Thursday, December 20, 2012

Riddle Me This, Believers of the World

I find religion absolutely fascinating. I was raised in a very Christian family, attended church regularly, believed all the things I was supposed to believe, et cetera, for upwards of two decades. I no longer believe any of these things, and my journey away from theism has been a very gradual and very rewarding one. Although I couldn’t possibly point to one event, or one revelation which changed my mind or turned me away from all of the nonsense which I was fed from birth, I can share the difficulties with the Christian faith in particular that made me stop and evaluate, and ultimately reject, “God’s Truth.” The following is a short list of very important problems with the Bible, which I think all believers should consider, and if they still want to believe, come up with explanations for. I must also give credit to the most prominent thinkers on this subject at the moment, namely Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, as much of what is expressed below has come about at least partially through their influences. So, in no particular order:


The issue of slavery in the Bible is a very troubling one. Slavery was a reality of the culture in which the book was written, and so there are many passages in both the Old and New Testaments that refer to it. Prudently or not, verses of the Bible were even used as justification (while, it must be said, other verses were used as condemnation) of slavery in America during the tumultuous abolition/Civil War/13th amendment period.

I’ve encountered a paucity of even-handed analyses of this issue in my rummaging; as is generally the case in matters of religion, most analysis on this topic either comes from Atheist or Christian Apologist sources, each with a clear agenda. I’ve read arguments on both sides and also consulted the appropriate passages in the Bible to see what the reality is, as best as I can discern it. I’ll start with the Apologist position, the assertion that the Bible does not support or condone slavery.

One important distinction should be made at the onset – the slavery of the Biblical world differed significantly from what we experienced in early American history. The idea of going to a foreign land and basically kidnapping strangers and enslaving them is in fact condemned in the Bible (Exodus 21:16). I believe this is the strongest point that the Apologist can make; it is not, unfortunately, a condemnation of the practice of slavery in every form. From there the Apologist can only point to passages in which masters are ordered to treat their slaves kindly. Slaves are permitted, for example, to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12); Hebrew slaves are to be manumitted after six years (just the males though, sorry ladies!); a slave who escapes his master must not be returned to him (Deut. 23:15). From there things get a little less persuasive: a slave must be set free if the master hits the slave and causes blindness or knocks out a tooth (Exodus 21:26), and if a master beats a slave so severely that he or she dies, the master must be punished (Exodus 21:20).

Apologists also point to passages which instruct masters to be kind and just to their slaves, but for hardly the right reasons: “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1) Ephesians 6:9 and Galatians 3:28 express sentiments similar to this one. Remember, masters, you’re actually a slave too! To Christ! Perhaps the most disturbing passage I’ve read about slavery comes from the New Testament, which I’ll just quote in its entirety:

“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.” (1 Timothy 6:1-2) 

That’s right, Christian slaves – be the best damned slaves you can be, because we don’t want Christianity to look bad. This passage also makes it quite clear that it was perfectly acceptable for Christian masters to have Christian slaves.
Although these Apologist defenses of the Bible end up reading more like indictments, there are other passages which are even more troubling. Ephesians 6:5 commands slaves to obey and fear their masters just as they should obey and fear Christ. Leviticus 25:44 permits the buying of foreign slaves, including children: “treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.” Don’t do this with the people of Israel though, that’s a no-no.  The continuation of the Exodus 21:20 verse I referenced above goes on to say that a master should not be punished after beating his slave with a rod as long as the slave “survives for a day or two,” because “the slave is his own property.”

While I do believe that it is very important to understand the reality of the practice of slavery in the Biblical world and how it differs from what most Americans envision, the reality is this: the Bible simply does not categorically condemn the practice of slavery, as our common, shared morality dictates that it should. “Thou shalt not enslave other human beings or consider them as property” does not appear in the Ten Commandments, or anywhere else in the Old or New Testament. It’s not good enough that the Bible makes some concessions, some rules about how to treat slaves and penalties for their mistreatment. In order to have any sort of moral authority, this book should clearly condemn the practice of human beings owning other human beings as property, and at no point does it even come close to doing that. This should give Christians serious pause. (I should also mention that this same point could be made about the treatment of women simply by referencing different verses. I have decided not to elaborate this as its own point only because it would read very much like this one. Suffice it to say that I personally find it incredible how any woman willingly subscribes to any of the Abrahamic religions unless out of sheer ignorance of their prejudices.)

There is, of course, a perfectly viable and plausible explanation for such an egregious omission. When one posits that the Bible is the word of man and not the word of God, this makes perfect sense. Slavery was a necessary and vital part of culture in the Biblical world. Just as some American politicians were hesitant to ban slavery because they did not know what the outcome would be when millions of people were suddenly set free, nor would the human authors of the Bible have put a prohibition on something so interwoven into their culture. This explanation is parsimonious and reasonable; I find any explanation from the Bible-is –Word-of-God camp to be inadequate on this point.

97,000 Years of Heavenly Indifference

This criticism of Christian belief is wholly borrowed from the late Christopher Hitchens, who has explained it eloquently at many different times. Here is a video of him presenting this argument:

To summarize it, the argument goes something like this: hominids, i.e. creatures that for all appearances are recognizable and biologically classified as human beings, have existed on Earth for at least 100,000 years. There is an irrefutable mountain of empirical evidence to prove this point, and it is generally accepted by the vast majority of scientists and a steadily growing number of theologians. The Christian must then believe the following:  for at least 97,000 years, God in heaven sat idly, watching the development of hominids with complete indifference. This was a time of immense suffering for the species: life expectancy would have been very short, infant deaths very high, disease and famine quite rampant, danger of rival tribes attacking and stealing food constant, natural phenomena like droughts, floods, and storms without obvious cause. This persists with celestial apathy until one point when God decides that enough is enough and finally intervenes. He chooses a remote desert area occupied by people who are fairly barbaric and uncultured and eventually makes His presence known and lays down His laws.

