AS178: Tyler Vela on Interpreting the Bible, Part 2

More challenges from Tyler Vela on how me and other atheists are reading and interpreting the bible. Am I doing it all wrong or is Tyler simply trying to deflect my biblical criticism? Better listen to find out.

14 thoughts on “AS178: Tyler Vela on Interpreting the Bible, Part 2”

  1. Hi Thomas, my name is Joel. I love your show and also love comedy shoeshine, I never could get into Thomas and the bible probably because I’ve read that book several times myself and couldn’t handle listening to someone else read it. Anyway, I’m commenting because I was raised in the reformed flavor of Christianity and went to a church that was part of the PCA til I finally left religion. I listen to many atheist podcasts and so many times I find the atheist arguments easy to refute from the view of my background, one thing that bothers me is this idea that the words in the bible don’t mean what they say. I’ve read the story of Elisha being mocked in several versions of the bible and can’t help notice that none of them mention a militia, or threats of death or anything that your guest read into this text. Having historical knowledge of the time and area is fine but didn’t the translators of the bible have this knowledge? Wasn’t God there guiding their translation so that the message he wanted to send would come through clearly? One of my favorite lines from David Smalley of Dogma Debate is that “if you can just change the meanings of words then I can fly through walls, if by fly you mean walk and by walls you mean doorways.” The story your guest told and the story you find in the bible don’t match up, it seems a desperate attempt by a Christian to have a ridiculous story make a slight amount of sense. Furthermore I’ve encountered this argument before of “well the Hebrew word or the original Greek word really means such and such”. If that’s true why doesn’t the Bible say that? And why should I trust their interpretation of that word over the translators of the various bibles? Anyway, that’s my rant. It’s just a few of the many frustrations I have with this type of argument. Thanks for the great shows and keep up the good work.

    Your faithful listener, Joel

    1. “I’ve read the story of Elisha being mocked in several versions of the bible and can’t help notice that none of them mention a militia, or threats of death or anything that your guest read into this text.”

      Speaking of context. We’re talking about a time when stoning people to death, a time when God himself supposedly ordered entire villages destroyed, man, woman, and child, while keeping virgin girls alive to share as spoils of war, a time when drowning everyone on earth was considered acceptable behavior. In that context sending some bears to maul to death 40+ children for mocking God’s prophet seems to be perfectly consistent behavior. In fact it’s a rather mild response. The villages those kids came from were lucky they weren’t leveled as well.

  2. First of all, thank you both for a very interesting and engaging podcast; I really enjoyed it.

    I can see studying the Bible as ancient literature and Tyler brought up some really interesting takes on why it’s written as it’s written, but as Tom pointed out again and again, that doesn’t make it good literature by today’s standards. It’s academically fascinating to people who are academically interested in it. Others find the Hindu Vedas fascinating in the same sense and spend their lives studying and analyzing them.

    I guess the real problem is that the vast bulk of people who read the Bible, believe it, and take it as the word of God, don’t do it with anything like Tyler’s level of contextual analysis (forget the people who believe it and take it as the word of God without ever having read it). To understand a Bible story or point of law the way Tyler does takes a tremendous amount of setup and academic back story, which I find very interesting (and kind of wish Tom would interrupt a bit less), but that’s not the way 99.9% of the people who tout the Bible as the inerrant word of God understand or present it. If Tyler’s hermeneutical analysis is correct, and I have no reason to believe it’s not, then what we’re getting from believers and preachers and our own academically unaided reading of the texts is a thoroughly misunderstood version of what the authors were trying to convey. The Bible as perceived and interpreted by most people is exactly what Tom says it is and, without a great deal of academic investigation, remains something you believe simply because you believe it or something you simply can’t believe because it makes no sense, or makes all the wrong kind of sense.

    If you don’t have Tyler’s insight into what might have really been going on in the Elisha she-bears story, and therefore accept the story, as read off the page, as the perfectly just word of God, what does that say about God? What does that say about you?

    In most cases, whether you believe or can’t believe, it’s all just a big misunderstanding.

  3. “I guess the real problem is that the vast bulk of people who read the Bible, believe it, and take it as the word of God, don’t do it with anything like Tyler’s level of contextual analysis”

    Exactly! Tyler is making a variation of the old tired “sophisticated Christians” argument. The problem is 99% of Christians are not sophisticated. (If sophisticated Christian is even a thing other than another term for apologist) If they were we likely wouldn’t be having this discussion. Christians wouldn’t be using literal reading of the bible to inspire and justify their homophobia, they wouldn’t be using it in an attempt to undermine evolution, and so on.

