Out of Context

Elisha-water-miracle-and-bear-attack

 

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”- Mark Twain

 

It can often seem like a mugs game to bring the bible into question during discussions with Christians. It never fails that when I post a verse from scripture that I think supports my argument, I’m immediately charged with taking that verse out of context. The arguments that ensue tend to deteriorate quickly and often frustratingly run in circles. When giving a critical analysis of Christianity in general, the religious faithful are quick to accuse me (and all atheists) of not doing my homework. But this is especially the case when I dare to tread on holy ground, which is the bible itself. It’s as if they assume I was never a Christian (which I was), never read the bible (which I have), and am just being exposed to it for the first time (which I haven’t). The general consensus among Christians seems to be that merely being a non-Christian automatically disqualifies one out of hand from accurately citing the holy book. This careless, outright dismissal proves to be little more than a dodge and it doesn’t excuse the believer from demonstrating this supposed misrepresentation.  

 

It’s confusing at times to know exactly what is meant by “taking it out of context”. Take the story of Elisha’s journey from 2 Kings[1] for example. It’s hard to imagine how a passage stating that God sent two bears to massacre forty two children in gruesome fashion for mocking Elisha’s baldness could be taken out of context. Not to mention how nonchalantly this terrible event is treated and how casually the story moves on. It was as if the children getting torn apart was a mere bump in the road. As if it was hardly worth mentioning. What else are we to interpret from this? In what other context could this be taken? It can hardly be disputed what those words say here. According to the story, either God sent bears to maul forty two children or not. Any extraneous interpretation the Christian wishes to read into this doesn’t do much to make the story less vile and horrific. When Christians offer a different “interpretation” to this story, what they are doing is offering more than the words say. Whatever addendum is made, however many excuses are made, the context is pretty clear. When confronted with the merciless brutality of a passage like this, they often instead focus their attention on finding a way to establish some moral meaning behind it, which ultimately proves to be too big a boulder to push in this case, or they argue that it was badly mistranslated.  

 

Translation is a tricky bit of maneuvering that seems to be the preferred tactic for the more indefensible passages found within the bible, as it is for the passage referenced above.[2] While I don’t doubt that there are occasional mistranslations interspersed throughout the bible, scholars and historians still debate over this very topic, we can hardly say that this alters the context as currently presented in such a significant way as to warrant disregarding entire passages on a whim simply for the purpose of recreating them to appear more acceptable or reasonable. Nor does it account for all the versions of the bible circulating today that translate these passages in a very similar way. Lest the Christian wishes the conversation to regress to the very origins of the bible. At which point it may be the case that we ought to disregard the entire bible altogether. This, of course, would leave the Christian at quite the disadvantage and hardly seems to be their intention. So instead of conceding the bible, many shamelessly commit themselves to an act of intellectual dishonesty and create their own “translation”. And in doing so, they in effect become the ones taking verses out of context, and in the most disingenuous manner, I might add. Tailoring the bible this way is not only indecorous of the Christian, but also immoral. The attempt to hide the horrific nature of this passage, and many others like it, by assuming translational errors ultimately can’t salvage the bible from failing to uphold what we would consider to be the most basic of humanities and common sense. Furthermore, what the Christian fails to realize is that this “lost in translation” argument creates far more problems for the believer than for the skeptic. The biggest one being that they have effectively stripped their bible of any practical reliability, and along with it, any argument for biblical inerrancy.

 

As I stated earlier, being a non-Christian seemingly disqualifies one from accurately referencing the bible. Maybe the problem is in how “accurately” or “correctly” is applied here. Historical implications aside for a moment, the meaning here appears to be supernatural. The Christian often claims that the only way to truly understand the bible is to believe in God, because they believe the bible is the word of God. So, according to the Christian, it stands to reason that if one doesn’t believe in God, then one won’t be able to interpret the bible correctly. Along with the obvious objection of circular reasoning, as well as being a thinly disguised attempt at unfalsifiability, it fails for another very big reason. One that I see as being the most difficult problem for the Christian to overcome. This is the problem of the many various denominations of Christianity. They all believe and interpret the bible differently in some key areas. All claiming the same justification from God. To put this into perspective, just think about how many millions and millions of people claim, and have claimed, that the bible is the word of God. And how millions and millions of these same professed believers disagree with other believers, who are just as sincere, on some significant points. The thing they all have in common is they all claim God assures them they are right. They also have the same explanation as to why the others are wrong. To try to account for every interpretation that is accepted as truth by the vast number of denominations would be far too exhaustive and it isn’t the non-Christians responsibility to do so. My business isn’t to sort out all these doctrinal disputes. It’s as if skeptics (atheists especially) are being saddled with the burden of needing to know every interpretation of every denomination just to even mention the bible in any critical manner. And when we fail to satisfy this imposed burden, the charge of misinterpretation and atheistic bias is assumed justified. But then this would mean the individual believer must also know all the varying interpretations as well. For the believer to be excused this, then they must concede that their own claim to “biblical truth” could not have been from the the same exhaustive search that they hold the non-christian to and either accept that it isn’t necessary or admit they could be wrong. All these problems the believer is now faced with not only render their original objection moot, it sheds light on the shear volume of inconsistencies contained within the bible, and as we see, thus further expounding the Christians own problems…

~ Rich

 

[1] 2 Kings 2:23-24 (NIV) 23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

 

[2] Apologists frequently attempt to re-invent this passage as if Elisha was being attacked by a mob of young men. In it’s original Hebrew, while the word na’ar (boy or youth) could mean “young man”, it is paired with the qualifier katan which means “little” or “small”. Translating literally as “small boys”. And they are telling him to “go on up, baldhead” or “get out of here, baldy” and Elisha turned around to curse them. This indicates that they were behind him and taunting him, not blocking his path or threatening him.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Out of Context

    1. I totally agree with Gregory, I think many Christians believe in a central core idea that is very simplistic they don’t go into detail of the bible unless it suits their purposes. Finding holes in their belief system, they don’t really care, and they will go on regardless…just think of it of someone who decides to find flaws in the idea of acupuncture, homeopathy or yoga, those people really end up being shouted down or ignored by people who feel there are benefits in those remedies….you can’t fight irrationality with being rational. It is much more powerful to focus in how many different religions don’t fulfill their own core teachings.

  1. Bringing up the story from the Bible where the she-bear mauls 42 children for mocking Elisha’s baldness is just another example of nonbelievers taking passages from The Bible out of context.
    The truth is that, in context, those children were delicious and the bears were hella hungry.
    In all seriousness – thank you for this. You have successfully articulated something that I’ve failed to articulate on my own.

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