It’s Us. Only Us.

Tipsy has a post about some lady who is ostentatiously living by the precepts for women set forth in the Bible: things like “growing out her hair, making her own clothes, covering her head, obeying her husband, rising before dawn, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church, and even camping out in the front yard during her period.”

There is apparently some debate about whether she is intentionally mocking the Bible or not, but, in any case, she’s being criticized as at least misguided because the New Testament trumps the Old Testament from whence most (all?) of these anachronistic practices spring.

But here’s the rub as I see it: I don’t think any Christian groups have gotten rid of the Old Testament entirely. And there is some sort of human editorial process in making decisions about which provisions are deemed eternal commandments of God and which are deemed passing preferences of the tribesmen who wrote them down. Because unlike certain legislation, the passing preferences are unfortunately lacking in expiration clauses.

The process of picking and choosing which Old Testament instructions are still required is a human effort. And I think the lady’s efforts to follow Biblical law and the discussion surrounding it underscores the human element in making these distinctions. For me, a nonbeliever, this has value if believers are more likely to consider justifications for their own choices. “God told me so” is an abdication of responsibility for the moral choices one makes. Hopefully this sort of exercise leads to further discussion, “God told me so, and God is right because . . .”

Because of the current events of today, the Christian attitude toward gays is a concern of mine. It’s hardly uniform, but for those who have decided that homosexuality is anathema, it’s not enough to say that it’s true because “the Bible tells me so.” Or, at least if they do, there should be an explanation about why those provisions of the Old Testament are operative when so many others are not. Otherwise, as Jefferson put it, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them” to make these judgments.


  1. says

    There are three categories in the first paragraph: 1.) from OT to NT and now; 2.) from NT to now; and 3.) from Bible to now.

    First, there is a clear, NT expiration clause on the “ceremonial” parts of the OT law (see: Temple worship practices), since those are fulfilled in Christ. From context, it’s clear that the “moral” parts of the OT law remain in force (e.g., gossip). There are also “civil” practices are particular to Israel and God’s desire for them to be “holy”– i.e., separate/distinct (e.g., the handling of blood; see also: a kosher diet). Although it’s not completely clear, and maybe it’s more smell test than precise categories, I’ve never seen any serious problems here.

    Second, there are NT practices that are difficult to understand in today’s context. The basic choices are blowing those off as cultural artifacts or embracing them as universal. Hair-covering is a fine choice. There is no clear line in this category– and thus, we find well-intentioned Christians reaching different conclusions here.

    Third, it is all too common– among believers and ironically, among skeptics and other “sophisticated” thinkers– to take the Bible out of context and to then get very excited about the squirrelly inferences that obtain. “Obeying your husband” may be cultural too, but it certainly fits this category nicely. In this case, part of a sentence is quoted, while ignoring the rest; a phrase is quoted without any sense of the surrounding context; and a phrase is quoted without any sense of what else has been said on the topic.

    People who are unwilling to treat the Bible with even modest respect should just leave it alone. It’s not good for their look. When is it admirable to approach serious literature in this manner? It seems a good rule of thumb– that people should extend to the Bible at least as much dignity as they would want ascribed to them or their written work.

    • says

      I’m relatively indifferent to the literary qualities of the Bible. My concern is with the book as a document purporting to mandate particular human behavior in the name of God. Humans are making editorial decisions about its content and the relative force that must be given to varying parts of its content and, therefore, humans must take responsibility for the choices they are making.

      • steelydanfan says

        Of course humans are making editorial decisions about its content today. Its very composition was a human editorial decision–which books to include and which to leave out.

        To decry people making editorial decisions today is to ignore its very nature as a human-created text.

  2. says

    My use of the word “literature” in the final paragraph was a distraction. Sorry.

    I was referring to the same topic throughout my post– and to concur with you, ANY people who make editorial decisions about its content and applicability should take responsibility. This is true for “people of faith”– as well as skeptics. (Can you imagine the response to someone who read half of a sentence from Richard Dawkins– and then got really excited about that, when their inference violates the clear meaning of that sentence, that paragraph, and the entire work?)

  3. Manfred James says

    The Bible is not serious literature. Crime & Punishment is serious literature.
    The Bible is a collection of various parables and historical docudramas, predictions and condemnations, truths and exaggerations cobbled together by men of the ancient world in an attempt to explain the misunderstood workings of the world around them through supernatural justification. In addition, it is a text designed by its writers and editors to retain and extend power and control over the people.
    In addition, many books of the Bible–such as the Apocrypha–were discarded (by human editors) as being unfit for inclusion in the completed work.

