In response to various claims of the religious right, but particularly regarding the debate over marriage equality, several people on Kos and elsewhere have asserted that the Bible is bloody, misogynist, chauvinist, or in some other way utterly incompatible with civilized morals and values. I will argue that not only is this approach completely ineffective at convincing anybody who takes the Bible seriously, it serves to reinforce the fundamentalist worldview and ultimately undermines liberal and progressive stances on a range of issues.
Before I get to the Bible, let me define and explain fundamentalism. I will assert that all texts – but particularly opaque ancient texts – are only understood through the contexts and communities in which they are read. The goal of fundamentalism is to deny this context and community and therefore assert a new “true” reading of the text. In doing so, the fundamentalists, of course, create a new textual context and build a community around that context, but one radically divorced from history and tradition. Such a move can be done for any variety of reasons, but in the last century all or nearly all fundamentalist movements have been reactionary and anti-modern. So the gist is that by asserting that the Bible is reactionary and anti-modern, we are building and strengthening the modern fundamentalist textual context. In fact, the reactionary reading of the bible promoted by many anti-religious writers is itself a fundamentalism, radically divorced from the history and tradition in which the Bible has been understood. America now faces two fundamentalisms, one Christian and one anti-religious. Far from opposing each other, these fundamentalisms agree on most textual points, differing only in the conclusions they draw from them. Let me elaborate below the squiggle.
We can read in the Bible about all sorts of horrible and repulsive things; genocide, slavery, rape, patriarchy, bronze age warfare, etc. The approach of anti-religious fundamentalism is to read such passages in the worst possible light, then to assume that their reading represents the beliefs and practices not only of the culture that produced the Bible but of every culture that subsequently treated the Bible as a sacred text. Anti-religious fundamentalism is then able to argue “see what sort of horrible things your Bible says” and conclude that a thoroughly secular outlook is the only justified response. The flaw with this approach is that there is no evidence to suggest the Bible was ever read in such a way by any significant community of believers.
The earliest two corpuses that offer substantial insight into to how ancient religious communities read and thought about the Bible are the writings of ancient Jewish rabbis as compiled in the Talmud and early Christian texts including the writings of the Church Fathers and the New Testament itself (which comments substantially on the older Hebrew scriptures). I will consider two of the chief charges against the Bible. 1st, that it is deeply misogynist – treating women like chattel who are the literal property of their fathers and husbands. 2nd, that its legal code is bloody and ruthless – ordering death and dismemberment for a wide range of trivial offenses, many of which we would consider well within freedom of conscience and expression today. I will look at both these problems from the perspective of early Christian writings and from the perspective of the Talmud. I will argue that neither early Christians nor Rabbinic Jews read the Bible as implying anything remotely resembling either of these two claims.
While not entirely abrogating the structures of patriarchy so prevalent in its day, the Talmud makes it abundantly clear that women are not property and that marriage is a partnership. It states that bride prices must be set as a single coin of the smallest possible denomination (modern Jewish communities accept an engagement ring in lieu of this). It states that sex is the woman’s choice and that the husband is obligated to sexually please his wife. (The Talmud is, in general, highly “sex positive”, portraying it as mutually enjoyable activity that strengthen the bonds between husband and wife.) Marital rape is strongly condemned. Though it also states that refusing sex as punishment is grounds for divorce. Furthermore, it strongly implies that the wife is mistress of the house and responsible for the household’s economic matters. The Talmud has very liberal rules for divorce, although gender unequal ones (the husband can divorce “no-fault”, while the wife needs to go to court). It also requires that the alimony for divorce be specified in the marriage contract. Talmudic Judaism did allow for polygamy (later Jewish authorities banned it), but required that the multiple wives be treated equally in every respect. This vision of marriage is, of course, radically different from the notion of women as chattel. Though the structural vestiges of patriarchy remain, no profit is permitted in the transfer of daughter from father to husband, the husband is not allowed to use his wife as he will but is obligated to see to her needs, and the realism of liberal divorce rules is tempered with assurances for the well-being of all involved.
