Religious scholar Reza Aslan blasted the idea of “biblical literalism” — the core belief of fundamentalist Christianity — by noting that the Bible was full of contradictions and historical errors.
Aslan said during a February address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council that people mistakenly believed Christians had always interpreted the Bible as historical fact. The idea of biblical literalism is actually only about a century old, he explained.
“I think the best skill that we can learn is how to read the gospels,” he said in video uploaded to YouTube last week. “We come from a world in the 21st century in which we assume that Biblical literalism, the notion that the Bible is literal and inerrant, is just sort of an inherent part of belief in the Bible. It isn’t. The concept of Biblical literalism, in the 2,000 year history of the New Testament, is a little more than 100 years old.”
“Let me just say that one more time: in the 2,000 year history in which the gospels have existed, the idea that what you are reading in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is literal and inerrant is a little more than 100 years old. It was the result of a very interesting movement, a backlash to Christian liberalism and the Scientific Revolution at the end of the 19th century by a group of American Protestants who began a movement that was launched by a series of tracts that were written called ‘The Fundamentals’ and that is where we get the term ‘fundamentalism’ from. It’s a very new phenomenon.”
Biblical literalism is a poor way to interpret the Bible, Aslan continued, because the holy book is full of contradictions.
“I’ll put it in the simplest way possible: the gospels are absolutely replete with historical errors and with contradictions. The gospel of Matthew says that Jesus was born in 4 B.C. The gospel of Luke says Jesus was born in 6 A.D. That’s ten years difference! Which one was right?”
Aslan said the fathers of the early Christian church certainly didn’t read the gospels as a collection of historical facts
“Now, let me ask you a much more important question than which one is right: do you think that the Church fathers who in the 4th century decided to put both Matthew and Luke in the canonized New Testament didn’t bother to read them first? They didn’t notice that they have different dates for Jesus’ birth? They didn’t notice that the gospel of John absolutely contradicts the entire timeline of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? They didn’t notice that there are two completely different genealogies for Jesus in Matthew and Luke? Of course they did! They didn’t care, because at no point did they ever think that what they were reading was literally true.”
Early Christians were more concerned with the spiritual truth revealed by the story of Jesus than the verifiable facts about his life, Aslan explained.
“We think that truth and fact mean the same thing. Indeed, science tells us, ‘that which is true is that which can be factually verified.’ But that’s not what the ancient mind thought. They were not as interested in the facts of Jesus’ life as they were in the truth revealed by Jesus’ life. When they constructed these stories about Jesus, and I mean that quite literally, they constructed these stories. If you asked them, ‘Did this really happen?’ they wouldn’t even understand the question. What do you mean did this really happen? You’re missing the point! The point isn’t ‘Are these facts true?’ the point is: what does this story reveal about the nature of who Jesus is.”
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