Thursday, August 20, 2015


Bibliolatry -- the worship of a book -- is the curse that plagues the three major religions of the western world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Regarding a Holy Book as containing sacred power by itself makes it unquestionable, and freezes the mind of the worshipers in the mental attitudes common at the time of the book's writing, and allows no possibility of change or learning from subsequent experience, even over centuries -- a rigidity which puts the worshipers increasingly out of touch with the real world, with all the friction that implies.

The Jews, to their credit, consider only the first five books of the Old Testament to be sacred -- the Five Books of Moses -- and all the rest are commentary.  Even so, the ambiguities of ancient Hebrew allow for wide interpretation of even those five books.  Ancient Hebrew was a pidgin, a trade-language cobbled together from the tongues of twelve different tribes, with a large smattering of ancient Egyptian, and as such it was word-poor -- containing less than 10,000 words when the Five Books were written.  Since there weren't very many words in the language, each word had to carry the freight of several meanings;  just which meaning was intended in any given sentence had to be guessed at from the context.  This makes a language excellent for poetry, but very poor at anything requiring precision -- such as history or law -- as the authors were quite aware.  This means that the Old Testament was never meant to be taken literally, not even by those who wrote it.  This did not stop the Orthodox Jews, over the centuries, from arguing over the precise meaning of those imprecise words until they created a rigid code of behavior and ritual which sets them apart -- sometimes dangerously so -- from the rest of the world.  Reform Judaism grew up after modern scholarship revealed the facts about the Old Testament -- the ambiguity of the original language, the effect of ancient Egyptian politics on the writing, and the multiple authorship.  That last had been obvious from the beginning;  the collection is called the Five Books of Moses, but in the accounts Moses dies in the second book, so somebody else had to finish the rest of them.  The likeliest candidate is Aaron, Moses' brother, who had been a priest in Egypt -- and not a priest of Yahweh.  The Reform Jews used this knowledge to break free of the ancient bibliolatry and shape their religion with a more enlightened attitude, extracting moral and philosophical lessons out of the ancient writings, rather than being bound to ritual observances.  This is why most modern Jews are Reform rather than Orthodox.

Christianity, which evolved out of Judaism, followed a somewhat similar path.  Its holy book, the New Testament, is the account of the life and death of Ieshua bar-Ioseph of Nazareth and his immediate followers, and was written in Aramaic sometime in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.  This was during the Roman occupation of Judea, which followed the Alexandrian Greek occupation after the conquests of Alexander the Great.  At that time the literate people in Judea spoke, and wrote, in Aramaic -- which was a hybrid of Hebrew and Greek.  Whether Ieshua himself spoke Aramaic or Hebrew is anyone's guess, since he was the son of a carpenter and wasn't raised with the expectation of a literary profession but worked -- presumably at his father's trade -- until he took up preaching in his 30s.  Just what he preached was religious reform: direct mental contact with the Jewish god, rather than blind observance of ritual and dutiful subservience to the temple priesthood.  His proposed reforms earned him the enmity of the priesthood, and his popularity gained him the hostility of the paranoid local king, which got him killed.  Ieshua never claimed to be anything but a Jewish religious reformer;  it was his followers who labeled him Messiah and deified him in memory, so that his legend spread after his death.  The first written account of his life wasn't penned until nearly 60 years after his death, and the rest still later, so none of the Gospels were eyewitness accounts.  The official New Testament was put together by a council of bishops in the 3rd century, and those bishops left accounts of the several other books that they threw out of the final version.  The custom of considering the book itself to be holy and unuestionable didn't start until Constantine (on his death-bed, if indeed it was him instead of his pious wife speaking) made Christianity the official religion of the floundering Roman empire.  As the religion spread and the empire collapsed, the book became the emblem of the church's power -- and so remained holy and unquestionable for another thousand years.  It wasn't until literacy and learning returned to Europe on any sizable scale, during the Renaissance, that anyone started questioning the book's supposed absolute accuracy.  Not until the 19th century did scientific discoveries, contradicting the book's claims, make acceptance of its literal inaccuracy widespread.  The parables of Ieshua -- which he clearly labeled as parables -- and the obvious symbols and allegories of the gospel of John made it easier to accept the entire book as a collection of parables, myths and symbols.  Even so, there are large numbers of people even today who try to insist that the entire book is literally true -- and therefore science is wrong.

