Icon and Text

“Do you believe in the Bible?” 

There is a reasonable fear of being buttonholed by true believers at a party or other social function who will ask this at some point in the conversation. And the question really being asked isn’t obvious on the surface. It’s a trick question. For Christians, the Bible isn’t just a set of texts – it’s an icon.

An icon is an object of veneration or a tool for instruction. In Eastern Orthodox traditions, icons appear as murals, mosaics, and paintings of saints. Western icons often include body parts of saints, or blood of a saint. The original memes, icons are used as a shorthand for complex meaning, often from sets of stories. They are always revered, never questioned, and considered representative of the faith. 

To wit: there are two Bibles. One is a translation of ancient writings packaged with specific framework and context clues. The other is a cultural symbol that references a series of unifying myths and is used as a talisman for authority. A Venn diagram of these two things would have a lot of crossover, but the Bible Icon is fundamentally more powerful, more ancient, and more important than the Bible Text. The fact that there is a Bible with ancient text is more important than the content of any of the text.

Consider that the Bible is used today as a symbol for Christianity, with or without a cross. When elected officials are elevated to position, they do so making their vows with a hand on the Bible. Someone who wants to be seen as studiously Christian will overtly carry a Bible with them – and frequently be seen reading from it, taking notes. When someone wants to make a point about what the Christian culture demands or refuses, a Bible will be lofted into the air for all to see as the badge of authority to back up their statement. 

In practice, the Bible Icon is very important, and the Bible Text is largely ignored. When Martin Luther attempted to shame the Church for not following Biblical precepts, he launched the Protestant reformation, but failed to even crack the resolve of the Catholic Church, based as it was on Roman tradition and not the Bible. Despite years of archeological digging, the lack of evidence of the person of Jesus Christ in the Gospels is irrelevant to the Church, as it’s not the text of the Bible that determined dogma and theology, but the fiat of Roman Emperors.

The surprising thing is that the Bible as an icon has a longer history in the faith than the text itself. For centuries, only a small handful of people ever actually could read a Bible. Literacy was not widespread prior to development of the printing press, so for the vast majority of people, the Bible was only an icon – unread – for a thousand years. It said what the literate people in charge declared that it said. 

We children of Gutenberg have little idea how precious a book that we can read for ourselves could be. In the era the Gospels were written, when books were reproduced by hand copyists, a single book could be worth more than most men would earn in a lifetime. When manifest, a Bible would appear as the central and most valuable icon in a church, chained to a pulpit from which the educated would read and over which the illiterate would recite verses from memory. 

Only the wealthiest and most studious Christians – primarily this would be the Bishops – would have a chance to own a complete Bible. If anything, most believers would have a set of the Gospels and Psalms, or a single Gospel, written on tiny pages folded into a small leather talisman. Thus for the first many generations of Christians, the Bible was almost entirely iconic – the text nearly irrelevant in comparison to a religious icon bearing its own mythology. Any myth about the development of the Early Church from the Gospel writings must take into account that they were probably around for several centuries before more than a hundred people had actually read them.

The mythology of the Bible is a set of stories told about what the Bible says or means, and these stories reflect elements of a creed. A creed is a litany of beliefs that a person can claim as their own, and every Christian community possesses a creed common to its members. Many Christian denominations share specific creeds, and some denominations are separated only by differences in creed. Long, bloody wars have been fought over tiny differences in creed. Creed preceeded the Bible in formation, and most of what is written in a creed isn’t actually in the Bible. It is the creed that defines denomination.

Thus the iconic Bible represents not the text of the Bible, but of the creed of the believer. The question of belief in the Bible is not about whether any of the Bible has been read, or comprehended. The question is about cultural membership: what do you believe? What is your creed?

From a purely capitalist perspective, the text of the Bible is both worthless and immensely profitable. All of the texts of the original Greek sources of the Bible that we have are in the public domain, so no one can demand licensing fees and thus the texts themselves have no monetary value. Most of the translations have also moved into the public domain and can be obtained freely. I have the entire King James translation of the Bible in a text file on my computer.1 I could print a King James version of the Bible without paying a licensing fee to anyone and sell it wherever I like, keeping all the profits, because there’s no regulation on it and no one owns it. 

