Often now when answering questions on various websites about the bible I am told that atheist are not qualified to interpret the bible because they are atheist. I would argue that it is almost impossible for Christians to interpret because of their religious dogma. As I explain a few things I have discovered about how to understand the bible better the reason I believe this to be true will become very evident.
The first thing I would like to point out is not necessary to understanding the Bible better but just makes it much easier. The words Sin and Evil share the same two meanings for all practical purposes.
1) Whatever causes harm
2) What ever pisses off God
They may have one or both meanings in context.
Lets start at the beginning
The book of Genesis is my favorite book of the Bible. If you can understand it you can easily understand the rest of the bible. So lets start with he first story. So god and Jesus are talking and they decide to make man, they do so and soon after Satan deceives Eve which leads to Original Sin which makes all of us sinners so we are all condemned to hell,. Right? Not at all. Genesis 1:26 says "let us make man in our image..." The author does not specify who us is. Jesus would not be thought of until hundreds of years later. A snake deceived Eve not Satan. Again, there is no concept of Satan even suggested by the authors(plural) of Genesis. Original Sin was not thought of until St. Augustine proffered the idea in his book City of God written about 413-426 C.E.
Christians, as I once did, read their theology into the Bible unconsciously. When they do they are making their own story as they read it. In doing so it is impossible to understand what the author actually intended.
There is actually more theology attributed to the Bible than is actually in the bible. I will give a few examples, The virgin birth, the trinity, the rapture, and Original Sin. If we take out just these few concepts that were not originally part of the bible it dramatically changes the way the bible is understood. There are many, many, more dogmatic concepts read into the bible we only got to the first chapter. Imagine how much more the bible is misunderstood in the other 1,189 chapters!
The lesson here is we must not read anything into the bible but try to understand the story or concept that the author was trying to convey. This is very easy for one that has no Christian dogmatic background. I have spent 20 years trying to keep my mind from editing the text as I read but there is always something I find out that I was taught that is not actually part of the bible that misleads my understanding.
The Bible is not A book
As a fundamentalist I was taught that the Bible was "The inspired Word of God'. This has many meanings but basically what is being said here is that its Gods book written as He wished it to be though man was used as his tools to write it. The key is it is understood to be one whole book of God. It will be admitted that it was written by many authors but it is to be read as one collection of Gods words. God is the single author that must be credited for its actual contents.
This is one part of where the bible is much misunderstood by Christians.
Lets say we asked all of the living presidents to write essays about foreign policy, healthcare, and the environment etc. and we put all these writings into one book or canon(bible). We appropriately call it the Presidents Bible. We could hold any political position we wished and quote mine and prove The Presidents Bible supported our ideas. We could also do the same if we took the opposing position.The same is true with the Bible.
We would not take one quote from one President and an differing idea from another and say "The Presidents Bible conflicts with its self." We would recognize that we have many authors with many opinions and appreciate their opinions as individuals. We would not mash all the ideas together to make a mega opinion, about say, The environment, as the ideas would be conflicting and nonsensical.
This is exactly how the Bible is read by Christians. They have a religious dogmatic idea and unconsciously make the bible say what they believe by taking a little of what fits their beliefs from passages throughout the Bible. Individual authors ideas are not taken into account. As with our example of The book of Presidents the Bible was written by many authors but over a time period of thousands of years, by people of different cultures. One can not even think of them as writing about one god.
The gods of the Bible
Lets say we go to the local Baptist church and ask the kind elderly folks at Sunday school if God is love. No doubt they would all agree that god is love. Now lets pull them off to the side individually and ask them what that means. Now the answers will be all over the place. We have now tapped into what their ideas of what is important to god and what they think god is capable of. Though they are the same group their specific concept of God is different from everyone else. Imagine how much more different the concepts of what God was to the authors of the Bible! There is not one God described in the Bible but many Gods. wind gods, volcano gods, sun gods, war gods and on and on.
Jesus and Paul
Most Christians believe that after Jesus died that Paul simply was in complete agreement Jesus and spread Jesus's message, a message that only slightly changed after Jesus's death. I do not know if Jesus was a historical person and that question is in much debate. I will speak of the "Jesus traditions" as if he was a historical person for ease of understanding.
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. His message was that a literal physical God was going to kick Roman butt and establish a physical Jewish kingdom in Jerusalem. He believed that every letter of he law must be observed. Jesus spoke of the physical world. Jesus preached to Jews for Jews.
Paul never spoke of Jesus as being an actual person at all. Paul did not think the law applied after Jesus's spiritual death. Paul believed that there was a cosmic spiritual battle taking place that Jesus never spoke of. Paul believed that Jesus's message was for everyone, not just Jews. Paul did think in terms of he physical world but rather the spiritual. Jesus spoke in terms of the Physical and Paul spoke of the metaphysical.
Understanding the New Tesiment
According to most modern Bible scholars about 95% of the New Testament is based on Pauline teachings. We only have about five percent of the general idea (not even the exact words) of teachings of Jesus.
