The Bible (ca. 110 CE) and related work:
- Entry: Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE)
- Entry: Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Adaptation: La Prophétie des grenouilles (2003)
- Entry: Exodus (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: Numbers (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: Deuteronomy (ca. 630–400 BCE)
- Remake: Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE)
- Entry: Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: Joshua (ca. 650–500 BCE)
- Entry: Judges (ca. 650–500 BCE)
- Entry: “Ruth” (ca. 500–330 BCE)
- Entry: Books of Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)
- Entry: Books of Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)
- Entry: Books of Chronicles (ca. 400–250 BCE)
- Entry: “Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE)
- Entry: “Nehemiah” (ca. 300 BCE)
- Entry: “Esther” (ca. 300 BCE)
- Entry: Job (ca. 550–200 BCE)
- Entry: Psalms (ca. 700–200 BCE)
- Entry: Proverbs (ca. 500–200 BCE)
- Entry: “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE)
- Entry: “Song of Songs” (ca. 200 BCE)
- Entry: Isaiah (ca. 600-400 BCE)
- Entry: Jeremiah (ca. 570–400 BCE)
- Entry: “Lamentations” (ca. 586–520 BCE)
- Entry: Ezekiel (ca. 600–500 BCE)
- Entry: “Daniel” (ca. 164 BCE)
- Entry: “Minor Prophets” (ca. 750–200 BCE)
- Entry: “Hosea” (ca. 750–500 BCE)
- Entry: “Joel” (ca. 500–200 BCE)
- Entry: “Amos” (ca. 750 BCE)
- Entry: “Obadiah” (ca. 586 BCE)
- Entry: “Jonah” (ca. 400–200 BCE)
- Entry: “Micah” (ca. 750–400 BCE)
- Entry: “Nahum” (ca. 600 BCE)
- Entry: “Habakkuk” (ca. 600 BCE)
- Entry: “Zephaniah” (ca. 600 BCE)
- Entry: “Haggai” (ca. 520 BCE)
- Entry: “Zechariah” (ca. 516–400 BCE)
- Entry: “Malachi” (ca. 445 BCE)
- Entry: Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: New Testament (ca. 110 CE)
- Entry: Gospels (ca. 110 CE)
- Entry: Matthew (ca. 80–90 CE)
- Adaptation: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
- Entry: Mark (ca. 68–70 CE)
- Entry: Luke (ca. 80–110 CE)
- Entry: John (ca. 90–110 CE)
- Parody: Life of Brian (1979)
- Documentary: “The Secret Life of Brian” (2007)
- Adaptation: The Passion of the Christ (2004)
- Documentary: Last Days of Jesus (2017)
- Entry: Matthew (ca. 80–90 CE)
- Entry: Acts (ca. 80–110 CE)
- Entry: Epistles (ca. 110 CE)
- Entry: Romans (ca. 57 CE)
- Entry: 1 Corinthians (ca. 56 CE)
- Entry: 2 Corinthians (ca. 56–57 CE)
- Entry: “Galatians” (ca. 55 CE)
- Entry: “Ephesians” (ca. 80–90 CE)
- Entry: “Philippians” (ca. 54–55 CE)
- Entry: “Colossians” (ca. 62–70 CE)
- Entry: “1 Thessalonians” (ca. 51 CE)
- Entry: “2 Thessalonians” (ca. 80–115 CE)
- Entry: “1 Timothy” (ca. 100 CE)
- Entry: “2 Timothy” (ca. 100 CE)
- Entry: “Titus” (ca. 100 CE)
- Entry: “Philemon” (ca. 54–55 CE)
- Entry: “Hebrews” (ca. 80–90 CE)
- Entry: “James” (ca. 65–85 CE)
- Entry: “1 Peter” (ca. 75–90 CE)
- Entry: “2 Peter” (ca. 110 CE)
- Entry: “1 John” (ca. 90–110 CE)
- Entry: “2 John” (ca. 90–110 CE)
- Entry: “3 John” (ca. 90–110 CE)
- Entry: “Jude” (ca. 100 CE)
- Entry: Revelation (ca. 95 CE)
- Entry: Gospels (ca. 110 CE)
- Parody: “The Holy Bible: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2015)
- Spin-off: “Science: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2017)
- Spin-off: “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2018)
The Bible (ca. 110 CE)
I read mainly the 1999 Swedish translation, named Bibel 2000, which represents a substantial effort by a state commission started in 1972. The commission was partly secular, perhaps more so than the English-language NIV commission. It took the approach of literal translation to modern language, with stylistic emulation and textual criticism over dogma.
Though the commission project included the Apocrypha, the printed copy I read cover to cover did not, thus falling in line with Swedish Lutheran tradition. Where I do include books from the Apocrypha in this set of reviews, they are based on other sources.
The uneasy progression of a tribe-cum-nation’s belief system from syncretistic polytheism, via monolatry and henotheism, toward Greek-influenced individualism and a nominal theolatry or monotheism undermined by servants, intercessors, opponents and incarnations that are all divine. The latter books describe a cosmopolitan offshoot of the faith where one particular god promises to end the world in the first century CE, extending to disappointment that the apocalypse does not occur.
Some of the material was probably composed in a literal mode on the basis of sincerely held beliefs (i.e. as non-fiction), but indifference to the truth, charlatan intentions and forgeries are evidently more common.
The text was created piece by piece between the 8th century BCE and the 2nd century CE. Mainly, people wrote down what had been oral tradition and then gradually edited earlier passages or attributed their own additions to dead authors to give the work a more desirable message for each new generation. Numerous proposed additions, including dozens of gospels, were banned or excised for the same arbitrary historical reasons.
As a result, there has been a huge number of different bibles over time. Through a series of synods, a rough mainstream had developed around 200 CE: “the” Christian bible as reviewed here. It differs from lost older Hebrew bibles, the “heretical” Marcionite canon, the younger Masoretic Hebrew Bible (7th–10th century CE), the Peshitta, the Oriental Orthodox Christian (e.g. Ethiopian, Tewahedo) bibles, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Bible and so on. Synods have continued to modify the various canons.
The line between translation and authorship is not always clear. The influential Septuagint translation of an older Hebrew Bible makes its own theological points and expands on the original text, which is no longer extant. In the 16th century, the Catholic church began to officially promulgate the Vulgate (called so since the 13th century), which is a 4th-century translation with some errors. It gave Moses horns on his head, which you can still see in some medieval church murals. Other bibles have taken greater liberties, such as the 1820 Thomas Jefferson Bible, the unfinished 19th-century Joseph Smith Bible and the 1982 abridged Bible from Reader’s Digest.
The overall date of 110 CE on this review refers to mainstream scholarly estimates for “2 Peter”, apparently the youngest text in the canonical New Testament. As of this writing in 2019, extant physical fragments of New Testament writings cannot be definitively dated as older than about 200 CE, though largely credible estimates range down to about 125 CE. Chapter numbers were added much later, verse numbers (as used in these reviews) not until about 1551; there were multiple attempts to add them.
When you read this collection, it helps to know some of the ancient history of the Middle East. Scholarly analyses can put each component work in context, and this is useful. However, the main thing you need is an everyday bullshit detector. If you’ve read a bunch of bad fantasy literature, you know what people like to imagine when they don’t need to stick to the truth. If you’ve hung around habitual liars, or even spent time exploring the imagination of ordinary children, you are equipped to read The Bible.
The book speaks poorly for itself. No unprejudiced reader has ever come away from it with a clean, abstract deism, like the faith of David Hume or James T. Kirk. Such ideas come from outside the text. I surmise that actually reading the text—especially with an open mind—has produced mainly atheists. Religion spreads by other means: Parent to child, the peer group, the larger community, song, dance, ritual, political expediency, superstitious fear, the ignorance of facts and alternatives, and above all, wishful thinking.
Internal contradictions litter the text. There are far too many for me to list. Even the most basic stuff, like the powers and intentions of the gods, are inconsistent. Generations of rewriters probably fixed some of these errors but left new ones in the canon. Supposedly, this became a concern only at a late date, when philosophy and science presented a more elegant system of explanations even with respect to major questions like the origin of life and humankind. Fundamentalism, it is said, arose under pressure from contrary evidence.
Generally speaking, it’s worth reading some parts of the collection for their influence on politics and other literature, but be prepared to meet some of the least sympathetic authors in literary history.
References here: Som en ateist läser bibeln, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Gnostic Gospels (1979), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), Metodboken — Bibel 2000 (1999), “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001), “Neighbours” (1952), Man in the Wilderness (1971), Angel’s Egg (1985), The Sacrifice (1986), On the Silver Globe (1988), Cast a Deadly Spell (1991), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo (2019), Harriet (2019).
‣ Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE)
The priest John W. Rogerson gives an outline: There was once an ethnic group called Israel, mentioned on a single Egyptian stele. It was locked in an endemic state of struggle for resources. At some point, some of its members attributed an escape from Egyptian slavery to the tribal god, Yahweh. “Faith in Yahweh as the God of Israel then became one of the distinguishing features of Israel as it struggled for survival with the Canaanites and the Philistines in Palestine and with neighbouring peoples in Transjordan.” That’s from the essay on “The History of the Tradition: Old Testament and Apocrypha”, printed in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (2003). There is little to support even this vague speculation.
In the quote, Rogerson mentions the Philistines. They were one of the “sea peoples” that moved in the region as part of a cultural and economic collapse, likely with ecological causes. The Old Testament implies the effect of these forces on the popular imagination. However, it is composed almost entirely of mutually contradictory fragments of the mythology invented to support one resulting faith, written down from oral traditions with minimal context. The Old Testament does not preserve the real prehistory of the tribe.
The main texts of this collection revolve around the cult of Yahweh as it existed in a later event called the Babylonian exile. The kingdom of Judah, south of Israel, rebelled against Babylonian rule and was destroyed in 586 BCE. The royal court of Judah, with its priests and scribes, were taken into captivity in Babylon to prevent further uprisings. Their exile produced a faith now called Judaism, along with the bulk of this collection.
As I understand it, the Babylonian exile had a bigger impact on the writing process than anything else. It can be compared to the terrorist attacks on 2001-09-11, piercing the heart of a confident, self-aggrandizing nation and causing a crisis of faith. A faction among the exiled elite blamed their fate on disobedience to Yahweh and invented a past and future where their broken country was and would be glorious. This fusion of fantasy and recrimination became the backbone of the new state religion and The Bible, including the New Testament.
This development is summarized in psalm 137 of Psalms: The shame and humiliation of the authors and their people, the captors requesting samples of Hebrew culture as a diversion, the authors effectively delivering on this request by composing the psalm, and a fantasy of killing babies, all formulated as pious prayer.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Rogerson mentions the Egyptian Merneptah Stele as the oldest preserved writing about an ethnic group called Israel, supporting the idea that some part of the cult of Yahweh came out of Egypt. However, it is also possible that slavery in Egypt was invented to serve as a mythical analogue of exile in Babylon. This makes reading The Bible in its traditional order awkward, but that is what I did. If I had known better, I would have started with “Ezra”.
The Old Testament was written mainly by priests, usually attributing their words to some fictional prophet by pretending to find a lost scroll in the temple library and by revising old texts in the process of copying them and destroying the original, short-lived papyrus. According to Rogerson, “as late as the first century BC there was a group within Judaism that claimed and attributed revelations of God to Moses regarding vital matters of religion.” That is in reference to an apocryphal Temple Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contains plans for a temple, attributed to Moses and meant to supersede the canonical plan for the First Temple. Without apocrypha the Old Testament seems to have been finished around 164 BCE, going by a 2002 John J. Collins estimate of the age of “Daniel”, specifically its second half. The oldest parts borrow from Sumerian literature, which is itself up to 2000 years older than the Collins estimate.
It’s worth reading some books of the Old Testament to get a sense of how dull life was in the ancient Near East when regional Bronze Age cultures had collapsed around 1177 BCE. With their impoverished imagination, the authors show the incuriousness and brutality of that dark age. Through their religion, the message of wilful ignorance survived into Christianity.
‣‣ Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Nominally the early history of Israel, before the state is established.
In the first century CE it was common practice to refer to the five books of the Pentateuch (Hebrew: Torah) as the “Law of Moses”, Mosaic law. Full authorship was attributed to Moses still later, in the Babylonian Talmud composed around 200–500 CE. The date of the work is speculative. Some fragments were almost definitely composed centuries earlier. Heavy editing may have gone on as late as 250 BCE.
It is a common fundamentalist Christian claim that modern peace and prosperity, or else democracy, is the result of implementing Mosaic law. This assertion is unsupported. The authors were concerned with power, not reason. They defy reason at every turn, often with the vigour of a tantrum, and their heroes were anything but peaceful. In this, they had fallen behind the times. Compare Moses to Solon (ca. 638–558 BCE), a philosopher whose ten rules to live by are given in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Solon’s list has obvious flaws but shows a good deal more wisdom than the fictional Moses. Democracy grew out of Athens, not the Pentateuch.
Throughout this collection, monolatry is the general rule. That is to say the authors believed in multiple gods but wanted to restrict their own community to the worship of a particular god. See for example Deuteronomy 32:43 where the other gods are explicitly commanded to bow to Yahweh. You may find that particular stanza missing in your translation, or neutered to read “angels” instead of “gods”, as part of the adaptation of the work to monotheism by later editors and wilfully incompetent translators. Check the English Standard Version or the Contemporary English Version for a decent translation.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Collected ancient myths and just-so stories for the origin of local customs, holy places and ethnic groups.
Chapter 1: In a story possibly intended to explain why you get a day off work each week, gods (“us”) create the universe.
Chapters 2–3: An unrelated creation myth that seeks to explain, among other things, the patrilocal practices of the Hebrews and why childbirth is painful: It’s punishment.
Chapter 4: A god doesn’t want to eat its veggies, so it curses first-generation man Cain to be restless, never settling down. Protected by the same god, Cain settles down. One of his descendants, Jubal, is the father of all who play the harp and flute.
Chapter 5: People live for longer than 120 years before and after a god settles on a maximum lifespan of 120 years.
Chapter 6–10: Gods and people schtup, explaining why there are giants.
Also, people are intrinsically evil (6:5). Their creator regrets making them (6:6) and tries to kill everyone while the same god preserves all species. All of them fit on Noah’s boat measuring 150 by 25 by 15 metres. The flood explicitly covers the tallest mountains. Trees survive under miles of water and grow fresh leaves after just a few days.
In a coda to the life of Noah, the old man is passed out drunk in a tent. This is such a hideous sight that two of his sons cover him with a mantle. He wakes up and curses another.
Chapter 11: Gods wish to prevent humans from developing a harmonious and enlightened civilization, so they now create separate languages (already being spoken in chapter 10), causing the building of Babylon to be abandoned.
The story switches gears, moving to a central, more coherent myth of patriarchs.
Chapter 12: Fleeing famine, Abraham gets rich by letting the pharaoh take his wife and half-sister Sarah (before the pair get these names) as a concubine. A god punishes the pharaoh, not Abraham.
Chapter 13: There is still a shortage of food. A parenthetical note explains that grazing lands are overcrowded by Canaanites and Perizzites. A god gives Abraham a perpetual lease on all the land he can see.
Chapter 14: Abraham and his slaves kill people.
Chapter 15: Abraham makes blood sacrifices. In a nightmare, a god promises Abraham that his descendants will be slaves for 400 years before his god punishes their enslavers.
Chapter 16: Abraham impregnates a slave girl. Sarah punishes the girl for impertinence and drives her away, but a god—“the god of seeing”—brings the girl back.
Chapter 17: Without explanation, Abraham gets his name and standing orders to expel everyone with an intact foreskin on the penis.
Chapter 18: A god reads Sarah’s thoughts and insists that she mocked him by smiling. A god argues with itself about revealing its plans, then decides to destroy Sodom. Abraham haggles for justice.
Chapter 19: Lot offers his two daughters as a distraction so the men of Sodom don’t rape two visiting angels. For Abraham’s sake, the angels save Lot and his family while a god burns Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s daughters get pregnant by their father.
Chapter 20 repeats chapter 12 in a different country.
Chapters 21–23: The “binding of Isaac”. Abraham’s god orders him to kill his son. At the last minute it allows a substitute blood sacrifice of an innocent goat stuck in a shrubbery. Sarah then dies abroad.
Chapter 24: A servant puts his hand between Abraham’s thighs and resolves to pick a wife for Isaac by random chance, in his promised land. The girl, Rebekah, is seen off by her sisters, who prophesy that her descendants will conquer enemy cities. She veils her face.
Chapters 25-27: The family life of Isaac, wherein his neighbours argue about wells until they see he is favoured by Abraham’s god. There is a new famine. Rebekah tricks a senile Isaac into blessing the wrong son: Jacob instead of Esau. This makes Jacob the hero of the story.
Chapter 28: Jacob dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Abraham’s god promises him that other peoples will be jealous of his own. In exchange for food and clothes on a trip, Jacob raises a rock to house the god and promises a tithe.
Chapter 29: Jacob is tricked into marrying the wrong cousin (Leah), but he also gets to marry the hotter cousin he wants (Rachel).
Chapter 30 repeats chapter 16 with Jacob impregnating slave girl Bilhah on cousin Rachel’s orders. He also impregnates the other cousin’s slave girl, and so on. Leah surmises that “God has rewarded me for having my husband sleep with my slave.” Also, Jacob uses a proto-Lamarckist goat-breeding scheme to get rich at his father-in-law’s expense.
Chapter 31: Continuing to trick his father-in-law, Jacob leaves his house. Rachel steals his gods and pretends to be menstruating to protect the loot. Abraham’s god warns the father-in-law not to interfere. There is a ceremony to settle their differences, where Abraham’s god and Nachor’s god have equal standing.
Chapter 32: One night, Jacob wrestles an unidentified god who dislocates his hip. Jacob is named Israel. This is all offered as an explanation for why Hebrews don’t eat the sinew of the thigh.
Chapters 33–34: Jacob is reconciled with his brother Esau. A drama of tribal honour follows. The son of the local chief rapes Jacob’s daughter and falls in love with her, kidnapping her and sending the chief to negotiate a marriage.
Pretending to agree to the marriage so that the chief’s people will get circumcised as a token of friendship, Jacob’s sons murder all of the men in a city while their penises are painfully swollen. They enslave all the women and children and steal all the goods. Jacob is frightened that they have angered the Canaanites and Perizzites who dominate the area, but his sons reply “You gonna let ‘em treat our sister like a whore?” Indeed, there is no revenge.
Chapters 35–36: Jacob cleans house. He gets his family to throw away their gods and he meets with Abraham’s god, who repeats what the wrestler god said in chapter 32. Jacob’s twelfth son is born: Joseph, his favourite.
Chapter 37: Sick of Joseph’s narcissistic dreams, his brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt and pretend he was killed.
Chapter 38: A god kills a man and then kills his brother Onan for refusing to impregnate the first man’s wife, Tamar. Onan does have sex with her but it’s coitus interruptus, so he has to die. In a veil and make-up, disguised as a prostitute, Tamar tricks her father-in-law into impregnating her.
Chapter 39: Joseph’s owner’s wife nags him to sleep with her. Spurned, she has him thrown into prison with a false accusation of attempted rape.
Chapter 40–41: Joseph interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners, then the pharaoh. The pharaoh therefore promotes this slave, a foreign, (wrongfully) convicted attempted rapist, to rule Egypt. Joseph mitigates famine by taking grain from the common people’s granaries and storing it in different granaries.
Chapter 42–45: Joseph secretly punishes his brothers. They assume they are being punished by their god. They are reconciled.
Chapter 46: Jacob and his entire family, the 70 Israelites, move from Beersheba (modern-day southern Israel) to Goshen, northern Egypt.
Chapter 47: As the seven-year famine continues, Joseph extorts all money, all cattle and all land from the Egyptian people, making them slaves of the pharaoh. The victims are grateful and agree to pay a 20% tax on all future harvests.
Chapters 48–50: Jacob dies, variously cursing and blessing the named twelve primogenitors of the tribes of Israel, exhorting them like the god of Abraham to multiply.
When the authors of Genesis completed their volume, the glories of the Late Bronze Age had been mostly forgotten. A Median and Babylonian alliance had sacked Nineveh in 612 BCE, leaving tablets strewn on the floor of the library of Ashurbanipal. Some of the myths in this volume share their source with those tablets, something Assyriologist George Smith discovered in 1872.
For example, the version of the flood myth given here is corrupted. Noah corresponds to the Sumerian Ziusudra, who became the Old Babylonian Atra-Hasis and the later Babylonian Uta-napishti. In the standard Babylonian version of The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE), Uta-napishti’s warning comes from a different god, not the same one that caused the flood. His boat houses even “members of every skill and craft” so their knowledge is preserved. The event lasts only fourteen days, and even at the high point, Uta-napishti sees fourteen islands, too distant for his birds. After the waters recede, the gods take wiser, less wasteful measures to limit the human population, introducing predators, menopause, famine, plague, death by old age etc. Uta-napishti’s longevity is explained as an exemption and reward. By learning Uta-napishti’s story, Gilgamesh grows wiser and helps restore the wonders of the old world. In the Sumerian poem beginning “The great wild bull is lying down”, this wisdom includes how to properly wash your hands and mouth!
An Old Babylonian version of the flood myth from about 1800 BCE has Atra-Hasis building a round boat, i.e. a coracle, which makes more sense than Noah’s design. This has been demonstrated by Assyriologst Irving Finkel, who had a giant coracle built and tested on water. The Bible, lacking good new ideas, fails even to preserve the old good ideas.
Throughout Genesis, the gods are poorly characterized. For instance, there is no stated reason why they put a forbidden tree in the garden of Eden, why they make its fruit delicious or why they lie about it. They are not numinous but physically present, like the gods of Sumer. They sometimes speak directly to the people they like, but because their actions make so little sense, they come across as fickle and banal. The language is similarly banal. According to Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew, the famous first line of Genesis could well contain a nonce-word made up on the spot to create a rhyme: tohu wavohu is “like ‘helter skelter’ or ‘harum scarum’ in English” (“How translation obscured the music and wordplay of the Bible”, Aeon, 2019-02-27). This is like Georg Stiernhielm’s arla in Hercules (1658); the kind of silly stunt art that seems validated by historical coincidence, but is actually just as silly as saying “super duper”.
One reason why the gods are so poorly presented is that they became surrounded by taboos. In particular, after some point in the long editing process, you couldn’t say the name “Yahweh” (introduced in chapter 2) or survive seeing that god. Compare this excerpt from book 1, chapter 99 of The Histories (440 BCE), about the proto-Iranian priest, judge and king Deioces:
When the town was finished, he proceeded to arrange the ceremonial. He allowed no one to have direct access to the person of the king, but made all communications pass through the hands of messengers, and forbade the king to be seen by his subjects. He also made it an offence for any one whatsoever to laugh or spit in the royal presence. This ceremonial, of which he was the first inventor, Deioces established for his own security, fearing that his compeers, who were brought up together with him, and were of as good family as he, and no whit inferior to him in manly qualities, if they saw him frequently would be pained at the sight, and would therefore be likely to conspire against him; whereas if they did not see him, they would think him quite a different sort of being from themselves.
Deioces ruled the Median Kingdom ca. 727–675 BCE. He was the grandfather of the man whose army sacked Nineveh, when those clay tablets went tumbling to the floor of the library. The excerpt shows that the idea of protecting unjust authority by invisibility and taboo was well understood. Applied to gods, invisibility helps explain why Christians never see evidence supporting the claims of their religion. The more specific notion that you would die if you saw Yahweh shifts the burden of policing the scoffers onto the scoffers themselves, while remaining perfectly compatible with the model of a king like Deioces who doesn’t want to be seen and will have you killed if you offend him. Even Herodotus, who wrote The Histories, often passes silently over matters of religious difference. He cites his own Greek scruples, i.e. taboo.
Following the development of taboos, Genesis was re-edited to cover the resulting plot holes. In the later parts especially, the gods communicate with Joseph through allegorical dreams, which put a safe distance between the authors, their characters, and the now lethal gods they spoke for. In Numbers 12:8, Yahweh has a comment on that, saying Moses—a guy in the next book—was the last prophet privileged to get plain speech.
Notice how, in chapter 1, the second day is the only day that isn’t good. There appears to be no consensus among Christians as to why, but some claim the number two is inauspicious. That’s funny, considering how many of the myths here are given in two versions. Apparently much of the composition is numerological, based on hitting multiples of seven in word counts and repeated phrases: more word play.
