Myth: The basis for all morality comes from the Bible.
Fact: Very little of the Bible's moral code is original.
Both the legal and salvation philosophies of the Old and New Testaments
reflect those of the cultures around them, due to much copying and borrowing
of laws and ideas. Furthermore, all societies around the world have similar
moral and legal codes -- which is certainly not an accident.
This belief requires an almost complete ignorance of the moral
codes of all the other religions in the world.
Interestingly enough, the moral codes of the world's religions bear
a striking resemblance to each other, with only minor variations. Religions
as different as Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism all have proscriptions against
killing, lying, cheating, stealing, etc. This is not an accident, for reasons
we shall explore below.
Christians may then object that that there is something unique about
the Bible that makes it a superior moral code. Unfortunately for Christians,
there is actually very little law in the Bible -- either Old Testament
or New -- that is original. Consider the Torah of the ancient Jews. The
laws of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians, Hammurapi, Eshnunna, Hittites,
Mishnah, and Israelites all bear a striking resemblance to each other,
due to widespread copying of laws. Shared social norms produced identical
laws against sorcery, kidnapping, sale of an abducted person, false witness,
business dishonesty, bribing judges, property right violations, shutting
off irrigation canals used by others, etc. The complete list of identical
laws and customs is quite extensive.
Nor is the New Testament's approach to the law unique. Most Christians
can probably think of nothing more unique than the Apostle Paul's approach
to the law, but any student of ancient Greece knows otherwise. Many of
the themes that fill Paul's writings were lifted from his Greco-Roman background.
During New Testament times, the Greco-Roman world was filled with Mystery
Cults, sporting such names as Eluesinian Mysteries, the Orphic
Mysteries, the Attis-Adonis Mysteries, the Isis-Osiris Mysteries,
Mithraism, and many others. A common feature of these secret cults
was a belief in a heroic redeemer, a heavenly being who would visit earth
in human form, battle evil, die a sacrificial death, rise from the dead
and ascend to heaven, offering salvation from death to all who follow him.
Another influence on the New Testament was Greek philosophy. In particular,
Greek dualism taught that the world was sharply divided into opposites:
good and evil, body and soul, man and woman, hot and cold, life and death,
etc. Now, the Greeks from Plato on had taught that the body is evil, but
the soul is pure. The ancient Jews had never believed this; they considered
both the body and soul to be a masterwork of God's creation, which he had
pronounced good. But Paul, taking a page from Plato, wrote: "This
I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the
flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against
the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other."
From this premise stems much of Paul's theology. The body is evil,
lustful, imperfect and temporary. The soul is righteous, pure, perfect
and eternal. It is through the soul that we achieve immortality; it is
in heaven where we receive our rewards. Life on this earth is filled with
biting misery; life in heaven is filled with eternal happiness. The law
of man is corrupt; the law of God is just. Imperfect humans can never hope
to obey the law; only the presence of God dwelling within a believer will
enable him. All this was a dramatic break with Judaism, but it was quite
consonant with Greek philosophy.
In sum, the moral code of the Bible finds its roots in the civilizations
and cultures that surrounded it, and can hardly be called unique, much
less the basis of all morality. In fact, similarities around the world
suggest that morality is a universal trait among humans, for reasons that
One school of moral theory holds that morality is a function of group
survival. Group survival is superior to individual survival; that is why
true hermitism is so rare. (Even conservatives and libertarians agree that
interdependent, specialized groups make for greater prosperity; they just
disagree with liberals on how to conduct this group effort.) Therefore,
anything that ruins the cooperation and cohesion of the group is to be
condemned. Since killing, lying, cheating, and stealing against members
within the group destroys group cohesion, it is therefore considered immoral,
and punished by law.
On the other hand, killing, lying, cheating and stealing against those
outside the group may actually promote survival, and therefore
can be considered moral, even heroic behavior. That is why, despite a commandment
prohibiting killing, God often commanded Israel to kill her enemies. The
critical question is whether the target of the action is inside or outside
And how do people draw the lines of their group? Intellectually. People
decide which groups they belong to, and determine their moral behavior
from there. True, genetic factors may figure into their decision where
to draw their lines; white supremacists consider only white people to be
part of their group. But there are also many white liberals who consider
Martin Luther King to be a member of their group far more than Adolf Hitler.
The decision is ultimately an intellectual one.
Interestingly, the larger one draws the line of one's group, the more
noble the morality. Mahatma Gandhi considered the entire world to be in
his group. Jesus said "Love your enemies." On the other hand,
the smaller the group, the lesser the morality. Criminals often identify
with groups that are no larger than themselves or a few partners in crime.
Consequently, they feel no need to display moral behavior towards anyone
outside their group. Judges are often heard to remark upon the remorselessness
of some criminals. But it's not true that criminals have no moral code;
they just exercise it on a far smaller group.
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