Wednesday, February 29, 2012

No One Actually Reads the Bible

Every day, millions of people around the world pull out their Bible and open the religious book in hopes of finding some inspiration.  They thumb through the first 39 books, known as the Old Testament or the Jewish Bible, or through the New Testament, the remaining 27 books, looking for guidance, lessons or thoughts of their day.  They think they are reading the word of God.  They are wrong.  No one can actually read the Bible.

That seems illogical.  After all, people have picked up a book called the Bible and opened it for a long time.  After all, the document was compiled in the fourth century CE.  

However, no one then or now is reading the original texts.  They are reading translations.  The original texts don’t exist anymore.  The material, that the words were written on did not survive the centuries: fragile papyrus, which are pressed reeds and do not last long; or on prepared animal skin, which dries and absorbs the ink. As a result, the texts were repeatedly copied with multiple, inadvertent mistakes added simply because humans were creating the copies.

Historian Paul Johnson estimated there are more than 100,000 changes in the New Testament alone, what he called “pious editing.”  For example, until the mid1800s, the Gospel of Mark contained a resurrection story, which turned out to be a late addition and was subsequently deleted after an older version of the text was found minus such a story.

Secondly, the texts are written in the ancient versions of Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.  Those languages are not the same as their modern version.  They had no grammatical marks between sentences, no space between words, no vowels and were basically nothing more than a steady flow of letters.  As a result, it’s often impossible to know where one word stops and another begins.  That’s one reason there are so many translations that don’t agree with each other.

The third problem is the words themselves.  Even skilled translators can’t guess the meanings of many of them.  For example, in the 11th century, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, better known as Rashi, wrote a complete and justifiably famous translation of the first five books of the Bible.  His most common phrase is “Hebrew unintelligible.”  That was close to 1,000 years ago, and historians know less about the language today than Rashi did then.

In addition, many of the phrases are idioms, puns or colloquial.  They may have been familiar in their day, but not now.  For example, in the book of Jonah, the prophet was swallowed by a “large fish” because he did not want to preach to Jews in Nineveh, the capital of the hated Assyrian empire.  However, only in modern times did scholars learn that “swallowed by a large fish” means “reluctant to go somewhere.”

Basically, Jonah was briefly turned into fish food because a later transcriber didn’t know the meaning of the idiomatic phrase and created a scene in which Jonah actually was ingested by a large fish.  That is also true for hundreds of terms that can be translated today, but are not understood.    

Also, all ancient languages like Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek contain relatively few words and regularly repeat them.  That means that even a good translation must choose a meaning from a limited number of words.  For example, in the book Kings, there’s a story about the prophet Elijah being fed by “ravens” or Arabs” while he hid from the king.  Both words are identical in Hebrew and are identified only by pronunciation.  However, since there are no vowels in Hebrew, no one knows how those words were pronounced.  Today, translators must pick whatever meaning they like.

In addition, there are very strange sentences.  For example, in Kings, the Bible says that “Saul was one year old when he began to rule.”  That clearly makes no sense, but that’s what is written.  No translator leaves it that way.

Also, there are gaps in the texts.  In English, the lacunas disappear, but not in the ancient texts.  Translators simply fill in words.

Moreover, there are multiple versions of almost every book in the Bible.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947, contain 38 books of the Old Testament.  There are multiple versions of every book except the book of Esther, which was a later addition to the canon and was not found with the Scrolls.  So, even if historians could completely translate a text, they would not know which text was the correct one.

As a result, no matter how often the millions of people open a Bible and read what’s there, they really aren’t reading the Bible.  No one can.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Identifying the Antichrist

I was doing a radio show, answering questions about the historical problems with biblical texts, when a woman phoned to call me the antichrist.  I told her that antichrists should be taller (I’m average height) and have some significant powers.  My only ability is to really annoy religious people.   Then, recently, I saw a television show on the antichrist, who, I can assure you, didn’t resemble me in the least.

 “He’ll be worse than Hitler and Stalin (left) combined,” one religious professor gushed.  That’s definitely not me.  I avoid stepping on ants outside my house.

Nevertheless, I understand the continued fixation on this loathsome creature.  The expectation is that the antichrist is coming in the near future – along with the end of the world, which is forever being postponed for one annoying reason or another.

Unfortunately for people who revel in such beliefs, the future existence of an antichrist contradicts religious teaching that one was already born 2,000 years ago. The Revelation of St. John, which engendered the concept but never used the term antichrist, isn’t specific on the exact day of his appearance, but does detail the cataclysm he’ll unleash.  However, epistle writers John and Paul insist the antichrist was on Earth during their lifetimes.

The line, "You have heard that Antichrist cometh," appears in I John 2:28 and is emphasized with "This is Antichrist, of whom you have heard that he cometh" in 1 John 4:3.