The next creation myth in chapters 2 and 3 is strikingly nonsensical. It’s purportedly bad to be naked, but no reason for this rule is given and people are deliberately created without the ability to know the rule. You get the ability in a delicious fruit, but the gardener lies, telling you the fruit will kill you the same day you eat it. There’s a different fruit on the tree of life that the people are allowed to eat but they don’t. They eat the forbidden fruit, evidently not knowing better. In consequence, snakes have to eat dirt, which they do not. This makes less sense than Hesiod. It sounds like something a sleepy eight-year-old made up after stealing candy.
Again, compare the original: On tablet 11 of his epic, Gilgamesh is terrified of death, finds a magical plant and formulates a plan to test it on “an ancient”, a senior citizen of Uruk. Before he can carry out this scientific experiment, a snake steals the plant because of its scent. The snake doesn’t talk. Instead, as it gets away it sloughs off its skin, meaning it is rejuvenated. That’s why the author of the epic used a snake: Snakes seem able to rejuvenate. Imitating the epic, the author of chapters 2–3 has forgotten why it’s a snake and what is supposed to happen with the tree of life. A different, more stupid new fable is smeared across the old. The editors failed to cover for the change, just like they failed as editors to update Noah’s chronology from Uta-napishti’s, and the physical presence of the gods from Deioces’s example. I wonder if the garden of Eden itself is based on the Forest of Cedars; one Sumerian fragment places Humbaba’s realm to the east, unlike the standard version, which puts it in Lebanon.
Later doctrine holds that the fruit episode of Genesis describes an “original sin”. Judging by the text, this sin would have to be curiosity, a desire for wisdom, or an unwillingness to abide by unjustified authority. Consequently, the church encouraged ignorance and obedience, suiting kings. There is no textual support for the notion of original sin or any such causal relationship in these repurposed fragments of Sumerian poetry, nor anywhere else in The Bible. Instead, evil is simply inherent in people and the world. Though the authors tried to adapt the fragments to monolatry, Yahweh is not yet moral, omniscient, omnipresent or omnipotent.
Incidentally, the popular image of the forbidden fruit as an apple comes from a translator’s pun: The Vulgate’s Latin malum means both “apple” and “evil”. The idea of making a new person from a rib is also a pun, but several thousand years older. According to Samuel Noah Kramer, it was a Sumerian play on words in one of the legends plagiarized for The Bible: ti meant both “rib” and to make (something) live. Somewhere along the line, a translator missed the point. When 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius showed that men and women have the same amount of ribs, Christians got upset. By then, they were taking it all literally. I find it sad that people were outraged because they’d accidentally built their core beliefs about the universe around a joke. This is where you end up when you brand curiosity and disobedience as evil.
The footnote to Noah’s life in chapter 10 has no equivalent in the earlier Sumerian and Babylonian texts. It’s a good example of biblical writing: It’s pulled from thin air, it’s vulgar, it’s grotesque, it’s distinctly illogical, and its only discernible purpose is to throw shade on ethnic groups near Israel at the time of writing. The son that Noah curses is Ham, and according to the same chapter (verse 6), Ham is the common ancestor of both Egypt and Canaan. The anecdote must be intended to justify the race hatred the authors express later, when they paint the Egyptians as evil clowns in Exodus and rejoice in the genocide of the Canaanites in Numbers. Tragically, the real-world effects extended to even greater horrors. Numerous Muslim, Jewish and Christian believers have interpreted dark skin to be a sign of the curse of Ham, using this notion to justify their hatred and enslavement of Africans, well into the 19th century.
Chapter 18 gives an example of a sorites paradox. Instead of piling grains of sand without knowing when he’ll have a heap, Abraham subtracts righteous people from the amount required to save Sodom. It starts at 50 and ends at 10, implying it’s acceptable that 9 righteous people die while Sodom is destroyed. It’s interesting how this argument is never followed to any kind of logical principle or conclusion as it would have been in a contemporary Greek text. Abraham just stops arguing, but the god apparently realizes that it can spare individuals. It spares Lot.
Lot’s view of women is—at best—typical for the place and time. It, too, represents corruption, a fall from the relative complexity of Shamhat or even the unnamed wife of Uta-napishti, a speaking role in the epic of Gilgamesh. Originally created for undefined companionship, women in Genesis are cursed in Eden to desire men. This means that, in the narrative, sexual desire is both evil and the fault of women. This is the authors projecting their own failings onto their victims.
Female characters are continually valued for fertility and beauty. In chapter 30, women view pregnancy and motherhood as a direct intervention by their god, giving them their husband’s attention. They aspire to nothing else. In this fiction, all of their value lies in the functions they perform for other people: Men and children. Men here are never sterile or senescent, only women. The gods are masculine; I am using the pronoun “it” rather than “he” just to get shorter sentences in these reviews, given that all the major characters are men. I wish I knew to what extent the veneration of the text has helped to perpetuate its sexism in Christian societies.
Much of the writing is symptomatic of what a powerful, egotistical man would secretly want. Chapters 12 and 20 give you wealth and comfort for pimping hot women and suggest a fetish for cuckoldry. Chapter 26 almost repeats the same motif a third time. Chapter 16 lets you sleep around. In chapter 19, the bad guys get blown up and the good guy gets his daughters’ virginity. In chapter 38, a man similarly gets to sleep with his daughter-in-law, innocently thinking she is a prostitute. Chapter 24 implies that a man’s wife replaces his (dead) mother.
Like Robert A. Heinlein, the authors of Genesis can’t keep one hand out of their pants, using the context of fantastic fiction to slip in transgressive pornographic scenarios for their own amusement. This, too, represents a decline from earlier Mesopotamian literature. Gilgamesh is described as a tyrant, an incompetent ruler, because he abuses his power for droit de seigneur. Outrage at the king’s bad behaviour drives the earlier narrative: Like the biblical patriarchs, Gilgamesh is symptomatically sanctioned by the gods (“By divine consent it is so ordained” says Shamhat on the Pennsylvania tablet), but he is realistically condemned by other gods and his own subjects. Not so in The Bible. All the heroes of Genesis die of old age, never in battle or untimely disease. Abraham’s god favours them and is stronger than the other gods. They prevail in this way because they are “culture” heroes, the mythical ancestors of the intended Iron Age Hebrew reader ca. 400 BCE.
In the 21st century, the patriarchs would belong to an extreme political right. They are not marked, as Gilgamesh is, by character, intelligence or luck. They do have brawn and sexual prowess, but not in mythical proportions. Compare Joseph’s Egyptians: the pharaoh is an unnamed idiot, the Egyptian people are glad to be oppressed by a foreigner, and the foreigner is unimpressed by a culture so old and rich that in the real world it absorbed many of its conquerors. Presumably the authors had never been to Egypt. Today this sort of thing is written mainly by adolescents boosting their ego. It’s flat wish fulfilment.
There is a gradual descent from loose myth to a pseudohistorical mode, starting with Abraham. Chapter 32 is a bizarre exception: A night-time desert theomachy, suggesting humans take their fate from gods through trial by combat. Creation through divine battle was a common form of creation myth among the Hebrews, again influenced by Mesopotamian culture, but no coherent version of it was canonized alongside the two in this volume.
The historical mode is disappointingly disconnected from the more fantastic earlier stuff. For example, chapter 21 treats as miraculous a birth that would have been routine with the 230-year lifespan of Serug. In the Masoretic version, there is a roughly-100-year overlap between the lives of Serug and his great-grandson Abraham, but the 99-year old Abraham does not reflect on this when he despairs of having children. Even Abraham’s life is about 5 times longer than an ordinary person’s life would have been at the time of writing. I remember a middle-aged teacher of religious studies in elementary school (80% Lutheran Christian indoctrination) describing the miracle of Sarah’s pregnancy as if with some personal aspiration, omitting that it comes on the tail end of vastly greater wonders. Most Christians apparently have the same attitude to this stuff as fans of bad fantasy novels do to their genre.
By chapter 35, the historical mode develops to show a grain of anthropological truth, like Herodotus. The narrator first explains that in Israel, rape is considered serious. Evidently this would not be known to the intended reader. The resolution is a bloodthirsty fantasy, but it does describe how different tribes would occasionally want to treat one another at the time, before institutions arose to mediate in disputes and cruel deception became a matter of public record. The brothers mention that their sister Dinah has been defiled, implying that her value to them has diminished. Her own feelings are somehow irrelevant. She does not speak. Empathy is not shown.
By this point in the narrative, with new authors, the gods have fallen silent. Chapter 37 introduces the substitute motif of the intradiegetic allegory, presented and discussed by characters in the narrative, without explication. Joseph appears to describe his dreams innocently, but their allegorical meaning is obvious to others. It’s all about hierarchy and domination. In chapters 40 and 41, the motif is made more elaborate, with the former dreamer now interpreting the stranger allegorical dreams of others with perfect prophetic accuracy, which he attributes to a silent god. Notice how the pharaoh repeats his entire dream in chapter 41, implying the author is literal-minded and steeped in oral literature. There is no finesse yet.
Chapters 39 onward fall from the historical mode to melodrama, with emotions constantly running high and a great deal of deception, power, wealth, glamour and sentimentality, moving at a slower pace. This fails to illustrate the seven-year famine that has gripped the known world.
Joseph seems to believe that his god wants an extremely unequal distribution of wealth, human overpopulation in Egypt, and slavery under the pharaoh, but not death by famine. Because the god says nothing in this episode, it’s not clear why it’s less genocidal than Noah’s or Abraham’s gods. I suppose this vagueness was crucial to the success of the text. If Joseph’s god had shown up to state explicitly what is implicit, the cult would have aged more poorly.
References here: Reasons to invent Jesus, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Ezekiel (ca. 600–500 BCE), Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE), 1 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE), Psalms (ca. 700–200 BCE), Romans (ca. 57 CE), Revelation (ca. 95 CE), John (ca. 90–110 CE), “August, 1914” (1918), Out of the Silent Planet (1938), The Little Prince (1943), Time Enough for Love (1973), “Tower of Babylon” (1990), The Czech Year (1947), “The Apple” (1967).
Seen in 2017.
Review refers to the Swedish dub.
A consistently uncomfortable mixture of fable, religious myth, Michelin product placement, calculating frogs as a silly allusion to real climate change (the myth of frogs dying rather than jumping out of heating water), and an effort to be reasonable. Very briefly, the turtle explains his face-heel turn as the result of (real) human cruelty. He is then pardoned by the invincible patriarch, fortunately undermining a central feature of the narrative, namely the moral dichotomy. The fact that some of the predators would be unable to live on potatoes is coldly ignored, as in Isaiah (ca. 600-400 BCE). The local nature of the catastrophe is also ignored: It would be silly to ask what the dry part of the world was doing to help the victims.
The old married couple of elephants is pretty funny, and the visual design is decent, like a stereotypical children’s book coming to life with intelligent digital composition.
‣‣‣ Exodus (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The Hebrews leave Egypt.
Chapter 1: To prevent Hebrew animosity, the new pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews, forces them to do hard labour and orders their male children killed at birth.
Chapter 2: Jacob’s great-grandson Moses is born, murders an Egyptian and marries.
Chapter 3: From a conspicuously burning bush, Abraham’s god promises to release the Hebrews from the captivity it arranged. It now calls itself “I am”. I will call it by its name: Yahweh.
Chapter 4: Yahweh teaches Moses some magic tricks for convincing the pharaoh. Moses is not a good speaker and arranges to have his brother Aaron do the talking. The god explains that it won’t matter because it will force the pharaoh to ignore any plea. One night, it tries to kill Moses but cancels the attempt when his wife circumcises their child with a piece of flint. Using magic, Moses convinces the elders of his people of his divine mission.
Chapter 5: The pharaoh rejects Moses’s lie that the Hebrews need to leave to do some praying. The pharaoh makes absurd new requirements upon the Hebrews.
Chapter 6: The other Hebrews ignore Moses.
Chapter 7: Yahweh makes Moses a god. It repeats that it will continue to prevent the pharaoh from listening, but still orders Moses and Aaron to argue with the pharaoh. The brothers use magic but Egyptian priests have the same magic. In the process, Moses and Aaron turn all water in the country into blood, killing all fish and rendering the Nile poisonous to drink.
Chapter 8–11: Moses, Aaron and the Egyptian priests cover much of the country in frogs. When the brothers transform all dust in the country into mosquitoes, the Egyptians advise the pharaoh that the Hebrews are better at this. The brothers then summon flies, kill all domesticated animals, produce boils on the Egyptian people, and add fiery hail, locusts, and darkness.
Chapter 12: Instructions for celebrating Passover include painting your house with blood. If you don’t do that, Yahweh won’t understand that you are loyal to him, so he will kill you by mistake.
Yahweh kills all firstborn Egyptian animals, including the people. It relinquishes its control over the pharaoh so that he can honour his promise to release the Hebrews. Yahweh then mind-controls the Egyptian people to give silver, gold and clothes to those who leave. Their stay has lasted for 430 years, which again is two generations in Moses’s family.
Chapter 13: Yahweh is a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, guiding the Hebrews on a detour so they don’t get scared of other tribes.
Chapter 14: Yahweh kills Egyptians with magic in the parting of the Sea of Reeds.
Chapter 15: Musical interlude.
Chapter 16: The Hebrews are confused and ungrateful to be free. Their god feeds them quail and magic bread called manna. Moses is disappointed.
Chapter 17: Amalekites suddenly attack the Hebrews for no apparent reason. Moses strikes a pose to determine the outcome of the battle. Others physically support his arms to help him maintain that pose.
Chapter 18: Moses’s father-in-law inspires him to select chiefs who act as judges.
Chapter 19: At Mount Sinai, anybody who tries to get too close to the fuzzy mountain god without its permission must be killed.
Chapter 20: Moses conveys ten laws (the “commandments”). For instance, don’t climb stairs to an altar or else people will see your dick (20:26).
Chapters 21–23: Additional fine print of Mosaic law, in which the jealous (20:5, 34:15 etc.) Yahweh promises terror and genocide (23:23) to produce an ethnically cleansed state (23:33) and you have to kill witches (22:18).
Chapters 24–31: Moses gets stone tablets with the ten laws, and instructions for a field temple (the “tabernacle”).
Chapter 32: Disappointed again, Moses smashes his new tablets and has 3000 Hebrews killed for worshipping a calf that Aaron made from earrings. Moses says this heresy is the work of other gods: The “opponents” of Yahweh.
Chapters 33–34: Getting new tablets, Moses takes up the habit of wearing a mask around people so they aren’t bothered by his disconcertingly glowing face.
Chapters 35–40: The field temple is built.
Moses’s birth in chapter 2, with the humble basket of reeds, echoes a commonplace motif in earlier Mesopotamian literature. Chapter 18 provides a glimpse of an earlier conception of Yahweh. Its attempt to kill Moses in chapter 4 is consistent with Genesis 32 and the tradition of “divine warrior” figures in the ancient Middle East.
Legitimate scholars seem to agree that the bulk of this work was written in Babylonian exile, at a time when cultural division and assimilation was perceived as a threat to the tribe. A fiction of prior unified exodus from captivity would have been politically expedient at this time, to sharpen boundaries. For the same reason, a unifying force was beefed up: Yahweh, the old divine warrior, got promoted. The Babylonian exile is written into the text as if it were a premonition, most clearly in Deuteronomy 4:27ff, less clearly in this volume. Isaiah 11:16 makes the comparison explicit.
Religious canon puts the exodus around 1400 BCE, at which time Egypt probably had a population of around 2 to 3 million. This is compatible with the pharaoh’s remark in chapter 5 that the Hebrews are more numerous than the Egyptians, and the head count of 600,000 adult Hebrew men moving from Rameses to Sukkoth in chapter 12. With rough estimates of family size, keeping in mind that males in the last generation were mostly killed at birth, the high mortality of the era where this is supposed to take place, it would indeed seem probable within the framework of fiction that the Hebrews outnumber the native Egyptians before the plagues.
While the math checks out for the pharaoh’s off-hand remark, little else does. The Egyptians did a lot of writing. History contradicts even the most basic outlines of the narrative. The Elephantine papyri indicate that Jews in Egypt in the 5th century BCE had no knowledge of an exodus. There was no agricultural base for a combined population over five million, and it takes some breeding to produce 2–3 million people from a single clan of 70 in the space of two generations, even if the two generations take 430 years. How could the Hebrews be enslaved when, in Genesis, it was the Egyptian people that was enslaved, effectively by Joseph? Why does Yahweh orchestrate this entire spectacle through a single murderer, or at all? No reason is given.
Some editor saw these plot holes. Perhaps in a lost version, the pharaoh acted under his own power, as in Genesis. Someone apparently found it necessary to posit that Yahweh is now controlling him as a reason for the vulgar display of power to continue. The mind-controlled pharaoh wilfully antagonizes a weirdly unassimilated ethnic group larger than his own through massive atrocities. He even lowers their productivity (hence their economic value) and provokes his victims to spread out looking for straw, which would put them in an excellent position to retaliate and rise against the tyrant. Later editors obviously weren’t happy with this either, so in later bibles that include Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE), another god does the dirty work.
Consider how the balance of the two populations might change with the poisoning of all potable water, the killing of all domesticated animals raised for meat or milk, the failure of the most important crops, and the killing of all firstborn, with little or none of this affecting the Hebrews. Realistically, it would destroy the state of Egypt. Any real pharaoh who saw even a tenth of that apocalyptic horror would be urging the Hebrews to leave at once before they overran Karnak. By the end, there cannot be enough Egyptians left standing to prevent the Hebrews from simply dropping their bricks and walking away.
Yahweh’s puppet pharaoh keeps digging himself a deeper hole, reneging on his promises each time. You can’t blame a puppet but you can blame the authors for admiring a god who would bend the minds of the innocent toward evil as he slaughters them. These authors do not bother with any plausible attempt to denigrate the Egyptians or the Amalekites, nor do they highlight any Hebrew virtues. The target audience—Iser’s implied reader—is one that simply assumes other ethnic groups deserve every possible abuse.
As fantasies go, this is vile.
The thinking on display in this book is the expected consequence of combining the much older lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”, already collated in the Code of Hammurabi) with profound ignorance and the darker tendencies of human psychology. It’s not philosophy; it doesn’t try to be. Mosaic law condemns itself in the eyes of any intelligent modern reader. I’ll just note one thing about the ten laws:
The law against killing (20:13) is delivered by an unrepentant murderer (2:12). In context, it genuinely seems as if “don’t kill” means “free Hebrews should intentionally kill other free Hebrews when provoked, and under circumstances listed elsewhere in this diatribe or exemplified by heroes, but generally not otherwise; other killings don’t matter”. Compare, for example, 21:13, where beating a man to death “by accident” is defined as a divine act in contrast to murder. Compare also Deuteronomy 27:24–25, which seems to state the intention more clearly.
Forward-thinking Christians have had to struggle against literate Christians for 1900 years to stretch the law against killing from its intended narrow meaning into a general meaning that would have seemed alien to the authors. In 2018, they were still struggling. That year, Pope Francis changed the Catechism to condemn the death penalty “under all circumstances”. Catholics still kept killing other people in the most conscious way possible. To the extent that they were motivated by religion at all, Christians carrying out the death penalty acted on a reasonable understanding of The Bible’s intended meaning.
As the plot picks back up at the end of chapter 23, consider the middle of the last paragraph, verses 29 to 30 (NIV translation):
But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.
I cannot find the words to say how repugnant this passage is to me. It is the lazy attitude of those among our ancestors who killed the last of the Neanderthals and Denisovans by driving them onto marginal lands. It describes the casual holocaust of the Emishi and ten thousand other oppressed “aboriginal” groups throughout history, by red-handed conquerors who conflated power and wisdom. By extension, it’s the mindset of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and the Shoah itself.
People who believe in the Abrahamic religions will often say that you need their god or Moses’s commandments to be nice, and yet, when you read The Bible, Moses tells you—in Yahweh’s own words—not only to commit the highest crimes against humanity but to do it the easy way. The wilful ignorance is staggering.
In conclusion, this is a hateful book. Read it and think about how the world might have been different if this foul stuff had not been the foundation of three major world religions. You can skip the chapters about the temple though. They’re just boring.
References here: Reviews on this site, Reasons to invent Jesus, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE), Metodboken — Bibel 2000 (1999), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).
Largely faithful. A little dude deposited in some reeds grows up and topples the might of ancient Egypt, thanks to the observable assistance of an incredibly inefficient god who enables such things as rival gods transmuting hilariously phallic staves into snakes.
Biblical sword-and-sandal spectacle with lots of special effects, motivated entirely by the horrifying rise of television. It comes complete with a 220 minute runtime, a famous director who not only narrates but also appears on screen to introduce his work, and an action hero playing Moses. Stupid on many levels, like the blockbusters of fifty years later.
Love that sandstorm.
Seen in 2019.
The ceremonial Seder meal, and through it, Passover as celebrated by observing modern U.S. Jews, and through that, a retelling of the fictional story of Exodus. Aaron’s golden calf, and much else, is interpreted to refer to mother goddesses eclipsed and reviled by the three major Abrahamic religions.
Animator-director Nina Paley depicts herself as a sacrificial calf interviewing her own patriarch—her actual father—who died between the interview and the film production. The taped interview covers his transition from religious faith in childhood to atheism in his early teens.
Musical in 2D vector animation. Skillfully made with open technologies and Kickstarter money, hence the joke about the “Four Freedoms” wilfully misinterpreted as a reference to the FSF instead of FDR. I was the only one at the GIFF 2019 screening who laughed at that joke.
The whole thing is literate, fluid (by the standards of a one-woman show), funny and catchy, with appropriate empathy for the non-human and non-Hebrew victims in the old story, and a split-second gag about the bathetic contrast between the desert and the promised “land of milk and honey”. Among the few flaws are a couple of awkward scene transitions and an exaggerated focus on the idea of the mother goddess as an almost universal cult all the way into the Iron Age. All of the literature listed in the end credits seems to be about that speculation.
‣‣‣ Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Additional Mosaic laws with minimal narrative. Most of the laws concern purity and how to kill. For example:
- Yahweh owns all fat (3:16f).
- Priests get to eat sacrificed meat in exchange for giving absolution (5:13), making it payment.
- If a lizard falls into a pot, smash the pot (11:33).
- Menstruating (15:19ff) and having children, especially girls (chapter 12), is unclean and you have to compensate by killing.
- Kill for Yahweh at Yom Kippur but let one goat run to Azazel (16:6ff). This is the proverbial “scapegoat”.
- Love your neighbour (19:18) and kill them if they seem possessed. Blame your victims (20:27).
- Yahweh is concerned with two neat stacks of cakes, six in each (24:5f).
In a brief narrative interlude, Yahweh kills people for trying to please Yahweh (10:1f).
The notion of purity here, like so much else in The Bible, is an example of magical thinking. The premise of it is never stated, but you can extrapolate it from the specifics of the law: Physically real dirt, rot and disease is equivalent to everything else that triggers the reflex of disgust in a middle-aged Hebrew man. This includes corpses, cooties, natural wildlife and supernatural evil. As a result, some of the advice is basically sound for the period, like what to do when your building catches leprosy (chapter 14, last half), but the thinking is muddy.
Cloven-hoofed ruminants, i.e. genetically domesticated livestock, are practically the only things listed as clean (11:3). Other animals in general and many in particular, like the innocent rock badger, the hare and the pig (11:5–7) as well as water-living animals without fins or scales (11:12) and many specific bird species (11:13ff) are unclean. Thus nature in general is unclean. This division is based mainly on the shepherd’s greed and fear of the unfamiliar. The authors had no idea how many diseases had spread through livestock to people.
Even in Bibel 2000, Azazel (Swedish “Asasel”) is named as if it referred to a god of the wilderness, but this is apparently one of the traditional mistranslations, not one of the polytheistic slip-ups. According to credible scholarly commentaries, “Azazel” refers to more magical thinking: Choose by lots, with Yahweh acting through random chance, and drive away the goat who is thereby selected to carry your sins. It’s yet another horrible scene of blood sacrifice, but there is something darkly funny in the Frazerian idea of tricking Yahweh to ignore your sins by sticking them to a goat. This requires Yahweh to be foolish, in the same way that a small child’s fantasies will often involve a fool to make the child seem wise. Later on, “Azazel” became the name of a fallen angel.
On the subject of the concept of nature in the Pentateuch, this book contains one of several elaborate revenge fantasies where Yahweh promises to punish the people if they don’t live up to the covenant. In this particular fantasy, a temporary absence of the people from the promised land is characterized as a Sabbath of the land as such (26:34f), i.e. a supernaturally enforced long-term fallow period. This rounds out the image of Yahweh as a preternaturally powerful version of the intended reader, the slave-owning head of a Hebrew household.
