it were a Constitution and amending it with their thoughts and behavior. I’m just suggesting that such amendments be written on paper, not tablets.

Here’s how I might start a bible from the perspective of a scientifically literate God believer. Delete “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” and replace it with “In the beginning of time, about 13.7 billion years ago, God created our universe with a big bang.”

I don’t believe the “God” part, but at least this bible can begin more accurately and move on to God’s “creating” the earth some 9 billion years after the big bang. The traditional Bible fits comfortably with the views of those who wrote it in a pre-scientific and misogynistic era. Scientists and humanists have since filled in many God of the gaps and moral gaps of biblical authors some 2000 to 3000 years ago.

Any second-chance bible would be far from perfect. Future generations would look back and laugh about some of our current misconceptions and prejudices, which would inspire them to write a more perfect third bible. And so on. Maybe a day will eventually come when people will accept a godless bible, just as they accept our godless Constitution.

About

Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.
  • http://www.twitter.com/MaggieArdiente Maggie Ardiente

    There are lots of religious people who already amend the Bible to fit their own spirituality and personal values. And if there are already so many people who don’t like the “bad stuff,” then they should just do remove it!

  • http://mpdaniel.blogspot.com Mike Daniel

    So what you propose is not an “updated” Bible but a whole new work. Your “for instance” regarding the Creation in Genesis completely misses the point of an “eternal” God. That people ignore the precepts of their chosen religion does not negate the tenets of that religion; that failure speaks more to the person than to the religion. If you are truly an atheist, why does the Bible concern you at all? Rewriting it will not change human behavior; they will still do as they please when they please irrespective of how it may adversely affect others.

    • Herb Silverman

      There are people who want to be scientifically accurate and still want to believe in an eternal being. Many Christians accept that “time” in our universe began with the big bang about 13.7 billion years ago. They believe that a timeless eternal God existed before the big bang (whatever “before” means).

  • RichardSRussell

    Q: What’s the jokey definition of a camel?
    A: A horse assembled by a committee.

    That’s the way the Bible was assembled as well.

    What we ended up with was the world’s best-selling, longest running, least deservedly respected Rorschach Test.
    Anyone can look at it and see whatever they feel like seeing in it.

  • Carstonio

    Or one can adopt the position used by most Christian and most Jewish denominations. They read Genesis as stories reflecting what they believe to be the nature of their god and the nature of humanity. The folks who profess to read Genesis as literal history (in reality just as interpretive as any other reading) are a vocal minority in Christianity. This group is best understood as a political movement that opposes modernity. The evangelical Christian blog Slacktivist has it right – the talking snake should be the first tipoff that the Eden story isn’t history.

    So why do many polls report broader support for creationism? Because this movement has succeeded in convincing millions that evolution is the same as atheism. Evolution is silent on the question of how life came to be, and on the question of whether gods exist. Yet even many people who accept evolution assume that it as answers for those two questions.

    • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

      Rather than insinuating that most christians are liars, I’m inclined to take what they say at their word. If ~45% of the US population says they believe in creationism my first reaction isn’t to think they’re being disingenuous. You may not have met many of them because of the small world of naturally selective social rings, but apparently they exist in great numbers. I might agree with you that the number of people who believe in creationism is much higher than the number of full-on biblical literalists, but I wouldn’t say the number of people who read a literal interpretation of Genesis are a vocal minority, I think they’re clearly a majority.

      Evolution itself may not comment on the existence of gods or the origin of life but I would bet it’s true that the acceptance of evolution often shortly precedes the liberalizing or abandonment of theology. If someone believes their god specifically created human beings and then later accepts that we’re a result of natural laws, the displacement of her initial position may sufficiently rock the boat to allow skepticism to flood the orlop.

      • Carstonio

        No way am I insinuating that most Christians are liars. Instead, I’m saying explicitly that most Americans don’t understand what evolution is. Some of this comes from simple misunderstanding of science. But much of it comes from fundamentalists deliberately misleading others as to what constitutes evolution. And what constitutes creationism.

        i can see evolution leading to liberalization or abandonment of theology for folks who read Genesis as history, because of the number of atheists I’ve encountered who are former fundamentalists. Not so much for Chrisitians who believe that Adam and Eve never existed. Thse folks typically believe in a god behind natural selection. While that’s unscientific, amounting to an unfalsifiable hypothesis, at least it’s compatible with the fossil record.

      • Ronald N. Wall

        Let me say this as a former Evangelical (in my youth) who through a long process of largely self education, became first an agnostic and then an atheist. Once your belief of a supernatural event has been utterly destroyed, you are unlikely to simply transfer your belief to yet another supernatural event, say, like Jesus rising from the dead.

    • Ronald N. Wall

      No atheist I know of claim that evolution (a fact, not just a theory) as THE answer as to whether god(s) exist. It is simply a process by which life began and became what it is. It has nothing to do with belief or non-belief in god(s). A good many Christians (which, I am not) believe that evolution was simply guided by the hand of God. That’s not what I believe, but it is a much more reasonable position than the belief that the Abrahamic God created man from clay and woman from his rib and did it in under a week.

      • Carstonio

        Overall I agree. Of course atheists don’t assert that evolution answers the question of whether gods exist. But creationists continually accuse atheists of making that assertion. While theistic evolution is more reasonable and isn’t contradicted by the fossil record, it’s still an attempt to amend evolution with an unfalsifiable cause.

