Jesus Never Pooped: or, A Better Way To Conduct Exegesis

Excuse me for making a generalization here, but I've noticed that atheists tend to approach the Bible much like creationists tend to approach literature on evolution. Certain atheists (for example Richard Dawkins) are publicly fond of bashing creationists for dodgy scholarship, and rightfully so. For example, many of us know how some creationists are overly fond of emphasizing select passages from Darwin or Dobzhansky to support their arguments, while selectively de-emphasizing other passages that might weaken their argument. What's less recognized is the extent to which atheists and skeptics do the same thing (for example Richard Dawkins) when quoting the Bible or the Founding Fathers to support their cases for atheism.

For example, I admit I had a good laugh today when I popped over to DaylightAtheism and found a post titled Jesus Never Laughed. I first thought about the absurdity of this statement in general, and I was not sure if the writer actually believed. Formally, I disagreed with the post on the following grounds:

1) The writer provides insufficient evidence to support his conclusion;

2) The writer's argument violates common sense, probability, and standard atheist descriptions of Jesus;

3) The writer's argument relies on a skewed interpretation of scripture and omits conflicting passages.

To begin with, looking at scripture from nearly two milennia past and thinking we can make any semblance of a reliable psychological evaluation about some character contained therein is our first departure from rationalism, but nonetheless let's expand briefly on the points mentioned above:

1) Here is the writer's argument summarized with a different biological function to illustrate its silliness:

The Bible gives no mention of Jesus pooping.

Therefore, Jesus never pooped.

Pooping and the value of regular bowel movements are not important in Christianity and Islam because they are rigid, dogmatic systems.

You might say this argument is logically formal, but anyone who seriously proposed such an argument would hopefully not be taken seriously. Scanning the NT lightly and citing 2 or 3 passages doesn't make the argument in my book. Either way, does omission of a phenomenon warrant the argument that the phenomenon never occurred, especially when the phenomenon posited is a plainly natural and human quality that would most likely would have occurred?

Furthermore, playing devil's advocate and assuming Jesus never did laugh, this fact wouldn't support the writer's conclusion that the Bible, "..treats laughter as an unworthy subject," or one source's assertion that the Bible ".. takes a dim view of mirth or laughter."

2) The argument itself does violence to common sense and doesn't square well with 2 of 3 possible depictions of Jesus. There is no evidence for the argument Jesus never laughed, and assuming an historical Jesus existed, we actually cannot escape reasonable evidence to the contrary. Atheists and skeptics enjoy one of two positions on the historical Jesus: non-existence or humanity. Point is, whether divine or mundane Jesus was human either way, and by far the experiences of our senses and reason tells us that the majority of human beings participate in laughter.

3) There are far more than 2 or 3 accounts of or references to laughter in the Bible, and in fact no less than 30 Greek or Hebrew equivalents for "laughter" are contained in scripture. The majority of them cannot be used to foster the "vengeful hatemonger" trope that arose in the comment thread. And although the Bible certainly does speak of the more troubling emotions like fear and sorrow and pain, the Bible speaks highly and often of mirth, notably in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes but also at several other disparate points in the story. In fact, there is a wealth of positive psychology in those two books.

I feel the writer's exegesis of Luke 6:21-25 is invalid:

Not only does Jesus never laugh, it seems, but he condemns those who do, claiming that sorrow and misery will be theirs in the hereafter.

To argue that Jesus is condemning laughter in Luke 6:21-25 is incorrect, IMO. As one might expect, the passages are arranged in a way that renders their context unclear. Jesus is speaking in the context of discernment between authentic prophets and false prophets, and I'll leave it up to the more inquisitive folks to read the passage in its entirety and context and decide whether they agree or disagree that Luke 6:21-25 can be interpreted as a condemnation of laughter.

If one is going do an exegesis of scripture, one should do it semi-comprehensively and objectively. Always include important facts like the version cited and the context the passage is in. In many cases, we benefit from discussion of Greek and Hebrew lexicon where relevant. Consider the opposing argument at least briefly if sufficient contradictory passages exist. If you want believers to take your criticisms of scripture seriously, you have to address them in the way the believer actually interprets them.

Lastly, and this is a minor point, but important enough I think it deserves mention: I take issue with the way the writer tars Gary Collins with the religious epithet of "demon-believer." Now I don't know who Gary Collins is, nor have I ever heard of the man; the tone is undisguisably derogative and the usage suggests that anyone who would believe demons could exist is some sort of fundamentalist wackaloon (although I freely admit many who believe this do fit the bill and this stereotype is not without grounding in truth).