The gospels were written by authors that did not know Jesus. They were very unlikely to have known anyone that knew Jesus. They had already been thoroughly indoctrinated into the Pauline teachings. They each had a specific angle and message to tell in the gospels. So each one is very different. When they wrote he gospels they had Pauline doctrine and Jesus traditions of what Jesus said and stories about what he did. They worked their doctrine, these stories of isolated events, and words of Jesus into a historicized narrative. This is why the stories do not match up chronologically. Today this would be called historical fiction.
When we come across troublesome passages in the New Testament that flip back an forth from the physical and metaphysical world, teachings that say the law must be obeyed to get into heaven and then that only the spiritual "belief in Jesus" is necessary to get into heaven it is very confusing. If we understand that we are dealing with two very different doctrines thrown into one narrative and can separate the two, it becomes very easy. Christians due to their dogmatic beliefs try to read one message int the two and do not consider that they also reading different authors ideas.
Interpretation of the bible
This is getting really long so I will cut it short with a few closing thoughts. When a Christian is telling us what the Bible says we are getting his dogmatic opinion, of the what authors thought the disciples thought, about what GOD thought. With each step dogmatic opinions take us further away from what the first Christians actually believed.
The Bibles authors wrote about many God concepts. Each book should be read as a stand alone document. We should not read any religious concepts into any text. we need to understand the two types of thinking in the New Testament that being the Physical and Metaphysical. If we combine all thoughts of all the authors of the bible into one concept we now have constructed an understanding of God that none of the authors had.
Pretty cool insight. Did you learn this in religious studies?
Is funny preachers ask me where I went to seminary. I am completely self studied. I read a lot of books, and constantly study. I am horrible about sighting references for two reasons. I do not have the background education for one. That could be overcome easy enough if it was not for my more serious fault. I can remember context very well and apply it easily. Names and numbers are extremely difficult for me to remember at all. I can't remember from which book or author I received the information. When I do sight any historical dates or names I have to look it up every time.
Much of the basis of this came from the basic teachings of Bart Ehrman just taken a bit further.
I'm the same way. Can't remember dates and names, authors and book titles.
Understanding the bible better than the average theist is not that great an accomplishment. Keep firmly in mind: most of them have not read the bible. Rather, They Have Had the Bible READ TO Them. That being the case, they know nothing about Ezekiel 20:25-26 or Judges 19:22-30 or Ezekiel 23:20. It's unlikely they are aware of the horror which is Psalms 137:9. Those who want to assert that the new testament overrides the old either haven't read Matthew 5:17-20 or fail to recognize its impact, even as those who advocate public prayer have no idea about Matthew 6:5-6. The true of faith may think their god to be all goodness, yet they are ignorant of Isaiah 45:7. And even though Luke 19:27 is part of a parable, the poorly veiled threat implicit in that vignette is obvious.
We're talking about people who are selective in their apprehension of their own holy book, because that's the way they have been taught. This places them at a distinct disadvantage, because when you boil it all down, they don't know their bible at all.
Yes, most theists have not read the bible. I haven't either. I'm not interested in what ancient sheepherders used to control the masses with. I sat down a couple of times to read it, but always failed to get passed Genesis.
More and more as I attempt to discuss the bible with people I am relegated to teaching them the bible. One time in particular, a friend of the family told me she knew what she was saying was true because her grandmother read it THREE TIMES!!!!!
I found that it is often NOT the person you are aiming at to teach that learns, but a bystander who overheard your appeals to reason that learns. So take heart, most of your efforts are not wasted. This is especially true online where everything we do is recorded for anyone who wants to see it, they can. Plenty of bystanders online. A point that I want to make is that we must appear as good humans of we are to dismantle the stigma of the label Atheist that the religious labeled us with so be respectful whenever you can. It's alright to get upset, but you can be upset AND always be respectful. At least I try my best to do that at all times. We are human, so we are NOT perfect. The more you try to be close to perfect, the closer you will get even though you never reach it.
I constantly resist the impulse to be snarky, sometimes I allow myself to make a joke here now and again with a nice little sarcastic comment. From experience I know what it is like to be the Christian, so I approach most things with much empathy, this is often very difficult to do when one is blandly speaking of science and history. So I often say I had a hard time understanding this until I learned that....
The problem with many Christians is that they assume too much. It was man who put the books of their bible together in some sort of order but they all assume god did that to give us accurate info on the story. It is also assumed that eye witnesses wrote the gospels and the writers are actually the disciples themselves. None of this is true. Believers ask you the dumb question of why would the book have John's name on it if John did not write it?
By the time we get into Paul and his writings we find that he apparently "wrote" two thirds of the New Testament and believers take it that Paul is telling you the words and teachings of Jesus. It is taken as truth and the two of them never met. Paul was such a great teacher and yet on his miraculous visions and experiences he could not tell you "whether he was in or out of his body."
Yeah, this looks accurate to me. Maybe I will become a Christian -- again.
I'm always surprised that so few Christians can understand even obvious passages. Gen 1:6 and following describes God creating the sky to separate the waters above the sky from the waters below the sky, which of course means that the sky is a solid dome. Unreal.
uhhh... you just gotta have faith....