It should be abundantly clear that the Bible was never intended to be a rigorous scientific treatise in our modern sense. Talmage, for instance, wrote, “The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a textbook of geology, archaeology, earth-science or man-science.” Nonetheless, many today insist on a literal reading of the Genesis, holding that the earth (or even the entire universe) was created a few thousand years ago over a 6-day (or 6,000-year) period, that there was no life or death on earth prior to this, and that species are unchanged since creation. Needless to say, these notions are at odds with modern science, and lead to the blasphemous notion that God has planted evidence to mislead us.
Some LDS church authorities, mostly in the 19th and early 20th century, have taught literal readings of Genesis, but by no means have LDS leaders been unanimous in this regard. Brigham Young, James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe, B. H. Roberts and David O. McKay, among others, all argued for a creation over eons of time in keeping with modern science.
It is useful in this context to ask why the creation scriptures should be read so literally, when no reasonable person insists that we read passages such as 1 Sam. 2:8, Psa. 93:1, 104:5 or Ecc. 1:5 in the same way. These four passages, among many others many that could be listed, affirm the geocentric cosmology of antiquity: the earth is flat, has four corners, is set on a foundation of pillars, and is immovable, with the sun and other heavenly bodies moving on transparent spheres above the earth. Such passages were the foundation of the persecution of Galileo and others over Copernican astronomy during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Readers who have studied mathematics may be amused by 1 Kin. 7:23 and 2 Chr. 4:2. These verses describe the baptismal font in the court of King Solomon’s temple as being “round in compass,” 10 cubits from “brim to brim,” and 30 cubits in circumference. In other words, the mathematical constant pi (the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter) is exactly 3.00, not 3.14159… as students now learn in school. Even today, some writers are unwilling to accept the simple and obvious conclusion that these measurements were only rough approximations, and that the Bible is mistaken on this very minor point. For example, (without any scriptural justification) that the measurements of the diameter and circumference were taken at different positions in the vertical profile of the pool: http://www.apologeticspress.org/abdiscr/abdiscr33.html.
Violence and War
The Old Testament was written long before our modern anti-violence ethic (and even before Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament), and thus it is not too surprising that a fair amount of war and violence are recorded there. Some well-known examples include the account of Simeon and Levi, two of the sons of Jacob, “boldly” slaying all the males of Shechem and spoiling the city (Gen. 34:20-28), and the account in Num. 31:7-18 of the Israelites, under Moses’ command, killing all the Midianites except for young virgin females, which they took for wives. In a similar vein, 2 Kin. 2:23-24 describes how 42 “little children” (which according to LDS doctrine are not accountable for sin) were savagely attacked by bears for teasing the prophet Elisha about his baldness. Must we accept these accounts at face value?
The Law of Moses
The writers of the Old Testament established a surprisingly sophisticated written law, setting forth principles for an orderly, moral and God-fearing society. Indeed, much of the Law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments, remains entirely relevant today. But even allowing that the ancient Israelites required a strict law, some points of the Law were very punitive. For instance, Exo. 21:15-17 instructs that if a young person smites or curses his father or mother, he or she “shall surely be put to death.” Death by stoning is also prescribed for a “stubborn or rebellious son” (Deu. 21:18-21) and for a young woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night (Deu. 22:20-21). Prohibitions also apply to eating shellfish (Lev. 11:10), sowing fields with “diverse seed” (as is done in virtually every vegetable garden today) and even wearing a garment of mixed fabric (Lev. 19:19). The New Testament does not set these prohibitions aside.
Along this line, illegitimate children, as well as persons with Ammonite or Moabite parentage, were banned for ten generations in Deu. 23:2-3. Many biblical scholars now believe that Deuteronomy was not literally written by Moses (1200 BC or earlier), but instead was compiled much later, possibly in the days of King Josiah, about 620 BC. One item of evidence here is to note that the Israelites living in the tenth century BC were completely unaware of the restriction given in Deu. 23:2-3, since the prophet Samuel anointed David, whose grandmother was Moabite (Ruth 4:13-17), to be Israel’s second king. These provisions of the Law of Moses were rejected by the prophet Ezekiel, who taught that children are not to be held responsible for the sins of parents or ancestors (Eze. 18).