It is the responsibility of the Christian to explain 97,000+ years of ignored human misery, as our knowledge of the history of our species makes it clear that our ancestors suffered a great deal and without any discernible heavenly help. Again, the parsimonious explanation of the complete lack of any Biblical reference to this very troubling reality is that the people who wrote the Bible simply did not know anything about evolutionary biology, and so of course there is no way that there could be any reference to this extremely long lapse of astral assistance. This leads nicely into a much broader problem with the Bible, namely…

There is No Evidence of Divine Insight in the Bible

If the Bible is the word of almighty, infallible, omniscient God, who created all that there is and knows all that has ever been and will be, then it would be reasonable, I think, to expect there to be some fairly astounding, profound revelations within its pages, the sorts of things that no mortal could ever know or predict or elucidate. There is no such information in the Bible, as far as I can discern. In fact, there are many claims in the Bible about the natural world that are ostensibly false and simply the product of profound ignorance about the history and physical laws of the universe.

Criticisms of the Bible about its accuracy regarding matters of history, science, archaeology, ethics, and even internal continuity are numerous and have a very long tradition. Many religious people will dismiss these criticisms by stating that the stories are meant to be interpreted as allegorical rather than literal, and so there’s really no problem here. That’s fine. Just as in the slavery issue, my concern is not what the Bible does say, but rather what it does not say.

The Bible does not issue any sort of accurate, specific prophetic warning about any of the various calamities, whether acts of nature or man, which have befallen mankind and killed countless inhabitants of God’s Earth. It contains no useful information about medicine, such as how to treat, cure, or prevent the spread of infectious disease. Even if you assert that it was not the purpose of the Bible to provide the Israelites with practical scientific, mathematical, or medicinal knowledge about the world, but instead a code of ethics and morality, there is still nothing Earth-shatteringly original, unique, or sublime. It’s certainly not the case that nobody had ever previously voiced the opinion that murder and lying are bad, nor was Jesus the first person to offer the do unto others suggestion. In short, there is nothing in the Bible that could not have been written by nearly any literate person living in that time period. If it really is the Word of God, he certainly has some very strange and not particularly helpful things to say.

What If the Bible had Been Lost and Was Discovered Today?

I don’t particularly like to deal with hypotheticals, but I do think that this one is too intriguing to cast aside. What if, for example, Constantine hadn’t adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, or some other such machination had occurred, such that Christianity was not preserved to the present day? Instead, posit that we live in a society where some other religion is dominant, or perhaps no faith system at all has a strong foothold. Then a discovery occurs like that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where many very old manuscripts are dug up and translated. What is the chance that the discovery of the Gospels, or even an entire codex of the Bible, would lead to people adopting Christianity en masse?

The heart of the question can be expressed more concretely, as we could envision an effectively similar situation in which people in other parts of the world are introduced to the doctrines of Christianity by missionaries. Christians will note that many people in such places in the world have become Christians by discovering it in this way, not by being raised in a society that already believes. This is not exactly the spirit of the hypothetical; it has already been demonstrated that poor, ill people in desperate need of aid will believe in God if you have a Bible in one hand and some food or clean water in the other. Rather, would newly-discovered Christianity be able to take hold today, in a modern society with a solid understanding of the natural world? I think the intellectually honest answer is no, it would not (and if you’re not inclined to believe that, Christianity is declining inthe civilized world and growing in developing countries); it would simply (and rightly) be lauded as an important discovery about the ancient world and placed on the shelf with other ancient works of mythology. If we wouldn’t find it credible in this scenario, why should we in any other?

The Incompatibility of Other Religions

At the moment, there are something like 2.2 billion Christians in the world, roughly one third of the world’s population. Right behind them are 1.6 billion Muslims, nearly another third. These two religions, espoused by over 60% of all people, both claim eternal post-mortem bliss for followers and eternal damnation for deniers. Although there are many different flavors of Christianity, they are all united with the fundamental dogmatic belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. Those who do not believe this will spend eternity in Hell. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet of Allah, but they reject outright the idea that he is God, or a savior of any kind. Muslims also view the Christian idea of the Trinity as a kind of polytheism and condemn them as well.

Both Christianity and Islam claim divine inspiration and the infallibility of their holy books, and each one is incompatible with the other. This leaves us with the following three possible permutations:

1) Christianity is the true faith, and everyone else will spend eternity in Hell.
2) Islam is the true faith, and everyone else will spend eternity in Hell.
3) Neither one of them is true, and perhaps there is no Heaven or Hell.

I say that these are the only three outcomes because the last one basically encompasses all other possible eventualities. Even if we were somehow objectively certain that one of them got it right, this would still be at best a 50-50 shot for the majority of the world’s population. Based on the evidence that each faith presents to defend its claims of knowing what happens after we die, I would personally quantify the possible veracity of each permutation in the following way:

Christians got it right: 0.01%
Muslims got it right: 0.01%
They’ve both got it wrong: 99.98%

Of course these figures are assigned more-or-less arbitrarily. In fact, I don’t actually grant any measure of probability to these ancient mythologies and their outrageous claims. Believers often criticize reasonable people for being arrogant in their veneration of science and dismissal of theism. A scientist will admit that he simply does not know what happens after death, because there is no credible, testable evidence by which to make that determination. Christians and Muslims will profess quite confidently to know exactly what happens, despite the fact that they cannot offer any proof (in any practical sense of the word), and in fact they would dismiss any sort of proof that contradicted their views. One of those positions seems much more arrogant than the other, indeed.