  4. says

    The sort of “pick & choose” approach to theology and Biblical understanding drives me crazy. I’m constantly encountering people who espouse “Biblical” ideas rooted in the OT while ignoring many other OT commands not to mention NT ideals. When I hear people oppose gay rights, for example, on the basis of OT pronouncements, I ask them why the eat shrimp or cut their hair. When they tell me the NT means those OT commandments don’t apply anymore, I ask them why they want to post the 10 Commandments so badly. Either OT rules still apply – or they don’t. But you can’t apply the ones that tell someone else how to live while ignoring those that tell you how to live. The bald hypocrisy is stunning.

    Oh, and a few years ago a guy lived a year under OT rules and wrote a book about it. Interesting stuff. Drove his wife crazy!

  5. says

    Believe what you want about the Bible. But interpreting it in a wooden fashion or out of context or pick & choose…will make you look, to an objective observer, like a tool– whether you’re a believer or a skeptic.

  6. says

    Since I started it, I’ll chime in.
    The “human editorial process” is neither ongoing nor arbitrary if one submits to the teaching authority of a Church that has existed since Apostolic times and whose beliefs have been voluminously reified in a Creed and that Church’s service texts.
    If one attempts, in contrast, to follow the Bible and only the Bible, one may expect to encounter serious problems with interpretation. The existence, by some estimates, of more than 30,000 denominations, each with some distinctive belief that justifies or requires its schism from some other group, testifies that the expectation is warranted.
    To translate that into something more succinct, I’m Orthodox and I have no doubts about how I’m supposed to live.

  7. PeterW says

    I agree that the bible needs to be interpreted in context if you are actually interested in what it has to say. Although I think the more relevant comparison would be with how laws are read in pari materia rather than with how literature is read. (Although FWIW, literary interpretation is the direct heir of biblical exegesis. For better or worse.)

    But difficulties still arise because it’s obvious to any objective student of the bible that parts of the NT are just made up. I.e., Jesus was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem.

    To quote Bart Ehrman:
    [quote]“The historical problems with Luke are even more pronounced. For one thing, we have relatively good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral home. And how could such a thing even be imagined? Joesph returns to Bethlehem because his ancestor David was born there. But David lived a thousand years before Joseph. Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire was required to return to the homes of their ancestors from a thousand years earlier? If we had a new worldwide census today and each of us had to return to the towns of our ancestors a thousand years back—where would you go? Can you imagine the total disruption of human life that this kind of universal exodus would require? And can you imagine that such a project would never be mentioned in any of the newspapers? There is not a single reference to any such census in any ancient source, apart from Luke. Why then does Luke say there was such a census? The answer may seem obvious to you. He wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, even though he knew he came from Nazareth … there is a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah that a savior would come from Bethlehem. What were these Gospel writer to do with the fact that it was widely known that Jesus came from Nazareth? They had to come up with a narrative that explained how he came from Nazareth, in Galilee, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of, but was born in Bethlehem, the home of King David, royal ancestor of the Messiah.”[/quote]

    Of course the fact that some of Jesus’s followers may have lied about something doesn’t mean that other bits aren’t true (and this was as true 2000 years ago as it is today), but it does point out some problems with relying on the Bible as the only authoritative source.

    For a useful general overview of interpretive disputes over what is probably the central message of Christianity – the Sermon on the Mount – the wikipedia entry can give you a flavor.

  8. varangianguard says

    So then, how many people actually understand ancient Aramaic or Hebrew here? I think everyone is already getting their message second, or third hand as it were.

    IIRC, biblical scholars who do understand those languages still argue about context and meaning as often as not.

  9. says

    These are all interesting and important questions. My sense is that most of those who wield the Bible as skeptics have little sense of these matters too. But I would be content if they would add a dose of sincerity, a pinch of humility, and a modest bit of context to their hermeneutical efforts.

    • says

      And certainly that’s entirely appropriate when interacting with believers who are using the Bible to guide their own lives. The calculus changes when people cite the Bible as authority on how civil society should govern itself; at which time it should not get any more benefit of the doubt than any other written material.

  10. says

    Personal interaction was the subject of the post. In terms of public policy, there are other important questions– about which I have written extensively. Interested parties should check out my 2003 book.


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