Islam was largely the creation, in the 600s, of one man: an Arabian tent-maker who lucked into early marriage to a wealthy widow.  Muhammed was prone to mild epileptic fits, during which he saw ecstatic visions.  When his wife died and left him a wealthy widower, he consolidated his visions into a religion composed of fragments from the Christian bible and his own creations.  Muhammed was illiterate, so he hired a small army of clerks and dictated his visions, thoughts and memories to them.  Just how accurately those clerks transcribed his accounts, and how much they added or subtracted according to their own political agendas, nobody knows.  Muhammed was also ambitious, and used his inherited wealth to hire troops and entice armed allies.  He courted the local Jews and Christians, hoping to win them over to his religion, but when they declined he grew angry with them and took to conquering them instead.  By the time he died, Muhammed was an exceedingly wealthy conqueror whose empire stretched across Arabia and much of the middle-east.  His notes to his clerks were collected into a single book, which was subsequently called the Koran;  it was used as the emblem of his new religion and the justification for his empire.  His heirs fell to squabbling over who would inherit which part of his empire, thus creating the major divisions within Islam, but all of them claimed the Koran as their holy and unquestionable justification.  No one in the conquered territories dared to question the absolute truth and holiness of the Koran for another thousand years.  In the 19th century the Baha'i sect dared to claim that the revelations of the Koran might be transcended by later revelations, for which various imams and ayatollahs denounced the Baha'is and declared them not to be Muslims at all.  In the 20th century a scholar revealed, in a novel called "The Satanic Verses", the fact that Muhammed had not directly written the Koran, for which various imams and ayatollahs put out a death-order on him.  Only in the safety of distant countries have any modern Muslim scholars questioned the holy unquestionability of the Koran, and they haven't made much headway anywhere else.  Instead, the current wave of Jihadis -- typified by ISIL -- have made themselves a threat to everyone else in the world with their strict adherence to the absolute literal interpretation of the Koran.

What history has shown is that bibliolatry creates extensive and unnecessary warfare with one's neighbors, and likewise destructive treatment of one's own people.  Religions that indulge in it descend into stagnation at best and savagery at worst.  No religion has advanced into modern enlightenment without freeing itself from such holy-book worship and allowing its worshipers to think for themselves.  To put it another way, no sensible god would be pleased at seeing humans blindly worship questionable writings, instead of learning from the signs the god currently gives them or using the brains he gave them in the first place.

--Leslie <;)))><                       


Aya Katz said...

While not an adherent of these three major religions -- or perhaps because I am not -- I have to say that the problem they all share is that they do not take the books they claim to worship literally enough, and that they very often do not even read them at all. The average Christian, Jew and Moslem has an idea of what his or her holy books says without ever having read it word for word, literally, without the benefit of an anachronistic interpretation.

I also take issue with your idea that ancient Hebrew was a hybrid language and that its paucity of vocabulary was due to its being a pidgin. Anyone who has studied Biblical Hebrew knows that it is a highly inflected language with an integrated root system for derivation of new words in synchronic time. English is a hybrid and closer to a pidgin than Hebrew. To the extent that English has "more words", it is because duplicate words are taken from different languages, and the derivational system is a mess. In Hebrew, you can tell what a new word means right away from its root and derivational pattern, even if you have never seen it before. But in English people have to memorize lexemes, because their derivation is opaque, since it usually comes from lannguages that are not closely related.

Hebrew does not have fewer words. It has a root system that allows a potentially infinite number of new words to be derived when needed. In a pidgin, you have to memorize the meaning of each word separately. In a grammatical, genetically pure language you know what everything means by its relationship to other related words and forms.

If you read the old testament literally, you can see that it describes a polytheistic religion, and that Yahweh is the son of El Elyon, the father god. Yahweh is given dominion over Israel by El, just as every other god is given a country to rule over. (Re-read Our Lady of Kaifeng to see the exact Bible verse in question.)

