April 28, 2009
Loftus on “The Strange And Superstitious World of the Bible”
I thoroughly recommend John Loftus’s Why I Became An Atheist. In my mind it fills the gap nicely between pop-atheist works (like Dawkins) and specialized scholarship (such as Michael Martin). Of course, any well-read atheist or theist should have all three authors on their bookshelves, anyway.
John has rightly trumpeted his “Outsider Test for Faith” as a new and unique contribution to atheist counterapologetics (and I agree). But I wanted to focus in on a less-celebrated but still insightful passage. This is from page 152 of the paperback edition:
The Bible is filled with claims that a few of our bodily organs are the seat of emotions. The Old Testament understands the liver, bowels and heart as emotional seats for mental states that were later reduced in the New Testament to the heart. What Jesus said is typical: “For our of the heart comes forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies.” (Matt. 15:19).
One scholarly reference tells us: “There is in the New Testament a rich usage of heart (kardia) for a. the seat of feelings, desires and passions (e.g., joy, pain, love, desire and lust; cf. Acts 2:26; John 16:6; 2 Cor. 7:3; Rom. 10:1; 1:24); b. the seat of thought and understanding (cf. Matt. 7:21; John 12:40; Acts 8:22; Mark 11:23; Rev. 18:7; Rom. 1:21); c. the seat of the will (e.g., Acts 11:23; 2 Cor. 9:7; Luke 21:14); and d. which determines moral conduct (e.g., Luke 16:15; Rom. 5:5; 8:27; Eph. 3:17; Heb. 8:10; 2 Pet. 1:19; as the heart of the sinner, Mark 7:21; John 12:40; Eph. 4:18; James 1:25; as the heart of the redeemed, Matt. 11:29; 1 Tim. 1:5; 1 Thess. 3:13; Coloss. 3:22; 1 Pet. 3:15; James 4:8, etc.)”
Every Christian I’ve ever asked to explain these sorts of passages replies with something on the order of, “well, those are just figures of speech,” or “Jesus was talking to people of their own time in their own idiom.” (I get the same explanation when I ask how the Earth can have corners or stars can fall from the sky.)
But have you ever thought how “I love her with all my heart” became a metaphor in the first place? John has. He notes:
Most prescientific ancient cultures believed that the heart was the seat of emotions simply because it beat faster or slower depending on the emotional state of people. They concluded that a person used it to feel and to think. The process of mummification by ancient Egyptian priests, for instance, involved saving all the major internal organs in urns (including the heart) but removing the brain through the nasal cavity and throwing it away as totally useless.
Why do we say “I love you with all my heart” today? Because people in the time of Jesus — including Jesus himself, if he existed — sincerely believed it as literally true.
Now, that doesn’t prove the Bible isn’t the “inspired, inerrant, holy word of God.” But — at least for me — it does contribute to an overall judgment that the Bible appears to be a product of ordinary people writing in their own time.