In the Old Testament, Miriam, Deborah, Huldah and Noadiah, were prophetesses. In the New Testament, Mary and Mary Magdalene were central in Jesus’ life and ministry. The Apostle Paul acknowledged notable contributions of several women in the early church, including Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Julia and Junia (Rom. 16:1-16). Paul also declared, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28).
But in other passages, we read of sexist roles and attitudes that no reasonable person would endorse today. For example, in Num. 5:12-28, we read that if a “spirit of jealousy” came upon a man, or if he for any reason suspected that his wife may have been unfaithful, he was entitled to require that his wife undergo an ordeal by poison, administered by the local priest. If his wife died in the process, then she was presumed guilty of adultery, but if she recovered then she was judged innocent. There was no similar provision for a woman who suspected her husband of being unfaithful.
The New Testament does not fare much better in this regard. Here we read that a woman is to “learn silence with all subjection” (1 Tim. 2:11-14), and to “keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). If these two verses are taken to be the literal word of God, then the LDS Church (and almost every other Christian denomination) is acting in error by permitting women to pray, speak or teach in church meetings.
With regards to the first passage, the consensus of biblical scholars is that 1 Timothy was not actually written by Paul. With regards to second passage, scholars suspect that it was a later addition, since it does not appear at this location in the earliest manuscripts. Both passages sharply conflict with what Paul wrote just three chapters earlier (1 Cor. 11:5), where women are permitted to pray, teach and even prophesy in church meetings. They also conflict with the passages mentioned above in Rom. 16:1-16 and Gal. 3:28.
The ancient Hebrews’ were proud of their heritage as escapees from slavery in Egypt. However, both the Old Testament and New Testament condone rather harsh treatment of slaves. For example, in Exo. 21:20-21, we read that so long as a slave survives “a day or two” after being beaten by his or her master, then the master is not to be punished.
The passages Rom. 8:29-30 and Eph. 1:5,11 have been cited by those who question the notion of free agency. Historians Will and Ariel Durant noted that Luther and especially Calvin took these biblical passages to “ruinously logical conclusions” in their stern doctrine of predestination, resulting in “the most blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” Some LDS authorities have suggested that “predestinate” in these verses should be read “foreordain” (a reading that I prefer) but this interpretation is a clear departure from the text as it appears in virtually all translations, including the King James.
Treatment of Jewish People
Many biblical scholars now believe that following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the early Christians adopted antagonistic attitudes towards the Jews, which are reflected in some New Testament passage, including Matt. 27:22-25, Luke 23:18-24, and John 8:44. With regards to Matt. 27:22-25 and Luke 23:18-24, where “all” of the people demand Jesus’ death, it is important to note how this conflicts with Matt. 21:7-11, which tells of Jesus’ triumphal arrival in Jerusalem just a few days earlier. At that time, a “very great multitude” of the Jewish people of Jerusalem greeted Jesus as he arrived, with many shouting “Hosanna in the highest.” Further, we learn in Matt. 26:56 and Mark 14:50 that when Jesus was arrested, his disciples all “forsook him, and fled.” In other words, none of Jesus’ immediate disciples and apostles, who would have been immediately recognized and possibly put to death, were present during Jesus’ trials, so that the accounts we have of these events are at best second-hand. From these and other considerations, scriptural and historical, the consensus of modern biblical scholars is that at most only a few Jewish leaders were involved in Christ’s trial and crucifixion, certainly not the main body of the Jews in Jerusalem.
In any event, passages such as “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matt. 27:25) fly in the face of fundamental principles of justice, and conflict with other biblical teachings (e.g., Eze. 18), which ban punishment of children for the sins of parents or ancestors. Unfortunately, these passages have been cited for centuries by Christians as justification for cruel treatment of Jews. This persecution reached a tragic climax in the 20th century with the Nazi holocaust.
The Bible is the foundation of all Christian faiths, and a large portion of the Bible is common to Christian, Jewish and Islam faiths. Hundreds of millions draw comfort and spiritual enlightenment from its pages. It contains some of the world’s greatest literature. The Book of Job, for instance, has no peer in its exploration of the meaning of human suffering.
But the claim that the Bible text is the inerrant word of God, or anything close to this position, is indefensible. None of this means that one must abandon fundamental doctrines of God or salvation. But it does mean that modern readers must avoid the extremes of biblical literalism that permeate the modern evangelical world today, and which sadly are heard even among some Latter-day Sasints. As Paul declared, “… the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6).