If one of said fundamentalist wackaloons were to tar an atheist, medium or spiritualist with the epithet of "demon-believer" I feel confident in opining many of us would be appalled – and rightly so.

In conclusion, I object to the author's selective de-emphasis of passages that don't seem to fit squarely with his conclusion, which does not logically entail his premises, which themselves are open to valid criticism.

And Jesus probably both pooped and laughed.

14 Comments

  1. Steve Bowen says:

    I think Adam’s post has more context than you give it credit for. The gospels are written as though they are first hand accounts (I know you don’t believe they are btw) so you would expect the full range of natural emetions to be reflected in the narrative, but they’re not. Jesus is never described or credited with mirth at all, although he is angry, sorrowful etc. The fact that his toilet habits are’nt discussed either I put down to good taste on the part of the authors

  2. cl says:

    Hey Steve,
    Thanks for comin’ by. I’d definitely like to address your question in detail but I gotta leave town until Saturday, so maybe try back this weekend and I will have gotten to it by then.
    In the meantime, I’d like to ask you this: What do you think we could reasonably conclude if Jesus never laughed?

  3. cl says:

    Hey Steve,
    Thanks for comin’ by. I’d definitely like to address your question in detail but I gotta leave town until Saturday, so maybe try back this weekend and I will have gotten to it by then.
    In the meantime, I’d like to ask you this: What do you think we could reasonably conclude if Jesus never laughed?

  4. Steve Bowen says:

    I think I would conclude that such a two dimensional character was more likely to be a work of pure fiction, than one inspired by a real person.
    Have a good trip!

  5. Arthur says:

    I have to say, up front, that I’m not fond of an analogy which equates the Bible with a work of scientific literature, as in: Dawkins quote-mining the Bible is like creationists quote-mining Darwin.
    I understand the analogy; and I understand that it’s frustrating when you know important contextual stuff is missing from any discussion. But a work of scientific literature is written for the express purpose of conveying, as unambiguously(!) as possible, information about some given subject. It is clear (at least in theory) what the subject is, what the findings are, what is speculation by the author, etc. The Bible is… something else, whatever it is.
    So, when you quote a scientific treatise or article or such, you can pretty definitively do it in the spirit the work intends, or you can do it in such a way that you turn the words against the work’s intent. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with it; it just means you can quote it in good or bad faith, whatever your argument is. And in either case, a third party who has read the work will stand a pretty good chance at figuring out whether or not you’re up to shenanigans.
    But the Bible… who doesn’t quote-mine the Bible? Who doesn’t have parts they use and parts they avoid? I mean, if you quoted it as a source of human morality, and you left out all of those nasty Old Testament stories about killing whole populations or sacrificing children, would that count as “selectively de-emphasizing other passages that might weaken [your] argument”?
    I get the feeling that, a lot of the time, Dawkins-types quote the Bible because they are trying, specifically, to illuminate a context which is awkward for believers and which therefore tends to be neglected.

  6. Steve Bowen says:

    But the Bible… who doesn’t quote-mine the Bible? Who doesn’t have parts they use and parts they avoid?

    Which of course is the problem. The Bible is a very ambiguous document for something that many purport to be the word of God, that is why exegesis is necessary. Dawkins doesn’t quote mine or obviously take the bible out of context (he may be as guilty of eisegesis as many apologists are but that is a different point)because the context of much of the bible is so muddled to begin with you can make almost any point you like. This is why obvious ommisions like Jesus’ laughter are worth considering.

  7. cl says:

    Arthur,
    Ha! I laughed when you included the exclamation point after “unambiguously” (a funny, friendly laugh, of course). I read it like you were saying, “There’s that damned word again.” Anyways, I understand your dislike of my analogy. It’s evident by your comment, which ignores the entire thrust of the OP and focuses solely on my introduction! I’ve caught flack for such comparisons, and in most of those cases I could easily attribute the inconsistency to special pleading (not saying you are being inconsistent, either). But I do think you’re potentially making a few oversights here. You say,

    But a work of scientific literature is written for the express purpose of conveying, as unambiguously(!) as possible, information about some given subject. It is clear (at least in theory) what the subject is, what the findings are, what is speculation by the author, etc. The Bible is… something else, whatever it is. So, when you quote a scientific treatise or article or such, you can pretty definitively do it in the spirit the work intends, or you can do it in such a way that you turn the words against the work’s intent.

    First, any document can be quoted in the spirit the work intends, and the intent of any document can also be misportrayed. Neither of these facts excuse anyone who does the latter, especially when they are held in such high scholarly regard as Dawkins tends to be.

    But the Bible… who doesn’t quote-mine the Bible? Who doesn’t have parts they use and parts they avoid?

