An Atheist Reads the Bible, Part 1
To begin my long-promised series on the Bible, I wanted to describe the indirect route by which I came into this project.
Five years ago, I found myself with a little extra time over Christmas break and decided to read a volume I had picked up years ago at an antique shop: an old edition of John Milton’s 1674 epic poem Paradise Lost, with illustrations from the famous 19th-century artist Gustave Doré. You can buy your own copy here (for a whole lot more than I paid for it, incidentally), but since both the text and the illustrations are in the public domain, you can browse them online, thanks to Wikipedia.
To be honest, I bought the book for the pictures rather than for the text, about which I didn’t know much. I’ve had a pretty good education, by contemporary standards, yet Paradise Lost was one of the great classics I somehow managed to escape reading. So with Doré’s illustrations as inducements, I decided it was time to fill in that particular gap. But you never know with “classics.” Much as I agree with the Great Books approach to education, I’ve read enough of them to know that some of the Great Books aren’t so great.
Fortunately, I found Paradise Lost to be very interesting reading, not just on its own merits but also for how it fits in to the history of Western thought and literature. What struck me most is that Milton basically set out to tell the story of the Bible, but he did so in an unexpected way: as an epic poem in the Classical style.
It has all the earmarks of the Classical epic, beginning with the invocation of the muse at the beginning. Homer began the Iliad with, “Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles,” and here is how Milton begins Paradise Lost.
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat
Sing, Heavenly Muse.
Then there is the way the story begins halfway through the action, with Satan writhing on the lake of fire after being cast out of Heaven. We then get the story of Satan’s rebellion against God as a flashback, before resuming the action with Satan’s attempt to exact revenge by tempting Adam and Eve into disobedience. This approach—begin in the middle and tell the first half of the story as flashback before proceeding to the second half—is exactly the structure of Homer’s Odyssey. Then there is the use of epic simile and blank verse, and on and on.
In short, the basic premise of Paradise Lost is that the Bible is all well and good—if only it had been written by Homer. So Milton set out to fix this defect.
We tend to think of the Renaissance as a revival of Classical languages and literature, but the real essence of the Renaissance was the attempt to do what the ancient world was never able to do: combine the Classical and Christian traditions.
That kind of integration was forbidden by early Church fathers like Tertullian, who sneeringly asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It was under this influence that the old Classical academies were eventually stamped out as bastions of paganism.
But it turns out that Athens and Jerusalem have an awful lot to do with one another, whether they like it or not. Christianity spread through the Classical world—the New Testament was written in Greek, after all—and it was deeply intermingled from the beginning with elements of the Classical tradition and concepts from Classical philosophy. Renaissance Europe would seize upon this connection. Having rediscovered the Classical tradition, they wanted to have all of Athens without giving up Jerusalem. You can see this in a hundred different examples, but one of my favorites is a series of paintings in the Uffizi museum in Florence. It is famous because it includes the first recorded work by the great Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, but the subject matter is also interesting. It consists of seven paintings, three of which represent the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The other four represent prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude—which students of antiquity will recognize as the four Classical virtues recognized by the Greeks and Romans.
So what Milton was doing—some years later, as the Renaissance came with full force to England—was not so unusual for the day. But it has an odd effect. Milton’s classicized version of the Bible turns out to have its own classicized agenda.
This is partly because Milton used his epic to promote his own distinctly Latitudinarian views on Christian theology. In Book IV, for example, he describes the idyllic life enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I wasn’t quite prepared for what happens at the end of the day, when the happy couple goes off to bed.
[N]or turned, I ween,
Adam from his fair spouse, nor Eve the rites
Mysterious of connubial love refused:
Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity, and place, and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.
In case that’s not clear enough, try this passage.
So spake our general mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half-embracing leaned
On our first father; half her swelling breast
Naked met his, under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her beauty, and submissive charms,
Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregns the clouds
That shed Mayflowers; and pressed her matron lip
With kisses pure.
Um, this is a Bible story, right? You’ll have to pardon me because I got a little distracted there.
This Classical influence also explains Milton’s seeming sympathy for the devil. He writes Satan as an antagonist in the Classical mold, as a fellow hero who happens to be arrayed on the opposite side—Hector to God’s Achilles, if you will. So in Book I we find Satan showing a kind of admirable defiance in the face of defeat, expressing his resolve never to submit to “the tyranny of Heaven.”