As in the Code of Hammurabi, allowances are made for people of limited means, including lepers who can be purified for less (14:32). This distinction resembles Abraham’s haggling over Sodom and Gomorrah. There is something profoundly primitive in the idea of making up a law mandated by a god with fixed prices and explicit exceptions for the most mundane problem in the world, when you could instead make up a divine law to eliminate poverty or promise to eliminate leprosy (as the WHO eventually did without the benefit of magic), or both. Discounts in the name of a god are an inelegant cash grab combined with a fear of revolt, and the authors show a sort of pride in this. Yahweh asserts that might makes right and the believer who wants justice or elegance or tolerance or beauty can piss off. You can see the arc starting to bend toward a more mature later monotheism where the very concept of morality is identified with the god. For instance, by implication of chapter 26, Jacob committed a horrible crime when he raised a stone in Genesis 31:35, because Yahweh now forbids idols.
Dwell on chapter 18, where Yahweh bans male homosexual intercourse. According to biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz, there is evidence in the Hebrew that this particular law was added in one of the later rounds of revisions. Secondary verses (glosses) attached to other laws focus on heterosexual relations: The verse about your parents is twisted to ban sex with your mother, not your father, and the same with uncles and aunts. Dershowitz claims that these glosses are a late addition made intelligible by a general ban on gay sex, which must therefore be a late addition too. It’s a weak argument, but even the after-thoughts and brain farts of these ancient editors may have extended to drive gay teenagers to suicide thousands of years later.
Dwell also on chapter 25, where Yahweh sanctions permanent human-on-human slavery (25:44–46) and declares that it personally owns all Hebrews as slaves (25:55). This is a picture of the authors in mise en abyme as slave-owning slaves. With competent authors there would be consistency in this motif. Here it is merely implied to make a link in a chain from Yahweh to the smallest creatures. Each one controls the next through fear and force: The gods over the prophets, the prophets over the judges, the judges over the priests, the priests over the male heads of families who form the primary target audience, and so on, with the inedible insects somewhere at the bottom of the heap. The authors wanted you to believe this was the natural order.
References here: Deuteronomy (ca. 630–400 BCE), Dao De Jing (ca. 400 BCE), 2 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE), 1 Corinthians (ca. 56 CE), Idoru (1996), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), “Dead Sea Scroll Detectives” (2019).
‣‣‣ Numbers (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Catalogues of the military strength of the Hebrews, more laws, and stops on the journey. Highlights include:
Chapter 5: When you suspect a woman of adultery, force her to eat dirt and see if her vulva shrivels up and her belly distends. If they don’t, she’s innocent but you don’t have to apologize. Instead, you will be happy to know that the woman can now receive your seed (5:28).
Chapter 11: Yet again Yahweh has to bully Hebrews into submission because they complain about freedom and the free food they’re getting by magic. This time Yahweh takes some of its spirit and gives it to the tribal elders to convince them. Moses wishes it had done that sooner. Yahweh lures people to sin and kills them.
Chapter 13: Scouts go to Abraham’s promised land and find a single cluster of grapes so big that two men must carry it between them on a pole. There are giants living there.
Chapter 14: Yahweh kills all but two of the scouts (and many others) for lying and vows to let the entire present generation of Hebrews die in the desert for not taking the promised land from its peoples by force. This is why the Hebrews spend 40 years in the desert on a trip that would normally take about two months. Indeed, Yahweh “punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (14:18).
Chapter 15: Moses has a man killed for gathering firewood. Also, you have to have tassels.
Chapter 16: Yahweh kills people.
Chapter 21: Genocidal war against the Canaanites and Amorites.
Chapters 22–24: The prophet Balaam (Swedish: Bileam) is asked to curse the Hebrews but Yahweh mind-controls him to bless them. Balaam has a talking donkey (22:28ff).
Chapter 25: Yahweh kills people for loving their neighbour, i.e. attending the feasts of a neighbouring people who worship different gods.
Chapter 30: The promises of women are subject to male approval.
Chapter 31: Genocidal war against the Midianites. Balaam is killed; no word on the donkey. Moses says to enslave the virgin girls (hint: for rape) and kill everybody else.
In this volume, Joshua starts to emerge as a hero.
Tedious and awful, but I can’t complain about tassels.
The law of jealousy in chapter 5 has no info on male adultery. There may be a cause for this beyond mere sexism. It’s certainly sexist, humiliating women trapped in a loveless marriage, but such women are not the target audience of the text. The threat of the ceremony does not seem like an effective deterrent against adultery, though this was my original interpretation. Consider that when there are no witnesses (5:13), the main reason to suspect a woman of adultery would be an unexpected pregnancy: A likely thing on a polygamous estate where the richest man isn’t actually fucking everybody. The chapter makes sense in this light. Though translations vary, the original intent was probably to describe a pious method of forced abortion. As with Eve being made from a rib, this chapter was also written without knowing how human life begins. It seems as if the ancient Hebrews believed a cup of bitter clay would somehow negate the mysterious forces at work in the pregnant woman. A lot of poisons will.
Like a dictator in his own propaganda, Moses is described as the most humble person on Earth (12:3). Yahweh says it is Moses’ special privilege to get Yahweh’s word in plain sentences as opposed to riddles (12:8), which would indicate that Joseph was worse, since he got riddles. Despite his privilege, Moses receives no answer when he seems to ask the obvious question: Why does Yahweh taunt and kill Hebrews instead of convincing them?
From what I gather, the historical Hebrews themselves were blended with the other Semitic peoples they kill here. Supposedly, one of the major purposes of writing the Pentateuch was to differentiate between these groups and define an Israelite identity. The stubbornness of the Hebrews as they are depicted is part of this “identity card”. Bad-boy recalcitrance seems to have been a source of tribal pride, and there is a sort of primitive anarchic freedom in it, but at the same time, the authors show an obvious contempt for the common members of the tribe. The continuing refusal of the Hebrews to believe must be an allusion to the refusal of most real people to believe real priests who do their work by spouting bullshit without the benefit of magic. In this allegory, the authors apparently couldn’t picture widespread religious devotion even in a fantasy of their own making.
‣‣‣ Deuteronomy (ca. 630–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Moses, having been condemned with the rest of his generation to die in the desert without seeing the promised land, makes a farewell speech recounting some of the earlier episodes of the Pentateuch and anticipating those of Joshua. Along the way, he states a number of laws, some mirrored in books placed earlier in the Pentateuch. He dies on a mountain close to his sky god. Highlights:
Chapter 5: All visual representation is forbidden (verse 8).
Chapter 7: Yahweh has condemned seven specific peoples to extinction by genocidal war in order to make way for Israel. The Hebrews must show no mercy, must leave nobody alive and must desecrate the temples until the names of the conquered are forgotten.
Chapter 10: Moses demands fear of Yahweh and, in the same breath, absolute love of the same god (“with all your heart and with all your soul”, verse 12) and obedience to the laws.
Chapter 12: Moses promises guilt-free meat. The worst thing he can say about the condemned peoples is that they purportedly practised what Yahweh demanded of Abraham: Human sacrifice.
Chapter 18: True prophets will be identifiable only in retrospect (by their predictions coming true) but also by not dying.
Chapter 19: A crime with a single witness, such as a typical case of domestic abuse or rape, cannot be prosecuted.
Chapter 20: Laws of war. Non-commissioned officers will order all soldiers with new houses, new vineyards or new wives, as well as anybody who feels scared, to leave the army immediately before a battle. When your army reaches a distant city, you must offer slavery as if it were peace.
Chapter 21: When you don’t know who the killer is, don’t investigate the murder. Investigate the distance to nearby cities. Whichever city is nearest must kill an animal in a ravine and wash their hands over the dead animal to avert responsibility for the murder.
Also, disobedient sons must be stoned and when you raise a victim for display as in a crucifixion, take care not to leave the corpse up over night.
Chapter 22: You can prove that a wife was a virgin at the time she got married, but there’s no info on how. Also, this time, both men and women are culpable for adultery. Also, happily, tassels.
Chapter 25: There’s an elaborate ritual to be performed with spit and a sandal when two brothers live together and one of them dies with a wife but without a son and the remaining brother—like Onan—won’t marry and impregnate his sister-in-law as Yahweh intended.
Chapter 28: Practically all welfare in life is contingent upon total obedience to Yahweh.
Chapter 30: Moses argues that Mosaic law is easy to follow because it exists.
Chapter 32: Musical interlude. In it, Moses alludes to the traditional Mesopotamian afterlife in “the realm of the dead below” and describes Yahweh as a warrior whose hand is so strong you can’t pull anything out of it.
Chapter 33: Like Jacob, the dying Moses surveys the tribes, but is more upbeat.
The English-language name “Deuteronomy” is an example of how the text has been corrupted in translation. It comes from the Septuagint, translating the Hebrew phrase mišnê hattôrâ hazzō’t, meaning “a copy of this law”, into Latin for “a second law”.
According to John W. Rogerson, the law code contained in chapters 5–26 is from the second half of the 7th century BCE, the rest of the book having been added later to round out the Pentateuch and segue into other then-current books, starting with Joshua. I don’t know whether the Hebrew phrase was a title, but in this interpretation the book started as a (written) copy of the (oral) law. It became seen as a “second” law after being appended to the newer, more colourful Exodus. Chapter 4, verse 27f, anticipates the Babylonian exile that prompted the bulk of the work on the Pentateuch.
In chapter 2, Moses is told not to invade land given to the descendants of Lot, the creep from Genesis. This seems to suggest that the authors truly viewed Lot as a hero.
Returning to the problem of population dynamics, consider how plausible it is that 2 to 3 million Hebrews found seven larger peoples occupying their promised land. That would make over 20 million inhabitants, perhaps 50 times the ecological carrying capacity with the agricultural technology of the period. Chapter 8 states that, in addition to the miraculous food provided in the desert, the clothes of the wandering Hebrews never wore out and their feet never got swollen. According to this story, the direct beneficiaries of this constant magic refused to respect the god who saved them from extinction by infanticide. Verses 10:16 and 30:6 provide a penis-based metaphor for the people’s skepticism: “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” I keep wondering why the population numbers are so off, but of course that’s just a funny-looking mushroom in the authors’ great forest of mistakes.
Chapter 25 states that judges are meant to acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty. The mere presence of this law implies that somebody, at some point, pretended to believe the opposite and required scriptural proof to accept the obvious. I find this amusing, especially in the context that no space at all is spent articulating anything that would indicate the authors had insights beyond common knowledge, as is their claim. With insight they would have formulated something useful and non-obvious, such as the laws of thermodynamics. Instead, it’s on the level of “crime is illegal”.
Nothing in the Pentateuch manages to articulate an elegant underlying principle, but chapter 28 comes close. It seems to describe a moral foundation where the good is defined as loyalty to Yahweh. All good things the authors could imagine thus follow obedience, and all bad things follow disobedience. This is not portrayed as a natural law but as a consequence of the god’s deliberate actions: It will reward the loyal and punish the disloyal.
The idea of loyalty as the highest good is the attitude of a dishonest human leader, particularly a strong-man type. It is not a natural fit for henotheism in general or Yahweh’s odious personality in particular. I suppose the poor fit is the reason why the authors did not do a better job of stating the principle as such. Its correspondence with human leadership follows the logic of status and domination that is the skeleton of the text.
Compare Leviticus 25 on slavery. In such a world, where might makes right, the best you can do is to guard your status and praise loyalty as a virtue so that your goons don’t turn on you. The authors apparently saw no alternative. They could not imagine an authority without personal vigilance and violence to back it up. They lived before the modern state. Perhaps they never reflected on how mere power might differ from a later moral sensibility. Smarter people in their time certainly did.
The idea of reward and punishment as a moral foundation has survived into popular Christianity with its carrot of Heaven and stick of Hell. It is dull and useless for purposes other than tyranny. I mention its early form because, while some of the most repellent laws of the Pentateuch are famous, few seem to know its intellectual and emotional poverty.
The sermon in chapter 28, apart from suggesting something like a principle, also goes to cartoonish excess in describing Yahweh’s punishments. For example, the god will arrange sieges so horrific that those who obeyed less than all of the laws are going to eat their own afterbirths as well as their children (28:54–57). This is apparently a reference to real sieges that had already taken place. This literary technique of putting a belated prophecy in Yahweh’s mouth was supposed to add punch and would remain popular. For example, Gabriel de Mussis did exactly the same thing at the opening of his Istoria de Morbo (ca. 1355) where Yahweh, in its on words, condemns those who are about to experience the first European outbreak of the Black Death in 1347.
References here: Reasons to invent Jesus, Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, 1 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE), 2 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE), Exodus (ca. 500–400 BCE), Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE), “Galatians” (ca. 55 CE), 2 Corinthians (ca. 56–57 CE), Matthew (ca. 80–90 CE), “1 John” (ca. 90–110 CE), “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001).
‣‣‣ Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE)
Read in 2020.
Read in James C. Vanderkam’s 1989 translation from a variety of sources.
This is in the same category as the Books of Chronicles (ca. 400–250 BCE). The emphasis is on memorial festivals and the chronology of fake ancient history.
In this remake, the creation sequence is more detailed, including the two originally separate myths segueing better, and Adam having to protect the Garden of Eden from roaming cattle. The garden survives even the flood because Enoch, here an immortal human, is still sitting in it “writing down the judgment and condemnation of the world and all the wickedness of mankind” (4:23). Cain is so settled that he is killed by the roof of his own house falling on him. Yahweh personally seals up Noah’s boat (5:23).
In a prelude to the flood, acting on Yahweh’s orders, people bind wicked angels beneath the earth and kill their hybrid children with swords, which is apparently why there are swords. This motif of angels and Yahweh at odds continues after the flood, with a character named Mastema. Quoting from chapter 10:
[Noah said] ‘[---] As for these spirits who have remained alive, imprison them and hold them captive in the place of judgment. May they not cause destruction among your servant’s sons, my God, for they are savage and were created for the purpose of destroying. May they not rule the spirits of the living for you alone know their punishment; and may they not have power over the sons of the righteous from now and forevermore’. Then our God told us to tie up each one.
When Mastema, the leader of the spirits, came, he said: ‘Lord creator, leave some of them before me; let them listen to me and do everything that I tell them, because if none of them is left for me I shall not be able to exercise the authority of my will among mankind. For they are meant for (the purposes of) destroying and misleading before my punishment because the evil of mankind is great’. Then he said that a tenth of them should be left before him, while he would make nine parts descend to the place of judgment. He told one of us that we should teach Noah all their medicines because he knew that they would neither conduct themselves properly nor fight fairly. We acted in accord with his entire command. All of the evil ones who were savage we tied up in the place of judgment, while we left a tenth of them to exercise power on the earth before the satan.
In an added adventure, Abraham (while named Abram) scares off ravens sent by Mastema to eat seeds planted by the people. Then Abraham teaches the same people to sow as they plow, with a combined instrument made by skilled woodworkers, putting the seeds too deep for the birds to find. The same man “burned everything in the temple” (12:12), killing his own brother and not taking responsibility for this murderous act of arson and religious intolerance. What a hero.
It is Mastema’s idea to have Yahweh order Abraham to kill Isaac, as a test. When Abraham shows he will do it, and Yahweh stops him, Mastema is thereby “put to shame” (18:12). Later, Yahweh and Mastema take opposite sides in the Egyptian holocaust (48:8f):
The Lord did everything for the sake of Israel and in accord with his covenant which he made with Abraham to take revenge on them just as they were enslaving them with force. The prince of Mastema would stand up against you and wish to make you fall into the pharaoh’s power. He would help the Egyptian magicians and they would oppose (you) and perform in front of you.
The Egyptians pursue the escaping Israelites on Mastema’s command and is “put to shame” again in the parting of the sea. He and the other satans get locked up for a few days after that, so the Israelites have a chance to steal utensils (48:18), but the satans are then released to guide the Egyptians once more (48:16). However, it is also Mastema’s team that kills the Egyptian firstborn for Yahweh (49:2), so Mastema’s working for both sides.
Jubilees is evidently intended to supplement rather than completely replace Genesis and Exodus. There’s a lot of sophistry in this book, to answer questions raised by the older books. For example (4:30):
[Adam] lacked 70 years from 1000 years because 1000 years are one day in the testimony of heaven. For this reason it was written regarding the tree of knowledge: ‘On the day that you eat from it you will die’. Therefore he did not complete the years of this day because he died during it.
This is supposed to cover the plot hole that Yahweh lies in Genesis, but as an additional safeguard against critical thinking, Yahweh’s lie is omitted from Jubilees’s version of the myth of Eden, so that the FAQ becomes nonsensical in the new context.
The fan fiction of “Prince” Mastema seems highly significant. This angel is contracted by Yahweh to torture people and do other dirty work, including the spread of disease in general and the killing of Egypt’s firstborn: FAQ stuff. His relationship with Yahweh is apparently tense, since he has to change Yahweh’s mind to keep some of his fellow satans, and is “put to shame” in two competititions against Yahweh. Mastema’s function in the narrative is consistent with medieval notions of Satan as a Christian de-facto god of evil, a “fallen angel” and rebel leader opposed to Yahweh. We can see, from their identification with disease, that Mastema’s “spirits” are the demons of Christianity, the same creatures Jesus blaims for disease. The netherworld where the most savage spirits are confined also sounds a lot like modern Catholic and pop-culture Hell. Supposedly, Jubilees was big with the early Christians before the canon congealed.
I guess the deeper penetration of Persian Zoroastrian thought into Judaism is behind the development toward opposing gods of similar influence, but there must be more to it than that. The modern Christian Satan seems explainable as a product of intuitive reification and concretion. If Yahweh likes us, the train of thought goes, there ought to be another god to explain the bad stuff that keeps happening in Yahweh’s “land of milk and honey” and after Jesus’s universal forgiveness for whatever. The symmetry of that assumption is easy to grasp, even for children, and since Yahweh still wasn’t omnipotent or omniscient when this book was written, there was room to expand as long as Yahweh nominally made the new god.
Jubilees leaves the impression that mythology evolves in whatever direction children push it. In the narrative, the hybrid children of angels can be killed by humans with divine swords: the stuff of kitsch D&D-style fantasy, glamorous and exciting. The demons themselves can be fought with herbal medicine: the stuff of pseudoscience, commercially lucrative. All this stuff resonates stronger with modern non-literate Christian culture than does The Bible, but Jubilees also keeps nearly all the bad ideas. At least it mentions technological development; that’s pretty nice.
‣‣ Joshua (ca. 650–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The conquest of the “land of milk and honey” that Yahweh promised Abraham. This starts with magic (the river Jordan is temporarily dry) and the cutting of several hundred thousand foreskins on the Hill of Foreskins (chapter 5). Then they get an angel general and take Jericho by magic (chapter 6), killing everyone except the family of a prostitute who helped Hebrew scouts. A Hebrew takes loot from Jericho so Yahweh kills Hebrews until the culprit is identified by a lottery and killed (chapter 7).
The action adventure continues with more magical help until the Hebrews win all the land they want, with anecdotes on local landmarks—including ruined cities—along the way. The holocaust of resident peoples is substantial but not all of them are wiped out. For instance, some Canaanites survive as slave labourers (16:10), which seems to be an invitation to further pogroms. There is a large catalogue of lands and cities assigned to the twelve tribes. As under Moses, the Hebrews are constantly on the verge of apostasy but promise to be good.
A catalogue of ethnic cleansing.
According to a modern revision of the 1943 “Deuteronomistic history” hypothesis, a kernel of Joshua and the next few books appeared in the reign of Judah’s King Josiah (late 7th century BCE) and was largely finalized in a second edition during the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE). I can imagine that much of the Pentateuch, like the anecdote of Noah cursing Ham, was written to contextualize and motivate the violence on display here.
Those ancient Hebrews sure cared a lot about foreskins. There is no stated reason why they so grossly violated Mosaic penis law on their trek, but again, the scene on the Hill of Foreskins might have been written before the general law was formulated.
Chapter 7 is an example of superstitious paranoid thinking. In it, 36 of the hundreds of thousands of Hebrew fighters have died in a losing skirmish. Any real commander would expect and accept that number even in a victory. Joshua does not: He panics and deliberately conducts an internal witch hunt by sheer random chance. This turns out to be the right decision. Joshua is fully vindicated.
The 36 men died because another man, Achan (Sw. Akan), had not fully committed to genocide for its own sake. The culprit tainted the mass killing by grabbing loot from the innocent dead. This purports to show that material concerns debase the otherwise moral act of hacking down women and children, putting even babies to the sword. Consider what a horrible belief system the authors must have had to make this choice. Wanting to depict the ancestors of their people as stoic heroes with a right to their land, the authors kept describing these huge massacres of the innocent. Wanting to depict the Hebrews as noble and selfless, they chose to emphasize how the vast majority did no looting, downplaying the larger motif: The purpose of the war is to grab land.
If you ever survive a bad skirmish, killing a random soldier on your own side with a supernatural explanation would be a poor decision for you to make. It’s effectively a human sacrifice for the expurgation of your sense of guilt. The absurd premise of the biblical narrative contextualizes it as the best possible decision. This is so plainly illogical that it reads like gaslighting, as if the authors tried to undermine all better judgement for the sake of building religious belief.
‣‣ Judges (ca. 650–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Superhero fiction repeating a cycle: The Israelites worship the many gods, Yahweh uses neighbouring peoples to punish the Israelites, the Israelites cry, and Yahweh sends a superhero to save them. The hero becomes a judge, there is peace for one or two generations, and the cycle repeats. Not every element of the cycle is explicit in each repetition. Throughout, Israel has no king, nor does it control Jerusalem.
Infighting among the Israelites gradually moves to the foreground. Chapter 12 mentions a slur about half-breeds between the twelve tribes of Israel, and the word “shibboleth” as a shibboleth. Forty-two thousand people are murdered for saying it wrong. Chapter 19 mirrors the story of Lot at Sodom. The man corresponding to Lot somehow sleeps through the long rape of his concubine, then cuts her into twelve pieces and sends the pieces all over the country to start a war against the Benjamites, one of the twelve tribes.
All Benjamite women are killed in this war, threatening the tribe’s future existence. The other tribes check to see who has sworn an oath not to give their daughters in marriage to any Benjamite. Consulting Yahweh they find that nobody from Jabesh Gilead came to the particular meeting where the oath was sworn, which also means that Jabesh Gilead declined to participate in the war. With no other justification, the other tribes fight a second civil war against the innocent. They kill everyone in Jabesh Gilead except 400 virgins. Following Yahweh’s will, they give the girls to the Benjamites as sex slaves.
The narrative of all six books leading up to this one is about the land of Israel, promised to Abraham by Yahweh, as a reward for being good. This promised land is supposed to be a wonderful place. After all, it’s got barely-portable grapes, as well as “milk and honey”, a set phrase used throughout the franchise. Certainly, having arrived in it, the common Israelites would no longer have reason to complain about slavery, or systematic infanticide, or their arduous journey, or scary genocidal wars. They would therefore have less reason for heresy. However, the authors posit that previous events are not remembered (2:10), nor do they influence the narrative in any way. Evidently, the promised land is no better or worse than the surrounding land. The Israelites themselves are unchanged by their ordeal and by their nominally blessed state. This is typical of bad writing in any genre.
The “Deuteronomistic history” hypothesis provides a simple real-world reason for the continuity error: The prequels were made up to define a national identity and justify war. The events in them do not influence the plot because they never took place, nor did the authors take their own fiction seriously.
Though some authors might have written in Babylonian exile, romanticizing their distant home, the editors evidently chose to preserve lies about Israel as a wonderful place for a target audience living in Israel. This amounts to a sort of patriotic bluster, part of the general pattern of disparaging neighbouring lands and peoples. Ultimately, the authors expected their target audience to be so profoundly ignorant and so prejudiced they would simply believe they were living in a special, blessed land.
There is a diegetic justification for why the earlier goal of total ethnic cleansing is contradicted. According to verses 3:1f, Yahweh keeps the inferior peoples around so that each new generation of Hebrews will learn to fight and be tested by fighting. With this thin excuse for perpetual race hatred and pogroms, the epic mode is abandoned. The overarching plot ended in Joshua and there is nothing here to replace it.
