No book has been used to justify more oppression, punishment, violence, torture, and killing than the Bible. It was used by leaders of the Catholic Church to invent and use some of the most heinous torture devices in human history against anyone they decided was not orthodox enough. The Bible is still used to justify oppression, prejudice, discrimination, and persecution of millions of people. The Bible carries power and authority that, for many people, make it beyond reproach. Especially in election years, the “Word of God” is considered by conservative Christians to be the final word in any political or social debate.
Today, God is invoked by some Muslims to justify terrorism and brutality, and some Christians want to do the same in retaliation and self defense. Don’t we at least need to examine the log in our own eye before we criticize the speck in the eye of another? That’s what John Shelby Spong does in his book The Sins of Scripture. The book is not anti-Christian. John Shelby Spong is a retired bishop in the Episcopal Church, a practicing Christian and a life-long biblical scholar.
Most Christians still consider their book of scripture to be the actual “Word of God,” in spite of several centuries of biblical research documenting its twelve hundred years of human tribal origins. They repeat that claim in their liturgies without ever wondering whether it makes sense to worship an ancient war god who hated everyone his chosen people hated and who condoned and even demanded genocide, infanticide, rape, slavery, and the death penalty for dozens of trivial offenses.
Some religionists insist that to be the “Word of God,” the Bible must be inerrant and irrefutable. They have to ignore or contort the fact that Moses did not write the Torah with its description of his own death and burial, epilepsy and mental illness are not caused by demon possession, profound deafness and the accompanying inability to speak is not caused by the devil tying the tongue of the deaf person, the earth is not the center of the universe, and dozens of other errors and contradictions. Even Jesus’ virgin birth story was a mistranslation of a story in Isaiah that said a young woman was pregnant (hardly a virgin).
The need for certainty and absolute authority simply results in denying reality. Biblical inerrancy may help people calm their anxieties and uncertainties, but when it is used to justify oppressing and even killing people in the name of God, it is immoral. Spong argues that it also distorts the true message of Jesus.
Here is a very brief summary of the points Spong makes:
The Bible has been used to promote overpopulation by defining non-reproductive sex as sinful and by opposing birth control and comprehensive sex education. To “be fruitful and multiply” was written while the Jews were captives in Babylonia. It promoted survival as a tribe in exile. Not only is it no longer relevant, it is now destructive.
The Bible has also convinced millions of people that they are sinful from birth, their bodies are unclean and disgusting, menstruation is unclean, and that sex is filthy except for procreation. Celibacy has been sanctified, and females are told that their virginity is their most prized asset and that without it they are worthless. All of those beliefs are psychologically destructive.
Abortion has become the last battle over religious control of sexuality. Abortion is minimal where birth control and comprehensive sex education are readily available, yet many Christians oppose contraception and sex education. The Bible never condemns abortion and even says “When men . . . hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him” (Exodus 22). Clearly, the Bible does not consider miscarriage to be harm.
The Bible has been used to justify human abuse of the earth because the Hebrews believed their sky god, Yahweh, defeated the Canaanite earth gods, Baal and Astarte, thus making conquering the earth a divine virtue. Christians consider the earth only a stepping stone to heaven. Only recently has human indifference to the environment begun to change. The earth will survive with or without humans. The reverse is not true.
Most Christians view God and Jesus as external to the world we live in. And by extension, they view humans as having our true home in heaven, not on earth. When we do not view earth as home, we do not care for it. We simply wait to be rescued from it. This theistic concept of God is not the only biblical view of God, but it is the predominant one.
Patriarchy and sexism are almost universal throughout human history. When humans shifted from female earth goddesses to male sky gods, the powerful male warrior god who dominated and conquered others was divine justification for dominating females. The Bible perpetuates and amplifies this ideology and makes it sacrosanct. Not only are females inferior, they are responsible for evil and death. Female disobedience was responsible for corrupting the world. These ideas continue to victimize females.
Christianity elevated female virginity to supernatural status. The mother of Jesus was declared a virgin in spite of having given birth. The Catholic Church described Jesus’ brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3 and Galatians 1:19) as half-siblings or cousins or Joseph’s children by a previous marriage. Then even Mary’s birth was declared virginal to complete her desexing and increase her holiness. Later still, the Catholic Church decided Mary ascended into heaven without dying because death was supposedly the punishment for original sin, which she could not have. The message is that women have to be desexed and dehumanized to be divine, according to the male interpreters of the Bible. “Ordinary” women are then less valued, especially once they have sex.