    I don’t know who doesn’t quote mine and/or misportray the Bible, but I know who does, and that’s all kinds of people from “Christians” to Dawkins to Ebonmuse.
    Anyways, what I’d really like to know is this: How much confidence would you say we can place in conclusions derived from arguments of silence? Why? That’s mainly what this post was about.

    And in either case, a third party who has read the work will stand a pretty good chance at figuring out whether or not you’re up to shenanigans.

    Exactly. That’s how I know Ebonmuse, Dawkins and others are up to an occasional shenanigan or three, and I’m curious to hear whether you’d agree that the above two links represent bona fide quote-mining.
    And I will still get back to you about our FSM discussion.
    Steve Bowen,
    Thanks man. Although we got back a little early, the trip was great. Got to see some petrified forests, Old Faithful, hot springs and all sorts of nature’s wonders. I recommend it to everyone. As far as the thread here,

    Jesus is never described or credited with mirth at all, although he is angry, sorrowful etc.

    While I think that Jesus is most certainly described with mirth and joy on occasions, there is no specific verse I can immediately recall that says anything like, “Jesus laughed” or “Jesus burst His gut with laughter.” Then again, Jesus is never described or credited with doing hundreds of things. Can we make arguments against Jesus on any or all of these points, too?

    I think I would conclude that such a two dimensional character was more likely to be a work of pure fiction, than one inspired by a real person.

    Are you arguing that the mere omission of laughter in a biography makes the subject two-dimensional? What about all the other aspects of Jesus’ character that are described in scripture? He adored children. He drank wine. He hung with the social pariahs of his time. He was repulsed by evil in the world. I could go on and on, and besides, if Jesus was drinking wine with the disciples and other riff-raff, isn’t it feasible He laughed sometime at something? Aren’t wine-drinkers known to have an occasional laugh? And if Jesus wasn’t God, I’d say it’s near certain He laughed, because if Jesus wasn’t God, Jesus was just another human, and humans laugh.

    The Bible is a very ambiguous document for something that many purport to be the word of God, that is why exegesis is necessary.

    Which parts of the Bible are you claiming are “very ambiguous,” or are you simply offering a “very ambiguous” and over-generalized argument here? No offense, but I don’t think the blanket claim that the Bible is “very ambiguous” is useful for anything rational at all, but only further obfuscation.

    Dawkins doesn’t quote mine or obviously take the bible out of context…

    I’ve already showed where Dawkins quote-mined John Adams and takes the Bible out of context, but you’re certainly free to disagree. And I’d like to also ask you: How much confidence can we place in conclusions derived from arguments of silence?

  8. Arthur says:

    I agree that Dawkins probably quote-mines the Bible—that is to say, he takes quotes from somewhere to make a point, and leaves out quotes from the same vicinity which might contradict his point. Ebonmuse probably does it too. Willingly conceded!
    But I still don’t like the analogy (“atheists tend to approach the Bible much like creationists tend to approach literature on evolution”), and I still think its shortcomings are pertinent to your topic. Given that “any document can be quoted in the spirit the work intends, and the intent of any document can also be misportrayed,” the question remains: can one discern the Bible’s intent in the same way that one might discern the intent of some work of scientific literature?
    You’ve taken Mr. Bowen to task for calling the Bible “very ambiguous”; but the state of the observable world seems to me to force his conclusion. Without even looking at the Bible, I can look around at the variety of incompatible religious interpretations based on it and—granting good faith and sound reasoning to at least two of them—conclude that the Bible is “capable of being understood in more than one way” (that’s Merriam-Webster for “ambiguous”).
    But if that conclusion is valid, then
    1) the Bible is not analogous to a work of scientific literature (except, maybe, one which fails in its purpose); and
    2) there is no obvious way to judge the validity of an atheist’s quote-mine against a theist’s—or one theist’s against another’s, for that matter.
    Therefore, my nutshell perspective on quote-mining the Bible: theists do it to make their points; atheists do it to make theirs; the text of the Bible permits this sort of cherry-picking—encourages it even; and this is more or less the opposite of scientific literature’s form and function.

  9. Steve Bowen says:

    Yes Arthur made my point for me

    Without even looking at the Bible, I can look around at the variety of incompatible religious interpretations based on it and—granting good faith and sound reasoning to at least two of them—conclude that the Bible is “capable of being understood in more than one way”

    I’m not a biblical scholar and don’t have any particular interest in trading verses to prove points one way or another (incidentally, Ebonmuse is, in my opinion, at his least interesting when he bases posts on “little known bible verses” precisely because for me the fact that you can read the bible any way you like is a given).However, pointing out that the emotional makeup of the NT’s principle character appears to be deficient in humour is salient. Were the authors unaware of any wit, irony, spontaneous (humorous)lewdity, or did they omit it because they thought it inappropriate in the messiah? You are right, Jesus did go to wedding receptions, spent time with his “mates”, and drank wine (although fermented drinks were the norm due the dangers of drinking fresh water at the time)so where is the laughter? It’s argument by ommission sure, but it is a telling one.