As such, the Bible continues to be one of the best selling books of all time, year after year. People buy fancy printings as gifts to family members, mementos of key life events like graduation and marriage, and to place conspicuously on a shelf or a reading table in the front room of a new house. It is a manufactured relic, a sacred cash cow: priceless and cost free.

For a world of believers, the text of the Bible has a value beyond counting. It is the sacred word of God, incomparable and irreplaceable. It is believed the text was written by men guided by the Hand of God. Some believe it should only be read literally, never figuratively. Lives have been dedicated to finding the arithmetic value of every word in the Bible, the correspondence to any other verse, and presumed hidden messages and codes within the text. The text of the Bible is not the work of a single man or even a single generation, but a vast collection of writings from one of the earliest cultures to write – epic, sacred, poetic, quasi-historical legends and traditions of the Hebrew peoples – prepended to a smaller set of mythic tales and letters from the faithful concerning that religion we call Christianity. 

The proximity of the Hebrew scriptures to the Gospels in the Christian Bible has led many to a mistaken belief that Judaism is a precursor to Christianity. Roman Imperial culture is the father of Christianity and the Great Mother cult of Rome is the mother. One the earliest Christian conflicts were over the degree to which Christianity should be “Juda-ized” through the inclusion of Hebrew holidays and rituals. To which the answer was: as little as possible. The complicated math behind the setting of Easter Sunday is testimony to the extremes possible when having to calculate a Roman holiday based on a Jewish holiday without making the calculation about the Jewish holiday. This is why Christians celebrate Easter and not Passover, Christmas and not Hanukkah, New Years and not Rosh Hashanah. 

The subset of Biblical text most highly prized by Christians are the four books at the beginning of the New Testament, collectively called the Gospels. These are the primary and singular texts containing the words of Christ. These Gospels contain the biographical information and history of the last days of Jesus the Messiah. Here are where the many parables of Jesus are found, the stories of miracles, the moral teachings. The stories told here are given the setting of Roman Judea in the first century AD, and this is not an arbitrary setting.

With an exception of a few, the vast majority of characters in the Gospels have a common characteristic – they were all representative of the membership of the Jewish rebellion against Rome. The purpose of the stories was to show that the Judeans were confused and morally bankrupt for rebelling against Rome, and though there are a few characters who try to lead the others to the light of Rome, they are overwhelmed by the violence of the rebellious Judeans. These stories were written immediately after Jerusalem had been cruelly crushed in an 18-month siege that saw its survivors crucified and its main temple leveled. This military campaign crushed several cities and many small towns, crucifying some while selling others into slavery, squeezing the rebellion into a few key camps marked for destruction, because for a century the factious Jewish rebellion had grown two heads for every one they had cut down and the Romans were done with playing that game.

The presence of the Hebrew sacred text in the Christian Bible was a repudiation of Judean independence and also served as a claim on the Torah as part of the Roman religious complex. I’ll say this again: the Torah belongs to Christianity, the Old Testament is in the Bible, because Rome took it from the Jews. The Romans took the Torah from its scrolls and put it in a book alongside a new covenant with Caesar that completely obviated the entire Hebrew tradition. It wasn’t enough for the Romans to destroy the temple and the entire sacred city, they had to take this, too.

The Gospels were born from the Roman despair over Judean violence. The Gospels were meant as a boast, and as a warning, that the Roman emperor would not tolerate rebellion. The Gospels were woven with a dark intention to vilify the offspring of the Judeans into the distant future. The Gospels are full of black humor, racist stereotypes, and triple-stacked with innuendo. These stories were drawn to put Jews in the worst light, and to place the blame for their destruction on their own behavior. Anti-semitism may not have started with the Romans, but they were ones to set it into their cultural stone.

