In my past 3 posts, I’ve presented evidence revealing there is nothing written in the Bible that couldn’t have been imagined by a Bronze Age human, that Biblical morality is inconsistent and at times sadistic, and the God of the Bible is more like Kim Jong Il than Mr. Rogers. Christian and Jewish readers may counter that I was taking passages in the Bible out of context, and that those nasty parts were merely a reflection the authors’ ancient culture rather than God’s word. God “inspired” the Bible after all, he didn’t write it. However, the crux of the situation is figuring out which parts of the Bible were truly God-inspired, and which were merely remnants of an archaic culture. While theists throughout the ages have been convinced of their ability to discern the will of God, the reality is that they are all following the Tao of Cherry Picking.
There are reportedly 41,000 denominations of Christianity in the world today, and you can bet that all of them think the others are reading the Bible incorrectly. In fact, a common slander used by some Christians against other groups is the accusation that they are practicing “Cafeteria Christianity.” As Conservapedia puts it, “This practice is particularly common among liberal denominations, which cite only those passages which show Christ's forgiveness and mercy, but not His justice, in order to deny the existence of Hell and the necessity of faith for redemption… they selectively ignore passages which refute evolution, condemn abortion, make statements about the role of women that refute modern feminist dogmas, and conflict with other liberal views.” However, the reality is that even conservative Christians cherry pick the Bible. In fact, the statement about abortion is one good example, since the Bible isn’t very clear about abortion at all. In addition, while they may embrace the anti-gay message of Leviticus 20:13, they rarely promote the idea of socially exiling couples who have sex during a woman’s period as decreed in Leviticus 20:18. As one enlightened Christian blogger put it “everyone cherry-picks the Bible: those who claim to be ‘staunch believers in the Bible’ claiming its inerrancy and infallibility along with those who view it as a historical and all-too-human text.”
Some Christians point to Bible scholarship as a means to understand which parts are “inspired” and which are merely notions of flawed humans. However, as logical as some approaches to biblical interpretation may be, they are still subjective. Thus, Bible scholars can come to a variety of conclusions based on their take as to what God wanted the verses to mean. In the 1800’s, Bible scholars were used to prop up the pro-slavery arguments of the American South, while Bible scholars were used to prop up the anti-slavery arguments of the abolitionists. In modern times, Bible scholars rail against the abomination of gay marriage, while Bible scholars rail against the evils of homophobia. Bible scholars may belong to any of the 41,000 denominations of Christianity as well. Thus, Catholic scholars inherently disagree with Pentecostal scholars just as Coptic scholars inherently disagree with Eastern Orthodox ones. Given that scholars are the most knowledgeable regarding the context of Bible passages, it is interesting they have so many different interpretations despite this specialization.
I would argue that both scholars and non-scholarly theists believe in the validity of Bible passages they feel are true. In fact, this is a legitimate form of Biblical interpretation practiced by some Christians. As philosopher Peter van Inwagen put it, “if you have submitted yourself to God’s will and if you read—say—that God has commanded that the children be punished for the sins of the fathers, your reaction will be along these lines: Yes, that’s what seemed self-evidently true to the Hebrews once, that it was right to punish the children for the sins of the fathers, and that that was therefore what God would have told their ancestors to do; with God’s help, we now know better.” However, the problem with this God-guided method of Biblical interpretation is that it has ultimately led to 41,000 different denominations of Christianity! It has led to wars such as the Crusades and the multitude of European wars following the onset of Protestantism. In the end, people believe in that which conforms to their preconceived ideas of history, science, and morality. For example, studies have shown that Christians tend to believe Jesus would be in favor of the social issues they consider the most important. In other words, the Jesus of conservatives is quite different than the Jesus of liberals.
Many Christians consider the Old Testament irrelevant to Christianity. Jesus was fond of dismissing many backward rules required by the Pentateuch. In addition, there are a number of passages such as "For Christ is the end of the Law, that everyone who has faith may be justified” (Romans 10:4) and "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You’re to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:28-29) which seem to imply that the Old Testament laws no longer apply. Yet, despite these passages and many Christian claims to the contrary, they do still use books such as Psalms for moral wisdom and Genesis for their understanding of our origins, among other examples. Thus, it seems the Old Testament works when it’s in Christians’ favor, but not when it promotes things like slavery and rape. Part of the reason for this may be that the New Testament isn’t very clear about how much of the Old Testament to ignore. For example, there are these passages:
- “For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:18-19)
- "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness." (2 Timothy 3:16)
- "Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the Holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God." (2 Peter 20-21)
I did provide a link to a list of these and other passages to a Christian recently and she responded “I looked at the link you provided and the blogger cherry-picked without consideration of the surrounding text. Or maybe [the] website was a deliberate exercise in hypocrisy, cherry-picking which verses support your bias, instead of looking at the entire chapter and the audience and cultural/socio-economic frame of reference in which He was teaching.” However, I doubt she would argue that “God is love” (1 John 4:16) is ever taken out of context.
In the end, what does it matter if you don’t explain the greater context of every seemingly unethical or contradictory Bible passage? The authors of the Bible were supposedly writing on God’s behalf for all of humanity past, present, and future. Why wouldn’t God inspire people more consistently and clearly so that you wouldn’t need 10 scholars with PhD's to figure out the context of every word? Is it because God works in mysterious ways? Is it because man has free will and makes mistakes? Or is it simply more plausible that beliefs change as cultures change, thus explaining not only the negative but also the positive messages written in this entirely man-inspired book?
Funny video satirizing Christian’s fervent need for context
List of Bible quotations about not ignoring the Old Testament
Good cherry picking article by atheist blogger Greta Christina
Christian commentary suggesting that everyone cherry picks
What life would be like if you didn’t cherry pick: one man’s journey