Early Christian writings also suggest a fairly radical break from notions of women as chattel. The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes the story of Adam and Eve being one flesh as the model for marriage. The Church Fathers took this to imply doctrine of “Holy Matrimony” that is still preached today – that marriage should not be viewed as economic or merely physical but instead as having vast spiritual dimensions. The Church Fathers (particularly Augustine) take this to mean that neither polygamy nor divorce are permitted as this spiritual merging of a couple is a unique event in their relation with God. Although monogamy was normative in the Roman Empire, cultures that subsequently adopted Christianity conformed to these views, prohibiting polygamy, bride kidnapping, etc., and also generally adopting the dowry in lieu of the bride price – with the idea that the father should support his daughter rather than profit from her. Other than occasional Protestant rumblings of doing things differently, such practices became normative for most of the history of Christianity. Christianity also took a fairly anti-sexual attitude (as is well known), encouraging celibacy and limited sexual intercourse even in marriage. While these practices by no means entirely abrogate patriarchy, it does not treat the woman as a chattel to be disposed of as her father and husband wish. Men are instead obligated to unite themselves only with a single woman and consider that union a holy spiritual partnership.
Now for the Bible’s alleged bloody inhumanity: Here the Talmud almost bends over backward to insist that this was never the case. Incredibly stringent standards are emplaced for a death sentence to ever be handed down. Two Kosher witnesses must not only have seen the crime but publicly warned the criminal that what he was about to do was a sin punishable by death. By Kosher, it means that witnesses must themselves be known to lead holy lives, free from sin. When Jesus, in the New Testament, says “may he who is without sin cast the first stone”, he is in complete agreement with the Pharisees who would have held the same position. Any contradiction between the witnesses’ testimony, however minor, is grounds for acquittal. A unanimous opinion of guilt by the court is also grounds for acquittal (the idea being that nobody stood up for the accused). Thus Rabbinic Judaism holds that mercy far overrides any demands from the Bible for blood. In fact, Jewish courts did not put people to death in historical times; the worst punishment being ostracism from the community. This was typically reserved only for Sabbath breakers, though murderers could be handed over to secular courts.
Early Christianity effectively abolished the concept of physical punishment for sin, instead adopting the doctrine of the inherent sinful nature of humanity and the need for repentance and forgiveness and the redemptive power of Christ. This is repeatedly emphasized in the New Testament and by the Church Fathers (i.e. If your brother sins against you seven times a day…) and removed any concept of the Church implementing punishments. Christian societies did, of course, maintain secular courts which often did mete out harsh justice. However, contrary to what Christian fundamentalists would have you believe, these were based on Roman and pagan legal traditions (British Common Law being largely based on the legal customs of the Vikings, for example). The Church was sometimes involved in legal prosecutions – most famously with the persecution of perceived heretics; though even with this, the punishments were explicitly carried out by the “secular arm”.
I should stress that neither early Christianity nor Rabbinic Judaism saw themselves as in anyway abrogating or contradicting the Bible. They saw their teachings on matrimony and judicial bloodshed as in perfect harmony with the true intention of the text. It could be argued that fundamentalists, both Christian and anti-religious, are capturing the true meaning of the text better than any historic religious community. But as neither fundamentalism bases its conclusions on archeology or any other discipline that would aid us in reconstructing the culture that produced the Bible; both are arbitrary reconstructions of the text’s meaning that serve modern purposes. The purposes of Christian fundamentalists are clear: They aim to use the text to oppose social justice and gender equality. So to what purpose, what conceivable purpose, are anti-religious fundamentalists also reconstructing the text as opposing social justice and gender equality? They assume a need for justice and gender equality, then use the text to attack religion. But shouldn’t it be completely clear why this argument would never convince a Christian fundamentalist? The Christian fundamentalist says, “The Bible opposes justice and equality”. The anti-religious fundamentalist says, “Yes, you’re right, the Bible opposes justice and equality. Now support justice and equality.” Isn’t it clear why this isn’t exactly convincing?
Beyond being unconvincing, this argument is deeply damaging to the causes of justice and equality. If somebody comes forward with a Bible-based argument against justice, it is most effective to answer them with a Bible-based argument for justice. If you are unable or unwilling to do this, then say that our laws are based on secular principles (which would be true, though not very convincing to them). But if you answer them by agreeing that the Bible opposes justice, you are further propping up their world view. And even if we succeed in warding off all influence of theocracy from our laws (an effort in which liberals have had limited success at best), by supporting anti-religious fundamentalism we are condemning those who do stay in religious communities to lives of greater oppression and diminished liberty. As I have attempted to briefly illustrate here, Biblically-based support of liberal causes need not require a radical re-reading of the text. It can be firmly based in the way the text was historically read in both Jewish and Christian communities. I do not expect that all liberals want to join in the project of building a reading of the Bible that supports justice, liberty, and equality. But those unwilling or unable, should at least desist from supporting fundamentalism, whatever their anti-religious motives.