“Time and tide wait for no man.”
—Attributed to St. Marher, 1235
If anyone could halt the turning of the tide, you’d expect it to be the defenders of biblical morality. After all, they uphold the literal, unchanging, inerrant, indisputable Word of God. Or so they believe.
Take a close look, however, and the claim crumbles. You see, there is no Bible.
That’s right. The most widely published book in history does not exist—at least, not in an authoritative edition.
Rather, there are many Scriptures, and even more interpretations of Scripture. This has always been true, but never more true than today, when freedom of religion has come into its own. Biblegateway.com boasts an online smorgasbord of more than 100 versions of Scripture.
Impressive, but as nothing compared with the proliferation of denominations—more than 38,000 at last count—each with its own interpretation of what Scripture means for contemporary Christian life. The largest single Christian organization—the Catholic Church—purports to have a unitary doctrine, emanating from the Pope on high. In reality, though, Catholics hold as many differing views as the general population, so much so that the Vatican must expend considerable time and treasure in a futile attempt to stamp out heresy (www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/dowd-here-comes-nobody.html).
All of this matters. As Nebraska and the rest of the nation wrestle with acceptance of gay rights, “God’s Law” has come to be the conservatives’ only plausible line of defense.
Fairness falls almost entirely on the side of acceptance. It is a self-evident truth that in a society based on equality and liberty, the right of two competent and consenting adults to marry cannot be denied merely because they are of the same sex, let alone to be free of invidious discrimination in employment and housing.
Apart from Scripture, the only arguments against gay marriage are feeble, fallacious or transparently absurd. The National Review, for example, argues that the 1997 legalization of gay relationships in the Netherlands has caused a rapid rise in out-of-wedlock births there. Yeah, just as the 1997 Major League Baseball expansion draft led to a Giants victory … in this year’s Super Bowl.
Both are instances of the Rooster Fallacy—mistakenly believing that because shortly after the cock crows the sun rises, the former causes the latter. In reality, births outside marriage have been on the rise in many places, including the United States, since the 1950s (www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db18.pdf).
A Tangled History
So, it’s back to the Bible. We often forget that for the first generation of Christians, there was not so much as one version of the book we call the Bible. Writers are notorious procrastinators, but the Gospel scribes take the cake. So far as we know, they didn’t even begin to write down the story of Jesus until about 40 years after his death. (Paul beat them to it with his letters, but he never met Jesus in the flesh.)
Scholars have amassed many lines of evidence for the late start, but the Gospel of Mark, thought to be the earliest, contains a piece of internal evidence accessible to any of us: in Mark 13, Jesus prophesies the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, a development which came about in 70 C.E. as the Romans crushed a revolt by Jewish zealots. This episode in Mark could not have been persuasive to any audience prior to that date; indeed, it would have looked like a failed prophecy. The upshot is this: not a single word attributed to Jesus in the Bible can be traced back to a document written in his lifetime by someone who heard him speak.
Mind you, the four Gospels that are standard in nearly all Bibles today were hardly the only religious writings of the time. Literacy lodged in the hands of a tiny fraction of the Israelite population, but they kept busy, as the Dead Sea Scrolls project has shown, and their accounts varied considerably. The Gnostics alone produced numerous accounts of Jesus, some at wide variance with the canon. More than a dozen different Gospels survived the early Christian period, only to be suppressed by later religious authorities.
Greek writings about Jesus and the preceding prophets also flooded the market, making for a muddle that continues into the present, as we’ll shortly see. For many centuries, neither councils nor Popes could exert effective control over proliferating texts that had to be hand-copied by monks or scribes of varying education and cultural background. Mistakes were made.
The first printed Bible would take awhile. More than a millennium, in fact. Late in 1454 Johann Gutenberg turned the crank of his novel printing press and that year or the next produced the world’s first book published on a movable-type press—key to any kind of standardization (www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/gutenberg/).
It may surprise some folks to learn that the language of the Gutenberg Bible was not English but Latin. The late Molly Ivins used to tell the story of a good ol’ boy legislator in the Austin statehouse who, in the midst of a heated debate over a bilingual education bill, rose to declare, “If English was good enough for our lord Jesus Christ, then by God it’s good enough for the children of Texas!”