The author(s) of the Gospels were extraordinarily wealthy, they had the benefit of a top education during the golden age of philosophical development. They knew every rhetorical device, they knew every trick of debate and distraction, and they knew how to make a good pun in three or four languages. The Gospels were deliberately contrived to mock the Jews, praise the Emperor, and create a specific mental state in the reader that would make them extraordinarily susceptible to suggestion, and the suggestion was to do what you were told by God. The key fact being that God, at the time, was the Roman Emperor. 

Everything about the content of the Gospels – the parables, the promises, the miracles, and the myth – operates within this larger context of Roman suzerainty under which Caesar was Christ, the greatest sin was rebellion against the Emperor, and the Kingdom of God was the Roman Empire. Paul, in his epistles, repeatedly rejects attempts to adopt Hebrew culture into Christian practice, and pointedly doesn’t seem to reference the same “Christ” as the one in the Gospels. Further, much of what is promised in the creed doesn’t exist in the Gospels; again, the source of Christianity is not the Bible, but Rome. The Bible is an artifact of Roman Christianity. 

Fast forward to Europe of the late 1700s. Instead of a Roman Emperor, you’ve got a Roman Catholic Pope. Every nation is either dedicated to the Pope or has its own internal church structure. Everywhere there is someone who can say that something is proper religion or not. Which was important because the Bible had become somewhat untethered without an Emperor. The Bishops continued to rule “in the name of God”, and the Bible continued to create “Good Romans”, but whenever someone came around professing something different, the Bishops had to make sure to quash it quickly for fear of provoking a wave of rebellion. Sure enough, someone waving a Bible around provoked a Protestant revolution that couldn’t be put down, the Bishops lost control of the Bible, and things were never the same.

In North America, one upstart British colony decided to do something radical – they formed into a nation without a sponsoring church or king, abandoning centuries of political practice. Further, they said the Congress specifically cannot make any sort of ruling that would lead to the creation of an office where someone could say that something is or isn’t religion. There is no boss of religion in the USA. It’s whatever we want it to be. 

This has led to the unfortunate tendency for people to figure out that they can really cash in by having a large congregation that regularly lays out the big dollar into the baskets every Sunday. With the advent of mass media, there have been many great fortunes made in the name of God. One has to suppose that the people are getting the kind of spiritual entertainment that they need or the crowds would be a lot smaller.

It was really just a matter of time before someone sufficiently wealthy and unscrupulous figured out they could manipulate politics by jiggering the scripts used at the pulpit. Modern Evangelism became a force in the early 1950s when money came calling a young, charismatic preacher named Billy Graham to come up with a new Gospel that would convince people that greed was a good thing, and he was ridiculously successful. Now folks are using the Bible to convince people to do whatever God says, only this time around God is whatever a handful of political operatives says that it is. And since there isn’t anyone to say what legitimate religion is, and our expectations for religion are so minimal, overtly devious stuff like this looks just like every other denomination, and like a cancer takes over places where mainstream religion used to rule.

The Bible, Icon, represents Prosperity Gospel as surely as it does Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism or any one of the 45,000 known worldwide denominations of Christianity. The Bible, Text, is the blackened scab of imperial colonialism over stolen cultures and neo-Pythagorean psy-ops propaganda poisoning the collective unconscious for nearly two thousand years. In order to promote the survival of our species and the sustainability of our existence on the planet, it’s long past time we put the Bible on a reference shelf and use modern science to run our governments. We need to recognize that Christianity itself is merely the continuation of Roman fascism and authoritarianism, set it aside, and move forward as a culture to a world that can really embrace democracy and equality. 

This is not a rejection of religion or religious practices, nor of community or holidays. These are things that can bring joy and happiness when handled with compassion and love. There are many non-Abrahamic examples around the world we can follow. What we do with love and intention is our religion, the service we bring and the connections we reinforce is our religion. What we do as a community becomes our holidays. We can easily do better, and we heal the world when we do.

  1. My favorite online reader is Parallel Plus. It provides multiple translations and versions in a verse-to-verse comparitive view and has lots of language and concordence type references. ↩︎


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