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Judaism, Christianity, Islam; the Torah, Bible, Qur'an, etc.

Part 2 of 2: Editing, changing, reinterpreting,
and/or ignoring passages in holy books in
order to modify beliefs & alter behaviors
:

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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Is change of scripture possible?

Changing sacred literature in order to make the teaching more up-to-date and ethical may be extremely difficult, but, not necessarily impossible. Consider, for example:

bullet The Council of Nicaea in 325 CE: The followers of the Egyptian theologian Athanasius claimed that Christ and God were of the same essence, while the followers of Arius, a priest from Alexandria, believed that Christ was essentially inferior to God. These two approaches triggered endless debate in the Christian communities, with the two sides rather evenly matched. A vote was taken and Arius lost -- largely due to the heavy handed interference by the Roman Emperor. The Church sanctioned the theology of Athanasius and condemned the view of Arius as heresy. The fact that an issue of such magnitude could be decided by casting a ballot gives us hope that lesser problems could be solved as well, once we set aside our biases.

bulletHistory records many gradual changes in Christian beliefs and practices in the direction of "justice and liberty for all." Typically, these changes start with those denominations most concerned with human rights, and gradually work their way through the remaining denominations. Often this happens from the most liberal faith group to the most conservative.

Examples are:
bullet The movement to abolish human slavery in the 19th century. This started with the Mennonites and Quakers in the late 17th century and eventually permeated throughout Christianity, except for a very few radical denominations who still advocate the practice.

bullet The gradual acceptance of women as having status equal to men. This started with the theological debate in the late 19th century to decide whether women actually had souls. The theologians eventually decided that they did. Eventually, women obtained the vote in North America. They have achieved near equality with men in most western countries, except for some combat positions in the Armed Forces and within some conservative religious groups.

bullet The gradual granting of equal rights to sexual minorities. This movement was initially promoted by gays, lesbians, bisexuals, secularists, and liberal religious groups. Some mainline denominations are currently debating their ordination and same-sex marriage policies. The Episcopal Church, USA came close to a schism over these matters. Most conservative denominations have yet to initiate the debate.

bullet With little public acknowledgment, many Christian denominations have abandoned the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torture for people guilty of thought crimes -- i.e. those individuals who do not accept certain Christian beliefs or practices. Some faith groups have abandoned the idea of Hell completely; others are now describing it as a place of isolation from God where unbelievers will spend eternity. The Bible's description of the worms, unbearable thirst, flogging, and extreme heat of Hell are rarely mentioned in modern sermons.

bulletThe Bible lists many dozens of "crimes" that were punishable by execution ranging from murder, eating leavened bread during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a male engaging in sexual activity with a woman who is menstruating, teaching people about another religion, blasphemy, to working on Saturday, etc. Over many centuries, predominately Christian countries gradually reduced the list of capital crimes to one: aggravated murder. Almost all democracies, with the notable exception of the United States, have now abandoned executions entirely.

Sponsored link.

The Jefferson Bible:

Creating an edited Bible may sound like a radical concept. However, it is feasible, because it has already partly been done. In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826) created an abbreviated version of the Gospels. It is now called the "Jefferson Bible" and has remained in print since the first edition was published.

Marilyn Mellowes wrote:

"Thomas Jefferson was frustrated. It was not the burdens of office that bothered him. It was his Bible."

"Jefferson was convinced that the authentic words of Jesus written in the New Testament had been contaminated. Early Christians, overly eager to make their religion appealing to the pagans, had obscured the words of Jesus with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the teachings of Plato. These "Platonists" had thoroughly muddled Jesus' original message. Jefferson assured his friend and rival, John Adams, that the authentic words of Jesus were still there. The task, as he put it, was one of

'abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its luster from the dross of his biographers, and as separate from that as the diamond from the dung hill'." 1,2

Jefferson told John Adams that he was rescuing the philosophy of Jesus and the:

"pure principles which he taught ... [from the] artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms as instruments of riches and power for themselves." 3

The material that Jefferson described as "rubbish" that he removed from the gospels included what he considered to be religious dogma, supernatural elements, and miracles. He deleted passages dealing with the annunciation, the virgin birth, appearance of the angels to the shepherds, the wise men, the Christmas star, Jesus' resurrection and ascension, etc. What is left makes interesting reading. 4

The precedent has been established. An edited Bible would not be a difficult task, particularly in the age of word processors.