The portions of the first five books show by their language that they were probably written after, and not before, some of the historic books like Judges and Kings.

The problem is that when Christians, Jews and Moslems read the Old Testament, they are already seeing it through a fog of after the fact interpretations by people who came along long after it was written.

Messiah, for instance, does not mean a god. It means annointed, and is a way to refer to the very real and secular King of Israel. Jesus was crucified because he was claiming to be the king. People followed him, because they wanted to be liberated from foreign rule. The current king was a Roman puppet.

As for being faithful to a single wife or all men being equal, the old testament does not command these things, and if people simply read it literally, they would stop being such puritans. Polygamy was the system people lived by, and ownership of slaves was something there were rules about.

If you read the book literally, the way it is written, instead of the way it is later interpreted, you can see that there are provisions for kindness to animals and servants in the law, because in order for the system of ownership of other beings and other humans to work, a modicum of kindness was required. That's why not working on the Sabbath means a day off for your ox, ass and slave, and is not some kind of crazy go-to-church day or the day not to cook using electricity or to avoid driving a car.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I'm only replying to make note of the synchronicity here. I've been looking at the meanings of the Bible of late, especially in relation to astrology and the ages marked by the constellations. In astrotheology, it's understood that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally because it's an allegory of the earth's cosmic history - the age of Pisces, the age of Leo, etc. So although there are those who feel the Bible should be taken more literally, there are others who feel a little chemistry, astrology and math go a long way. Just putting that out there as food for thought.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Aya. Fascinating info! You should talk to Kate Gladstone, likewise a linguistics scholar who's studied the OT. Point is, the OT is a hodgepodge of the accounts and myths of various tribes, and can't be considered historically accurate -- let alone holy and unquestionable.

Hi, Bali. IIRC, 'twas Robert Graves who pointed out that the Six Days of Creation were astrologically significant, and astrology was an art the early Jews picked up largely during the Babylonian captivity. In any case, the OT is much more allegory and symbolism than anything like real history.

Technomad said...

One problem with any holy book is that stuff that was written for, and meant for solely a contemporary audience gets taken as marching orders for all times and places, even when these orders are wildly inappropriate.

Another problem is that, particularly with things like the Bible where languages change over time, a word can mean one thing at one point and another thing at another point. Look up where the word "gunsel" came from, sometime.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Nomad. Oh yes, "gunsel" -- and it's 'companion' word, "punk" -- have indeed shifted meaning over the years. There are linguists who do nothing but trace such changes throughout the history of a language.

Technomad said...

Shifts in meaning of words is part of what makes Shakespeare hard for high school students. (Along with the way it's presented to them---Shakespeare's plays are meant to be experienced on stage, not read aloud in class by a bunch of high-schoolers with a collective IQ around the size of a turnip, you educationist morons).

KateGladstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KateGladstone said...

“Ancient Hebrew was a pidgin, a trade-language cobbled together from the tongues of twelve different tribes,” — the evidence is that the twelve tribes already spoke closely related variants of one language: the then-extant common tongue of Canaan and Moab and some other places — what archeologists think of, today, as “Phoenician” (“Phoenicia/Phoenicians” being the name that the Greeks came to use for Canaan/Canaanites). The languages were ALREADY so close to one another (and remained so close, for millennia) that archeologists who dig up any ancient document in, say, the Phoenician script usually have to read a fair distance through the document before they can figure out just what tribe if nation the writer belonged to — much as, today when we read a paragraph in English, we don’t know where the writer was from until (gif instance) we hit a word like “colour” versus “color,” or we notice that commas and periods have been put inside of quotation-marks (US-style) instead of outside (UK-style). For a good history of how Hebrew (and its various close kinfolk, as well as more distant kin as Arabic and ye olde Babylonian) emerges from an earlier common tongue, go to Wikipedia and read the article “Proto-Semitic.”

KateGladstone said...

Re: “The Jews, to their credit, consider only the first five books of the Old Testament to be sacred -- the Five Books of Moses -- and all the rest are commentary“ — not directly “commentary,” just later works: some inspired (though less so than the first five) & some not.