So, What To Believe?

As I’ve said, I find these issues to be quite troubling, and I suspect that I would find any attempt to explain them away as a desperate effort to cling to one’s dear faith. With each passing day, the Bible is revealed more and more clearly to be exactly what it is: a man-made hodgepodge of Iron Age mythology. I do not advocate that people run screaming from theism, but rather that people march calmly towards the truth. Consider very carefully all that you believe, and why you believe it. If your beliefs are based on bad evidence, or no evidence, there is a very low probability that what you believe is true. I believe that we all have a responsibility to be intellectually honest people, and that means constantly examining our view of the world and allowing the possibility of changing that view in light of better information. A worldview which does not allow for criticism or for change is not compatible with a modern, civilized society.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What's the Hardest Language to Learn?

One of the thousands of annoying things I hear people say regularly has the general form of "[insert language] is the hardest language to learn in the world." Or alternatively "[language x] is way harder/easier than [language y]." While I can understand why people make these statements, they are problematic, for several reasons.

Languages of the world are not inherently more or less difficult or complicated than others. Certainly some languages have different ways of dealing with various figures of syntax or orthography; whether these conventions are "easy" or "difficult" is relative.

How difficult a language is depends entirely upon the individual trying to learn said language. Whatever language(s) you speak natively will dictate your perspective on what is difficult and what is easy, based on how similar the new language is to your own. I hear English speakers frequently claim that Chinese is "the hardest language to learn." For a native English speaker, Chinese is very foreign. Obviously there will be very little common ground, especially lexically, as the two languages are entirely unrelated. Chinese also has a character writing system rather than an alphabet, and they use several different phonological tones to change the meaning of syllables. All of these things are extremely foreign to an English speaker, and so learning Chinese would be a difficult undertaking. On the other hand, Chinese is basically an uninflected language; it doesn't generally require "conjugating" a verb or "declining" a noun or adjective. It is also classified as an SVO (subject, verb, object) language, just as English is, meaning that generally words go in the same order in both languages; the verb at least comes before the direct object.

Let's look at two other languages: German and French. Which one is "harder" to learn for an English speaker? Again, it really depends on the similarities of each of those languages to English. English and German are both Germanic languages, meaning that they had the same ancestor language a very long time ago. Frenchis a Romance language, related to Latin but unrelated to English unless you go all the way back to Indo-European a very, very long time ago. Indeed all three of these languages are related eventually, but German and English split off much more recently.

So, which is easier? German should be easier, as it's more closely related. English, however, has changed fairly dramatically in the last millennium, particularly after 1066 when the Normans and French conquered England. After that happened, English was strongly influenced by French and began to change dramatically. This is one of the reasons why Old English (not Shakespeare, folks, I mean Beowulf, Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum) is completely incomprehensible to modern English speakers. Because of this historical event, English (unlike German) became much more like a Romance language in its syntax.

Comparing specific linguistic features, English has lost many things which German still has, like gender and case inflections. German also has a different word order, although it's difficult to classify it in S-V-O terms because the order changes depending on the type of clause. Generally the verb is postponed to second or last, but the other constituents can come in different places. English and French are both SVO languages, and neither one has case inflection. French does still preserve the masculine and feminine genders, and all nouns, pronouns, and adjectives inflect for gender. To answer the original question, learning French may actually be a less daunting task than German to an English speaker, even though English is a Germanic language.

One of my favorite examples is Persian and Arabic. Which would be harder to learn? Most people think that they're the same, or at least very similar. They're not! Even though Iran and Iraq border each other, their languages are completely unrelated! Arabic is a Semitic language, related to Hebrew, but Persian is actually part of the Indo-European language family, meaning that it has a common ancestor with English. Because they've been in such close contact for so long, Arabic and Persian do share many similarities and have even exchanged a lot of vocabulary. They have similar writing systems as well (whence comes the misconception that they're related, I assume). To show that they're unrelated, look at the word brother in both languages: sheqyeq (Arabic) and berader in Persian. Which one looks familiar? Both languages would present a challenge for English speakers grammatically; with Persian, however, there will be discernible connections with some words.

What about English? I've often heard people say that our language is "the hardest to learn in the world." English certainly can seem very complicated at times. A lot of our verbs have irregular past tense and/or perfect passive participle forms, and we tend to ignore pronunciation "rules" pretty frequently. In some ways though, English is a very simple language. We don't have any grammatical gender, and words don't inflect for case (with the exception of personal pronouns - compare he/him and she/her.) We also have very little morphology; generally nouns get pluralized with s or es; only the 3rd person singular verb form gets an inflectional ending: I run, you run, he runs, we run, you run, they run. Compare English with a heavily inflected language like Latin, or Finnish, and English seems fairly simple. 

Chinese is probably an easy choice for making statements about language difficulty because it has a billion or so speakers and is highly visible in the world. There are some crazy other languages out there that do crazy things. Languages with ergative case systems, like Basque, an isolate in parts of Spain and France and Dyirbal, which is a language literally spoken by 5 guys in a tribe in Australia, treat subjects and objects completely differently from so-called "accusative" languages like English. Yupik languages, spoken by native Eskimos in Alaska, are agglutinating or poly-synthetic and basically pile a whole bunch of bound-morpheme suffixes onto one root to make one giant word that expresses a whole sentence.

To put a point on all of this, basically I'm just trying to demonstrate that any statement made about the difficulty of language is relative, dependent on the existing knowledge of the person making the statement. What may be difficult for an English speaker to learn may be relatively simple for someone else who speaks a more closely-related language. The world is full of completely different ways of communicating. If you do some digging, you'll find many that you never knew existed, which express ideas in completely different ways. It's quite an eye-opening experience.