Soon after Gutenberg made it possible to mass-produce the Bible, the Protestant Reformation resulted in a reorganization of its content. The books of Hebrew origin were separated from those of Greek origin. The latter were doomed to be excised from the Protestant Bible as apocrypha. But not, for American Protestants, until much, much later.
America’s Multitude of Scriptures
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the U.S. Constitution’s only mentions of religion put it out of bounds for Congress to endorse or impede or as a test to bar anyone from running for public office. Nevertheless, Holy Writ has played a significant role in American history from the start. Our presidents take their oath on it, as do witnesses in court. Biblical chronology provides the basis for dating our laws “in the Year of Our Lord ….” even after most scholarly and professional publications have adopted the neutral term “Common Era” in place of “anno Domini.”
But the Bible in America has a far more complex history than most people imagine. Who would have thought, for example, that the first Bible to be printed in the Colonies would be not in Latin or English but in Algonquin? Yet, there it is: the Eliot Bible of 1663, and every word a phoneticized transliteration of the Native American nation’s tongue. (www.greatsite.com/ancient-rare-bible-leaves/eliot-1663-leaf.html).
To be sure, most early Americans did not speak Algonquin. They relied on King James Bibles, imported from England. Still, they put them to highly varying uses. Cotton Mather, minister of Boston’s Old North church, drew on Old Testament passages about witchcraft to instigate the Salem witch trials, a period of madness in which dozens of innocents died horrific deaths. (law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/sal_bmat.htm).
Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, carefully scissored out all miracles and other mumbo jumbo (as he saw it) from the Bible until he was left with an inspirational text that matched up with his moral predispositions. Presumably, he left the many passages approving slavery intact.
As America diversified in the 19th century, so did its Bibles. With the influx of Catholic immigrants came the Catholic Bible, which differs in significant respects from the Protestant one, not least in having a different Decalogue. The 10 Commandments, which Judge Roy Moore of Alabama was so eager to display in his courtroom a decade ago, actually exist in several varieties. For starters, there are two instances of the 10 Commandments in the typical Bible, occurring in Exodus and Deuteronomy, with slight textual differences between them. That in itself is odd, but perhaps no odder than the four Gospels, which tell widely varying accounts of the life of Jesus.
Though slight, the Decalogue differences can be significant. For example, some interpret Deuteronomy’s version to distinguish a neighbor’s wife from his property—that is, to consider her a person, in contrast to goods and chattels—while the Exodus version lists the wife as part and parcel of the property that thou shall not covet. Poor thing, she doesn’t even come first in the list. (http://ggreenberg.tripod.com/101m/101-78-ten%20comm.htm).
In any event, the Bible read by most 19th-century American Protestants differed from those in general use today. For whatever reasons, Protestant Bibles in America continued to carry the Old Testament apocrypha until as late as 1897. While today’s Protestant Bible has 66 books, the 19th-century versions tended to have at least seven more, which remain in the Catholic Bible today. But there were more changes yet to come.
The Fallacy of Fixed Morality
Many people mistakenly believe that fundamentalism represents the long history of Christianity. In reality, it is barely a century old, a reaction against the worldview challenges posed by science, especially Darwinian evolution.
Yet the Bible most of today’s evangelicals use is younger still. The New American Standard Bible was completed in 1971, the result of a fervent effort to go back to the primary sources and produce a faithful translation of God’s Word.
It was and is a vain hope.
Words are perhaps humankind’s most powerful invention, but like clouds they are billowing shape-shifters, appearing different to every eye and in every moment. What all these many Bibles have in common is this: in every age, in every denomination and quite likely in every heart, people ignore some parts and interpret others to suit their needs. Or, worse still, they allow others to do so for them.
Think I’m exaggerating? How many times have you seen paintings depicting God, angels or Jesus on the cross? The crucifixion alone must be the single most common image in all of art. Yet, there in Exodus, under the 10 Commandments as delivered by Moses, are the plain words: “You shall not make for yourself ...any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth or in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4, NASB) Only the Muslims have taken this commandment to heart, but even they often transgress it.
The self-anointed defenders of “traditional marriage” may sincerely believe that they are carrying out God’s Will, but in reality they are making the choice to participate in institutional bigotry—just as their Bible-bearing forebears chose to cite Scripture in defense of the Peculiar Institution of slavery.