Judges thus represents a continuing descent toward a historical mode with traces of anthropological credibility. There is less vulgar magic and the orgies of destruction are a bit smaller in scale, being closer to the intended reader’s own life and recorded history. However, the lack of credible historical detail is telling. The structure is overtly schematic because it’s made up. Most of the episodes are illustrated only by some horrible anecdote, not what a contemporary historian would write. There is torture (1:6), murder (3:20f), more murder (4:21), traceless testing of angels (e.g. Gideon’s experiments with dew and wool, 6:36–40), human sacrifice to Yahweh (11:30), a bee hive in a lion (14:8), and mass murder violating the previous law of “an eye for an eye” (16:28), all apparently pleasing to Yahweh. This god, who says Gideon has too many soldiers (chapter 7) is defeated in battle by chariots (1:19). Like Aaron, Gideon creates an idol and is a heretic (8:27) despite being chosen as a saviour. From chapter 19 you might learn the lesson that if your partner is raped to death, you should personally cut their body into pieces and send one piece to each police station to make sure justice is done.
Much is communicated through dreams and allegories. Samson’s allegorical lion and riddle (14:14) is a particularly insulting example. I like the fable of the king of trees (9:7–15) which celebrates diversity and expresses an anarchist sentiment. In it, a king must reject its own nature and cease to be productive in order to rule. Other authors seem to miss the point and believe Israel should have a king anyway.
References here: Reasons to invent Jesus, Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, 1 Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE), Romans (ca. 57 CE), Matthew (ca. 80–90 CE), Acts (ca. 80–110 CE), “The Apple” (1967), Judge Dredd (1995).
‣‣ “Ruth” (ca. 500–330 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The family history of David, a later king of Judah. A woman’s friends help her find a man by sneaking into his bed and lying down at his “feet”, which is supposedly code for genitals.
The position of this work in the Hebrew Bible is different; Christians moved it to follow Judges for its purported place in history. It’s more empathetic than the earlier books and nobody is beaten to death, but it’s still symptomatic quasi-pornography.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣ Books of Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
At this point the “Deuteronomistic history” comes further into the style of Olaus Magnus’s A Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicles. The lies are gradually replaced by bullshit in the technical sense: Statements made without caring whether they’re true or not. Some of them probably contain a grain of truth, for instance in political contrasts between Judah and Israel or in the rivalry with Philistia.
The distinction between Judah and Israel seems to have been a difficult problem for the authors of these prequels. Consider the myopia of the work: Though it purports to tell the history of the world, that history is centred on the border between Judah and Israel, with no knowledge of anything further away than Kush (roughly modern Sudan, maybe as far as Ethiopia). Even so, the border itself is taken for what it really was: A historical coincidence. It is never explained, merely foreshadowed by genealogy. This is inconsistent with the extreme teleology of the narrative in other respects.
Philistia, a neighbouring state to the southwest, had buckled by the time these books were written. The rivalry was probably real enough and vaguely remembered in oral tradition. Its outline provides a convenient backdrop for a sort of superhero narrative paired up with denigration of the defeated ethnic group.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ 1 Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The first Hebrew king, Saul. He is king of both Israel and Judah. Yahweh appoints Saul through the prophet Samuel, after breaking its word of letting the Levites act in its stead as priests (2:30). A younger man, David, is chosen to succeed Saul and kills the Philistine giant Goliath.
The last third of the book is devoted to a queer rivalry between Saul and David. There are multiple scenes, starting with 19:9, where Yahweh mind-controls Saul to attack David while the younger man plays music and dodges the attacks. Not knowing he is being set up, David tries to please the first king by sexually mutilating two hundred human corpses, symbolically converting them to his own religion (18:27). After Samuel dies, Saul summons him from his rest in the Mesopotamian land of the dead (“sheol”, chapter 28) using a witch. Finally, Saul dies.
As in the preceding books, good women like Samuel’s mother Hannah seem obsessed with fertility and view it as divine intervention. In combination with Judges 3:1f, a monotheist interpretation of this conviction suggests that the non-Yahwists who surround Israel are fertile by Yahweh’s frequent intervention, but only so that Hebrews have people to kill.
As their reputation suggests, the women of the Old Testament, including both temptresses like Delilah of Judges and madonnas like Hannah, are generally reduced to their narrow functions in the eyes of the male authors. Hannah is mocked for being childless (1:6) and then mocks her “enemies” in turn because fertility has redeemed her (2:1). This suggests a life of constant hen-pecking over chance events, which is gruelling.
In song, Hannah denies that people can succeed without divine intervention (2:9) and asserts that Yahweh acts on countries and governments, specifically kings (2:10). This introduces a theme.
Samuel sleeps in the presence of the Hebrews’ idol, the non-figurative ark of the covenant. Yahweh speaks to the boy there as he spoke to Moses, which the narrator says is now rare (3:1) again. Four times, Yahweh addresses Samuel directly, which must refer to the common illusion of hearing one’s own name on the verge of sleep. Vulgarly, the first three times, Samuel thinks it’s the old man Eli sleeping nearby who has called him. Only then does he learn to recognize the difference in voice between the purported creator of the universe, the sight of which is lethal, and an ordinary old man. This is telling. Eli’s comment is that the god does whatever it wants (3:18, echoing the refrain of Judges), with the implication that such freedom is good for the god and bad for anybody else.
Also vulgar is the battle between two idols in chapter 5, and the Philistines making boils and rats of gold in chapter 6, before they are even convinced of Yahweh’s influence (6:9). According to archaeologist Aren Maeir, the obscure term ofalim–commonly interpreted as “boils” (or “haemorrhoids”, “swellings”)–may be an example of the authors’ fear to describe the other gods, in this case the Philistine goddess, who had a phallus. The real Philistines evidently made phalluses as religious symbols. In this interpretation, the biblical victims were making swollen golden lady-dicks to signify that they were getting fucked, and this would all have been a deliberate insult of the neighbours’ faith. I first heard of this explanation in a 2014 lecture by Maeir, “New Light on the Biblical Philistines: Recent Study on the Frenemies of Ancient Israel”.
The Philistines thus have the role of comically (horribly) suffering clowns and foils, like the Egyptians in the Pentateuch. Their lack of certainty continues the descent toward a historical mode: Divine communication and intervention are non-obvious even to their most immediate subjects.
A tedious level of detail is spent on Saul and David, who probably never existed. In the imagined debate over whether to have a king, the authors take both sides, showing both bad priests and a bad king, and having Yahweh argue against kings (chapter 8) on the basis that it is a king (12:12) before letting it happen anyway, leading to a good second king. This is also in line with the idea of the authors imitating less moralistic, descriptive historical texts as a template for their imagination. As with Moses, they continue to invent humble origins for their heroes (e.g. 9:21), and to attribute random chance to divine intervention (10:20ff) even when the ultimate results are bad in their own opinion. Interestingly, the use of humility extends momentarily to appearance, with Yahweh telling Samuel to reject certain handsome candidates (16:7), but the narrator immediately undermines this point by making the right man beautiful (16:12).
By the same token, it makes no sense that David should believe he is too lowly to marry into Saul’s family (18:18). A skilled writer of fiction would remain aware at this juncture that Saul’s own origins are as humble as David’s, and that Saul is literally the only king in the country’s history, hence there can be no tradition of stratification. The book is written by and for people who have lived their entire lives under a tradition of monarchy and cannot imagine the events of the story.
The motif of humble origins is a trick for building acceptance of authority and sympathy for the underdog. Compare Judges 7 where Gideon gets rid of the majority of his soldiers just to get into an underdog position. Apart from a mirrored insult, David versus Goliath is a much more intelligently written underdog scene, and therefore the most seductive action set-piece in The Bible.
As the narrative continues the development toward the intended audience’s present—a time with kings and without magic—it also continues the development toward monotheism. Yahweh now says that the other gods are empty (12:20), which is smarter than saying they are bad and that Yahweh is jealous of them, as has been the story up to this point. The distinction requires a wider public acceptance of monotheism. This makes me think the writing is a little more recent, presumably influenced by Zoroastrianism, i.e. the cult of Ahura Mazda.
The bad king Saul blames his crucial misstep on a fear of the people (15:24). In his view, the misstep was to do what the people wanted. This is an interesting verse. Recall that the authors of the Pentateuch frequently demand fear of Yahweh as a virtue. Compare the fear of the rex Nemorensis for his own successor, a mythical tradition which gave its name to Frazer’s Golden Bough.
In later democratic societies, the ruler was supposed to fear the people, to be a mere proxy of the people’s greater collective power. The Magna Carta was negotiated (and renegotiated throughout the 13th century) from such a fear, eventually leading to a modern view of regime legitimacy and state power. If the authors of The Bible had been clever, they would have proposed something similar. It would have made sense, from the axiom that Yahweh has blessed the Israelites as a group, that their king should serve at the people’s pleasure and fear their anger. However, despite their obvious ambivalence about the monarchy, the authors missed the opportunity. The Bible shows a more primitive view: Everyone should fear those above them, especially the unappointed god.
‣‣‣ 2 Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The kingship of David and his successors. He starts as a king of Judah, with a rival king in Israel (2:8f). In a notoriously incongruous passage (5:8) he takes the stronghold of Zion, conquering Jerusalem from the Jebusites. A guy walking beside the non-figurative idol accidentally trips and touches it, so Yahweh kills him (6:7).
Yahweh and David get along so well that they promise to build houses for one another (chapter 7) but Yahweh kills one of David’s children (12:18). David and the hottie Bathsheba schtup for comfort and produce his heir, Solomon. While Solomon is growing up, another one of David’s sons, Absalom, rebels because David defends his firstborn son, an incestuous rapist. Later, another problem develops because Saul had attempted a genocide not sanctioned by Yahweh (21:1f). Continued wars with the Philistines bring additional superpowers (e.g. 21:19f) and Yahweh kills tens of thousands of Hebrews because David counts them (24:10ff): There are 1.3 million capable of bearing arms.
When people act as if on David’s orders, increasing his power, David punishes them (e.g. 4:8ff). This is a curious detail which suggests that David might have existed. A sycophantic historiography that clears the name of a typical murdering Iron Age ruler is not something you are likely to waste on a complete fiction, but then again, the authors may have been sucking up to their own patron, a nominal descendant of David in the same way Herodotus’s greatest heroes are nominal descendants of Heracles. The symptomatic facets of the narrative surely serve the authors’ own power fantasies. Maybe they just dreamed of being handed a greater kingship through no fault of their own. Notice also the sexual double standard: David is a slut and serial baby daddy (3:18, 5:14f).
At the start of chapter 12, the prophet Nathan provides a clear example of one of the most common uses of metaphor in The Bible: As a veiled form of attack. It allows the prophet to criticize the king’s actions to his face. Not knowing he is being criticized, David is furious with behaviour ostensibly equivalent to his own. This fury then forces him to see himself at fault. The last step, where the metaphor is explained to its subject, is obviously risky. Here it marks the fearlessness of a good prophet, and the role of a good prophet as a social justice warrior.
Nathan is an archetype in another way also: Even more than Samuel, Nathan’s a professional intermediary between Yahweh and the king, a role that has partly replaced the combined prophet-leaders of the earlier books (the patriarchs, Moses etc.). However, Yahweh also speaks directly to David (e.g. 21:1).
The Bible has been a major influence on European and therefore American legislation, including legslation on women’s rights. Here, the rape victim suggests that instead of taking her by force, the perpetrator should go to their father, David, whom she says will surely allow a marriage. Whether the woman actually wants her aggressive brother fucking her is somehow irrelevant. When the deed is done she admonishes him for not marrying her even then. Not doing so is, in her own opinion, a crime greater than the rape itself (13:16). Indeed, this is what causes Absalom’s rebellion, but the woman does nothing. Being a woman in The Bible, she is of no account. No wonder women’s rights have lagged behind in Christian countries.
References here: Som en ateist läser bibeln.
‣‣ Books of Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)
Read in 2018.
More kings following David and their eventual defeat by foreign powers as Yahweh’s collective punishment.
Originally copied as a single book. The break between its two halves is particularly artificial. The narrative is largely coherent, being informed by comparatively recent events concluding the history of the country up to the time of writing.
The major motifs are the superpowers of the prophets and the gradual collapse of Israel and Judah from a high point under the fuzzily mythical Solomon to real subjugation by foreign powers. The theme is religious freedom as an explanation for the failure of the state. In particular, military defeat is blamed on a policy decision repeated by a majority of the kings: To allow the people to worship without government persecution. The narrator sounds like a broken record repeating this same note about each new entry in the lines of succession.
The decision to blame military defeat on freedom drives the entire Old Testament up to this point. The Yahwists surely had their say in earlier bibles but their failure seems to have brought on a flurry of re-writes to give their message a political dimension. According to scholars, and as far as I can tell, Abraham and the other patriarchs, as well as Moses and Joshua’s genocidal conquest of Israel, were all invented or substantially adapted to reforge Israel in reaction to the few real events shown here. They are the prequels while this is the main work of the Old Testament.
Combining ethnocentrism, intolerance, superstition and paranoia is generally potent and dangerous. The addition of a primitive monotheism to the mix, denying all other narratives, would turn out to be one of the most important decisions in human history. The text itself is so poorly written that it sheds little light on the thought process, but it’s still worth reading for the monumental impact of the authors’ gambit.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ 1 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)
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The kingship of Solomon. Yahweh is thrilled that the king prays for wisdom (3:10), and so rewards the Hebrews with the first period of apparent happiness and contentment in the entire Bible up to this point (4:25). Solomon builds a temple and transfers the ark to it, praying that his people will always live in fear of the spying Yahweh (8:40) and denying all innocence (8:46). After a few of Solomon’s successors cause a schism and Egyptians loot the temple in Jerusalem (14:26), the prophet Elijah appears and announces a long drought. Elijah himself is fed by ravens.
While he is the only prophet in his time, Elijah has a contest of magic with 450 prophets of Baal. He mocks them for not being able to produce concrete material evidence of the veracity of their religious faith, and then proves his own in a bloody spectacle where Yahweh eats a sacrificed animal (18:38). Elijah proceeds to have all of the prophets of Baal killed (18:40). This massacre ends the drought, but the bad successors keep coming.
As the only evidence of Solomon’s wisdom, the authors submit a scene where the king orders a man to hack a baby to death with a sword in front of its mother (3:25). It’s an edgelord scare tactic which mirrors the binding of Isaac: The fatherly ruler demanding a great horror, then retracting its command. This method of ruling by negative emotional manipulation is the pinnacle of what the authors call wisdom.
Elijah’s contest invites all skeptics to demand evidence of Yahweh’s existence and to accept only confirmedly supernatural events as evidence. It’s a self-defeating piece of theology. I was surprised to see it in The Bible. Modern believers have learned not to try it: Virtually all of them accept that their god will never appear to them and that there will never be evidence like Elijah’s. This is why you don’t see a rabbi challenging 450 bhikkhus to a summoning contest. Again, the authors’ choice to include this scene says a lot about the state of their society.
The priests of Baal are another human sacrifice to Yahweh, a god supposedly too kind for such sacrifices, according to Deuteronomy 12. More to the point, what sort of person do you think would enjoy the thought of killing all those men? If Baal is not real but merely a figment of the imagination, as Elijah’s contest purports to show, then the priests are simply ignorant. The authors fail even to speculate about why anyone would willingly serve a false god. Realistically, if such a contest had occurred in the ancient world under the supernatural premisses of the authors, a large proportion of the priests of Baal would have been thrilled to accept the direct evidence of a true faith. Here, none convert.
Present-day followers of Abrahamic religions don’t seem to write such things. Instead, the modern form of Yahweh “walks in mysterious ways”. The idea of faith itself as a virtue has become foundational to its religions: Christians celebrate those who ignore the lack of evidence for Yahweh’s existence. The authors of this volume clearly had a different attitude. They had a picture of Yahweh as concrete, anthropomorphic and testable, so they wrote a story demonstrating these properties.
You would still do well to ask why the authors described the contest in such a bloodthirsty, knowingly cruel and implausible way. They may have been working from an oral tradition, but they knew the contest never happened as they chose to describe it. They may have been unsure about Baal, but at the very least, they knew that Yahweh does not really appear on command to prove its existence. Somehow they weren’t bothered by the reader’s ability to take their test.
I believe the authors were concerned with propagating the myth that Yahweh is a better choice than other gods, and they simply could not think of a better way to do it than fiction. They could not think of any good reasons to believe. They could not even clearly formulate the idea that Baal is made up, perhaps because they did not believe it. They could only spew this vulgar stuff where picking the wrong team leads to humiliation and death.
Such negative propaganda is the major theme of the book. Despite David’s census, Israel’s army is tiny when it kills a hundred thousand Arameans. This slaughter occurs because Yahweh feels insulted to be called a mountain god (20:28). Whores wash themselves in the blood of one of the bad kings (22:38), whose failure is the result of Yahweh making his prophets tell lies. Over and over, the authors insist that extreme religious fanaticism, in their particular faith, is the only protection from such punishment.
Despite the Schadenfreude, the book is worth reading for the startling happiness of the people under Solomon, and the amusing simplicity of Elijah’s contest. The happiness extends to all male Hebrew landowners, not further. Thankfully, it is not a big fascist myth of paradise lost, though it is useful for fascist purposes. It’s interesting because it comes so late and stays so briefly. To their credit, the authors did not paint a big theocratic utopia for later believers to build. However foul its intent, the basic impetus of Elijah’s contest is still good: You should in fact demand evidence of religious authorities. It will almost certainly make you an atheist.
‣‣‣ 2 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The prophet Elijah dies like a heavy metal album cover (2:11) and is replaced by his disciple, Elisha, whose adventures take up much of the first half of the book. Elisha asserts his supernatural insight by saying “I told you so” (2:18) and murders 42 children for making fun of his baldness (2:23f). When Elisha gives an unwilling woman a son by a miracle, the child dies and the woman says “I told you so” (4:27f), but Elisha spitefully resurrects her unwanted son by entering the room with the dead body, closing the door behind him and lying down on top of the corpse, mouth to mouth (4:33f).
A second thread of the narrative extends the history of the Hebrews almost up to the time of writing. In war, they attempt ecocide (3:25) until they are so disgusted by the enemy’s single human sacrifice that they forfeit the war and go home (3:27). There are seven years of famine (8:1) without consequences.
King Jehu enforces religious intolerance (chapter 10), but this is shortly before Yahweh begins to mutilate Israel for punishment (10:32). Under king Josiah, men working to restore the temple in Jerusalem find a scroll of the law in it (chapter 22). Having recovered this scroll—implied to be all or part of the Pentateuch—the people renew the vow of their covenant with Yahweh and celebrate Passover for the first time since before Saul (chapter 23). However, Yahweh still decides to destroy Israel and Judah, rejecting its temple (23:27).
First, Assyrians defeat Israel (15:19, 15:27 etc.), acting on Yahweh’s direct orders (18:25) but punished by Yahweh (19:35), then king Hezekiah shows Babylonian envoys his treasure (20:13), inviting disaster. Next, Judah is caught in a war between Egypt and Assyria (23:29), falling under Egyptian rule (23:34). King Jehoiakim thus rules Judah for Egypt when he is defeated by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, rushing into the power vacuum left by the fall of Assyria. Though Jehoiakim rebels against his new master, Yahweh sends bandits to destroy Judah (24:2) and the Babylonians take the treasure they were shown and all important people to Babylon. A prisoner, the king of Judah is eventually pardoned and treated well (25:27ff; traditionally ca. 561 BCE).
According to a modern revision of the 1943 “Deuteronomistic history” hypothesis, this is the only part of that history written in part by contemporary observers: An early version under Josiah, who appears here, and a later one in Babylonian exile or shortly thereafter. As such this book solders the revised mythology of the Hebrews onto real events, moving from the freewheeling Olaus Magnus mode of the Books of Samuel toward a handful of facts peppered with exaggerations and flights of fancy, like the medieval chroniclers.
Carl Sagan found it telling that Deuteronomy supported the agenda of the very king who “recovered” it. As usual, the narrative is self-contradictory: Before Josiah’s workers find the scroll in the temple, another king follows Deuteronomy 24:16 (cited in full), which shows the law is not forgotten, or rather that the history was revised to exalt the law. It’s not clear how much of the “recovery” of the scroll is a Joseph Smith-style forgery of new old scripture orchestrated by the authors of this volume, and how much is mere convenience for the larger purposes of the retcon.
The stiff-necked refusal of the Hebrews to worship only Yahweh, all throughout the books placed earlier in the Christian Bible, anticipates this more central, earlier work. Alas, it is peppered with bullshit and expresses almost no sense of empathy.
In a single scene, the authors admit that prophets were actually viewed as unreliable outcasts (9:11) and they assert that people instantly took the outrageous actions of these same prophets seriously (9:13). By this token, both Elijah and Elisha are author self-inserts. They’re the cool kids who snub the kings (e.g. 3:13f), and they don’t take any lip. Elijah repeatedly kills 50 of the king’s men at a time (1:10ff). With a prophecy, Elisha inspires regicide, effectively deciding who will be the next king (8:13ff) without having to take responsibility for his actions. The correct term would be “wizard”, not prophet.
It’s embarrassing to read this schlock, but there are bright spots. For instance, a skeptical leper is disappointed to get Elisha’s advice that he should bathe in the Jordan. His companions tell him to follow the advice, arguing that if the suggested cure had been more difficult, the man would have been happy to attempt it (5:13). That comment is clever. Because this is a fantasy, the cure is effective (and the foreign leper is converted, and he asserts that the only god on Earth lives in Israel, and the leprosy is then transferred to Elisha’s disobedient disciple as punishment), but that’s not the point. The authors use Elisha to project a seductive illusion of common sense and humility, backed up by ridiculous Frazerian magic.
Another bright spot is a slight relaxation of the pervasive sexism, in one small detail: It is implied that male senescence may actually exist (4:14), in which case infertility would not always be a woman’s fault.
‣‣ Books of Chronicles (ca. 400–250 BCE)
Read in 2018.
A summary of the main points of the preceding books with extra genealogies and interpolations.
The contents are redundant except for a few brief notes continuing the narrative. As with Kings, the division into multiple books is arbitrary.
Remarkably, despite writing a few centuries after the Deuteronomistic authors, the chronicler fails to perceive meaningful change over time. There is no sense of technological, intellectual or economic development. Such things were unknown to the cult. The only thing that’s added to Israel after the world is made is “algumwood”, a botanically mysterious reference repeated from 1 Kings 10:12.
‣‣‣ 1 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The history of Israel and its surroundings from Adam to Solomon. Chapters 1–9 is a genealogical catalogue attempting to connect the narrative by male lines of descent. There are only momentary glimpses of post-exilic history (e.g. 9:2). Instead of continuing the narrative, the author makes adjustments, such as a note that summoning Samuel from the dead was one of Saul’s major errors (11:13f), something that is not clear in the original scene.
David’s census gets a lot of added and contrasting detail. It doesn’t have the same result as last time (21:5), it is ordered by a new god called Satan (21:1) and the punishment for it is more elaborate, with an angel pointing a sword at Jerusalem rather than stretching out its hand. Also, it’s condemned because Yahweh said to the patriarchs that their descendants would be countless; this is now taken literally, as a law. In fact, in this retcon, David specifically avoids counting men below the age of 20 because Yahweh said the Israelites would be as many as the stars (27:23).
Much effort is spent cataloguing singers and temple doorkeepers. A song emphasizes underdog status (16:19) and the pathetic fallacy, attributing sympathy for the cult of Yahweh to trees and other non-sapient things in nature (16:31–33). A prayer states that everything belongs to Yahweh so there is nothing to hope for (29:15).
1:7, a verbatim copy of Genesis 10:4, mentions the Rodanites. These are the only two mentions throughout The Bible. I guess these people are the ancestors and/or descendants of Rodan (1956), but the anonymous author casts no light on this fine point of theology. Given that the text was being copied by hand, it’s curious that the genealogies were only preserved as running text, instead of diagrams. A tree structure would have been slightly less dull.
The figure of Jabez, mentioned only here, speaks a prayer that summarizes the Old Testament:
Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request. (4:10)
It’s all in there: Tribalism and polytheism (“of Israel”), selfishness and greed, fear (the dark Iron Age), peaceful co-existence equated with “pain”, the desire for conquest (“enlarge my territory”), the attribution of apparently uncontrollable events to a supernatural power, and the wishful thinking that this same power listens to and obeys some people, redistributing property.
Despite his own life being roughly contemporaneous with the most famous ancient Greek philosophers, the author reminisces about the genocidal wars of the past (4:41, 5:19f).
References here: “Ephesians” (ca. 80–90 CE).
‣‣‣ 2 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE)
Read in 2018.
From Solomon to the exile. In the end, the Sabbath of the land itself, implied by Leviticus 26:34f in the guise of prediction, is made explicit as history (36:21).
The author repeats the assertion that Solomon was richer than anyone else would ever be (1:12). The advantage of centuries is wasted when the author describes this wealth: gold and silver as common as stone (1:15), with no hint of inflation or economic activity as a basis of wealth. Fortunately, he offers no new examples of the king’s “wisdom”, merely asserting that he could answer every question (9:2). This conflates confidence with intelligence.