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Here is the hero shot, as rendered by Doré.
And then there is the scene where Jesus, that great hippie pacifist, is sent into battle in a chariot armed with thunderbolts. Yes, really. This happens in Book VI, at the end of the long flashback describing the war in Heaven. The war between the angels has ended in a stalemate, so God the Father sends in Jesus to sort it all out once and for all.
He, in celestial panoply all armed
Of radiant Urim, work divinely wrought,
Ascended; at his right hand Victory
Sat eagle-winged; beside him hung his bow
And quiver with three-bolted thunder stored….
He on his impious foes right onward drove,
Gloomy as night; under his burning wheels
The steadfast empyrean shook throughout,
All but the throne itself of God. Full soon
Among them he arrived; in his right hand
Grasping ten thousand thunders, which he sent
You can see the same kind of literary and theological confusion at work here. Note to Milton: that bearded guy with the chariot and the lightning bolts? That’s the wrong god.
Strange things happen when you try to write a Classical epic about the Bible. Some of the characters tend to get away from you, and meek Christian martyrs turn into Homeric warriors.
To sum it all up, on completing Milton’s re-telling of the Bible, I realized that what I was getting wasn’t exactly the genuine article. So I thought I should check out the real thing. I’ve been doing this slowly, mostly to satisfying my own curiosity. But I found that I discovered enough interesting new observations to reward the effort, and I thought they would be worth sharing with my readers. Hence this new series of articles.
I am keeping one aspect that retains something of the spirit of Milton: I am reading the King James version of the Bible. This is partly because it is the best-known and most influential version and the one you are most likely to hear when someone quotes a Bible verse. And there is a reason why it is the most quotable: it is written with the sense of poetry you would expect from the era of Shakespeare (it was written from 1604 to 1611). This makes it much more pleasant to read, particularly compared to the flat, literal language of many modern translations.
Finally, I chose the King James version for the reformist tradition from which it sprang. John Milton was very much a precursor to the Enlightenment and an early defender of freedom of speech and of religion. But he was part of a tradition with earlier roots, and the King James Bible was part of that tradition.
It started with an earlier English translation of the Bible.
The Great Bible was prepared by Myles Coverdale, working under commission of Sir Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to Henry VIII and Vicar General. In 1538, Cromwell directed the clergy to provide “one book of the bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it.”
You can see how radical this was. So long as the Bible was only available in Latin (the standard Medieval edition), its meaning was controlled by the clergy. But if any person can walk off the street and read it in his own language, this gives control of religion to the individual, who can decide to take a different interpretation of scripture than the one mandated by the authorities. The King James Bible extended this reformist approach by drawing on the latest scholarship of the day to provide new and improved translations from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. That produced a version of the Bible that was even more authentic than the Medieval Latin translation used by the Church. It was a big step toward breaking the Church’s monopoly on ideas.
It strikes me that in our age, the Bible has retreated again. It has become obscure because it is an object of indifference to the modern, secular intellectual. I should know, because I’m one of those intellectuals. Yet it is a document with enormous cultural influence, and while I’ve picked up bits and pieces of it over the years, I found myself with no first-hand grasp of what it really says. But there is no one stopping us from doing what Henry VIII’s reformers wanted: read it and understand it for ourselves—if not for the purpose they intended.
As an atheist reading the Bible, I looked for guidance to another atheist. I have been reading the Bible in parallel with Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. I like this because Asimov focuses on the secular aspects of the Bible: “the historical, geographical, and biographical aspects of the events described in the Old and New Testaments.” Basically, Asimov provides what can be known about the Bible based on evidence, as opposed to what is claimed based on faith.
He also approaches the Bible in the same spirit I wanted to approach it. He was an atheist, but not a militant, polemical atheist in the style of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. His goal was not to attack religion but to understand it, which is my goal, too.
As I got into it, I found some very interesting things, some aspects of the Bible that were better than I expected, some that are worse, and some that are very, very different from the modernized and often Bowdlerized version you usually hear about. Since this book is so important, since we are the inheritors of the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman tradition, it is worth knowing what the Bible is really about.