The Bible defines birth and menstruation as unclean. This state of impurity prohibits a woman from coming near anything holy and even taints anyone or anything she touches and lasts twice as long for birth of a female than for birth of a male. Menstruation became another sign of weakness and inferiority and a source of shame and embarrassment that continues today. How do perfectly natural occurrences become something considered spiritually dirty and dangerous? Such strong prejudices almost always come from fear. The “magical” power women had to bleed without dying and to give birth evidently frightened and mystified men so much that they had to invent purification rituals to be safe. Male envy of menstruation may have even been the catalyst for male circumcision.
Hatred and fear of homosexuality is another destructive teaching of the Bible. The entire list of rules and laws of Leviticus was written while the Jews were captives in Babylonia to keep the Jews culturally separate from the Babylonians until the Jews could return to their homeland. They established the Sabbath tradition, refused to work one day a week and wrote a day of rest for God into Genesis to make the tradition holy. They established kosher dietary practices to limit socializing with Babylonians. They revived male circumcision to identify Jewish males. They identified Babylonian sexual practices and prohibited them for Jews. Modern day Christians pick out only the verses they relate to homosexuality and ignore the dozens of other rules.
The other anti-homosexual biblical story is Sodom. In this story, God needs two angels to tell him what is going on in Sodom after Abraham bargains God down from fifty to ten righteous people as the cutoff for destruction of the city. (Certainly not an all-knowing God). Lot takes in the two strangers as is the hospitality custom. The men of the city demand that Lot give up his guests so they can rape the strangers. Lot refuses but offers his two virgin daughters as rape victims. Rape of the daughters (Lot’s property) was evidently okay with the author of the story and with God. The angels defend Lot’s household and allow the family to escape. God then destroys the city, kills Lot’s wife for looking back at her city, and Lot and his two daughters escape to the mountains. The two daughters decide they must fulfill their female duty to produce children by having sex with their father. This Sodom story of a man willing to have his daughters raped and two instances of incest but still considered righteous by God is used to condemn loving homosexuality rather than rape or incest.
In the New Testament, Paul is used to justify anti-homosexual attitudes. What Paul says is that God makes people homosexual when they fail to worship properly. Paul was a religious fanatic driven by self hatred of his own homosexual desires and was rigid in his worship practices. Failing to distinguish self hatred and the sexual assault of Sodom from love should never be considered “The Word of God.”
The Bible has also been used to inflict horrible abuse on children. Children “born in sin” must be punished or broken of willfulness to control the influence of the devil. Punishment has been glorified as the hallmark of a lovingly angry God. We now know without any doubt that physical punishment is a poor teacher and almost always leaves long-lasting emotional scars. In addition to punishing children, the Bible is used to condone physical abuse of prisoners, slaves, women, and members of religious orders – those who must obey authority. Penance and self punishment are considered virtuous.
In the Bible, God is the ultimate punishing parent. He sends people to eternal punishment (Hell), uses natural forces as punishments, requires self-amputation of body parts that cause a person to sin, and even killed his own son as substitutionary punishment for our sins. We deserve punishment because we are all sinful, can never be good enough, and can only hope for undeserved mercy. Some even believe we can be saved only by washing in Jesus’ blood and by drinking it every so often. This grotesque idea of a sadistic God served by masochistic children is barbaric. Jesus did not die for our sins. This distorted idea is a gentile heresy, not a divine revelation.
And finally Christianity inflamed anti-Semitism for centuries in spite of its origins in Judaism, the fact that Jesus and all his disciples were Jews, and the fact that the Bible is a library of books written by Jews about Jewish history and culture for a Jewish audience.
Bishop Spong proposes that to overcome these destructive messages in the bible, we must stop considering the bible “the Word of God.” He describes in convincing detail a Jesus that is not sexist and misogynistic but is a revolutionary who challenged the patriarchy of his time. He describes how to avoid the sins of scripture and embrace a Christianity that helps humanity grow into its full potential.
While I do not end up in Christianity at all, I fully endorse the results of Spong’s revision of Christianity’s worst beliefs.