I have written extensively about this history elsewhere, so here I will say only that while the Bible unambiguously approves of slavery in many places, only laying down some rules for its conduct, justification for the enslavement of millions of Africans relied almost entirely on the “Curse of Ham,” a strange little episode in the life of Noah that appears at Genesis 9 (www.huffingtonpost.com/clay-naff/ron-brown-how-old-time-religion-motivates-his-crusade_b_1500990.html).
Today largely forgotten, it is the single-most consequential Bible passage in all of American history. But let us leave aside history and return to the question of gay marriage. The Bible appears to many on the Religious Right to roundly condemn it. Marriage, they say, was ordained by God as one man and one woman, united as one flesh. Here is an excerpt from a calm, thoughtful essay by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:
Why are Christians so concerned with homosexuality? In the first place, that question is answered by the simple fact that it is the most pressing moral question of our times. Christians must be concerned about adultery, pornography, injustice, dishonesty and everything the Bible names as sin. But when my phone rings with a call from a reporter these days, the question I am asked is never adultery or pornography. It is about homosexuality. Christians who are seriously committed to the authority of the Bible have no choice but to affirm all that the Bible teaches, including its condemnation of homosexuality. (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/21/my-take-the-bible-condemns-a-lot-but-heres-why-we-focus-on-homosexuality/)
Clear and straightforward, right? Only not so fast. In fact, the Bible’s rules about marriage are all over the map. They run deep into territory that shocks the conscience.
If you were to hear someone arguing that a young woman who is raped should marry her rapist, you might suppose that the speaker was one of the more backward mullahs of the Taliban. But in fact this is law, as laid down in Deuteronomy: “If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.” (Deut. 22:28, NASB)
Well, at least her father gets something out of the deal. I trust that most of us would recoil from such a proposal as a moral outrage. Indeed, all Christians except the most primitive Reconstructionists simply filter it out, along with the prohibitions on divorce, the requirement that a nonvirginal bride be stoned to death, and Paul’s advice against having sex or marrying.
Dr. Mohler, for example, claims that the New Testament’s Book of Acts frees Christians from the obligation to follow the Old Testament laws. “This is made clear,” he writes in the essay cited above, “in Peter’s vision in Acts 10:15. Peter is told, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’” Oh, yes, that makes it all clear—and conveniently overlooks the plain endorsement of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and all the rest by none other than Jesus himself, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18, NASB) Still, nothing a little selective reading and self-serving interpretation can’t manage.
So much for the Bible on straight marriage. But what of gay marriage? Just as the Constitution is not about religion, the Bible is not about homosexuality. Jesus has nothing to say about it. Less than a dozen of the more than 30,000 verses in the Bible purport to address homosexuality. I say “purport” because there are plausible reasons to question whether a commandment such as “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination” was meant as a general and eternal prohibition against homosexuality or not. For one thing, you’ll notice that it fails to address sexual relations between women at all. More important, the context gives some scholars reason to believe that the laundry list of rules it occurs in had more to do with temple membership than general conduct. The ancient Israelites had plenty of competition for religious affiliation, and they (or their God) took pains to make membership in the tribes of Israel distinctive. Should those rules bind Christians today?
Dr. Mohler says no, but let’s face it, he’s just pickin’ and choosin’. Jesus says yes. If you go with Jesus, then you’d better go all the way. Turn off the filter. Picket Red Lobster for serving shellfish. Swear off bacon. Shut down the pork producers. Never touch a football again. For, according to the Bible, each of these is unclean and forbidden.
But don’t stop there: bring back slavery. Reconvene the Inquisition to root out witches. Burn any church that contains a painting of heaven or Jesus. Sell your daughter for the statutory amount. Until you sign onto all the Bible’s rules, you have no moral justification for condemning gay marriage. Not a jot or a tittle.
Or you could do what millions of Christians have done: reframe your understanding of the Bible not as a book of laws to be conveniently interpreted for you by your local preacher or priest but as a source of historical and metaphorical inspiration to love, forgive and serve.
If that’s asking too much, if you simply must rely on the Bible as the sole source of law, then I ask, what of that other great moral question of our time? I refer, of course, to texting while driving. There, Scripture remains oddly silent.