Persistent henotheism is succinctly expressed in a boast: “The temple I am going to build will be great, because our God is greater than all other gods.” (2:5). However, monotheism is also present: “They spoke about the God of Jerusalem as they did about the gods of the other peoples of the world—the work of human hands.” (32:19). Apparently, if both of these passages had the same author, he was confused about the relationship between a physical idol and a god, perhaps feeling that Yahweh was the bigger god because miniatures of it were banned.
Even stranger passages include a new conversation between king Josiah and pharaoh Necho from 2 Kings 23. Here, the Egyptian asserts superior knowledge of Yahweh’s intentions, without evidence (35:21). Apparently, Necho tells the truth and is indeed a monotheist. In the context of the fiction, the king of Judah is a fool for not believing the Egyptian, and he pays with his life. This explanation for a military debacle must have had generations of ordinary Hebrews rolling their eyes in disbelief but it’s a welcome break from the ethnocentrism. Reading The Bible, I often get the sense that sensible people around the authors were trying to live well, ignoring the bitter zealots who were writing these books.
‣‣ “Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Reconstruction following the Babylonian exile. The cult of Yahweh starts killing and burning animals again (3:3) but they’re back to fearing the peoples Yahweh sentenced to extermination. Some of these neighbours also worship Yahweh (chapter 4) but they’re the wrong sect or race or something.
The focal cultists want to rebuild the ruined temple in Jerusalem. Some of the local people think it’s a bad idea, asking the Persian king Artaxerxes to check the old chronicles for evidence that Jerusalem was razed because of the harm it caused (4:15). Through several generations of kings, cult leaders persist in gradually rebuilding the temple anyway.
Two thirds of the way into the book, the prophet Ezra leads a party from the eastern diaspora—i.e. Persian-controlled former Babylonia—to Jerusalem and starts narrating in the first person. He is horrified to learn that local people are marrying across ethnic lines (9:1f). Viewing their love as criminal miscegenation, he orders the cult never to promote the happiness and welfare of its neighbours (9:12). Supposedly foreign wives are expelled (10:19) with their children (10:44).
A further shift toward historicity. This is one case where I hesitate to apply the term “fiction”. More obviously, it’s a radical departure in style from the Deuteronomists’ masturbation. There are no miracles here and you can really feel the general depression. Given the relative realism, I was surprised to learn that “Ezra” is not believed to have been written closer to the events it depicts. Some of its plot points, including Cyrus’s edict as presented here, are fanciful, politically convenient and uncorroborated.
There must have been plenty of Hebrews around the fall of Jerusalem who reacted well to their defeat. Surely there were moderates who rejected the exilic assertion that the solution was more fanatical worship of some supernatural perpetrator. Under the assumption that such moderates did exist, it is sad to see the terrible old ideas reasserted here, creeping back into a population that was trying to integrate and overcome race hatred and inbreeding. Although the story is told from the fanatics’ perspective, the vilification of the cultural mainstream is incomplete and you can almost see the majority of the people trying to move on in peace and love, with new ideas. Their failure to do so is the central tragedy of all the history recorded in The Bible.
Another reason to read “Ezra” is its introduction of the term “Jew”, not used in the books placed earlier. At the time of writing this review, Wikipedia’s article on who is a Jew was 13,000 words long: More than twice the length of “Ezra”. It was not a simple term in 2018, and it doesn’t seem simple in this novella either.
The use of “Jew” here seems to support the hypothesis that the material placed earlier was written or re-written mainly to define a group of people, whether for the political purposes of its own leadership or by request of its conquerors. The group thus defined needed a name, but then, why not use the same name in the fake histories themselves? Its introduction at this late stage points to cultural diversification as a result of defeat and exile: The authors felt it necessary to distinguish between the particular sect they had created and the other self-proclaimed Yahwists and Hebrews around them in the ruins of Jerusalem. I suppose that, just as the original Hebrews branched off from the Canaanites and were hardly distinguishable at first, the Jews similarly branched off from the Hebrews, with less success and more confusion, taking hundreds of years to resolve.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, “Nehemiah” (ca. 300 BCE), “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE), “Daniel” (ca. 164 BCE), Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE), John (ca. 90–110 CE).
‣‣ “Nehemiah” (ca. 300 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Efforts to rebuild the city wall of Jerusalem. When the wall is repaired, Ezra reads from the Pentateuch to his congregation, and they weep (8:9). In a song, they declare that the surrounding lands were given to them by Yahweh specifically for use as marginal lands (9:22). They promise to leave the land fallow every seventh year (10:31), suggesting that failure to do so was one of Yahweh’s reasons for the great defeat.
Similar to “Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE) and an interquel to it. Loaded with political dog whistles. The authors’ faction claims to want the wall to stop “humiliation” but all of their actions suggest a military intention. When his political opponents state a reasonable suspicion that the zealous Nehemiah wants to be king, he essentially replies “nuh-uh” (6:8) and becomes governor.
Nehemiah’s prayer (“Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.”, NIV, 5:19; cf. 13:22) suggests both a personal relationship more humble than that of the earlier wizard prophets, and an act of accounting, drily reckoning sin and virtue to guide Yahweh. Ironically, what Nehemiah counts in his own favour is awful behaviour, locking the city gates and threatening anybody who moves on the Sabbath with violence, then personally beating women for allowing love across ethnic lines. Evidently, the newly revised Mosaic law is being implemented through a campaign of terror and violence.
The whole congregation confesses to its sins in a ritualistic fashion (9:3), suggesting that the contempt of the Deuteronomists for their people has become accepted as part of the religion. Interestingly, the public reading of the Pentateuch, if it has any basis in reality, may have been one of the first. The people’s surprise to hear the material may thus have been a genuine first reaction to fresh fiction, noted here by a forger proud of his accomplishments in manipulating their emotions.
‣‣ “Esther” (ca. 300 BCE)
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Esther, a secret Jewish bombshell in Xerxes’s harem, manipulates the king of Persia into sanctioning the killing of women and children who seem hostile to the Jews (8:11). The Jews are therefore able to kill 75,000 such “enemies” (9:16) on unclear grounds. The terror is so severe that other people claim to be Jews because they are afraid they will be killed if they say otherwise (8:17), while the Jews themselves are ecstatic (8:16).
A return to the style of a medieval chronicle. There is still no magic but there is mass murder, dramatic irony, and enough secrecy, sudden reveals and reversals, sharp swells of emotion, confrontations and villainy for a soap opera.
Xerxes’s greatness is hinted at without any reference to Yahweh having a hand in it, and Yahweh fails to act through lots as it has in previous books (9:24ff). There are no theological pretensions. This time, the victims of ethnic cleansing are portrayed as persecutors and would-be cleansers. The authors do not reflect on how a vendetta like their own might be self-perpetuating in this regard.
‣‣ Job (ca. 550–200 BCE)
Read in 2018.
In a mythical land and time, there is a rich man named Job. Yahweh allows a prosecutor god to test Job’s faith by committing horrible atrocities against people and animals adjacent to Job. The prosecutor god is technically nameless but gets the epithet ha-satan, literally “the accuser”, so it’s called Satan.
The suffering of the immediate victims is ignored as unproblematic. Job’s wife survives, having suffered like Job, but it is Job who speaks. One of his problems is that his female servants are no longer attentive to him, looking at him strangely (19:15).
Job argues at length with his friends over whether Yahweh truly rewards virtue and punishes vice, but they get nowhere in this long debate. Yahweh therefore appears to Job, awing him with raw power. Two monsters, Leviathan and Behemoth, are touted as examples of divine greatness. There are other monsters, too: Death personified, a “King of Terrors”, Lilith (18:15) etc. Job cowers and submits, becoming richer than before and living for another four generations.
Atheism never enters the picture. Having seen Yahweh with his own eyes, Job’s belief is strengthened (42:5), but it was never gone. He actively asserts his belief in Yahweh even as he complains about the god’s behaviour (13:16).
A poetic theodicy in dialogue form, long before Leibniz coined the term in 1710. This is another bit of mythology likely to have been plagiarized from older Mesopotamian works, in this case “The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” (ca. 1700–1280 BCE). The figure of Lilith is likewise taken from tablet XII. From these allusions I surmise that this is fan fiction in a deliberately archaic style, but the character of Satan may have been a recent evolution of the faith under Persian Zoroastrian influence.
Compare verses 3:12ff to tablet XII of the Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE). Both texts posit that newborns are better off dead, an implicit condemnation of nature and human life. The idea that growing out of infancy is bad for you is made almost explicit when the posh authors portray all human life as horrible by comparing it to the life of a thrall or day labourer (7:1f), apparently without realizing that thralls and day labourers are in fact human beings. The authors did not know that people who work can lead fulfilling lives. They also did not realize that thralls are oppressed by other people, rather than being intrinsically miserable.
The chief evidence of Job’s purported goodness is his frequent killing of animals, something thralls could not afford to arrange. As in earlier books, material wealth and uncritical loyalty are conflated with piety. There is a critical impulse, however. At first, Job fails to hold the perpetrator responsible (1:22). When the misery is piled on further, the authors coyly suggest that there might not be perfect justice in the world. Having hinted at this obvious fact as if it were somehow spurious and scandalous, they retreat to the horrible notion that anything Yahweh wants must be good and right because Yahweh is powerful. Essentially, humans have no right to surmise what is bad for them, because they didn’t personally create the universe. As theodicies go, this is in the bottom half of a low heap. One might paraphrase it as “might makes right”.
The text shows signs of being amended to fine-tune its message. In a curious aside, one debater mentions that Yahweh appears in dreams and to people on the edge of death (33:15ff), i.e. when the rational mind is shut down. However, Job is not welcomed back into the fold by subtle wishful thinking or a nuanced understanding of his own place in nature. He is pulled back by spectacular magic and money prefiguring the “prosperity gospel”. New kids replace his dead kids, with no sign of him missing the dead. He is not swayed by dreams or sermons, and certainly not by philosophical arguments.
When the Black Death came to Europe in the 14th century, Christians who had read Job supposed that Yahweh had sent the plague, the same way it sends disease in this book. This conviction discouraged the search for any medical cure or means of prevention. It is mean and foolish to teach people to be so blind and helpless.
It could have been even worse. I suppose it’s good that some characters in the canon are allowed to mention unfair pain. Having the book of Job is arguably more productive than a strict taboo against questioning Yahweh’s motives, and attributing even pain to Yahweh is more elegant than the medieval Christian moral dichotomy that put Satan and Yahweh on a more equal footing, but it’s a shitty book, repetitive like oral literature and full of mistakes.
‣‣ Psalms (ca. 700–200 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Bibel 2000 contains 150 psalms.
Poems, laments and liturgical librettos. Subjects include:
- Fond wishes that loyalty to Yahweh will be rewarded.
- Atheism, conflated with any lack of adherence to the cult of the authors. Psalm 73 has atheists, fat and rich, “perishing in horror”. Psalms 10 and 36 portray people in a natural state of non-belief as evil. In fact, psalm 58 acknowledges that atheists are born as such (58:4) apparently through no fault of their own, yet implores Yahweh to break their teeth (58:7).
- Fanfic. Psalm 33 is the strongest reference up to this point back to Genesis 1. Psalms 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59 etc. refer to fairly specific passages in other biblical narratives, falsely attributing a contemporary authorship to David.
- Fantasies of revenge and extreme violence. Yahweh strews the bones of atheists about him in a sudden terror (53:6), the “righteous” wade in the blood of atheists (58:11), a “saviour” god crushes human skulls (68:21f) etc. There’s even a prayer to make your enemies homeless (59:12).
The 500-year process of editing this volume must have been a theological battleground. Orwellian self-contradictions and paradoxes are sometimes densely packed, as when Yahweh is feared for being forgiving (130:4) or hailed as merciful for killing children (136:10). Psalm 40 curiously denies that Yahweh wants sacrifice and encourages the faithful to speak the Takbir (“Allāhu akbar”, 40:17), though not in Arabic. Psalm 51 basically equates the metaphysical concept of sin with the feeling of guilt, then engages in wishful thinking about not having to examine the real-world consequences of hurting other people, instead merely purging guilt through religion. Mostly, however, Psalms is monotonous and boring.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE), Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE), Acts (ca. 80–110 CE), “A Modest Proposal” (1729), “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937).
‣‣ Proverbs (ca. 500–200 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Collected sayings and instructional texts of varying length. Part of the contemporary genre of wisdom literature.
The main subject is fools, but there are plenty of verses on nagging wives and the virtue of beating your children and slaves so as not to spoil them. Painful wounds drive out evil (20:30). The stakes are high. The main reason to raise your son properly is so he won’t die (19:18).
A lot of the advice is good in an insultingly obvious way. For example, one of the authors felt it necessary to advise against becoming a roving murderer (1:15), as if in reaction to a large pro-murderer faction in contemporary philosophical debate. Of course there was no such faction. A lot of the material is similarly thoughtless, often finding a tortured simile to make something look generally good or bad without argumentation. Several verses are repeated essentially verbatim in different parts of the book. A chunk was cribbed from Egyptian wisdom literature.
More interesting sayings, some of them good:
- 15:17. Some verses express a social consciousness and aversion to hatred. This one could be repurposed for environmentalism, but obviously the authors had no such intent. At least they managed to make a non-obvious point.
- 16:3. To paraphrase: Make life a gamble out of self-interest.
- 16:9. On the illusion of free will, undermining that central notion of medieval theology. Substitute nature for Yahweh and you get Sapolsky’s view of freedom.
- 16:30. Beware people who squint or purse their lips. Those fuckers are evil.
- 16:32 puts thoughtfulness and self-control over courage and action. This would look great in a Confucian collection of proverbs.
- 17:1. Another sign that the authors were introverts.
- 17:3. Good poetry. Again, substitute nature for Yahweh and you have a pretty good saying.
- 18:8 (identical to 26:22). A decent simile for gossip.
- 21:20. Advice against greed and wishful thinking.
- 23:26–35. Oddly striking poems on prostitutes and alcoholism. The latter, in particular, could be written from experience.
- 24:11f. After so many books of The Bible arguing for genocide, it’s refreshing to see an argument against genocide. This one is creepily prefigurative of the holocaust of European Jews.
- 25:2. “It is the glory of God to conceal”, a favourite of conspiracy theorists.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE), Romans (ca. 57 CE), John (ca. 90–110 CE), Tillsammans (2000), Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo (2019).
‣‣ “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The emptiness of human life.
More wisdom literature like Proverbs, but more coherent, nihilistic and revealing.
The English title is from the Greek ekklesiastes, which translates the Hebrew kohelet, here a pen name meaning roughly “lecturer”. The text is falsely attributed to Solomon.
A large part of the ancient Jewish cultural elite were happy to assert divine right as casus belli and to kill continually for the glory of their tribe, but it seems they were not personally satisfied with their religion. It preserved its Mesopotamian foundations, including the notion of a perpetual bleak afterlife. Its moral philosophy was crude in the extreme, surely making clever people uncomfortable. “Ecclesiastes” ruminates not on the falseness of this religion but on its effects, particularly how it sucks the fun out of life.
As in Job, the unknown author of this volume observes that the world is not fair (8:14), as if Yahweh did not exist. He falls back on blind faith, simply asserting that you must still fear Yahweh for no apparent reason. Though the conclusion is the same in both books, “Ecclesiastes” does not have Yahweh making a personal appearance. A recommendation to obey religious law appears only in a framing device at the very end, likely added by a later editor. This book thus presents a more mature form of the religion, close to the moderate Judaism of the 20th or 21st century.
Ted Chiang observed in a comment on his “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001) that the purportedly happy ending of Job undercuts the message of that book. That common criticism doesn’t apply so well here. The author of “Ecclesiastes” repeats the wishes of Psalms but does not present a narrative where the loyal are ultimately rewarded. It’s almost as plausible as “Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE).
Following the Babylonian exile and the triumph of Deuteronomist historical revisionism shown in “Nehemiah”, it would have been clear to many intellectuals in the following generations that their popular mythology had been invented by the priestly caste to manipulate people. It is possible to interpret the author’s fearful conclusion as Machiavellian, based on a desire to preserve social control through ceremony without faith. Certainly, there is little here to indicate a sincere and concrete belief in the supernatural. The situation is analogous with the state of Greco-Roman polytheism in late antiquity, before Constantine adopted Christianity: The intellectuals knew their religion was bullshit, but they struggled to act on the realization.
The undercurrent of nihilism is so strong that the author claims there is nothing better in life than to eat, drink and try to find some satisfaction in work (2:24, repeated). Yahweh’s role is logistical; the main god is reduced to redistributing the physical items produced this way (2:26). Injustice from the cradle to sheol is a fact of life and exists to make people see that they are equal to animals (3:18f), a theodicy that requires no god or creation.
The author stands apart from “foolish” celebrants, saying that the wise prefer sorrow over joy (7:5) and criticism over song (7:6). This paints a picture of the author as a depressive realist. For such a text to enter the canon must have required a crisis of faith on par with the defeat of Judah by the Babylonians. It is tempting to speculate that this hollow fatalism among the elite paved the way for more vigorous entrepreneurial cults like Paul’s a couple of centuries later.
“Ecclesiastes” is the most modern work in the Old Testament and the most intellectually accomplished. Scholars argue over whether this is a consequence of Hellenistic influence (suggesting an origin around 200 BCE; its earliest known citation was in 180) or not (allowing an origin as far back as 450 BCE based on wording). It’s still really bad. The author says nothing constructive and shits on women (7:27).
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (2000), The Silence (1963), The Zero Theorem (2013).
‣‣ “Song of Songs” (ca. 200 BCE)
Human sexual love and longing.
As poetry, it’s mostly bad similes. It can’t hold a candle to Sappho. As a case study in the interpretation of literature, it’s more interesting. When the religious thought police within Judaism realized that porn undermines the dour authority of the temple, a rabbi named Akiva wilfully misinterpreted the “Song of Songs” as if it described the love between Yahweh and Israel. The allegorically-minded branch of Christian theology, once based in Alexandria, similarly chose to misinterpret the poem as if it described Jesus’s love for his flock.
‣‣ Isaiah (ca. 600-400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
A mixed bag of sermons and prophecies.
First of the “major prophets”. Traditionally, scholars have attributed Isaiah to a range of authors in at least three periods. There may be a pre-exilic core, but to my layman’s eyes, the whole thing seems informed by the defeat and exile, including the opening chapters on religious and ethnic diversity causing the downfall. There is even a verse where the real return from Assyria is explicitly compared to the mythical return from Egypt (11:16).
As a book, Isaiah is even less consistent than Genesis. It reads like a collection of sermons. I assume many were falsely attributed to the character of Isaiah, seen in 2 Chronicles and 2 Kings, to give them some extra punch.
I guess the sermon-like qualities of the material is the basis for its influence. It would have been easy for medieval preachers to go over a chapter or two on a Sunday, without the full context of the fake history books. For example, it’s got a choir of majestic Seraphim surrounding a mantle-clad, anthropomorphic Yahweh seated on a throne in the temple (chapter 6), as if posing for Michelangelo. Later, Yahweh is pictured as a loving shepherd, carrying lambs in his arms (40:11), offering forward compatibility with Christianity. There’s no hill of foreskins crowding the foreground.
A lot of the material is supposed to be dark, condemning the enemy races and nations that surround Israel, or the entire earth (chapter 24). In these scenes, there are charmingly incongruous details. For example, in the “future” ruins of Babylon, the Eurasian bittern (Sw. rördrom, according to Bibel 2000) will make its nest (14:23). That is such an awesome bird that you can almost imagine the author rejoicing in the return of the land to a natural state, but he can hardly have meant anything but scorn for nature. Compare the “future” fate of Edom (34:14ff), which will be home to hyenas, the witch bitch Lilith, a bunch of ghosts, babbler birds (Sw. skriktrastar) and kites (Sw. glador; translations into English name a variety of radically different birds), all poorly regarded by the authors.
Mixed in with the dark apocalyptic material, there is some brighter stuff, including unnatural fantasies of wolves living peacefully with lambs (11:6) which helped create medieval notions of Eden and Noah’s boat as places of saccharine peace between all species. The wolves even do some grazing, and the lions eat hay (65:25). These images come from an understanding of biology typical of a five-year-old.
The authors continue to demonstrate confusion about the relationship between an idol and a god. Yahweh addresses its rival gods by speaking to their idols (41:21ff). It—a fictional character—says these puppets are not doing anything (41:29). I can’t explain why the authors felt it necessary to write such a scene. Perhaps they wished to rely on the audience’s ability to picture Yahweh in their minds’ eye, which would make that god appear more lively than an idol. The authors themselves ask, rhetorically, why people make idols when the idols don’t really help you (44:10). They conclude that people of other religions are tricking themselves (44:20). They completely fail to examine why a god would be better off without an image, and why it would be better for a priest to make up such a god with words than to carve an image, but there must be an underlying assumption of the power of language and the human imagination. Perhaps they realized that it is difficult to fear something you can see, even in a fairly abstract representation.
The volume concludes with a jumble of positive and negative prophecies, promising a future where the faithful can happily forget everything (65:17) and suck on the fat titties of Jerusalem (66:11). The penultimate point of this vision encourages spreading the faith all over the world, a process which will include selecting Levites among all of the other peoples (66:21). This, too, offers forward compatibility with Christian evangelism, but there’s an obvious false note. The new Levites would not be descended from Levi. The vision polishes up the old tribal religion for mass-market appeal, but it ends on a downer: Worms writhing in the evil dead (66:24). The introvert authors did not do a great job putting lipstick on this pig, but it would be fun to know why they tried. It’s certainly a smart direction. Natural selection has favoured those Abrahamic off-shoots that emphasized monotheism and de-emphasized the arcane tribal details of Judaism.
‣‣ Jeremiah (ca. 570–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Bibel 2000 contains the shorter version, based on the Greek.
Jeremiads. A Moses-like figure named Jeremiah lists a number of confessional curses, pieces of street performance in the genre of prophetic gesture etc.
Prophecy written after the fact. Second of the “major prophets” and a patchwork like Isaiah.
The process of writing books like this one is implied by the book itself. One of its latter sections is described as having been copied at a late stage by a scribe, with “many similar words” added, ostensibly in dictation (36:32). New authors attributing their words to old authorities were rarely this brazen.
The character of Jeremiah was patterned after a common sort of street performer, the memetic warrior of his time. Whether he ever existed as a single individual or not, he seems like a poor source of information. He’s an entitled whiner, putting on a deliberately cryptic show to get attention, screaming about the erotic adventures of anthropomorphized female versions of Judah and Israel to titillate his audience. He is not aware of erosion (5:22). He attributes the regularity of harvests to Yahweh’s intervention in the weather patterns (5:24), turning causality on its head: In reality, people adapt to climate.
Jeremiah decries false prophets, but like every other time they’re mentioned in The Bible, Jeremiah does not give you a practical method of identifying false prophets. This is not surprising, but this time Yahweh kicks it up a notch. Through Jeremiah, the god actively asserts that unnamed prophets were not sent by Yahweh, nor has it spoken to them, implying some other, equally potent agency at work, besides “the delusions of their own minds” (14:14). So basically, false prophet Jeremiah could think of no better way to undercut his competition than to quote a purported creator of the universe as saying “Some prophets are false, but I don’t know why and you can’t tell the difference.” This is just as painfully dumb as the notion in 1 Kings that Yahweh did send even the false prophets.
On the subject of false prophecy, there’s an amusing anecdote in here about reading a prophecy of the fall of Babylon in Babylon itself before the city falls, but instead of preserving a record of the event, the instruction says to destroy the prophecy in order to illustrate it by example (51:63). Apparently, somebody thought that this mention of an instruction to destroy the prophecy would be an adequate explanation for the lack of evidence that any meaningfully specific, unambiguous prediction was ever made ahead of the event. There must have been smart people in the temple shaking their heads over these lies even as they were copying them for another generation.
A coda repeats 2 Kings. This fact itself is just another layer of stupidity, but I do find it funny that a king mentioned in both places is named Amel-Marduk, transcribed as “Evil Merodak” in Bibel 2000. Ironically, the man seems pretty nice.
‣‣ “Lamentations” (ca. 586–520 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The central event of the Old Testament: The destruction of Jerusalem by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣ Ezekiel (ca. 600–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Visions of uncute cherubs and stuff.
