Saturday, 13 August 2011

A Superstitious People

In my last post I made a passing reference to "superstition" in the Bible but, before I go any further along in my story, I want to underscore this point a little.  As an unintended by-product of copious amounts of reading, I was developing a much deeper understanding re: the culture(s) of those living in "Bible times".  Oddly enough, I had never before associated those two words inside my head..."superstition" and "Bible".  (I realize the term "Bible times" is very broad but it will suffice to make my point here)

As my appreciation for ancient cultures increased, a funny thing happened; it caused me to begin reading the Bible through entirely new eyes...these were the eyes of a modern (scientifically literate) person, peering back into a world filled with wildly superstitious people.  Why hadn't I noticed this anachronism before?  It's as if I had always just assumed the Bible characters were essentially "like us", in this respect, but were they actually?

Just a few thousand years ago people believed all manner of things we wouldn't even dream of believing today, and they did so based on "evidence" that we would never accept by today's standards.  In this world the Gods lived above the clouds, and they controlled every detail of daily life...from throwing down the rain and lightning to causing sickness in those who displeased them.  Your life as an ancient person revolved around the sacrifices/rituals/prayers needed to keep these Gods happy with you.  (Sidebar...on the subject of polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, aka the Christian "Old Testament", check out this interesting documentary)

Bible stories that I had long believed to be historical in nature were suddenly feeling like just that...y'know...stories..

Did Lot's wife really turn into a pillar of salt?  Did a donkey actually talk?  Was Jonah truly swallowed by a giant fish?  Why did God feel the need to stop the tower of Babel?  Surely He knew they would never succeed in reaching heaven...even if they thought otherwise!  Why does the Bible speak of mythical creatures, such as unicorns?  Did the hem of Jesus' garment really possess magical healing powers?  Did the graves open up, after Jesus' death and resurrection, with a bunch of dead people walking around on the streets?  (Look it up for yourself, Matthew 27:51-53)  And, re: the latter story, why does no other ancient historian see fit to mention this?  On and on and on it goes, I could literally give hundreds of such examples from within the pages of the Bible. 

Does this necessarily mean all the Bible stories are false?  No, of course not.  Do some of these stories contain kernels of historical truth?  Absolutely.  Does it mean that ancient people were dumb?  Wrong again.  They were just superstitious, that's all.  But would you believe these stories if they weren't in the Bible?  Why not??

It seems to me that we only have two options here: a) God was super active, in "Bible times", and crazy supernatural stuff was happening constantly, or b) ancient people were really superstitious.  These are not, by definition, mutually exclusive (both could be true simultaneously) but is that the most likely scenario?  Why would God send Jesus down into this sort of world?  And would he really make our eternal destiny hang on believing in what these superstitious people told us, in some book that is additionally riddled with problems (as I discussed last time)?

Maybe there really is a conflict between science and religion, I thought...maybe a belief in God(s) really was humanity's first stab in the dark, like those "new atheists" were saying.  Christopher Hitchens puts it this way, "Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on". 

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