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Alternative approaches:

If organized religions are intransigent and unwilling to cooperate in removing intolerant passages from their scriptures, our only option may be to alleviate the problem without really solving it. There are a few possibilities:

bulletThe widespread dissemination of information about individual religions is important. People are often intolerant because of ignorance. Improved knowledge of the religious beliefs and practices of others often promote tolerance. Fortunately, the Internet contains an enormous amount of freely available information on religion. 5,6

bullet Attitudes learned in childhood have a lasting and profound influence upon a person's entire approach to life. The educational systems can actively teach tolerance and promote understanding that will carry over into adulthood. This may prove difficult to achieve in parochial schools.

bullet People of different faiths can appreciation diverse religious traditions interacting in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. There are many ways in which to improve the contact between members of various religions. One technique is to organize inter-religious discussions as the Baha'i faith does. Another is to organize local groups that promote interfaith dialogue. 7,8

bulletA particularly effective method to promote religious tolerance is for individual faith groups to cooperate on specific projects. For example, there are many multi-faith groups working on environmental protection, each religion contributing to the total effort:
bulletThe National Religious Partnership for the Environment is composed of four major religious organizations in the U.S.: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Coalition of Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network. See: http://www.nrpe.org/

bulletThe United Religions Initiative (URI) considers care for the earth central to its activities. It unites more than 26,000 members of different religious traditions in fifty countries. Each group must have at least seven members from at least three different religious, spiritual, or indigenous traditions. See: http://environment.harvard.edu/

bulletThe Interfaith Global Climate Change Campaign is part of the Washington Association of Churches. They are involved with native Americans. See: http://www.thewac.org/

bulletThe Partners for Environmental Quality, Inc. is composed of members of 15 diverse religious communities including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, and Judaism. It collaborates with state, national and international environmental organizations. http://www.environment.harvard.edu/

bulletThe Interfaith Coalition for the Environment is an American organization open to all spiritual traditions. See: http://www.interfaith-coalition-for-the-environment.org/

bulletThe Forum on Religion and Ecology is an inter-religious initiative engaged in scholarly dialogue on the environment. See: http://environment.harvard.edu/

bulletThe 'Religions of the World and Ecology' series at Harvard Divinity school lasted over 3 years. There were 10 conferences, attended by 800 scholars, leaders and environmental specialist from different religions. A book series has been published covering Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Indigenous Traditions, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, and Shinto.

bullet Also, environmental groups such as the WorldWildlife Fund have sponsored inter-religious meetings. http://www.futurist.com/

Individuals, local groups, national groups and international organizations can improve mutual religious tolerance to some degree. However, without full cooperation of the main world religions, it will be an uphill struggle to achieve even a modest improvement in reducing the level of intolerance and violence. It is not sufficient to have only the Bah'ai, the Unitarian Universalists, the Quakers, the far-Eastern religions, and other small faith groups active in promoting peace and harmony. All of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are needed to play their part as well.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Marilyn Mellowes, "Thomas Jefferson and his Bible," Frontline program, PBS, at: http://www.pbs.org/
  2. The basic text of the Jefferson Bible is available in a Word file at: http://www.angelfire.com and in a plain text file suitable for Wordpad at: http://www.angelfire.com/
  3. Eyler Coates, Sr., "The Jefferson Bible," at: http://www.angelfire.com/
  4. book cover Thomas Jefferson, "The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," Wilder Publications, (2009). Available in Kindle format for $0.80, Paperback for $4.99, Hardcover for $7.89. and Audiobook for #10.95. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  5. Yahoo! directory of faiths and practices at: http://dir.yahoo.com/
  6. Google directory on religious tolerance, at: http://www.google.com/
  7. A list of mostly local "North American Interfaith Organizations and Activities" is maintained at: http://www.pluralism.org/ This is a PDF file. A PDF reader can be obtained free from:
  8. Women Transcending Boundaries publishes an essay "Tips on Starting a Group" at: http://www.wtb.org/

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Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-SEP-27
Latest update on: 2015-FEB-16
Author. Vladimir Tomek, supplemented by contributions by B.A. Robinson

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