Of all the prophets in The Bible, Ezekiel has the second coolest scenes of high fantasy, beaten only by Revelation. The valley of bones (chapter 37) could be a scene in your next D&D campaign. I expected to find a lot more of this stuff in the Old Testament, like Nostradamus, Swedenborg or Ekelöf, but it’s thin on the ground. The authors of this volume were apparently wary of belting out laboured symbolism to make a point divorced from literary value, hence Ezekiel himself reprimands Yahweh, saying he wants material that won’t be dismissed as mere parable (20:49). Alas, there is too little beauty to make it worth the read among the pronouncements of doom and gloom and miscellaneous repetitions.
On the topic of parable, Yahweh says again that it is purposely hiding itself (39:29), implying that if the book were clearly formulated, it would be dangerous to the reader. The latter half of chapter 14 is an example of the failure to construct a clear argument. Like the inverse sorites paradox in Genesis 18, it is curiously lengthy and shows the author struggling with the basic problem of formulating an idea. Also like the example in Genesis, it is not resolved.
Chapter 16 extends Jeremiah’s metaphor of Hebrew dwelling places as adulterous and slutty women. In this metaphor, Yahweh mentions that Egyptian men have big dicks (16:26); a jealous god indeed. Yahweh compares Jerusalem to Sodom while speaking for the poor and needy. It concludes that the woman Jerusalem (“you”), once properly chastised, will “be ashamed and never again open your mouth” (16:63), a neat example of how the patriarchy combined sexual fantasy and the oppression of women with their religious feelings. This is further extended in chapter 23, about squeezing the young breasts of slutty sisters.
‣‣ “Daniel” (ca. 164 BCE)
Read in 2019.
Six chapters of the heroic life of a Jew in exile to the Babylonian court followed by six chapters of political eschatology, written later. The character of Daniel, the hero, was probably intended to be the same Daniel mentioned in Ezekiel.
Fan fiction adventure and prophetic visions. The last of the “major prophets” in chronological and presentation order. The last additions to it are regarded as the most recent substantial work on the Old Testament.
Strangely, “Daniel” is the polar opposite of “Ezra” despite having been written around the same time and being about the exilic nadir. Everything good about “Ezra” is absent here.
Chapter 1 describes a gambit to avoid having to eat food that is unclean according to Mosaic law, but since this purpose is not mentioned, it can be misread as vegetarian/vegan heroic fantasy. Alas, it is embarrassingly trite. The nominal narrator—a young fictional character—describes himself and his companions as ten times wiser than the wisest of Babylon, offering no basis for this boast.
The juvenile fiction gets worse from there, including the ahistorical Babylonian law that anybody “of any nation or language” who says anything against Yahweh “be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble” (3:29). Even this late in the game, the authors of the Old Testament were still masturbating over pathetic power fantasies, imagining that a foreign king would ban free speech about Yahweh and make the punishment comically cruel. In the same chapter, some of the king’s men die carrying out his orders, but there is not a single hint of sympathy for those men. They are not the author’s self-insert superhero. The same bullshit is repeated with lions instead of a furnace and nobody learning from experience.
The interpretation of dreams is also simple. A really nice world tree scene is interpreted to refer to the king, and chopping it down to his madness, which makes a poor riddle. Returning to sanity, the king expresses the author’s pathetic vision of ideal power as the ability to hold everyone else in contempt and never be questioned even in the most innocuous way (4:32 in Bibel 2000, 4:35 in the NIV).
This is as dumb and poisonous as the Pentateuch. The author even persists in the wilful misinterpretation of idols as being gods onto themselves rather than symbols (5:23). The stylistic contrast against the last six chapters is sharp. The poor allegorical writing remains, but the keys are withheld, making an intrinsic reading almost meaningless.
‣‣ “Minor Prophets” (ca. 750–200 BCE)
Read in 2019.
A uniformly dull anthology of short works attributed to twelve minor Hebrew characters, prophets of Yahweh.
‣‣‣ “Hosea” (ca. 750–500 BCE)
Read in 2019.
Hosea fucks whores and makes the same excuse as Jeremiah and Ezekiel: The women are symbolic. So you see, it’s for a good cause.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Joel” (ca. 500–200 BCE)
Read in 2019.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Amos” (ca. 750 BCE)
Read in 2019.
All accidents are Yahweh’s work (3:6). Yahweh is a lord of darkness and zany levels of horror and misfortune (5:18ff). Also, Yahweh shows Amos a fruit bowl, which Amos cunningly identifies as a bowl of fruit. It symbolizes doom (8:1).
The oldest text in The Bible and it’s already about hypocrisy in the entrenched religion. This must be a coincidence, but it’s tempting to interpret it as a sign that hypocrisy is a major feature of the Abrahamic religions, as a consequence of their professed purity.
‣‣‣ “Obadiah” (ca. 586 BCE)
Read in 2019.
A fantasy of revenge against Edom for its participation in the sacking of Jerusalem.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Jonah” (ca. 400–200 BCE)
Read in 2019.
An unwilling prophet is detoured through a large fish.
I wonder whether it was originally intended as children’s fiction—almost a fable—or whether its most colourful episode is only accidentally suited to the purpose. Consider the reaction of the sailors in 1:10: They accept without the slightest hint of critical thinking that Jonah’s particular god is indeed vastly powerful, simply on the basis that he says it created the sea and the land. Similarly, the people of Nineveh overreact to his message (3:5ff). This is the sort of thing children write before they understand other peoples’ minds and beliefs as separate from their own. The ensuing argument between Yahweh and Jonah is similarly immature.
‣‣‣ “Micah” (ca. 750–400 BCE)
Read in 2019.
Perhaps most interesting for its succinct example of a “covenant lawsuit” (chapter 6), a literary genre where Hebrew morality is investigated through an imagined celestial court drama. The existence of such a genre is a sign of an unhealthy culture.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Nahum” (ca. 600 BCE)
Read in 2019.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Habakkuk” (ca. 600 BCE)
Read in 2019.
A prophet questions the wisdom of Yahweh’s punishment for its cult. Yahweh explains that it will punish the punishers even more harshly, which is supposed to make everything OK.
‣‣‣ “Zephaniah” (ca. 600 BCE)
Read in 2019.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Haggai” (ca. 520 BCE)
Read in 2019.
The rebuilding of the temple.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Zechariah” (ca. 516–400 BCE)
Read in 2019.
Consider the fifth vision, where an angel wakes the prophet “as when you wake someone from sleep” and shows him some lamps and trees. Twice, the prophet has to tell the angel that he doesn’t understand the allegory before the angel explains it to him (chapter 4). The writers were obviously well aware that their allegories were going to be opaque to the reader.
I assume the writers also knew that this opacity stems from the deliberately complicated design of the allegories themselves. It appears to be a kind of game the temple scribes would play, like a rebus or crossword puzzle.
The writer inserts himself as the angel. The dialogue between the prophet and the angel (“Do you not know what these are?”) shows what the writer was after: The maker of a puzzle ritualistically puts himself in a privileged position, like a child doing a magic trick or stating a riddle. Here, the would-be solver kowtows, admitting the maker’s privilege, and this is read as a compliment. There is no suggestion to improve the quality of the symbols because that would run counter to the purpose of the game.
This transcribed game of social status has no possible application to profound truth or enlightenment. Recall Numbers 12:8, where the authors admit that riddles aren’t nice. Plain speech is better, and they knew this.
The entertainment value of the game, 2500 years later, is zero. Tolkien’s decision to abandon allegory was a major step forward in the development of fantasy literature.
‣‣‣ “Malachi” (ca. 445 BCE)
Read in 2019.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣ New Testament (ca. 110 CE)
A fork of Judaism, revolving around bigger blood sacrifice and a guy called Jesus, extending the line of Jewish prophets and/or gods.
An important piece of background knowledge here is an already-existing split in Judaism between Sadducees and Pharisees, plus a bunch of fringe cults. As explained in Acts, “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things” (23:8).
Although written in the same tradition of wishful thinking as the Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE), the New Testament has the advantage of additional economic and philosophical development reaching Israel. It was written in the Pax Romana, a time when the interconnections of the late Bronze Age had been reknitted and the tribal Yahweh was no longer in fashion. On the whole, therefore, Jesus is more dignified and empathetic than the preceding prophet-wizards, which makes him more appealing to me as a fictional character.
On one level I admire the boldness of the escalation from Isaac to Jesus as a piece of fiction, something I trace in an article on reasons to invent Jesus. It’s a fusion of our most primitive delusions with a strong internal logic, topped off with a tragedy resembling the murders of Emmett Till, John Hron et al. It’s got the power creep of a superhero comic. It even solves the problem of taboo, on the inelegant technicality that Jesus both was and was not human, and it obviates all future human sacrifice. On the other hand, it makes no sense that the creator of the universe—itself an extraneous hypothesis—would kill itself and survive to work around a bug in its creation. Similarly, it makes no sense to accuse people of sin in the first place. Anyway, it might have been possible to write amazing stories on the basis of the escalation. That is what the early Christians tried to do.
Though invented by and for Jews, by some coincidence the resulting religion was not a hit with Jews in the long term. Like the other cults of dying and rising gods at the time, but unlike early Yahwism, the cult of Jesus was cosmopolitan, memetically fit for the new age. It mutated rapidly. Not having to cut off your foreskin anymore became a selling point for adult male converts and the new version of Yahweh promised more than just a state for Abraham’s biological descendants.
‣‣ Gospels (ca. 110 CE)
Purportedly, accounts of Jesus’s life. These are written as if by his disciples and attributed to them.
The first three are so similar that a special adjective is used almost exclusively for them: The “synoptic” gospels.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ Matthew (ca. 80–90 CE)
This is the version where Jesus says “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (10:34). He continues: “Anyone who loves their father or mother [or] son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37), meaning that if you wish to join the apocalyptic cult of Jesus and stay in it, you should be ready to shun your parents and abandon your children: The people who love you most and depend on you.
The signs of the apocalypse are a bunch of generic bad stuff that happened all the time in the ancient world: “wars and rumors of wars”, “famines and earthquakes in various places” (24:5ff). Jesus promises that the world will end in the lifetime of some of those listening to him speak (16:28).
This authoritarian leader orders two donkeys to ride on (21:2), possibly at once, apparently because of a mistaken interpretation of “Zechariah”. This is also the gospel with a lot of zombies visiting Jerusalem (27:51f) and with a primitive notion of “eternal punishment” (25:46), later developed into Hell.
The Zoroastrian-inspired cosmic struggle between good and evil is apparent here, with “the devil” testing Jesus himself in the wilderness in chapter 4. Though it is called Satan (in a different scene), this god now has its own angels and an eternal fire (25:41), a further development from the prosecutor god in Job (ca. 550–200 BCE).
In response to being tested, Jesus repeats Deuteronomy 6:16, condemning tests and showing the relevance of the Old Testament and its bad ideas. Indeed, Matthew’s Jesus is adamant that Mosaic law must be upheld in full, even more strictly than it is upheld by those who teach it at the temple (5:17ff). For instance, “sexual immorality” is the only grounds for divorce (19:9) and the most important thing in life is mindless love of Yahweh (22:37), i.e. loyalty.
In chapter 15, Jesus contradicts his own conservatism by saying that “what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them”, reversing the old law to put an updated moral emphasis on social behaviour rather than private ickiness. Wealth is bad (19:24), countermanding the adulation of Solomon, but Yahweh gets the role of a wealthy man in multiple parables and you have to pay your taxes (22:21). Still, Jesus keeps quoting the Old Testament, making untenable interpretations (18:16, 22:31f). Some things he does for the stated purpose of fulfilling prophecy, i.e. scripturalism (the donkey ride into Jerusalem in chapter 21; 26:54; cf. the convoluted anecdote of 27:7ff).
When Jesus works magic he openly endorses the Tinkerbell effect. He says belief, rather than action or Yahweh, causes physical change (15:28, 17:20, 21:21f). Amusingly, as with the discounts for poor people in the Pentateuch, Jesus says there will always be poor people (26:11): He’s just not going to fix that problem for some reason, nor does he ask his cult to fix it. Poverty is still taken for granted in a world of magic. Compare the United Nations’ sustainable development goal #1: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”.
Jesus’s parables are unimpressive as literature but they are generally less like riddles than their equivalents in the Old Testament. They’re more like colourful anecdotes. They read as if they got workshopped by preachers, unlike Judges with its bee hive in a lion. Sometimes, Jesus explains what he means, and sometimes the narrator adds a gloss instead (e.g. 17:13). The game of riddles and its dimension of social status and popular appeal is quite explicit (21:23ff).
Jesus’s statements about the end of the world are simple and should be taken at face value. The cult claimed that the end was imminent and therefore directly relevant to potential adherents, to the benefit of the cult as a religious organization. Consequently, the cult encouraged the interpretation of any bad stuff as a sign of the apocalypse. It turned out later that the world did not end in the first century CE. Therefore, by the standard of Deuteronomy 18, Jesus was a false prophet.
Biblical expressions have coloured European languages so deeply that there are still-common Swedish figures of speech I would not have guessed were biblical. “The eleventh hour”, from chapter 20, is a prime example, used to allude to workers getting full pay for an hour’s toil. At the surface level of the allegory, it’s a great thing for them, albeit unfair to others and an incentive for timing a late arrival. The figure of speech is used in accordance with the interpretation of the allegory, where entering at the eleventh hour is the last chance you have not to be punished (in the afterlife). This sort of thing adds a curious dimension of entertainment to the text, also present in Shakespeare.
The blood atonement stuff is pretty explicit. Jesus says of the wine, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” At his sham trial, “all the people” say “His blood is on us and on our children!” (27:25), i.e. the sacrifice is collective and the religious mainstream accepts full responsibility for it, a seed of anti-Semitic blood libel. Real people would say no such thing, but many Christians have believed “Matthew”’s lie. In The Black Death (2000), Dick Harrison quotes a 14th-century Konstanz canon named Heinrich von Diessenhoven, who wrote of his own participation in anti-Jewish pogroms. Following mass burnings of the innocent across Germany, von Diessenhoven witnessed Christians beating the smoking survivors to death, bashing their brains out. Von Diessenhoven reflected in his chronicle that the promise of Matthew 27:25 had been fulfilled.
This filth is unchanged. The Bible is still conducive to violence and plenty of Christians still believe it, despite lampshading of the unlikely nature of the story. The priests mention how unreasonable it is for them to kill Jesus at Passover, a major holiday that requires a different kind of blood sacrifice. Knowing this would not happen in reality, the authors went with it anyway because they wanted Jesus to take the role of the holiday’s blood sacrifice. Likewise, they mention a mundane explanation for why Jesus’s body might have been taken from the tomb (28:13), amid all the special effects.
Seen in 2015.
The majority of the book, retold seriously with the tools of arthouse fiction film and a unibrow. Some details, such as why John the Baptist is killed, go unexplained in the film, as they do in the book.
Uncritical dramatization. I get the impression that Pasolini wanted to stay true to the text, changing just a few details here and there, which is vaguely impressive. Some of Matthew’s words, including 5:17 and 10:34, conveniently forgotten or wilfully misinterpreted by many Christians, make it into the script. Jesus’s magic and changes of heart (e.g. against Peter, against the poor fig tree) are as abrupt and nonsensical as in the text. The general setting is impressive in its poverty and aesthetic asceticism, but of course it isn’t historically correct. The Roman costumes are terrible, they use the traditional (incorrect) cross, and loiter inexplicably beneath it. There is no attempt to show others jockeying for position as the prophet foretold by Isaiah, the way Jesus does in the text.
Instead of social or historical realism, Pasolini adapts to his budget, using too few extras for the crowds of 4000-5000 to be fed via miracle, and merely tries to put a liberation-theological spin on events. Matthew does not mention Jesus smiling so lovingly at the children. I was hoping for the director to evoke a numinous mood or at least use his imagination to bring the bizarre story to life, but in this regard the film is an almost complete failure. In foregrounding the text and preserving its massive contradictions, it makes me think of little but biblical exegesis and the falsehood of the religion.
‣‣‣ Mark (ca. 68–70 CE)
Read in 2019.
This is the oldest gospel, the source of Matthew and the rest. It doesn’t have the virgin birth. In the oldest manuscripts and other ancient textual witnesses, it ends with three named women visiting the tomb:
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
That is the end, to the last sentence. The resurrection is dimly rendered, not proven even in the context of the fiction. The young man’s identity is unknown, Jesus makes no appearance and the three women tell nobody.
Late ancient manuscripts of Mark take details from the other gospels and add them to the abrupt ending of this one: A forgery for consistency of spectacle. The relative simplicity and early date of Mark is what makes it interesting to read, but even in the earliest preserved version with the murky ending, the signs of bullshit are everywhere.
For example, “some men” bring a paralyzed friend to Jesus by lowering him down through a roof (2:4), a cartoonish spectacle. Jesus says that paralysis is caused by sin (2:5), which is not accurate: He blames the victim. Similarly, he says epilepsy is caused by demons (9:17ff). At one point Jesus takes a boat to Dalmanutha but stays just long enough on the far shore to complain that people want evidence of his claims (8:12), a sharp contrast against Yahweh’s visible support of Elijah in 1 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE). Even when he cures the epileptic, Jesus airs the same grievance, complaining that people do not believe (9:19) in the absence of evidence. There is no stated reason why Yahweh fails to repeat Elijah’s spectacle to provide evidence, nor why Yahweh fails to repeat its trick of Numbers 11 to convince people by more direct communication.
As in Matthew, Jesus cannot work much magic in his hometown because the people there know him (6:5). This is almost a confession. It looks autobiographical: The author of Mark is probably relating a personal anecdote from his life as a preacher and faith healer. This job is basically that of a confidence man, travelling the country and pretending to do magic by gaining the confidence of his clients, doing a bit of cold reading and exercising the placebo effect. It is the job Jesus instructs 84 of his followers to do in Luke. Being a fraud and scamming people out of room and board is too tough on the conscience for most people. Those who do it well have a psychopathic streak, like Jim Jones. When you get to know such a person, you learn to recognize their tricks. You penetrate the disguise, as Jones’s followers did in Guyana, when Jones no longer had a steady influx of strangers to trick.
Simply put, it’s true that a faith healer or prophet would be poorly received in his hometown, because the people there know he’s pretending. This explains the observation that Jesus failed in his hometown, but it doesn’t explain why that observation was included in the book. If you’re a huckster, you want to make it seem like everybody likes your wares. You wouldn’t want to mention that your friends don’t trust you, so that you can only sell to strangers. Why then does the author of this passage make such a claim about Jesus? Superficially, the anecdote lends credence to the idea that Jesus was a real person, but it does so only by hinting that he was a fraud.
To explain this, I have to assume that the author and editors truly believed it is possible to do magic except with people who know you. This belief should be disturbing even to Christians. It becomes a pair of statements on the premises that govern magic in Abrahamic fantasy. First, magic requires both parties (benefactor and beneficiary) to have confidence. Second, any familiarity with the wizard hampers such confidence. The book offers no reason for why magic should work that way, nor does it follow James George Frazer in this detail. As axioms go, it’s ugly. It’s as if Tolkien had written that Gandalf can only cast his spells with strangers, not with the elves who’ve known him for a long time. No secular fantasy author would write such a thing because it clearly suggests the simpler explanation: Stage magic, confidence tricks, deception. Bullshit.
To make matters worse, Mark’s version of Jesus snubs his biological family when they try to intervene in his cult (3:31ff). That’s a classic cult move. Again, it sounds autobiographical, as if it happened to the author as an acolyte and not to the leader. As far as I know, the traditional Christian explanation for these anecdotes is to claim that people are blinded by “worldly” experience, and especially by familiarity, to such an extent that omnipotent divine grace is shut out. These are false claims, resting on the Old Testament idea that the world is bad. In reality, an expert is familiar with their subject and likely to have a fairly accurate idea of its properties.
On a related note, Jesus has a mana bar, a store of magic points as in a role-playing game, and he can feel it when somebody drains the store (5:30). This, too, is a statement on the supernatural premises of the narrative. The anecdote of a woman healing herself by touching Jesus without his consent shows that, while both parties may need faith and touch may be important for some totally unexamined reason, the benefactor doesn’t need to know what’s going on. Indeed, nominal god Jesus doesn’t know who sapped his mana. Again, this is an ugly axiom. Secular authors don’t usually set things up this way, but game designers often do.
As in Matthew, Jesus is careful not to say what he really means (4:10f), the same contempt Yahweh had for Moses’s successors. Only with his disciples, Jesus explains himself (4:34), a conceit that was meant to encourage the reader to seek gnosis by ascending the ranks of the cult. When he raises the dead, he doesn’t let the public see it (5:40) or hear about it (5:43), and he orders demons not to reveal his secret identity. The story of Legion the demon parallels the scapegoat, ending in a blood sacrifice of sorts (5:13).
It’s not all bad. Jesus rejects the notion that some foods are spiritually unclean. That’s a positive change, even if it’s only 0.1% of the bad ideas in the Old Testament. By a funny coincidence, his explanation is compatible with the science-based rejection of an alkaline diet and many other pseudoscientific fad diets: “it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach” (7:19), so it won’t affect your blood pH or whatever it is you’re trying to do to yourself. Unfortunately, in his rhetorical parallelism, Jesus claims that evil comes from inside of people (7:23), which is both a contradiction of the author’s belief in Satan and an extension of the hateful Old Testament tenet that people are basically evil.
Being a fairly typical cult in this version of events, Jesus’s cult defends itself with violence (14:47) and without healing. When this fails, Jesus claims that being arrested serves his agenda, which is a reasonable thing for a cult leader to say in that circumstance (“Thanks for proving me correct, officer”). In the same scene, a young man escapes the posse coming to arrest him by dropping the only garment he was wearing and running off naked (14:52); another bit of comic relief to lighten up the story of divine suicide, like the paralyzed man lowered through a hole in the roof to get past a crowd.
‣‣‣ Luke (ca. 80–110 CE)
Read in 2019.
Heavy repetition from Mark, except the activities most typical of fraud (much of chapters 6 and 7). The main additions suggest a continuity of office between Jesus and the apostles, something that became more relevant to the early church as the decades went by and it became clear that the promised apocalypse was not happening. Luke also fleshes out the biography of Jesus with several anecdotes about his childhood, part of a general improvement upon the narrative as fiction. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus massively contradicts Matthew’s; they’re separate spin-offs.
This is the longest, most elaborate gospel and the longest book in the New Testament. It’s even got a foreword. It is the last of the three “synoptic” gospels and should properly be followed by Acts.
First off, there’s tassels (8:46), so that’s good. Several plot points, including the relationship between Herod and Herodias, are presented more clearly, which makes this version marginally easier to enjoy as fiction. Still, there’s some clumsy rhetoric (10:15) and internal contradiction, e.g. “whoever is not against you is for you” (9:50) and “[w]hoever is not with me is against me” (11:23).
Luke works to grant authority to the church, putting heavier emphasis on secret knowledge (gnosis) and special powers given to the apostles (9:1) and to 72 other men. Even they are afraid to ask Jesus what he means, apparently by supernatural intervention (9:45). Jesus suddenly praises Yahweh for hiding the truth from the wise (10:21). Terrible ideas like trampling on snakes and scorpions (10:19) have inspired fools like George Went Hensley to found Christian snake cults in the hopes of attaining this gnosis.
Luke’s scorpion-trampling Jesus is a bit of a macho primitivist. He fails to maintain basic personal hygiene because he believes that giving to the poor is an adequate substitute for washing your hands before you eat (11:38ff). Clearly, there has been little progress since the Pentateuch’s conflation of all impurities. Similarly, Jesus encourages his disciples to live like wild animals, without worrying about food or clothing (12:22). Once again, even as he provides this apparent solution to the problem of poverty, the author undercuts his own point by encouraging his disciples to give their possessions to the poor. By Jesus’s own logic, the poor shouldn’t need possessions either, but here they remain a fixture of life: A special category, as in the Pentateuch.
As usual, Yahweh is likened to a rich master with many servants, the opposite of a poor person. More curiously, Jesus says that if this master returns from a wedding and finds his servants ready, the master will serve the servants instead of the other way around (12:37). Not likely. In another parable, Yahweh won’t open the door of its house even if people pound on the door in need (13:25). Also curiously, the end of the world is likened to a burglar, with Christians cast as the owner of a house, seeking to protect that house from the burglar (12:39); this bizarre parable is supposed to explain why no precise date is given for the apocalypse. Instead, Jesus actively encourages his disciples to speculate for themselves about the eschaton, with another poor parable, this one about criminal justice (12:57f).
Christians like to point to the “good Samaritan” (10:25ff) as a better alternative to all these bad parables. It purports to define the Old Testament’s ambiguous “neighbour”, doing so only by circular logic: You should be kind to your neighbour, which is anybody to whom you are kind, so you cannot fail. Similarly, the parable of the “prodigal son” (15:11–31) is undermined by the reasoning of the titular son: After betraying his family and spending their money, he returns not because he feels ashamed but because he is starving. The asshole reckons that he will live more comfortably on the family farm, and he’s right. He never shows empathy for the victims of his own actions. This stuff drags down the entertainment value, to say nothing of the use value.