In fact, John believes there are many antichrists – anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus: “For many seducers are gone out into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh: this is a seducer and an antichrist.” (I John 4:3)  Considering the two-thirds of the world still don’t believe in Jesus, the number of antichrists must be legion.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes the antichrist as a person  who will " sit in the temple of God, showing himself as if he were God; he will work signs and lying wonders by the power of Satan; he will seduce those who received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved…” (2-10)  

Of course, early Christian fathers aren’t the only ones hung up on the antichrist concept.   In Jewish legend, the antichrist was named Armilus and was to be countered – as in Christianity – by the messiah. 

And, of course, many such individuals have appeared in history.  News about them naturally drew commentary from local residents.  "In the year 1599, a rumor circulated with prodigious rapidity through Europe that the antichrist had been born in Babylon, and that already the Jews of that part were hurrying to receive and recognize him as their messiah." according to historian Baring-Gould. 

A year later, people were talking about an antichrist supposedly born near Paris to a Jewess named Blanchefleure ("white flower") and conceived by Satan.  The child was baptized.  A "witch" who was tortured to learn the truth, confessed that she had rocked the infant antichrist on her knee and that he had "claws on his feet, wore no shoes, and spoke all languages,” Baring-Gould noted.  That’s more than 340 years before I was born. 

In 1623, the tales started again.  This time, brothers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, residing on Malta, claimed that their spies in Babylon had seen the infant antichrist born there on May 1.  The birth was marked by an eclipse of the sun, swarms of flying serpents and a shower of precious stones.

The antichrist Churchill
No such signs were necessary for other antichrists.  In fact, almost every famous person in history in the last 2,000 years has been identified as an antichrist by someone else.  I’m in good company.  The list includes popes, emperors, kings and such Western leaders as Winston Churchill (left) and Franklin Roosevelt.   Actually, all presidents right through Obama have gotten that label, freely distributed by opponents and proponents of the antichrist theory. 

You’d figure that, by now, someone would realize that the antichrist is a figment of an overactive imagination.  He appears simply to provide a foil for the “true God.”  Of course, if God is all powerful, you might wonder why an antichrist would have much success.

People pushing the antichrist concept weren’t crazy.  They recognized that there are lots of problems in the world.  So, they invented an antichrist for Jesus to defeat.   In modern parlance, that’s a “straw man.”  Build up a mirage and knock it down.   One sect went further and insisted the true God didn’t create the Earth and its negative aspects.  Instead, that was the demiurge, the evil god, who must be overcome for peace and justice to prevail.

Good luck with that idea, too.

The truth is that there is no antichrist, not now, not in the past and definitely not me.

I’m just anti.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Burning Sacred Books? So What?

Somehow, in Afghanistan, several copies of the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, ended up in a trash heap this week and were burned in front of NATO headquarters there.  Gen. John Allen, the supreme commander of NATO troops, said the books were included in trash to be discarded and inadvertently given to troops to burn.

"It was not a decision that was made with respect to the faith of Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it, we immediately stopped and we intervened,” he told reporters.

President Barack Obama has also apologized to the Afghans, well aware that Muslims believe the Quran is so holy that it can only be touched with freshly washed hands.

Despite the apologies, the Taliban – ever alert to any excuse to regain power – called on Afghanis to kill infidels who dared to burn the book in what Muslims call an act of intolerance and bigotry. Several NATO soldiers have already been killed by angry Muslims.  There have also been a handful of riots.

Burning the Bible would outrage some Christian leaders, too.  Jews would be furious if a Torah ended up in the flames.

Welcome to the world of paper gods.

The Quran is a book.  So is the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, the Avista of the Zoroastrians and every other religious text.  They have no value except as books.  They are seen as sacred because they contain religious teachings.  That means they are only of value to someone who believes in the words.

That’s why Florida minister Terry Jones could threaten to burn the Quran.  Yes, it was a publicity stunt, but the book had no meaning to him.  Turning the Quran, Bible etc. into a holy object that cannot be in some way manhandled or destroyed is to raise it onto an altar as a god.

There are enough deities already, thank you.

Besides, where does one stop?  How about the printers’ plates used to produce religious texts?  The electronic images of the pages sent to the printer? Shouldn’t they be saved?  How about the machines that the books are printed on?  In linotype, book pages are put together letter by letter. Ever wonder what happened to the type that was used for that purpose?  It was melted down and recast.  God’s name and all.  Shouldn’t the metal pieces have been preserved?

Has any Muslim ever asked where are all the pieces of paper, leaves and linen used to record down the Prophet’s words?  In Muhammad’s day, around the 7th century, there were no stationary stores, no letterhead, no fancy paper with watermarks.  People wrote down their thoughts and stories on whatever was available: palm leaves, walls, whatever.

That material was collected some 30 years later in the reign of Caliph Uthman.  The text became standardized in the middle of the 7th century, but even Islamic scholars agree that not all of it may have originated with Muhammad.  Some may have been added or subtracted as times and conditions changed.

What happened to the original writings?  They were discarded, of course.  So were early texts of biblical books.  Historians would love to find an original Matthew or Mark, for example, but none exists.  The oldest New Testament dates from around the 3rd century with only rare fragments from earlier times.

