A long time ago as a graduate student, I found Arsenal for Skeptics (Richard W. Hinton, ed., 1934) on a college bookstore’s bargain table. I was trying to decide if the Christianity I’d been taught as a child was true or not. I had had problems from the first: the nun who’d said only Catholics could get into heaven (this was the 1950s), the idea that intentionally eating a hot dog on Friday (it was a mortal sin then) could land me in hell forever—those and other teachings just didn’t ring true.
I read the book with interest. It began with the Bible. First, its contradictions—for instance, Adam was to die when he ate of the Tree but he lived for 930 more years; humans were created after the beasts and before the beasts. Then absurdities such as a talking serpent. Then came the atrocities—all humanity condemned for the sin of our first parent; Yahweh orders massacres and condones slavery. Lastly, indecencies such as Abraham marrying his half-sister and Lot offering his virgin daughters to a mob.
Had I been raised Protestant, especially a Protestant of the bibliolatry type, what I read might have been sufficient to destroy my faith in Christianity. But I had been born into an Italian American family and spent ten years in Catholic school. I hardly knew the Bible existed. Yes, I knew the stories about Adam and Eve, the flood, and Jesus came from some book. But I had heard the word Bible only rarely, and I don’t recall actually seeing a book I knew to be the Bible until I entered high school. The Bible was on the freshman list of required books, so I bought it along with my other books. Soon, I realized, this is where all those stories come from.
By chance, I had the same priest for religion class all four years. Father B. was progressive; he spoke sympathetically of civil-rights marches and once spent several classes discussing how Moses’s parting of the Red Sea may actually have been a parting of the “Sea of Reeds,” marshland covered with a few inches of water. A good breeze, said Father B., could push the water aside, leaving somewhat muddy land for Moses and company to cross. I sometimes wondered if he had natural explanations for all the Bible’s supposed miracles, but I left high school never having asked.
In any event, we never once in my four years of high school opened and read our Bibles in religion class. But I read it on my own with interest. I found much of the Old Testament uninteresting and puerile. The first chapter of Matthew was more interesting. There was perhaps Christianity’s most famous prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” Of course, he’d been named “Jesus,” not “Emmanuel.” I had noticed that little fact in grade school, but the nun had said “and they will call his name Emmanuel.” “Call his name”? What on Earth did that mean? In any event, the original “prophecy” (which is in Isaiah 7:14) was impressive.
The final verse of Matthew 1 tells how Joseph, following the direction of an angel, took Mary as his wife and “he had no relations with her until she bore a son.” Relations, of course, meant sexual relations. So, said the Catholic version of Matthew 1, Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary until the birth of Jesus.
Wow. That was interesting. Catholics, as most people know, insist on Mary’s perpetual virginity. Mary, whom they place at a level just below godhood, was as virginal when she died as the day she was born. But here was the Church’s own bible saying Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary until after the birth of Jesus.
Hmm. But there was a footnote: “The Greek word translated ‘until’ does not imply normal marital conduct after Jesus’ birth, nor does it exclude it.” So Matthew wasn’t necessarily saying Mary had sexual relations with Joseph after Jesus was born. Maybe she did; maybe she didn’t. Matthew wasn’t saying. That seemed incredibly weak, though logically valid in a hair-splitting kind of way. It was as if I argued that “George Washington didn’t betray the United States until he was forty years old” merely meant he didn’t betray the United States before forty but didn’t necessarily mean he did become a traitor later. That Matthew, writing under the inspiration of God himself, would write such a sentence seemed unlikely and disturbing.
And yet all I had read and discovered amounted merely to some flaws, some imperfections. In my mind, Christianity had lost some of its luster, but I still had a way to go before I came to regard Christianity the way it sees all other religions: as a human creation.
Then I reached the second chapter of Arsenal for Skeptics, which opens with an excerpt from Joseph Wheless’s Forgery in Christianity (1930). There I read that Christianity’s most famous prophecy—“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel”—was a fraud … manufactured … an outright lie. Worse still, the Church had known it was a lie from the first. For two thousand years, the Church had knowingly preached a lie.
Here’s what I read in Arsenal for Skeptics.
“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.” (Matt. v, 23.)
Isaiah’s original Hebrew, with the mistranslated words underscored, reads: “Henneh ha-almah harah ve-yeldeth ben ve-karath shem-o Immanuel”;—which, falsely translated by the false pen of the pious translators, runs thus in the English: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isa. vii, 14.) The Hebrew words ha-almah mean simply the young woman; and harah is the Hebrew past or perfect tense, “conceived,” which in Hebrew, and in English, represents past and completed action. Honestly translated, the verse reads: “Behold, the young woman has conceived–[is with child]–and beareth a son and calleth his name Immanuel.”