[I found an organization which actually classifies how difficult other languages would be for an English speaker to learn. Check out page 28 of this pdf. Note that French would be easier than German, likewise Persian easier than Arabic.]

Friday, June 22, 2012

What Does The Bible Say About Homosexuality?

Introduction and Motivations

It goes without saying that the topic of homosexuality is an important and well-publicized issue in our country right now. It speaks to the very fundamentals of peoples' beliefs, not only religiously but scientifically and morally as well. It is a vast and contentious topic about which entire books are written and long discussions should be held. For these reasons, it is extremely important that I severely limit the scope of this writing to one very specific aspect of it all, the one which I believe is actually at the heart of it; what does the Bible say about homosexuality? I will address this question to the exclusion of others, such as regard the natural or unnatural origins of the phenomenon or the morality of those who engage in it. I am not qualified to give expert testimony on those facets of the issue, and so I simply will not.

A treatise such as this which I am about to write cannot and must not be considered or interpreted without a view towards the motivations and prejudices of the author. Insofar as it is possible, I approach the subject with genuine curiosity and impartiality. I am not a member of any church, nor running for political office, nor even trying to cause a significant shift in the opinions of others on the subject. I merely see and hear so regularly that people cite the Bible as proof or justification that homosexuality is immoral and an anathema to divinity that I felt the need to investigate the matter for myself. To reiterate, I have undertaken this journey of discovery simply because I did not know the answer to the question and felt that it was within my grasp to ascertain a better understanding for myself about the Bible and homosexuality. I've decided to write and publish my efforts for two reasons. First, I enjoy writing; second, I feel that this is an important question and sincerely hope that it will give any reader a renewed interest in pursuing inquiry on this topic. That is to say, I do not hope that people will read this and change their opinions, but rather change the way they think and ask questions about the beliefs which they already hold.

Qualifications and a Disclaimer

Since this is being published and available to the masses across the vast expanses of the internet, a word on my qualifications (and likewise unqualifications.) I am not a biblical scholar. I am not, I suppose, actually a scholar of any sort, depending on how strictly one defines a scholar. I hold degrees in Classical studies from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maryland, where I completed my undergraduate and graduate work respectively. I read and write competently in Latin and Ancient Greek and am thoroughly versed in the art of translation as well as ancient history and culture. I am not able to read Hebrew or Aramaic, as I know very little about the Semitic language family, ancient or modern. I assert that this background makes me not as qualified as some, but certainly more qualified than most to undertake this inquiry.

As I have already stated, the fundamental goal of these efforts is my own edification. I do sincerely hope that my observations and conclusions will be a catalyst for discussion and debate, which I will welcome happily. If, however, your views are such that the Bible is the absolute and unquestionable word of God and beyond analysis, scrutiny, or interpretation, please do not comment on the information contained in this article. There can be no discussion unless one is willing to consider viewpoints alternate to one's own, and in the same way that I am not preaching to anyone else, I will not tolerate others preaching to me or to other readers of this article. If you are unwilling to think independently and make a thorough test of your beliefs, there is nothing in this publication for you. I say this without contempt or condescension; your time will be better spent reading something else.

The First Problem with the Question - Translation

With those initial remarks out of the way, we can now dive into the heart of the question. Before looking directly at the passages themselves, which I will certainly do, there are a few matters of far-reaching importance that will cloud this entire discussion, or indeed any discussion of text or scripture. The first of these matters is that of translation.

Translation is a necessary part of communication in a world in which people speak thousands of languages rather than one. Without translation, for example, I couldn't read Camus' The Stranger, one of my favorite novels, because I don't read French. Indeed it was St. Jerome's Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible which made Christianity far more accessible to the world and greatly facilitated the dissemination of its teachings.

There is, sadly, one drawback in the process of translation, and it's a very large and complicated one: bias. Whenever a word, a phrase, a sentence, a book is translated from one language into another, the information contained in the ideas represented by the earlier text can never be rendered perfectly with absolute, 100% authenticity and faithfulness to the original. Sometimes this is the conscious intention of the translator, other times it is merely an eventuality inherent in the process. Take any two languages you can think of and examples confirming this will become apparent. There are invariably words, phrases, concepts which exist in one language for which there is not necessarily a word or phrase in another which expresses the idea completely. To cite a Classical example which any Latin student will recall, the Trojan hero Aeneas, mythical founder of the race of people who would eventually become the Romans, is praised for and driven by his pietas. We have borrowed this word in English as "piety," but the word to us has an exclusively religious connotation, whereas in Latin it simply means a sense of devotion or duty to a great many things: oneself, country, family, gods, obligations, et cetera. To translate pietas as "piety" for example would be to color Aeneas as more concerned with religion (to the exclusion of other responsibilities) than he actually was.
(What happens when there are too many links between the initial text and you?)

To look beyond single words to entire phrases and sentences, one need only examine several different translations of the same passage by different translators (especially if those people were writing in different centuries) to see even more evidence of this phenomenon. Some translations differ so drastically as to raise the question of whether the translators were looking at the same text, which, depending on the fragmentation of the manuscript tradition of the work, they may not have been. (I do not intend to discuss the manuscript history of the Bible, as I am certainly unqualified, and as after a mere glance into the matter it is apparent that it is nightmarishly convoluted, incongruous, and problematic.) The point is that it is simply impossible to translate a work from one language into another without altering the meaning in some way. Even when taking great care to be as literal and faithful to the original text as possible, the process requires a human being, and human beings are not machines. We have our own beliefs, prejudices, and agendas, and these things can and will, consciously or not, tinge our interpretation of a text. This ties in nicely with the second problem which must also be considered in these matters.