What happened to those early sacred texts?  They were discarded, maybe burned.  Once they wore out from use, they were copied (with the usual assortment of errors added) and then thrown away.  They were also written on vellum, parchment and papyrus, none of which can endure very long.  Parchment documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls promptly disintegrated when exposed to the light. Texts written 2,000 years ago and not as well protected have hardly had a chance.

Jews developed the policy of not destroying the name of God.  They bury books and sacred items, such as prayer shawls, which may contain God’s name.  In a way, that’s a good thing: the long-lost writings of the famed Jewish philosopher Maimonides were recovered centuries later because they were hidden and not burned.  However, his books were kept in a house.  How long would they have lasted in the ground?  How long do any sacred objects buried today last?  Ask any archaeologist.  The stuff that survives is made of stone.  Almost nothing else endures.

The point is that books come and books go.  They are simply objects.  It's not polite to abuse sacred objects from other faiths, but that's not the point.  What matters is what the books say: the philosophy behind the faith.

The name Islam is derived from the Arabic word for peace, salaam.

It would be nice if parishioners practiced the philosophy they preach rather than get wrought up over a few books that lose all meaning if the ideas contained within them are ignored.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Atheism Requires Courage

When a friend, Don, died recently, I discovered something very unusual about him, something he had kept hidden throughout his life.  He was an atheist.  His daughter told me that secret.  She said Don thought all religion was “human superstition.”

That’s when I realized how brave he was.

It takes enormous courage to face death, believing that there is nothing beyond.   Yet, Don did so with humor and total lack of concern.  Limited to a wheelchair, he was wheeled to Christian services every Sunday and gamely sat through them, never saying a word.  He had a Bible in his room and never asked it be removed.

Instead, he kept his beliefs to himself.

How different he is from political candidates like Rick Santorum, who insists everyone believe as he does.  He has many people who agree with him -- that goodness, only a small number nationally are so fixated – and can be assured of applause whenever he invokes his faith.

Don had no such support group.  Atheists are a small, but growing number.  According to a 2009 study, 15 percent of Americans count themselves as atheists.  None of them will vote for Santorum.  Many, like Don, will keep their “religious” feelings secret. 

One atheist willing to face the inevitable abuse is Richard Dawkins, an English evolutionary biologist who has encouraged atheists to stand up for their (non)beliefs.  His 2006 book, The God Delusion, has been translated into at least 31 languages.  He has the stature and boldness to reject withering criticism.

Not everyone is as strong. 

In a 2009 NPR interview, Blair Scott, founder of the North Alabama Free Thought Association, talked about being harassed and discriminated against because of his atheistic beliefs.    He admires Dawkins, noting that Dawkins “talks about several places where it's okay to be an atheist. There are so many people out there that are just afraid to use the dreaded A word, you know, because they're afraid of the repercussions, and those repercussions are real.”

The followers of Santorum and others in his belief system see nothing wrong with attacking verbally and, sometimes, physically, people who believe differently.  For example, Santorum has been busily insulting President Barack Obama, a devout Southern Baptist, insisting that Obama isn’t a “true” believer.

He has "some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible.  A different theology," Santorum told a crowd in Ohio. 

He’s been more acrimonious.  In a 2008 speech, Santorum decided the Devil was attacking the U.S. through Obama.   In it, Santorum claimed Satan had his sights set on America and the country was facing spiritual warfare.  Few candidates are privy to Old Scratch’s inner thoughts like Santorum, but the implication is that only he can stave off such evil.

Such assaults will get more virulent in time as believers like Santorum continue to see the foundations of their beliefs chipped away by science.  The damage has already been widespread.

Once, the Earth was the center of the universe. Now, we know we are a lowly planet on the outskirts of a massive galaxy, one of billions of planets in one of billions of galaxies.  Once, the firmament overhead held the divine realm.  Now, we know that rockets pierce it without disturbing a single angel, and that the universe extends in all directions in seemingly without limit.

Once, goodly scholars could cite the Bible as historically correct.  Today, we know it represents the beliefs of the authors, not the reality of history. Once, believers could ask: “what is man and why is God mindful of him?”  That was before science showed that the Earth had a natural beginning and will die a natural death, regardless of its inhabitants.

Scientists have probed the inner mind, deciphered the genetic code, explained the origins of man within a natural system and, slowly and surely, undermined the belief in the supernatural, a belief that has sustained mankind for thousands of years.

Religion grew in a void of knowledge.  It has endured, but faces a challenge unlike any other.  Knowledge has always been religion’s bĂȘte noire.  The more knowledge, the more that religion falters.

To people like Santorum, the only solution is to defame those who seek another truth.  However large the roar is at the moment, it is fading, like the echo of the Big Bang that initiated the universe.  The evidence is as near as the television.

I recently saw a television program narrated by physicist Stephan Hawking, misshaped and confined to his wheelchair.  He courageously said that there is no god as he delineated the known information about the university.

That was the first honest and purely atheistic program I ever saw on TV. 

It won’t be the last.

Don would have been proud.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.