The nasty cult overtones are preserved. At one point, Jesus says to his followers “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (14:26). Similarly, Jesus says he’s “come to bring fire on the earth” and division, not unity (12:49ff). Jesus also rejects all requests for evidence. In an anecdote that lays out a blueprint for eternal reward and punishment after death—what would later become Heaven and Hell—he asserts that “Moses and the Prophets” are more convincing than a miracle would be (16:31).
Ironically, Jesus uses resurrection as his example of a miracle less convincing than the Old Testament. He thereby condemns the gospels as poor propaganda for his own cult. Luke then devotes an entire chapter to post-resurrection shenanigans, and two verses to Jesus eating a piece of fish (24:42f). This, at last, purports to be evidence that he has risen in the flesh. It’s not.
‣‣‣ John (ca. 90–110 CE)
Read in 2019.
This version opens with a remake of Genesis 1 and has Jesus using a whip to drive the money changers out of the temple (2:15). Here it’s Peter/Petrus, the mythical founder of the Catholic church, who personally attacks a servant of the temple with a sword and hacks off the man’s ear (18:10). It’s got Lazarus raised from the dead after four days and is the most common place for the famous pericope adulterae forgery where Jesus, having scribbled in the dirt for a while, tells “any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (7:53–8:11). There’s no virgin birth, no childhood and relatively few outright supernatural tricks, but there’s a hand-waving reference to Jesus having had enough other adventures to fill the whole world with books (21:25).
The gospel of John is striking mainly because of its profound influence on US screenwriting techniques. It opens like a 1990s high-concept movie trailer: “In a world... was the Word.” Like Mark, it treats Jesus like a fully formed character, thrown straight into a drama so predictable that the narrator frequently foreshadows and spells out its conclusion (e.g. 2:22, 3:24) as known beforehand (6:64, 6:70, 13:19), giving Jesus plot armour (8:20). Therefore Jesus is here called “the lamb of god” from the beginning, referring to animal sacrifice.
Indeed, the human sacrifice gambit is especially clear in this version, verse 3:16 being roughly the second most famous in The Bible. Chapter 6 spells out the absorption of Jesus’s power by those who eat his corpse. Jesus’s first trick is turning water into wine, and both blood and water flow from the wound in his side: Both of these set pieces allude to the Eucharist in the manner of film-school visual symbolism 101. The writer also uses callbacks—such as 3:34 where the divine word reappears—to reinforce the sense of a tight and closed dramatic structure, a literal tradition wholly unlike biography. In addition, the whip-cracking Jesus of John is more personally violent than the sword-bringing Jesus of Matthew or the macho primitivist Jesus of Luke.
As a result, the tone of John is shockingly similar to formulaic US TV drama, especially the apocalyptic time-travel shows: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008) for example, or 12 Monkeys (2015). It has the same glossiness, the same confrontational action sequences, the same star myopia, the same contempt for facts and reason, the same creepy obsession with unjustifiable faith that confuses author fiat with evidence.
Given all this drama, with sharper scripting and a sympathetic main character, John could have been an entertaining read in its own right. Unfortunately, several conversations fail to make their points, merely harming the pace (e.g. 6:26–42, 8:21–41, 9:11–41). Jesus is still a jerk (e.g. 3:10, 4:15ff, 6:6, 6:61f, 12:25f, 15:14) and prefigures Jim Jones’s murder by poison (4:13f). There’s a fair bit of jarring discontinuity, like the invalid who is personally cured by Jesus without being able to identify him (5:13), or the disciples misunderstanding Jesus’s identification of Judas as the traitor (13:27–29). At one point Jesus speaks directly to Yahweh “for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (11:42), as if merely addressing the god should be more convincing than the resurrection of Lazarus. The pericope adulterae forgery comes within an inch of formulating a useful life lesson in an insightful way, by repeating Proverbs 20:9 and similar sentiments in centuries-old secular wisdom literature. When it was smuggled into the text, it was a cliché, not an invention.
Unlike the other three canonical gospels, this one refers to Jews as an outgroup, clearly distinct from the narrator’s own group, while still treating Jesus himself as a Jew (4:20). Editing out the character’s upbringing enhances the effect. In the same way that “Ezra” has Jews as just one of the peoples worshipping Yahweh, John has Christians and Jews worshipping Yahweh separately. This indicates the book was written after the two faiths were separated and the Christian leaders had all left Judea to write about Jesus in Greek, with little hope of swaying their countrymen. That being said, John still holds Moses in high regard and still tries to glorify Jesus by pretending the Old Testament referred to him. Jesus even imitates the whole Mesopotamian gods-making-people-out-of-clay thing when he mixes spit into dirt to make a disgusting mud to put on bad eyes (9:6).
Aside from casting the Jews as an outgroup, the authors are also wary of the Romans. John has the villainous Sanhedrin conspire against Jesus with the stated argument that “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation” (11:48), a non sequitur. The Romans suppressed frequent Jewish rebellions, but they were not doing so on the suspicion that Judaism was the true religion or that its messiah had arrived, nor was Jesus claiming to be a king, a contradiction treated in “Hebrews” (ca. 80–90 CE). I suppose the authors were fumbling to disparage an enemy that had grown more relevant than the temple in the generations following the inception of the cult. The physical temple (“Second Temple”) was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, but of course the authors fail to mention this.
Even as they simplify Jesus’s teachings to the single phrase “Love each other” (15:17), a command that cannot be obeyed at will, the authors persist in the Old Testament’s purposeful avoidance of plain speech (16:25) and general contempt for life and the real world. Jesus explains to his disciples that they will be hated because he’s chosen them (15:19), not because the young cult preached a horrifying religion of blood sacrifice, eternal punishment and apocalypse that tore people from their livelihoods and families. Jesus also says he’s “overcome” the world, defeating it (16:33), a sure sign of a warped self-image.
In one tantalizing moment, it looks as if one of the authors of John might engage in philosophy. Questioning Jesus, Pilate says “What is truth?”, or “Quid est veritas?” (18:38). Unfortunately, the question seems to be asked rhetorically and in jest, the same way most people ask it nowadays to preclude discussion. The question is not answered in the same scene, but earlier, Jesus defines Yahweh’s word as the truth (17:17). That’s an appeal to authority, another classic cult move. Later, the narrative handles the issue of truth very differently. There is a witness to blood and water leaving Jesus’s corpse: “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe” (19:35).
This sudden mention of an eyewitness implies that the events of the narrative have left some trace in a shared world and could be confirmed by an independent inquiry, if indeed they are true. Superficially, the narrator seems to encourage the critical reader’s desire for corroboration “so that you also may believe”. Belief, then, would not be a matter of faith. It would not be necessary to trust the cult leader’s definition of his word as the truth. In short, here’s a nod to crude empiricism. However, the witness is not even named! Mythology calls him Longinus, but John does not. Similarly, the narrator himself is not named, the narrator feels the need to assert that the “testimony is true” without so much as an affirmation of having witnessed it himself, there is no affidavit, there are no other written testaments to the event even in the other gospels, and the chronology is as unclear as would be expected from fiction written by a later generation.
It is as if Melville’s Ishmael had paused to assert that some unnamed sailor on another ship has testified to Ishmael that Ahab really existed, with no other regard for verification throughout Moby-Dick (1851). It’s a ludicrous rhetorical device but it raises the possibility that a more intelligent early Christian could have written a consistently faux-empiricist gospel, naming witnesses throughout and including fake affidavits. That would have been interesting. The narrator does use the device a second time, about himself (21:24), which is even less convincing.
On the subject of evidence, John gets gruesome with Jesus’s death and resurrection. There are not one but two whole chapters of post-resurrection shenanigans. Where Luke just has Jesus eating a piece of fish, John has him instructing “doubting” Thomas to touch his unhealed wounds (20:27) in one of three post-resurrection encores. Instead of endorsing Moses, even as he encourages belief on the basis of physical evidence, Jesus says he prefers people who believe without evidence (20:29). This was written for an audience that would never see miracles, by a fraud who hadn’t seen them either. Though the characters are less prone to murder, the intent is every bit as foul as with Elijah’s contest in 1 Kings.
The gospel ends with another callback, and a twist, revealing that a mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved” is the one who wrote the text (21:24). Later mythology gave him the name “John”. This is interesting in many ways: The callback is to a scene where the special disciple rests on Jesus’s chest, as in a glamorous queerbaiting Hollywood flashback. The afterword characterizes the narrator, inserting him into the drama, which is a good literary device. It’s been suggested that the later chapters of the gospel had an author separate from the earlier chapters, which would make the appropriation of the mysterious character all the more clever and impressive. As expected, the authors jockey for position against other cultists, using the conceit of Jesus’s particular love to lend additional weight to their version of events. To boost this effort, and perhaps to explain why the gospel was written some 55 to 75 years after Jesus supposedly lived, Jesus ambiguously reserves the right to extend the narrator’s life by supernatural means (21:22).
It’s not quite The Usual Suspects (1995) but the twist ending reinforces my impression that Hollywood’s particular brand of glamour and wishful thinking derive more strongly from John than from any other part of The Bible. This is not a good thing.
Brian is born a short distance away from the cradle of the biblical Jesus and leads a parallel life. He’s involved with one of many movements of resistance against the theoretically oppressive Romans and is eventually taken to be a saviour because, in a moment of panic, he makes up an incomplete formula. However, as his mother persists, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”
Greaser’s Palace (1972) was zany and superficially rebellious, putting a dubious Jesus figure in the Wild West, but there was very little thought behind it. Life of Brian was done right as an on-site parody of Christianity. The common theme here is unfounded idealism. Director Terry Jones has since repented, admitting that the view of the Roman empire expressed in this film was historically naïve, itself idealistic. It’s funny as hell nonetheless.
Several scenes bring the cultural environment of the New Testament to life better than any serious biblical epic. The scene where Brian falls in with a bunch of busker prophets often came to my mind as I was reading the books. You see such characters shaping the narrative of The Bible from time to time, including 2 Kings 9. Jeremiah was versed in this busker rhetoric, using sex and threats of apocalypse etc. to get attention. Nine blades, ladies and gentlemen. Nine blades.
Seen in 2018.
A decent overview of the making and initial reception of the film.
Seen in 2019.
A speculative attempt to reconcile internal contradictions between the canonical gospels, partly by positing a Roman power struggle, partly by discarding the stated chronology.
Pop history. Near-useless hypotheses, poorly presented and poorly supported.
‣‣ Acts (ca. 80–110 CE)
Read in 2019.
The early cult, called “the Way”, and its miracles. There’s some repetition from the Old Testament and a narrowing focus on the life of Paul, the earliest Christian proselytizer known to history. Starting his life as a Roman citizen named Saul, he claims never to have met Jesus in the flesh but he gives three versions of his vision of Jesus as a celestial being, a vision he receives on the road to Damascus.
The recap of the Old Testament emphasizes that Moses was beautiful (translations vary), trained in “Egyptian wisdom”, and powerful in his rhetoric (7:20–22), whereas in the Pentateuch, it was Aaron who did the talking and the Egyptians were disparaged.
The bulk of the speeches and sermons are addressed to Jewish audiences with Roman arbiters. Gradually, the Christians come to target the Romans themselves, among other non-Jews, because the cult of Jesus is increasingly heretical. Paradoxically, even with Gentile audiences, the proselytizers continue to argue for Jesus on the basis of fulfilling Jewish prophecy.
At one point, a Pharisee named Gamaliel compares the cult of Jesus to other recent cults: Theudas’s and Judas the Galileans’s, but not John the Baptist’s (5:36f). These things happen from time to time.
There is general agreement that Acts of the Apostles was written alongside Luke as a two-volume work of quasi-history by a single author. This probably started around 85 CE with revisions proceeding into the 2nd century.
This is the last great slog in The Bible, with scattered points of interest along the way. The general mood is of constant strength and triumph, like authoritarian propaganda. The congregations are always growing, jailed preachers magically go free, and the leaders continue to heal the sick and raise the dead, like Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before Jesus.
The chronology is unclear throughout. There was not yet a calendar based on Jesus and the narrator does not refer to any of the ancient calendars that already existed. That would be a major mistake in a history, but this is fiction. Much of the material is made up and the cult believes the end of the world is nigh. It’s pretty typical apocalyptic cult business they’re up to, certainly nasty but there’s no clear sign in this particular narrative of internal terror, purity tests or obscurantism, as seen in the epistles.
Acts is a lot like “Nehemiah”. While it is told from the perspective of the cult, its distortion of reality is incomplete, allowing glimpses of a possible narrative beneath the impossible one. For example, at one point “the spirit” comes over the apostles and they begin to speak in tongues. This comes with visual effects, “tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (2:3). The narrator then states that listeners of numerous nationalities can all hear their own languages being spoken.
It’s glossolalia, a term based on this very passage. It reappears later, with unknown prophecies delivered by the afflicted (19:6). In Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism (1972), linguist William J. Samarin showed that Christians speaking in tongues use only sounds from the real languages they know. Glossolalia is not language, “because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives”. It is meaningless in the most literal sense of the word. The practice is not specific to Christian cults.
If a “violent wind came from heaven” and a bunch of burning men began speaking intelligibly in a universal language, no witness would make fun of them and call them drunk. Without thinking, the narrator still has some people reacting as real people do to real glossolalia: They make fun of the apostles and call them drunk (2:13). I am continually fascinated by this naïveté. Necessarily ignorant of linguistics, the narrator affirms that a miracle has occurred even as his own observation of ridicule undermines his gullible interpretation. It is another failure of the imagination, made all the more glaring by Peter’s symptomatic defence: “These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!” (2:15). That line would have worked fine in Life of Brian (1979).
Similarly, while Saul-Paul receives his vision on the road to Damascus, everyone with him can hear Jesus, but only Saul-Paul can see Jesus (9:7), and the sight is literally blinding, like staring into the sun. Yahweh must then badger a Christian to go and complete Saul-Paul’s conversion (9:15) because it’s inelegant and implausible to all involved. An angel physically strikes Peter just to wake him up (12:7), and after that, Peter is still so groggy that he doesn’t understand he’s escaping from a prison (12:9). Later, Paul is imprisoned because he drives out a spirit who praises him (16:16–19). He does this because he is annoyed by the spirit, not to save the woman it possesses. Her owners are angry because they were using the spirit to predict the future; evidently it couldn’t warn them. Later still, a young man falls out of a window because he’s bored to sleep by Paul’s sermon, so Paul “resurrects” the man, apparently without healing his broken leg. In other healing scenes, the patient walks away, but in this one, other people have to take the young man home (20:12). This is all darkly funny, but it’s not good fiction.
As ever, the writing is low on internal causality. Peter states that Jesus was handed over to the Israelites “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death”. As described here and in the gospels, that drama has a good number of parties, all of them ambiguously under Yahweh’s control, even in the killing of Jesus. The Christians obviously believe there are villains, but they still haven’t decided on the etiology.
Persecuted by the Sanhedrin after Jesus’s death, the Christians rejoice “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace” (5:41). They simply double down, interpreting any resistance or contrary evidence as confirmation of what they want. This is an example of a viral memetic system that excludes the possibility of correction. The Christians have taken the worst aspect of Judaism: The aspect that caused Yahwist leaders to attribute the defeat of Judah to Yahweh and double down on its worship of this imaginary perpetrator.
Gamaliel expresses the same attitude: He says there’s no point suppressing a religious cult because you cannot know whether Yahweh runs the cult or not (5:38f). He’s devious, that Yahweh. It’s the extreme amoral fatalism and incuriousness of the Old Testament. As with Balaam and his talking donkey, the narrators are not concerned with freedom of thought or action, nor philosophy. It’s all about being on the winning team.
On the topic of philosophy, the narrator mentions proof a couple of times, but only in the context of winning a debate (e.g. 9:22). It’s the same concept of wisdom as in 2 Chronicles 9:2, i.e. if you seem confident and you sound good, you are perceived as wise. If you win a debate that way, you have “proven” your point. As for the actual Old Testament quotes offered in debates, these are variously vague and unflattering. For instance, Paul quotes Psalms 2:7, which is more applicable to Luke Skywalker than to any of the Jesus myths. If you look at Psalms 2 in its entirety, it promises anger and fear, not Paul’s “good news” (13:32f). Calling it proof is pure error.
To be fair, Acts does have The Bible’s strongest attempt at philosophy. It’s Paul’s presentation at the Areopagus in Athens. Talking to Greeks, he uses a structured argument. Specifically, he says Yahweh “is not served by human hands” because it doesn’t need them, having made everything (17:25). That’s a strong start, an actual syllogism. It’s a syllogism with false propositions and a false conclusion, and of course Paul is actually calling for humans to serve Yahweh in spite of his own argument. It’s foolish, but it’s a triumph by biblical standards!
Paul then explains to the Greeks that history is predetermined because Yahweh wants people to “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (17:27). This is a sharp turn for the worse, in terms of logic. There is no reason to believe that history is predetermined, there is no logical relationship between history being predetermined and people “finding” Yahweh, there is no implied reason why Yahweh would want to be found, the idea that finding Yahweh should be difficult is contradicted by the very statement of the argument, and so on. The argument breaks down completely, and so we’re back to the usual standard. The Greeks sneer (17:32) and I can’t blame them.
Like the non-Christian Jews before them, the Christians express wilful ignorance in saying that “gods made by human hands are no gods at all” (19:26). Curiously, instead of manufacturing Christian “icon” idols and pretty churches as they would soon be doing, the craftsmen of Ephesus feel threatened and conspire against the cult. An ordinary clerk manages to prevent a lynching by appealing to the rule of law (19:36ff), which is a beautiful illustration of the enormous importance of secular authorities and institutions in reducing the harm of religion.
Similarly, Romans save Paul in Jerusalem by just doing their jobs maintaining public order (21:32). Compare the Old Testament, where no such authorities exist and tens of thousands are murdered over their accent (per Judges 12). Compare also Paul’s own behaviour, which can best be described as trolling or shitposting. He deliberately pits the factions of Judaism against one another instead of arguing his case (23:6).
The teachings of the cult are unclear. It’s communist (e.g. 4:32ff) in the naïve manner Aristophanes satirized in The Assemblywomen (391 BCE). I can picture this really happening with an immanent eschaton, sub-Dunbar congregations and frequent appeals to the poor and meek as superior to the rich. Communism isn’t presented as a tenet of the church, but Peter does state that a (specific) man who keeps personal property is controlled by Satan (5:3). Yahweh kills this man and his wife for the crime of property. By unstated implication, any Christian who gives less than their complete savings to the church will die on the spot.
Much else about the cult is similarly unstated. At one point the cult leaders come up with ground rules that extremely few Christians today would be able to recite or relate to. They are: “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (15:20, again in 15:29). That’s it. According to Acts, those are the only rules worth keeping. It’s not clear what’s happening with the genital mutilation, the holidays, the commandments, the ethnic cleansings or the religious intolerance. There is no snappy statement of the creed yet so the apostles just go with a variation on the old blood magic and sexual neuroses.
The apostles give a reason for relaxing the rules: “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19). This means “let’s adapt our beliefs to maximize the rate of growth”. The converts seem to be donating everything they have to the church. That may have something to do with the leaders’ flexibility.
While the rules are relaxing, a lot of the other bullshit is dragged into the new religion. The cult itself claims to be non-violent, but it burns books with someone from Antiques Roadshow on hand to estimate their value (19:19). The narrator mentions that Judas “fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out” (1:18) as punishment for fulfilling his divine purpose. Similarly, “because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (12:23), presumably in that order. The narrator also recounts the genocidal atrocities of the Old Testament (13:19) as acts of Yahweh. The new faith neither excludes nor condemns these horrors. It embraces them. For better or worse, there’s no porn, but that’s the biggest difference between this and the Old Testament fantasies.
References here: Reasons to invent Jesus, Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, New Testament (ca. 110 CE), 1 Corinthians (ca. 56 CE), Romans (ca. 57 CE), Luke (ca. 80–110 CE), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).
‣‣ Epistles (ca. 110 CE)
Read in 2019.
Mainly advice to early Christian congregations in the form of letters. Some real, some fake.
The more genuine letters are radically different from all the other texts in The Bible. For instance, while Paul’s philosophical arguments are never convincing, at least he is engaging in an argument, openly stating a fairly clear interpretation of events, reasoning about it and trying to convince somebody that he is right. As Paul puts it, “we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand” (2 Corinthians 1:13) and “our message to you is not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’” (1:18, later paraphrased in Matthew), i.e. not ambiguous. He made an effort to communicate, which is unusual in The Bible. He is manipulative, cultivating and using cognitive dissonance to keep people confined in an apocalyptic cult, but it’s still a step up.
There are no riddles here, no porn, no cobbled-together narrative to sanction genocide or rape, and only the fake letters put new words into the mouths of dead authorities, though a lot of the Old Testament quotes are ridiculous sensus plenior readings. As a result, the letters are generally more readable than the fiction that permeates every other part of The Bible. Internal contradictions, magic and non sequiturs are on the level you would expect from the more literate leaders of a Roman mystery cult, and the writers are unanimous in support of slavery.
‣‣‣ Romans (ca. 57 CE)
Read in 2019.
Theology, mainly the concept that Jesus’s death bought salvation from Yahweh’s “wrath”, by a means novel to Yahwism: Service to Yahweh in spirit, not to the antiquated written code (7:6). This salvation is brought “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (1:16), with the details worked out between the gods and their individual followers (14:3–6).
The author states that Yahweh’s “invisible qualities [...] have been clearly seen” (1:20) and he argues from this oxymoron that people who do not believe in Yahweh “are without excuse” (ibid.). Those same people who do not worship Yahweh exhibit a catalogue of inferior qualities (per NIV, 1:29–32):
They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Paul then deals with genital mutilation, an impopular practice among converts to Christianity. He argues that because Abraham was circumsized after coming to the faith, “he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised” (4:11), and therefore circumcision is supposed to be optional. This all goes without mention of female genital mutilation or the lack thereof.
A letter whose authorship is not disputed by scholars. As such, this is the first text presented in The Bible that has a clear author and is reasonably authentic.
Paul claims that “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (14:23), which is pretty broad. His rant in verses 1:29–32, quoted above, purports to describe people in general, since it is only quite recently that even half of the world’s population has come to subscribe to the Abrahamic religions, including Islam. It is a poor description of humanity at any time in history. It aligns well with Yahweh’s hatred of people in general, as seen in Genesis 6.
Once again, faith is implied to be a matter of affiliation, of being on the right team. Obvious lies about the wrong team are to be taken at face value. Thus Paul retains the bad ideas of his predecessors. It is not unusual to encounter modern Christians prejudiced against non-Christians for the same reasons, including Paul’s foolish conflation of non-belief with wilful spite and hatred of Paul’s specific gods.
In the discussion of spirit over law, Paul comes fairly close to formulating the psychological principle of reactance, especially when he says that hearing the law against coveting produced in him every kind of coveting (7:8), despite being new to the concept. Alas, Paul fails to resolve the blurry ontology of the Old Testament. He claims that sin seized the opportunity. He fails to propose what relationship Yahweh and he bear to his sin: He attributes thoughts and actions to sin as an agent distinct from his own identity (1:20) and not named Satan, but how this is possible, he does not say. In Bibel 2000, but not in the NIV, he places sin in the body (7:23). Either way, it certainly sounds convenient to dissociate oneself from imaginary supernatural crimes and for Jesus to solve the problem regardless of its nature.
Paul is adamant that nothing can take away this route to universal salvation through Jesus’ human sacrifice (8:38f). Mulling this over, he anticipates a reasonable objection: “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?’” (9:19). Unfortunately, Paul’s answer to this objection is the answer of Job: Don’t ask (9:20). You are not important enough to know, so do not bother thinking. He later claims that Yahweh “has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them” (11:32). Again, it’s the terrible ideas of the Old Testament repeated in the new: You must obey and you must love being forced to disobey, without reasons.
Paul preaches love and forgiveness (e.g. 13:10), which is nice, but he clings to spiteful tradition, quoting Proverbs 25:21f, where the reason to help your enemy is not his benefit but to “heap burning coals on his head”. More centrally, he says “do what is right in the eyes of everyone” (12:17), i.e. follow custom over love, dumbly matching the joy and sorrow of those around you (12:15). Rather than a useful maxim, this is simply pragmatic for a new cult: Try to blend in so they don’t stone you. Paul is oblivious of the contradiction between love and his own renewed condemnation of homosexuality (1:27).