The Second Problem with the Question - Cultural Context

This is not so much a separate matter itself as it is a subset of the first problem, something inherent in the interpretation of language. Language does not exist in a vacuum. Interpretation of language is not a cold, calculated, robotic activity, as a mathematical equation is. In the expression 4x = 12, for example, x must equal 3 (hopefully I've conceived an equation simple enough that I can solve it correctly without needing third-party verification.) There isn't any room for interpretation or discussion. It doesn't really matter if you believe that x really equals 5, or a million, or a smiley face; by the established and universally accepted rules of mathematics, it simply does not. 

Language, however, cannot be evaluated as a mathematical expression. Someone will invariably read this blog entry and conclude that I was saying this thing, while another will conclude that I actually meant this other thing. Both could be correct and incorrect simultaneously, as the author is the only one completely certain of the intended meaning of his words. When we interpret language, we as interpreters are the sum total of our cultural experience. Everything we hear or read is colored by the world we live in, by the beliefs we hold, by the values we have. I'm not speaking of linguistic determinism here but rather simply that we can only evaluate language and ideas through the lens of our own experiences; as we each have different life experiences, we each interpret language differently. (As you realize that all translators are human beings, the link between these two concepts should now be cemented if it was heretofore unclear.)

The verses in question, those which purportedly speak out against homosexual behavior as sinful, must be considered in their cultural context. I have not specifically studied the cultural beliefs regarding sexuality of the ancient Hebrews. I do, however, have a thorough understanding of the ancient Greek and Roman attitudes regarding sexuality, and there is a point to be made in discussing those (particularly when one remembers that the New Testament of the Christian Bible was written natively in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic.) 

In the ancient Mediterranean world, the concept of homosexuality as we understand it today simply did not exist. Whereas we define a sexual relationship by the gender of each person involved, the ancient Greeks and Romans defined the relationship through the active or passive role of the participants. This can be a very difficult concept to understand, as it is fundamentally different from our own. In this view of sexuality, however, it becomes apparent that the distinction of homosexual versus heterosexual cannot exist; indeed, neither Greek nor Latin has these words. (The word homosexuality is actually a Greek/Latin hodgepodge which didn't even appear in English until 1892, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.) An ancient Greek would have had a difficult time understanding why it was perfectly fine for him to bend his wife over their living room couch but not one of his young male pupils. (Another common misconception is that Greek men sodomized boys. They did not. Look up the phrase inter-crural for a clearer picture of what went on.)

To bring this back more closely to the discussion at-hand, if one lives in a culture and society in which these distinctions between hetero/homosexuality are the norm, then it will be impossible to read and interpret any text discussing sexuality without thinking about it in these terms. Likewise someone from a culture in which these distinctions do not matter will by necessity interpret the same text in a different way, as his cultural experience has been different. When I assert that cultural context is vital in reading ancient texts like the Bible, I mean that it is important to try to understand what the words meant to the people who wrote them, and take care not to force our existing worldview on words that were written millennia ago.

Biblical Passages About/Against Homosexuality

Alright then, now we can actually begin to examine the words of the Bible. A cursory Google search pointed me to several different websites which reference the same verses as evidence of God's revilement of homosexual behavior, so those are the ones I'll look at. For each verse, my sources are those which I have as texts at my disposal: the Latin Vulgate (dating to circa 400 AD/CE) and the Greek Septuagint (dating to as far back as the 4th century BC/BCE) as well as various English translations.

The first couple come from Leviticus, specifically verses 18:22 and 20:13.

Leviticus 18:22 reads, in Latin and Greek respectively,
cum masculo non commisceberis coitu femineo quia abominatio est

μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν

From the onset it's very obvious that the Latin is a direct translation of the Greek; it's nearly word-for-word actually. They both basically read you will not lie in bed with a male in womanly intercourse in the first clause. The important word is abominatio/
βδέλυγμα, which describes what such an action is. Obviously we get the word abomination from the Latin; Liddell and Scott's first entry for βδέλυγμα is "abomination" and cites the Septuagint almost exclusively in usage. The noun is connected with the verb βδελυρευσομαι, which means "to behave in a loathsome manner." Seems that both the Greek and Latin are pointing to the idea of "abomination," so we should investigate that word in English. Etymologically, it comes from Latin ab (away from) and omen, ominis (omen). It is NOT connected with the word homo, hominis (man), as folk etymology suggests; thus the connotation of beastly, uncivilized is wrongly read into this word. In modern English, abomination generally refers to things that are detestable, reviled, et cetera.

I don't think there's a lot of room for interpretation here that God says "if you're a dude, don't sleep with another dude, because it's gross." What I don't necessarily read in this verse, however, is the connotation that the act is immoral or categorically sinful, i.e. "wrong." The word really only implies that the act is offensive. The text does say "you will not" do it and "it grosses me out" but whether it means "it is wrong to do" is up for interpretation. I would think most people would find abortion (i.e. the act of terminating a fetus in utero) to be abominable, for example, but not everyone agrees on the ethics of the issue.

Here are some different translations into English of this verse:
It is disgusting for a man to have sex with another man. (CEV)Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. (ASV/KJV)Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. (NIV)

Note that they all render the important word slightly differently: disgusting, abomination, detestable.
None of them calls it "sinful," nor do the old manuscripts.