        • Ronald N. Wall

          Oh, I agree completely. Given the extremist view of creation, I can at least tolerate those who think that “God” is the guiding hand. They seem to be less likely to try to force their view on others, especially people like us.

  • WmarkW

    The Bible is perfectly fine the way it is, properly understood as 2-3,0000 year old literature.
    No one says we need a new Odyssey, we just have to understand it as a product of its time and place.

    • Herb Silverman

      If all people read the Bible as they read the Odyssey, I would agree with you. However, Zeus dozen’t have the kind of following as the God of the Bible. I think a rewriting by humans (as in the past) would emphasize that the Bible is a natural product of humans and not a supernatural product of deities.

  • BM

    Just put the OT in the fictional section of your library and the NT in the semi-fictional stacks and then move on with your life.

  • http://www.thetippingpointblog.co.uk Matt Wakeling

    Allow me to build from Mike’s point. The central flaw in your position, as I see it, is that it suggests that we should fine-tune faith over time. I see a progression narrative at play in what you’ve written. Parts of the Bible which you find to be disagreeable should be reinterpreted (or changed) in “more enlightened ways”, you write. If I may, I think that reveals more about you than it does about the ideas you critique. It’s one thing to say that we know more than we did (say) three millennia ago – and that’s a wonderful and glorious thing. It’s quite another to say that we know better now – that as humans we’re more moral, just or wise. The beliefs that the Bible puts forward deserve to be dealt with on the basis of their own merit (or lack of it). That’s just as much the case today as it ever has been. Put simply, I think we need to assess the Bible on its own terms. It exists in the form that it does, not the form that a 21st century reader might want it to have. Agree with it or disagree with it as you will but amending it to suit your own personal perspective is an utter waste of time.

    As a Christian it makes no sense to me that I should discard parts of the Bible which I find troubling or difficult. Instead, those sections demand my research, inquiry and thought. You’re right to say that Christians often do ignore certain sections. But if an idea’s worth ignoring out of embarrassment then it’s worth rejecting for the right reasons. So I choose to see the whole Bible as authoritative, even the bits I don’t fully understand. I choose to believe the whole Bible and ‘take on’ every part of it because otherwise there may as well not be any Bible whatsoever.

    Finally, it should be said that some of the issues you raise can be resolved when looked at in greater detail. Sometimes we, or at least I, don’t give the texts the chance to speak on their own terms for lack of effort. Sometimes there’s simply no substitute for reading more, for hearing different interpretations and for studying history, linguistics, literature etc. to get more of a perspective on what the text is saying in context.

    • Ronald N. Wall

      Sorry, Matt. You fail the satire test.

  • TommyNIK

    Better hurry. The “brilliant” folks at Conservapedia under the leadership of the spawn of Phyllis Shclaffly are rewriting the New Testament to make it less liberal.

    • Herb Silverman

      If people like Phyllis Schlafly acknowledge that the Bible is a political document written by humans and can be revised by humans, I’m fine with that. If the Bible becomes a Tea Party Manifesto, then people will have to argue for its merits without invoking the supernatural.

  • clarkbennett

    And it begins, in the void there came a light and the light shown throughout all time and space and in the light all things are forged.

  • aought

    “Men, finding no answers to the sunnan [the ten thousand religious
    questions from the Shari-ah] now apply their own reasoning. All men seek
    to be enlightened. Religion is but the most ancient and honorable way
    in which men have striven to make sense out of God’s universe.
    Scientists seek the lawfulness of events. It is the task of Religion to
    fit man into this lawfulness.”

    Where’s the rest of the Orange Catholic Bible when you need it?

  • Sam

    I love everything about this.
    I even love the timing!
    every 2000 years, rewrite history and ethics!

    • BM

      History is not being rewritten. It however is and will continue to be rigorously tested and updated for/with the truth. For example:

      The Apostles’ Creed 2014 (updated by yours truly based on the studies
      of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      ShouldI believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss
      called heaven?????

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a
      mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
      Jerusalem.

      Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
      many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
      ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      Amen

      (References used are available upon request.)

  • Dennis Trisker

    Herb, just let it rest. I am a Jewish Atheist, culturally Jewish, that is. The bible is a record of events, mostly mythological. I enjoy reading the King James Version because of its English. I don’t believe it however. Religious people have a lot of psychological investment in books: Quran, Torah, Bible, Bhagavad Gita, etc. they will not give up their dependency. Lets move on to bigger projects. I studied the bible five years with liberal and fundamentalist Christians and Jews. If hey give up their boos, their lives would prove meaningless.

  • Salero21

    HAHAHA Totally laughable for an atheist to pretend out of a whim that the Bible he does not believes in the first place, just to fit his caprice of the moment. Sure change it and see if you can remove the death sentence that he and all of humanity carry since the minute we are born. Maybe that way we all stop dying. HAHAHA

  • Rosbif

    Bad idea this. Imagine one day a Bible that was factually correct, moral and doing good in society. There would come a day when the new generations would believe there actually is a mega-power deity because his book is accurate and good. This would leave open the route to a totalitarian leader which as we should have learnt from history, may start out doing good in society, but soon turns to corrupt megalomania.
    No Herb, leave the Bible as an out of date, out of touch reminder of the barbaric ignorance of men.

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