While encouraging conventional morality to avoid negative attention, Paul also gives the government carte blanche because the new cult does not have the power to oppose Rome. He clearly states that rulers as a category are Yahweh’s servants and he explains police violence as Yahweh’s wrath (13:1–4). This is The Bible’s strongest statement on the theme introduced by Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel and continued in verses like Proverbs 16:10. I was surprised to learn that the apocalyptic cult continued to reinforce this idea, but on second thought, it’s probably adaptive.
Acts clearly illustrates how the Pax Romana’s mediating authorities helped the cult while it was harming rebellious Judea, so it would make sense for Paul to discourage rebellion as counterproductive. The decision to paint rulers as legitimate kept paying dividends later on, helping Christianity to gain sanction among the feudal lords of Europe. The most important of these lords was probably Clovis I who converted to Catholicism in 508, as the greatest Frankish and Germanic ruler of his time. He converted with the promise that this would legitimize his royal power and that he would be allowed to keep that power after death. Christianity flatters the mighty regardless of their other qualities: A useful thing for any amoral organization to do.
In 2018, US AG Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 to legitimize separating children from their parents, and the regime’s press secretary Sarah Sanders agreed that it was “very biblical to enforce the law”, even a law the regime had just made up. This was opportunistic, but accurate. You can indeed cite Paul in support of any government action, no matter how horrifying. After all, even when the literal Romans killed Jesus in Christian mythology, they were carrying out Yahweh’s will.
Paul’s claim that any ruler serves Yahweh thus lends itself to fascism. This is a step beyond the Old Testament. Recall that in The Bible, the gods created people to resemble themselves (anthropomorphism; Genesis 1:26). Powerful people most resemble the gods and are aligned with the gods, though not always the right gods. You see this throughout the superheroics of Judges and in the many kings of the Hebrew countries, including those who are evil because they are tolerant.
This idea put a supernatural sheen on the intuitive fear and admiration that we—as hierarchically social animals—feel for dominant members of our pack. Indeed, the Old Testament merely put emotions into words with too little critical thinking. That was harmful enough. The New Testament version is rather more scary. Given the opportunity to change course and embrace other moral values, Paul applies his mind to the problem and concludes that even violence in the name of power is right and good, virtually by definition. By seeking short-term advantage for his cult, he inadvertently propped up future tyrannies of every sort.
‣‣‣ 1 Corinthians (ca. 56 CE)
Read in 2019.
The main subject is unity within the cult. Having preached a liberal view of personal salvation, Paul is disturbed to learn that this has led to diversity and conflict within the congregation in Corinth, where a case of incest has been reported. He hopes he doesn’t have to come beat them up with a stick (4:21).
In this letter, the authors polemicize against the idea of food being polluted by idols, which is a rule in Acts. They tell women to cover their heads (11:5), to use long hair as a veil (11:15), to be subservient and to be quiet at church meetings (14:37).
Paul is thankfully careful to distinguish between himself and what he considers to be higher authorities (7:12). At one point he quotes Jesus (11:23–25), but not from the gospels, as they had not been written, and not from experience either. Claiming to be the last person who saw Jesus, Paul also says that 500 other men saw the resurrected god before he did (15:6).
Authorship is not disputed. The letter paints a more typical picture of a cult than the slightly younger Romans. Paul bashes gays again, he humble-brags (chapter 9), he encourages speaking in tongues and “interpreting” such speech as if it were meaningful (something he believes is a supernatural gift in itself; 12:9f, 14:27f), and he gives several reminders of the imminent apocalypse, mentioning Satan twice. He orders the congregation to shun those who join it but fail to follow its rules to the letter (5:11), a double standard and an apparent sanction for vicious purity tests. He attributes disease and death among Christians to improper cannibalism (11:29f). Also, no sex if you can help it (7:1). Corinth sounds like a pretty stressful place.
In a few glimmering moments, Bibel 2000 makes Paul sound intelligent, though the English translations I’ve looked at give a different impression of his rhetoric (e.g. 6:12–14). It is certainly rhetoric. Between the flourishes, the authors continue to blunder into Old Testament pitfalls. For instance, echoing Leviticus 25:55, they say Yahweh has bought everyone (6:19f) like slaves, and that literal slaves should not be bothered by literal slavery (7:21). Fortunately, the authors contradict their own idiotic position in the very next verse.
‣‣‣ 2 Corinthians (ca. 56–57 CE)
Read in 2019.
Reaction to preceding letters and a visit between letters. Mainly, Paul defends his own reproachful actions and backtracks on them, asking the congregation to love the person who was accused. Paul also defends his own status. This indicates that, in the process of resolving the incest problem in Corinth, Paul was identified as a false prophet by “people who think that we live by the standards of this world” (10:2), i.e. that cult leaders want the power they have.
There is speculation regarding the possibility that two or more genuine letters were combined into this one text.
The letter is selfish and unpleasant. Though self-deprecating at times, Paul offers mixed messages (hate the offender, now reaffirm your love) and continues to encourage gruelling purity tests where the real objective is obedience (2:9, 8:8, 10:4–6). He prefigures the bullshit prosperity gospel (9:6f) when ordering a collection. He alludes to a further developed Satan who “masquerades as an angel of light” (11:14). Saying he “must go on boasting” (12:1) he claims supernatural inspiration. When he jockeys for position against other apostles, he does not reject their gospels (11:4). In doing so, he contradicts his (likely earlier) statement in “Galatians” 1:6f, where he does reject them.
Paul’s got an interesting theory on why Moses covered his glowing face: He says it’s because the glow was visibly fading, and Moses didn’t want people to see it end (3:13). Here, Paul takes one of the weirdest fantasy scenes of the Old Testament, affirms that it really happened, and adds an extra layer of fantasy to it, transparently for his own purposes. Evidence is not involved at any point in this process. Neither is credibility.
Similarly, Paul abuses an Old Testament quote to support his own authority (13:1). The quote is from Deuteronomy 19:15 and concerns the primitive heuristic that a court needs (only) more than one witness for a conviction. Paul uses it about the number of his own visits to Corinth, which is a metaphor. Notice that in the metaphor, he substitutes his own visits for testimony to a crime, and Christianity for the crime itself. This is so stupid that I have to think he was trying to make a joke.
‣‣‣ “Galatians” (ca. 55 CE)
Read in 2017.
Whether converts to Christianity are required to adopt full Jewish customs. They’re not.
Authorship is not disputed.
There’s some paranoid thinking in here, about false cult members whose real objective is to enslave the cult (2:4).
There is yet more abuse of the Old Testament, as when Paul alludes to Deuteronomy 21:23, the part that tells you how to hang people on poles. Paul argues that Jesus was cursed because the Romans who killed him did not do it in the ancient Hebrew fashion. This is weird, partly because Paul tries to do it without acknowledging that the ancient law existed because Yahweh’s cult killed a bunch of people in the same cruel way that Jesus was killed. He expresses no empathy for these earlier victims and makes no comparison to Jesus, just a dumb theological point.
‣‣‣ “Ephesians” (ca. 80–90 CE)
Read in 2019.
Church unity. The author argues that no one can boast because everything is predetermined (2:8–10, cf. 1 Chronicles 29:15).
Likely a forgery falsely attributed to Paul. Like the genuine Pauline epistles, this one condemns all non-believers (as shameless, vile and selfish; 3:19), orders women to obey their men as gods (5:22), and tells you how to treat your slaves (don’t insult them, but do not emancipate; 6:9). Its overall message is a symptom of unrest in the cult, perhaps because cult members threw away their careers and families, only to realize the imminent apocalypse was not coming.
Though a late work, it’s markedly confused. It’s got multiple “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (3:10, 6:12) as well as a specific god called “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” who causes disobedience (2:2). This doesn’t seem to be Satan. The author openly toys with the Old Testament, claiming it hides great secrets and can be repurposed as the author sees fit (5:32).
‣‣‣ “Philippians” (ca. 54–55 CE)
Read in 2019.
Paul’s in prison. He says some people preach the gospel because they are jealous and want to cause trouble (1:15), but he’s happy about that (1:18). Though he is not certain whether it is best to die soon (10:20ff), he yearns for a death that will make him like Jesus (3:10). He thanks the Phillipian congregation for its material gifts (4:14–18) and repeats that you do not need to cut stuff off your penis for Jesus to think you’re OK.
Authorship is not disputed.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Colossians” (ca. 62–70 CE)
Read in 2019.
Jesus is a depiction of Yahweh and the universe was created through and for Jesus (1:15f). Jesus was killed for cosmic peace, not just people (1:20), a secret means to complete Yahweh’s plan (10:26). Killing Jesus was a triumph for Yahweh in the sense that it exposed various unnamed rulers and powers to ridicule (2:15). Paul’s suffering completes Jesus’s suffering, which is identical to the cult’s suffering (1:24). Baptism is burial and circumcision (2:11f).
Likely a forgery falsely attributed to Paul to legitimize a later theological direction.
Boring, but the movement toward abstraction and further glorification of Jesus as a god seems natural. Something similar would later happen to Mary, though not in The Bible, where she is a marginal figure.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “1 Thessalonians” (ca. 51 CE)
Read in 2019.
There’s no strong theme. Paul and his buddies speculate about what happens after death and assert that dead Christians are stuck in a FIFO queue and will jet off into space in the apocalypse, before the living (4:14–17). This is supposed to be comforting (4:18).
The authorship of this letter is disputed, but mainly the section that refers to Jews as the enemies of humankind (2:13–16). The rest is more likely genuine.
Verse 2:5 uses the phrase “god is our witness”, a useless boast. The writers bring it up to defend their own behaviour and later modify it to include the recipients of the letter as Yahweh’s fellow character witnesses.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “2 Thessalonians” (ca. 80–115 CE)
Read in 2019.
More details on the apocalypse. These include a nameless “man of lawlessness” who impersonates Yahweh (2:4). This person is not Satan but some other god, brought by Satan (2:9) and endorsed by Yahweh, who blithely lets people believe its lies (2:11).
The nominal authorship is disputed. The theology expressed here seems to play a major role in Jehova’s Witnesses. It’s vague, poorly argued and clearly contradicted by the more popular idea of Yahweh as powerful and nice, but there is a raw fantastical appeal to it. If the Old Testament described a world that had failed but where Yahweh was still in control, this letter implies a world that is worse yet, being in the hands of a more evil god: Not the same nice guy who made Jesus to redeem the old mistakes. It’s a way for Christians to have their theodicy and eat it too.
‣‣‣ “1 Timothy” (ca. 100 CE)
Read in 2019.
Advice on running a chapter of the cult. Paul has handed some people “over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” for acting with evil intentions against their flocks (1:20). The love of money is the root of all evil (6:10). Make do with the necessities: food and clothes (6:8). However, good elders of the congregation should be paid double (5:17) and you should enjoy some wine too (5:23). Any complaints against the elders should be dismissed unless there are two or three witnesses (5:19; the Old Testament rule), but even so, try not to get too handsy (5:22) with the women.
Disputed as one of the pastoral epistles (letters to pastors, not poems about shepherds). Likely a forgery built around a core of genuine material.
The misogyny is more elaborate than in the undisputed letters, but it seems plausible that Paul would, for example, recommend that young widows remarry to control their evil nature (5:14). The recommendation that slaves should remain obedient is perfectly in line with the undisputed letters and the cult’s preference for cowardice over positive social change. It is also plausible, under Richard Carrier’s version of the ahistoricity hypothesis, that Paul would claim Jesus has never been seen (6:16). That part is otherwise difficult to explain. However, the whole thing is dull.
‣‣‣ “2 Timothy” (ca. 100 CE)
Read in 2019.
Disputed as one of the pastoral epistles. Likely a forgery falsely attributed to Paul: It’s not particularly ideological but describes a more developed church.
The first half of chapter 3 is somewhat interesting as a list of bad behaviours people will display as the apocalypse draws near. The list has aged well in the sense that a 1st-century Christian, an 11th-century Christian and a 21st-century Christian would all be able to read it and imagine that it’s finally happening. Similarly, the author warns about another generic future hazard (4:3f):
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
This is a cult leader warning a fellow cult leader that people are going to look for the answers they want in myths, apparently without realizing that eternal love from Jesus is precisely such an answer and such a myth. The author also makes an interesting comment on scripture, without knowing that he’s writing it (3:16f):
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The book calling itself divinely inspired is useful for fundamentalist purposes.
‣‣‣ “Titus” (ca. 100 CE)
Read in 2019.
Yet again, the author affirms that slaves should be obedient, never protesting; they should be an ornament to Christianity (2:9f). Also, when a person has disagreed with others and you have told them off twice, shun them (3:10).
Disputed as one of the pastoral epistles. Very similar to “1 Timothy”: Likely a forgery falsely attributed to Paul.
The Pauline and pseudoepigraphical consistency on slavery is disturbing. It suggests that slaves in the Christian congregations were continually arguing that the cult’s message of universal redemption—where the “last shall be first”—should have consequences in the real world. Cult leaders were continually pushing back because they neither wanted to buy freedom for these slaves nor be seen encouraging disobedience or harbouring escaped slaves, which would have landed the leaders in legal jeopardy.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Philemon” (ca. 54–55 CE)
Read in 2019.
Authorship is not disputed. The last and shortest of Paul’s genuine letters, this one is not concerned with theology. It’s not clear to me what it’s doing in the canon and it didn’t teach me anything, but I like it. Despite his obvious flaws, Paul has the most sympathetic voice in The Bible. It is touching how he talks about Onesimos, a slave sent to him in prison, whom Paul has indoctrinated and is sending back carrying the letter to his master, Philemon. Paul is not compassionate enough to order Philemon to release Onesimos from slavery, but at least he tells Philemon to receive the man as a dear brother. It’s hypocritical, but it isn’t cynical.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Hebrews” (ca. 80–90 CE)
Read in 2019.
Sophistry intended to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah of the Old Testament despite clear contradictions. The primary conceit of this effort is to pretend that Jesus is a high priest like Melchizedek.
Though sometimes attributed to Paul, this was never more than speculation and cannot be supported. The author is unknown.
In this screed, it is the devil who “holds the power of death” (2:14). Yahweh’s word is likened to a sword that cuts up your body (4:12). The author insults his audience’s intelligence and curiosity (5:11). He implies the existence of a simplified Christian message for the uninitiated, who are likened to children (6:1); it is not clear whether there already exists a gospel specifically for children, but this may well be true. Later Christians have made countless such efforts and don’t put the dark stuff up front even for adult marks. Speaking of dark stuff: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (9:22).
Though messy, the theology of this letter reverberated in medieval Christianity. It clarifies the idea that although Jesus hit the reset button, if you “sin” you will be sent to the sketchy prototype version of Hell (10:26f). This looks like an important step away from the utopian Pauline idea that Jesus helps you, toward the later dogma that Jesus’s sacrifice is of no practical importance, shifting responsibility away from the human sacrifice, back toward the individual. The church merely tells you to pray to its gods, with no clear consequences in life. Likewise, chapter 11 tries to formulate the enormously influential idea that faith or gullibility is a virtue, arguing from magic.
‣‣‣ “James” (ca. 65–85 CE)
Read in 2019.
Miscellaneous pseudonymous wisdom literature. Jesus plays only a tiny role.
One highlight here is a direct condemnation of critical thinking (1:5–8):
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
This is a quick way to short-circuit your intellectual ability. Let’s break it down:
- In philosophy, broadly speaking, a belief is considered wise to the extent that you can support it with evidence, while no evidence contradicts it. Thus a wise belief is something you work for, applying yourself to the task of learning and proving. In The Bible, the best way to gain wisdom is through an unsupported belief: “ask God [...] and it will be given to you”. The author thus turns the true relationship on its head. Effort is discouraged.
- Doubt is a natural mechanism for limiting false belief. Ordering somebody never to doubt is like ordering them never to be thoughtful or bored. Some believers will be aware of their doubt and feel bad about it: Unnecessary suffering.
- Doubters should indeed “not expect to receive” anything from imaginary entities. To a believer, trapped by confirmation bias, it will look as if their god is actively withholding evidence of its existence from outsiders. This requires the god to be an asshole.
- By defining non-believers as “blown and tossed by the wind”, insiders flatter one another as wise and dismiss outsiders. Dehumanizing circular logic is close at hand: Someone who does not follow the religion must be a fool, and a fool does not have the ability to follow the religion.
- The choice of “double-minded and unstable” as an insult is revealing. I would say that a double-minded person can entertain two hypotheses and then discard the inferior one. An unstable person can change. A single-minded, unchanging person sounds like a zombie.
The vilification of doubt is a versatile tool of mind control. “James”’s version paints outsiders as self-destructive while hiding the burden of proof and keeping the cult’s internal bonds strong. If your god prevents non-believers from understanding the evidence for your belief, and they brought this upon themselves, then why even bother talking to them? Two religions that forbid both doubt and other religions will naturally escalate a conflict to a holy war.
Dismissal of doubters is certainly dangerous, but the main highlight here is verses 1:13–17. Like “Hebrews” it seeded medieval dogma, clearly attributing all good things to a constant, bright Yahweh, and all bad things to people, not the rival god Satan. Just to take one example, this message was clarified in the later “Rule of St. Benedict”, points 42 to 43: “Attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good you see in yourself. Recognize always that evil is your own doing, and to impute it to yourself.” This is another poisonous idea. It is compatible with similar statements throughout The Bible but it’s even worse than the Pentateuch’s more primitive notion of Yahweh as a person who hates other people.
It is depressing to see just how much of the bedrock of modern Christianity looks to have been laid down in an effort to suppress a crisis of faith from the observation that the world kept existing. The author’s long metaphor of the tongue (3:3ff) is more amusing, being an incompetent meditation on free will that puts the Jansenists to shame. It includes the observation that people have conquered all species of animals (3:7), a rather parochial idea. Also amusing is the author’s attack on envy (3:16), unintentionally hitting Yahweh, which describes itself as a jealous god.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “1 Peter” (ca. 75–90 CE)
Read in 2019.
Authoritarian admonishments with orders to obey wordly leaders, including bad people who own you (2:18). Failure to comply will result in being eaten by the devil in the form of a lion on the prowl (5:8). Peace be upon you losers.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “2 Peter” (ca. 110 CE)
Read in 2019.
Though framed as prediction, the main purpose of this fake letter is to offer advice on how to deal with disappointment at the fact that the world did not end in the first century, and the laughter of non-Christians who knew it would not (3:3f):
Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
Not written by Peter. Here, in the youngest text of the New Testament, the pseudoepigraphical author states unequivocally that Jesus is a god (1:1), yet continues to refer to Yahweh, a god. Here, if anywhere, you should expect to find an attempt to reconcile the mild trend toward monotheism with this obvious polytheism, but that only happens in “1 John”. Here it’s polytheism plain and simple.
The text is symptomatic. Verse 1:16 is particularly revealing. With no sign of provocation, the author blurts out: “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” This is the sort of thing you would not think to say if you actually believed it was completely true. Apparently the author would have been too young to meet Jesus even if Jesus was a real person, but it’s still tempting to read the sentence as tacit admission of having “cleverly” made him up.
Bibel 2000 differs greatly from the NIV in verse 1:19. The Swedish version states that you cannot interpret prophecy on your own, i.e. you should not think without a fellow cultist by your side to keep you under control.
Verse 2:7 praises Lot, another surprising choice where the Christians had a chance to disavow the old horrors. The author brings up Balaam and his talking donkey too. In closing, the author undermines the authority of Paul, saying his letters are “hard to understand”, meaning that their obvious meanings should be misconstrued according to some new dogma. This is all dumb, but verse 3:3 takes the cake.
Verse 3:3 is the clearest sign in The Bible of the natural crisis that hits any cult formed around an imminent apocalypse, and yet, the author refuses to back down. His answer to the imagined question is uninteresting sophistry. It’s the framing device that really gets me. Before the author launches into his answer, he sets the debate itself “in the last days”. For 2000 years, ever since this disingenuous move, there have always been Christians who’ve believed the end would come in their lifetimes. They have not always been this conceited.
‣‣‣ “1 John” (ca. 90–110 CE)
Read in 2019.
Pseudoepigraphical, but an important letter. It coined both the term “antichrist” and the phrase “the Word of Life”, which several Christian sects have adopted as their name. These sects include Livets Ord, a Swedish megachurch founded in the year I was born. Amusingly, in 2014, its founder converted to Catholicism.
The theology of this late entry to the canon holds some promise. Most importantly, the author dismisses one of the most central points of the Old Testament when he writes that there is no fear in love (4:18). This can only be interpreted as a polemic against Deuteronomy 10 and its requirement of fear with love. To drive home this point, the letter-writer openly states that “fear has to do with punishment”, alluding to the dark figure of Yahweh in its older form: The abusive parent in the sky.
This development is not pursued to any explicit disavowal or conclusion, presumably because conservative Christians would not stomach a frontal assault on the Pentateuch, but it’s a useful crack in the mortar for those modern Christians who recognize the truth of the statement. However, if Yahweh is a good guy who no longer demands fear, that strengthens the need for theodicy to explain all the stuff in the world that isn’t love. The author tries to deliver. His antichrists are many, but they’re not terribly sinister, and like vampires in folklore, they have a tell (4:1–3):
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
Hardly satisfying. Also not satisfying is the author’s attempt to make sense of all the gods in The Bible (5:6–8):
[Jesus] did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.
This is not the “holy trinity” of modern Christianity, invented only after The Bible was written. Later Christians tried to fix things by altering verse 5:8 with a forgery about “the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit” testifying in heaven, but this is one of those cases where having lots of older bibles lying around provides a measure of protection. With no resolution to the problem of polytheism versus monotheism in The Bible itself, Christians continue to make up their own. As of April 2019, there are 11,000 words in the Wikipedia article on the “Trinity”, and an amazing 17,000 words in the article on the “Johannine Comma”, a single character of punctuation in the verse. Sometimes I feel that human history could have been better spent.
‣‣‣ “2 John” (ca. 90–110 CE)
Read in 2019.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “3 John” (ca. 90–110 CE)
Read in 2019.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣‣ “Jude” (ca. 100 CE)
Read in 2019.
Apostates and anecdotes lifted from texts that were purposely excluded from the canon. As in “2 Peter” 2:4, there are angels among the apostates. They abandon their own duties and are imprisoned under ground (1:6), as in Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE).
A weird editing mistake, faintly evocative of other possible Christianities snuffed out by infighting.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣ Revelation (ca. 95 CE)
The end of the world, more or less.
Psychedelic prophecy. An update in the vein of the second half of “Daniel”. Some parts are quite evocative, certainly better than Ezekiel, but almost everything is anthropocentric and anthropomorphic, with just a few extra eyes and such. The worst parts are riddles in the style of the Old Testament.
One of the most famous riddles has been cracked: The numbers 616 and 666, used in different codices as the “Number of the Beast”, are isopsephistic or, more likely, gematric hashes of the name and title “Nero Caesar”, a known asshole who persecuted the cult. Hashed to numbers with apparently standard gematria (I would not know how standard), the Greek version of the phrase maps to Hebrew as “Nron Qsr”, which yields the number 666. The Latin version of the name maps to Hebrew as “Nro Qsr”, for 616, each “n” being worth 50. This would be why the text says “Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man” (13:18), or in other words: “Here’s a riddle for you: Can you figure out this guy’s name from a hash of it?” It seems like a reasonable explanation, but a concealed attack on a simple politician degrades the fantasy.
Near the end, the author makes The Bible’s final attempt—in order of presentation—to reduce the number of gods it claims are real: Satan, the devil and Gilgamesh’s snake are now said to be identical (20:2). Alas, this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Satan neither crawls nor eats dirt, as the snake was cursed to do in Genesis. With this last failed update for the second century CE, the biblical snake swallows its own tail, a closed loop too slowly receding into history.
‣ “The Holy Bible: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2015)
Zach Weinersmith (writer).
Read in 2020.
Yes, I am the real deal. If you hear someone else talking about some other Jesus, it’s not the genuine article. OKAY? You think I would put up with this crap if God didn’t make me do it? Check yourself, Corinth.
‣‣ “Science: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2017)
Zach Weinersmith (writer).
Read in 2020.
If you punch the universe, it punches right back.
‣‣ “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” (2018)
Zach Weinersmith (writer).
Read in 2020.
Beauty’s junked and virtue’s boned.
I’d die, but then you’d be aloned.
The biographical framework for interpreting the original is well summarized. The abbreviated poetry is remarkably readable in that context; the book actually succeeds as an introduction, unlike the series’ books on The Bible and science, which are merely inside jokes.