Leviticus 20:13

qui dormierit cum masculo coitu femineo uterque operati sunt nefas morte moriantur sit sanguis eorum super eos

ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα ἐποίησαν ἀμφότεροι θανατούσθωσαν ἔνοχοί εἰσιν

Again, the Latin is basically a word-for-word translation of the Greek, and we see the same vocabulary used in 18:22. One important difference here in the Latin is that the Greek
βδέλυγμα is translated as nefas, which is a stronger word than abominatio. Nefas is a very old word literally meaning "unspeakable," and it does carry a sense of "morally wrong" in its connotation. Interestingly there is no analogue in the Greek for the Latin sit sanguis eorum super eos, "may their blood be on them." This passage says that anyone who sleeps with a male in womanly intercourse should be put to death (moriantur/θανατούσθωσαν).I find this verse to be a stronger condemnation of homosexual intercourse than 18:22, because of the use of nefas and the expressed punishment - "may they both die." The language of this verse is speaking specifically about man-on-man action; girl-on-girl isn't addressed here. The words are gender-specific; if we replace masculo/ἄρσενος with homine/ανθρώπου it would apply to both genders, not just males, but that's not what we have in the text.

In English, as rendered in many commonly-read versions:
If a man has sexual intercourse with a man as he would with a woman, the two of them have done something detestable. They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads. (CEB)
And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (ASV/KJV)If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. (NIV)

These readings must not come from the Greek manuscript tradition, as they all translate the Latin sit sanguis eorum super eos.

Deuteronomy 23:17

non erit meretrix de filiabus Israhel neque scortator de filiis Israhel

οὐκ ἔσται πόρνη ἀπὸ θυγατέρων Iσραηλ καὶ οὐκ ἔσται πορνεύων ἀπὸ υἱῶν Iσραηλ οὐκ ἔσται τελεσφόρος ἀπὸ θυγατέρων Iσραηλ καὶ οὐκ ἔσται τελισκόμενος ἀπὸ υἱῶν Iσραηλ

Actually the Septuagint has this as 23:18, not 17; I'm not sure whence the discrepancy arises. The second part of the Greek verse (with
τελεσφόρος and τελισκόμενος) is omitted entirely in the Latin and in the English versions. The important words here are meretrix/πόρνη "prostitute" and scortator/πορνεύων "fornicator." The verse says "there will not be a prostitute from the daughters of Israel nor a fornicator from the sons of Israel." People have tied this verse to the issue of homosexuality by interpreting scortator/πορνεύων as "sodomite." The Latin word does not have that connotation at all; scortator is formed from the verb scortari, which simply means "to be a prostitute" or "to have sex with a prostitute." Perhaps one would be more likely to engage in sodomy with a prostitute (as it was considered fairly demeaning even to the ancients) but the Latin word scarcely applies exclusively to homosexual relations of any sort. I do not believe this verse has anything to say about homosexuality specifically.

In English:
No Israelite daughter is allowed to be a consecrated worker [prostitute]. Neither is any Israelite son allowed to be a consecrated worker. (CEB)
There shall be no prostitute of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a sodomite of the sons of Israel.
Israelite man
 or woman is to become a shrine prostitute. (NIV)

This is one of the more interesting verses in translation, because the ASV/KJV use the very specific word sodomite where the other translations simply render meretrix/scortator as basically synonymous. I would be inclined to say that the ASV/KJV translation here has introduced a nuance of meaning into the text which was not originally there, hence a less faithful rendering of the original text, whichever manuscript the translator was consulting.

Romans 1:26-28

propterea tradidit illos Deus in passiones ignominiae nam feminae eorum inmutaverunt naturalem usum in eum usum qui est contra naturam similiter autem et masculi relicto naturali usu feminae exarserunt in desideriis suis in invicem masculi in masculos turpitudinem operantes et mercedem quam oportuit erroris sui in semet ipsis recipientes et sicut non probaverunt Deum habere in notitia tradidit eos Deus in reprobum sensum ut faciant quae non conveniunt
Διὰ τοῦτο παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς εἰς πάθη ἀτιμίας: αἵ τε γὰρ θήλειαι αὐτῶν μετήλλαξαν τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν εἰς τὴν παρὰ φύσιν, ὁμοίως τε καὶ οἱ ἄρσενες ἀφέντες τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν τῆς θηλείας ἐξεκαύθησαν ἐν τῇ ὀρέξει αὐτῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους ἄρσενες ἐν ἄρσεσιν, τὴν ἀσχημοσύνην κατεργαζόμενοι καὶ τὴν ἀντιμισθίαν ἣν ἔδει τῆς πλάνης αὐτῶν ἐν αὑτοῖς ἀπολαμβάνοντες.
Καὶ καθὼς οὐκ ἐδοκίμασαν τὸν θεὸν ἔχειν ἐν ἐπιγνώσει, παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς εἰς ἀδόκιμον νοῦν, ποιεῖν τὰ μὴ καθήκοντα

This is the first example from the New Testament, which was written in Greek natively and not Aramaic or Hebrew. In this particular passage, Paul describes the wrath of God (ira Dei) against men who have decided to worship other things besides God. My translation, being fairly literal: "On account of this God handed those men over to passions of disgrace, for their women changed their natural use into that use which is against nature; similarly however the men, with the natural use of women abandoned, burned in their desires for each other, men performing a shameful act on men, and receiving the reward which was fitting for their mistakes, and just as they did not try to have God in their notice, God handed them over to base thoughts so that they might do what is unfitting."

The important words to examine here are ignominiae/ἀτιμίας, contra naturam/παρὰ φύσιν, and turpitudinem/ἀσχημοσύνην. The first pair, ignominiae/ἀτιμίας, mean something which is dishonorable or shameful. Likewise the last pair, turpitudinem/ἀσχημοσύνην, mean something that is unseemly, ugly, or awkward. Probably the most contentious and studied phrase in these verses is contra naturam/παρὰ φύσιν, "against nature." Both the Latin and Greek phrases express the idea of "that which is contrary to what one observes in the natural world," and so I don't see much latitude in interpretation here; homosexuality is unnatural, this verse says. I won't even begin to make suppositions about the ancients' ability to determine what is natural and unnatural; obviously the NT regards homosexuality as a matter of nature and not culture. (Incidentally, this is the only thing I've found even slightly resembling an explanation for why homosexuality is wrong. The Old Testament verses basically say "it's gross don't do it or you'll be killed" without ever explaining why.)