Almah means simply a young woman, of marriageable age, whether married or not; in a broad general sense exactly like girl or maid in English, without reference to or vouching for her technical virginity, which, in Hebrew, is always expressed by the word bethulah. (From “Forgery in Christianity” Joseph Wheless, 1930 p. 62–65)
But was what Wheless wrote true? I had no immediate way of confirming it. But the claim stayed with me. Eventually, I found two footnotes in a Bible that settled the issue for me.
The first footnote was to Matthew 1:22–23, which reads: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).’” Of those verses, the footnote said: “This is a prophetic reinterpretation of Is 7:14.”
The second footnote was to Isaiah 7:14 itself, which reads: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Here’s what the footnote said:
The church has always followed St. Matthew in seeing the transcendent fulfillment of this verse in Christ and his Virgin Mother. The prophet need not have known the full force latent in his own words; and some Catholic writers have sought a preliminary and partial fulfillment in the conception and birth of the future King Hezekiah, whose mother, at the time Isaiah spoke, would have been a young, unmarried woman.
Even without the footnotes, there are obvious problems with calling what Isaiah wrote a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus. First, Jesus wasn’t named “Emmanuel”; he was named “Jesus.” (Actually, he wasn’t named “Jesus” either. “Jesus” is a Roman name, such as Marcus, Brutus, Aurelius, and many others. The name “Jesus” hints to Christianity’s true creator, the Roman Empire.) Second, read in context Isaiah obviously doesn’t refer to Jesus. (There’s a certain satisfying irony in using context to disprove a Christian claim because context is the go-to, get-out-of-jail-free card Christian apologists use to explain away troublesome verses.) Here is verse fourteen again, along with the following two verses:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. (Emphasis added.)
So Isaiah, writing centuries before the birth of Jesus, writes of a boy whose life will be contemporaneous with the fall of two kings. There’s an obvious problem in claiming that what Isaiah wrote is a prophecy of Jesus.
The two footnotes make clear that Isaiah 7:14 is no prophecy—though “clear” certainly doesn’t describe the footnotes themselves. Rather, we may imagine an editor feeling a pang of conscience in mistranslating Isaiah and making a half-hearted attempt at honesty. So he (or she?) packages the truth in language designed to camouflage it. For in reading those footnotes, who but one person in a thousand would understand what was being said? Who would understand that “prophetic reinterpretation” meant “outright lie”? That “Transcendent fulfillment” equaled “wishful thinking”? That “The prophet need not have known the full force latent in his own words” meant Isaiah (and probably no Jew who lived for umpteen centuries after) ever saw prophecy in Isaiah 7:14?
Today (some sects of) Christianity are creeping closer to acknowledging a truth Christianity has denied for two thousand years. Here’s how the New American Bible translates Isaiah:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel. Curds and honey he will eat so that he may learn to reject evil and choose good; for before the child learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.
But the New American Bible still supports Matthew’s claim that there’s a prophecy of the virgin birth in Isaiah.
The realization that the Church has mistranslated Isaiah for centuries demolished for me any claim Christianity had to truth. For how could an institution claim to possess grand and transcendent truth when it willfully did such violence to simple, humble truth? But could I say that it was all hokum? That Jesus was just some guy, or even some fiction? I didn’t know.
For several decades, I wasn’t sure what I thought of Jesus. During that time a lot of a spiritual groups were active, for example, the Hare Krishnas and the Moonies, to name but two. I read about Eastern religions and tried to decide if there were any idea of a god I could accept. The process was slow. In the meantime, I completed a graduate degree, got a job, and married. I eventually came to think that if the word God means the highest reality we can conceive—one that deserves our respect, that stimulates awe, even worship—then perhaps “the ultimate ground of existence” fits. With this view, God is like the light on a movie screen and the world we see comprises the images.
But such a view fails to translate into moral values. My moral stance is that we should help and care for each other, that—in the words of a famous Christian teaching so often cited and so little practiced by many who loudly identify as Christian—we are “our brother’s keeper.”
I find it interesting, even ironic, that believing the word God may correspond to an objective reality leads me to an iconoclastic view of organized religion: namely, that it is idolatry. The idols are legion: the Golden Calf, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, even the writings of L. Ron Hubbard. And not just books but people, too, are made into idols: Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna. In every case, the elevation of a book or person to the status of idol means the words of the book or person become sacred and must be accepted. Critical thought must be abandoned or at least must bow to the authority of the idol. It may be acceptable to question, but the questioner must eventually come to the conclusion that the idolized words are true.
This highlights what is, for me, religion’s fundamental flaw: its epistemological method of taking authority as truth. Matthew said Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy—so on his authority, it’s true even if the facts say otherwise.
Religion takes authority (of book, prophet, god-man) as its truth. Science takes truth itself as its authority. And therein lies science’s strength and its superiority to religion.