    I can imagine civilization being destroyed, and someone finding a superman comic. Being a primitive, and coming from this post apocalyptic future he assumes Superman is a god, and a religion develops around him. 1000 years later someone like Tyler comes along explaining to doubters that “faster than a speeding bullet” isn’t meant to be taken literally, they just meant he could run really fast. lol

    1. I hadn’t listened to the last 5 minutes when I made my previous comment, and I nearly laughed out loud when he said “apologists don’t need to jump through Hula hoops to make what God says not seem bad”. That was exactly what he did through the entire interview, but saying he isn’t doing that is exactly the kind of slimy misdirection they engage in, I’ve never heard a relatively intelligent apologist who wasn’t. in my opinion, a liar. The stupid ones actually believe the bullshit.

  4. It seemed to me like Tyler used his hermeneutics to dance around the edges of the important biblical issues. Do maybe the Elisha story isn’t as bad as a naive reading suggests, who cares. Did it actually happen, can we use anything he says to help determine if anything in the bible actually happened. When we get to historic impossibilities like the flood or the exodus can we just wave our hands and say “poetry, context,etc” and have the problems vanish. Either Adam and Eve were real people or they weren’t, Jesus performed miracles and rose from the dead or he didn’t, these are central to the whole christian belief system and can’t be contextualized away without losing something significant. If it’s all meant to be taken as a lovely story with lots of good messages for how to live our lives my bookshelf is full of books with as good or better messages that can inform how we live our lives and I don’t have to believe that Odessyus or Arthur Dent were real people.

  5. Great interview thanks Thomas. The NIV’s explanatory section of the she-bears story doesn’t describe the gang as anything other than youths, Tyler’s militia interpretation seems a stretch. With so much detail in Kings, if this band of youths were particularly nasty why were they not described as such? If God was defending his chosen one against an imminent threat, why doesn’t it say that? How could so many generations of translators be wrong and Tyler and his ilk be correct?

    Found this analysis/interpretation interesting too:

    http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/grace-journal/03-2_12.pdf

    which has a similar spin to Tyler’s but also says the “go up” part of the insult is the sinners wishing that Elisha would ascend to heaven as Elijah did. However you spin it, if you don’t believe God was justified in using bears as a weapon against the youths as punishment for slagging off (or even threatening) his sales rep, then a sophisticated reading is hardly better than a simple one.

    If Jesus was God made flesh, then surely he’s the same entity that carried out/commanded the disgusting vengeful acts in the Old Testament?

  6. It struck me listening to this episode that if 2 Kings 2:23-24 (“And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head” or some variation thereof) actually means “A roving band of brigands threatened his life as he traveled the dangerous highway,” then there is no point in reading the Bible. What could I possible glean from the Bible if the words in it are so disconnected from their accepted meanings?

    1. My point exactly. Without a rather vast academic understanding of the historical and traditional context, believer, nonbeliever or passerby, you’re GOING to get it wrong—you’re GOING to misunderstand it.

      I’d love to read a complete version of the Bible that was translated throughout in the same manner that Tyler was describing on the podcast, where the cultural context was translated along with the text. Some might complain that in such a work all you’re doing is building in the apologetics, but I found Tyler’s expositions very interesting and I think it would be entertaining and enlightening to hear the whole story presented in that fashion.

  7. Tyler’s attempt to “explain” Elisha and the Bears was laughable at best and perhaps disingenuous with regards to the victims of Yahweh’s brutal retribution. In discussing the Hebrew phrase, he conveniently left out the Hebrew word qatan which is coupled here with na’ar. Qatan means small, so these were small youths or little youths (or children). Young’s literal translation says “little youths”. Darby’s calls them “little boys” and the KJV says they were “little children”. Does Mr. Vera know more than the scholars who wrote these Bible versions? Scholars always attempt to translate using the best knowledge of the context. They do not disregard context as Mr Vera implies. Besides, for hundreds of years, the KJV was the only English translation widely used. Why would this “god” allow his word to be so horrendously translated? Sure, Tyler, that makes sense.

  8. KJV: “little children”
    Young’s Literal Translation: “little youths”
    ESV: “small boys”
    Darby’s: “little boys”
    Amplified Bible: “young boys”
    Douay-Rheims Bible (Catholic): “little boys”
    Holman Christian Standard: “small boys”
    The Message: “little kids”
    Modern English Version: “little boys”
    NIV: “boys”
    Wycliff Bible: “little children”
    CEB: “young people”
    ASV: “young lads”

    1. No, see, neither an open mind nor a closed mind will suffice in this instance. What’s required here is an ELASTIC mind, one that will s-t-r-e-t-c-h (from the inside) to accommodate whatever it takes to make a tapir look like a horse.

      I still think Tyler’s tellings are more interesting. They’re like the bonus material on a DVD. They’re “the rest of the story.” And they’re probably at least as true as Paul Harvey’s little lunchtime vignettes ever were.

  9. But if you have to take the historical situation into content then you cannot use his explanation for why there was a second telling of the laws, given to the people after the exodus, AS THERE WAS NO EXODUS.

  10. In regards to his ” the bible doesn’t condon rape” claim. What about Numbers 31:18? “but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”. As Christopher HItchens said “I think I know what they had in mind.”

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