More interesting to me here is the severity of the vocabulary, which I find to be less threatening and damning than, say, the verses in Leviticus. The words ἀτιμία and ἀσχημοσύνη are not particularly strong. They connote things which are certainly unsavory and dishonorable, but there is no sense of condemnation. In fact, homosexuality was the punishment in this particular case; men who were not worshiping God were punished by having their desires turned around so that they wanted to do with each other that which they normally want to do with their women. Reading ahead to verse 32, it does mention that people engaging in this behavior ἄξιοι θανάτου εἰσίν "are worthy of death," but it's included in a laundry list of just about every kind of bad behavior imaginable, not singled out.

1 Timothy 1:9-10
(honk if you love the Dative!) reads

sciens hoc quia iusto lex non est posita sed iniustis et non subditis impiis et peccatoribus sceleratis et contaminatis patricidis et matricidis homicidis fornicariis masculorum concubitoribus plagiariis mendacibus periuris et si quid aliud sanae doctrinae adversatur
εἰδὼς τοῦτο ὅτι δικαίῳ νόμος οὐ κεῖται, ἀνόμοις δὲ καὶ ἀνυποτάκτοις, ἀσεβέσι καὶ ἁμαρτωλοῖς, ἀνοσίοις καὶ βεβήλοις, πατρολῴαις καὶ μητρολῴαις, ἀνδροφόνοις, πόρνοις, ἀρσενοκοίταις, ἀνδραποδισταῖς, ψεύσταις, ἐπιόρκοις, καὶ εἴ τι ἕτερον τῇ ὑγιαινούσῃ διδασκαλίᾳ ἀντίκειται

The important word here is masculorum concubitoribus/ἀρσενοκοίταις, which is actually translated in some versions of the Bible in English as "homosexual." You might recall earlier I mentioned that neither Greek nor Latin had a word for the concept; these words are not really counterexamples. Concubitor literally means someone with whom you sleep. It can have a sexual connotation, but not a homosexual connotation; this is why it is paired with masculorum. The Greek ἀρσενοκοίταις is basically the same as the Latin phrase, just combined in one word rather than expressed in two, as the Greek language prefers compounds to periphrasis. Both terms highlight the fact that the Greek and Latin languages were ill-equipped to express this different view of sexuality.

In English, the NIV renders concubitoribus/ἀρσενοκοίταις as "those practicing homosexuality;" the CEB uses "people who have intercourse with the same sex;" the ASV "abusers of themselves with men." Different versions in Italian render the word as "pervertiti," "sodomiti," and "omosessuali," all fairly transparent terms even if your Italian is not so good.

Jude 7 reads

sicut Sodoma et Gomorra et finitimae civitates simili modo exfornicatae et abeuntes post carnem alteram factae sunt exemplum ignis aeterni poenam sustinentes
ὡς Σόδομα καὶ Γόμορρα καὶ αἱ περὶ αὐτὰς πόλεις, τὸν ὅμοιον τρόπον τούτοις ἐκπορνεύσασαι καὶ ἀπελθοῦσαι ὀπίσω σαρκὸς ἑτέρας, πρόκεινται δεῖγμα πυρὸς αἰωνίου δίκην ὑπέχουσαι

"Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, having given themselves to fornication in a similar manner and going after another flesh, were made an example, receiving the punishment of eternal fire," I interpret. Again, exfornicatae/ἐκπορνεύσασαι
are basically fabricated words to describe the sort of perversion that was apparently going on in these famous towns. (I know what the people in Sodom were doing, but in Gomorrah?) They amount to something like "slutting out," or perhaps "corn-holing out" if you're a Sodomite. Neither word pertains specifically to homosexuality except in the context of those specific cities, where apparently that sort of thing was all the rage. (I suppose Jude would write Sanctus Franciscus civitas exfornicata if composing today.)

Conclusions and Observations

As I mentioned at the onset, my motivation for doing this little investigation was simply so that I could be better educated on the topic, because like most people, I haven't read too much of the Bible. I didn't expect to make any ground-breaking revelations, and I don't believe that I have. It is obvious that the Bible has a negative view of homosexuality and expresses that in both the old and new testaments. It certainly does not, as far as I have seen, say anything as plainly and strongly as "God hates fags." The passage using nefas in Latin is probably the strongest condemnation of it, but remember the same Greek word was also translated as abominatio in another verse.

People may be tempted to cite the severity of the punishment (i.e. death) as evidence of God's hatred of homosexuals. This is extremely misguided, because the Bible says that the punishment for all sin is death (Romans 6:23). In our society, we have a hierarchy of crimes and corresponding punishments which we portion out according to the severity of the infraction. God, however, does not have this same spectrum of offense and punishment. If you sin, you die. All sins require capital punishment, from homosexuality to cursing your parents. God doesn't care if you spent your afternoon having gay sex or worshiping Molech; you're committing sin. We as a society latch on to certain crimes or behaviors and condemn them as more sinful than others, more wrong or immoral than others. This is a reflection of our societal mores, not of the moral code of the Bible.

One of the biggest problems with citing the Bible as evidence of anything is that people extract the parts which support their views and repeat them entirely out of context. This is disingenuous and unacceptable as a mode of argumentation. The passages in Leviticus, for example, mention homosexual behavior in the context of general sins of perversion. If a man commits adultery, has sex with his mother, his daughter-in-law, his mother-in-law, his wife during her period (!), his sister, his brother's wife, or an animal, he is to be put to death, along with the offending woman (or animal.) No special attention is paid to homosexuality; it is merely one of a great many perversions which God deems sinful and punishable by death. To mention or emphasize one part of a book or verse and omit the rest is deceitful and prejudicial.

What we see today is a great number of people who use the Bible to support their bigoted and hateful views which probably did not originate in the scriptures. There is a lot to be learned by reading the Bible, whether one is religious or not. I encourage everyone who wants to have a discussion about morality, mythology, theology, or any other such topic to be familiar with the actual content of the Bible. Do not rely on the opinions or sermons of others to give you information about what God thinks or loves or hates. That information is readily available to you; you do not need an interpreter or pastor to guide you. It is my sincere hope that anyone who reads this will take greater care in forming and expressing arguments which cite in any way, for or against, the content of the Bible or any other sacred text. In such important debates about such weighty matters it is of the highest importance that our opinions have strong foundations in truth.

I encourage anyone who is able to read the Bible in Greek, Latin, or Hebrew, or at least to consult different translations if reading in a modern language. Consider also the cultural context of the authors who wrote it so long ago, and how our world now is vastly different in many ways. Responsible study of text is indispensable in the forming of cogent arguments and valid opinions about anything.


Bible Gateway - A brilliant database of dozens of different translations of the Bible in many languages

Septuaginta - Online text of the Greek Septuagint (Old and New Testaments) with parsing information for many of the words
The Latin Vulgate - Online text of the Latin Vulgate, with available English and Greek texts for comparison

I've also consulted the Oxford English and Latin dictionaries and Liddell and Scott's Greek lexicon for definitive definitions of the words in question.

Monday, June 11, 2012

5 Ugliest Cars On Sale Today

Automotive design is a tricky thing. Apart from being a completely subjective matter, the design of a new car's exterior has to consider many different factors, from efficiency to beauty to simplicity to brand awareness. Very few people would buy a car which they did not believe was at least acceptably attractive to look at, if not absolutely stunning. 
Not every manufacturer gets it right though; sometimes car design goes horribly, horribly wrong. Here are the five ugliest cars you can buy in the US right now.

5 - The Nissan Juke

I prefer to call it the "Joke," because I feel like it was designed as a total goof somewhere in the Nissan design department, but somehow it was accidentally put into production. I suppose in the inundated "crossover" market it's difficult to make your product stand out, but there has to be a better way than making it look like this mongrel. For as little as $19,990, you too can drive around in a vehicle which is not spacious, fast, impressively efficient, or attractive.

4 - The Cadillac CTS Coupe

For some reason Cadillac decided that they weren't content with Florida pensioners being the only ones even slightly interested in purchasing their vehicles, so they asked their design department to get rid of any instrument capable of producing anything but a straight line. Now Cadillacs are hip, totally cool cars that everyone wants! Actually now they're just pointy messes instead of huge floaty boats. The worst offender is this, the CTS Coupe, mostly because the back half of it looks like they haven't finished designing it. I don't think I've ever seen a rear quarter-panel that big on any motor vehicle. If your favorite geometric figure is the rectangle, $38,715 will grant you the ability to drive around in one.

3 - The Hyundai Veloster

This really is a shame, because Hyundai seems to be on the right track with a lot of their cars these days. The Genesis is fairly impressive, for example. This though, this thing is simply inexcusable. It wouldn't be so bad if you never walked around the back of it. The picture doesn't really even do it justice; you need to see one of these mutations in person to take in just how staggeringly inelegant the rear half of this machine is. I think they've also reached bold new heights in terrible hatchback design; not only is the rear window about 8 inches high, but the whole hatch itself doesn't even begin until about 3 feet off the ground. There's also the name, "Veloster," shamelessly borrowing the completely faddish "-ster" suffix which you might remember from other such successful ventures as Napster, Friendster, and Netflix' ground-breaking Qwikster service. At just $17,300, you can't afford not to show people how much you don't value beauty in the world.

2 - The Porsche Panamera

I expect better than this from the Germans, really. First of all, I completely fail to understand the need for a 911 that holds 5 people, so really this car should not even exist. I would be much less angry about its existence if it didn't look like a distorted, diseased version of Porsche's iconic sports car. It is massively long - 16 feet - and just unbalanced and awkward from every possible angle. Just like the Cayenne SUV models, they've desperately tried to make it look like a 911, which is doesn't. Aston Martin have proven with their Rapide that it's possible to make a beautiful 4-door sports car. Porsche have proven that they don't really know how to design a car with more than two doors. It would be perfectly fine if they stopped trying. It'll cost you $75,850 to cruise around in this vomit-inducing gargoyle.

1 - The Toyota Prius 

The Prius is probably my least favorite car in the entire world, I happily confess. Everything about it infuriates me. It has the sex appeal of a rotting skunk carcass. It's the farthest thing from a driver's car that money can buy. It was conceived and designed by incredibly boring people and is bought and driven by even more boring people. Wonky and offensive from every angle, it puts efficiency ahead of style. Of course it fails at being everything it wants to be; there are smaller cars which get better mileage, electric cars which use no petroleum at all, and almost everything is more green to build and recycle than these abominations with their high tech batteries. Perhaps some of that could be forgiven if it just looked like a normal car. Not even a pretty car. Just something that wasn't doodled by a 5 year old. The Prius tries to save the Earth while being a horrible scourge upon it. If you're an incredibly uninteresting person with $24,000 and no concept of style or taste, run to your nearest Toyota dealer.