  10. cl says:

    Arthur, Steve
    Hmmm…. Not that it’s bad at all, but this conversation has split into two main directions: the quote-mining issue, and Steve’s original question. If either or both of you really want to keep defending the idea that the Bible somehow “permits” or “encourages” quote-mining intrinsically more so than scientific literature, I’ll have to gracefully bow out. But first, although I’d really like to move past the quote-mining part of the discussion to address Steve’s original questions, let’s say what Arthur posits is true – that the Bible permits and/or encourages quote-mining while such “is more or less the opposite of scientific literature’s form and function.”
    Well tell me then – if the Bible’s form and function falls on the “permits and encourages quote-mining” end of the document “form and function” scale while scientific literature falls on the opposite end, how is it that the axiom quote-mining itself was popularized in direct response to widespread misquotation of scientific literature? Is this what we would reasonably expect the world to look like if what Arthur posits is true?
    On one hand Arthur is asking me to believe the Bible permits and encourages quote-mining – and in actuality, I have no problem with that claim, because a human can deceive with any written work – yet on the other hand, the very phrase quote-mining itself has roots in misuse of scientific literature. This would seemingly suggest that scientific literature is highly conducive to quote-mining, at least as much so as the Bible – which is a reasonable expectation, because the form and function of a particular document is not its safekeeping against quote-mining – because there is no possible safekeeping against quote-mining, which is always an act of human volition.
    So, nobody will be able to convince me that the Bible or any particular book is more intrinsically conducive to quote-mining than the next, and I don’t know why the idea that many atheists approach the Bible with shoddy scholarship comparable to that of many creationists is such a bitter pill to swallow. You guys don’t do seem to commit the blunder, so nothing to worry about from my POV there.
    Arthur,
    In the Dawkins example cited, he literally slices John Adams sentence in half to portray the polar opposite of its intended meaning, and in Ebonmuse’s example, the very next sentence in his citation would have directly contradicted his point. Presuming they were reading the source material, in both examples, the writer must have seen the parts of the quote that were problematic. And if they weren’t reading the source material, that’s entailed by different yet relevant questions.
    There’s nothing wrong with critically considering religious or scientific documents against one another to examine some point of view or another. But when we use sentence A to make our point when the speaker actually contradicts said point later in sentence A or in sentence B, that’s a breach of sound scholarship that indicates potential dishonesty, wouldn’t you say?

    …can one discern the Bible’s intent in the same way that one might discern the intent of some work of scientific literature?

    Indeed, but let’s argue in scope here. In literally every single sentence? Of course not. Can we do this with Iliad? Fante’s Ask The Dust? But most certainly, there are many instances of scripture we can interpret with scientific-like clarity.

    Without even looking at the Bible, I can look around at the variety of incompatible religious interpretations based on it and—granting good faith and sound reasoning to at least two of them—conclude that the Bible is “capable of being understood in more than one way” (that’s Merriam-Webster for “ambiguous”).

    You say you don’t even have to read the Bible but can simply rely on other people’s conflicting interpretations? I get a disconnect there because I don’t think anyone should deliberate on biblical topics if they haven’t read the source material (and I don’t know if you have or not).
    Further, conflicting interpretations don’t prove anything. What about the Constitution and Bill of Rights? How many conflicting interpretations do we find there? Even pregnancy is ambiguous and no proof of intercourse. How many incompatible interpretations of freedom exist? How many incompatible cosmological interpretations have existed and still do exist? If by “ambiguous” we mean “capable of being understood in more than one way,” that’s not a very strong argument is all I’m saying. The Bible is not “ambiguous” in the sense of “suffering from insurmountable difficulty,” or, “unable to produce reliable, singular conclusions.”
    As for your 1) I don’t suppose every word and claim in the Bible can be harmonized with scientific-like accuracy, although certainly many can, and as for your 2) I don’t suppose we need to judge between the two, because I think they both are equally at fault.

    …this is more or less the opposite of scientific literature’s form and function.

    We covered that. If that’s true, then explain how untold numbers of creationists quote-mine Darwin, Einstein, and many other scientists, to the point that the axiom itself was coined and invented in response?
    So there’s my take on the quote-mining issue. It seems to me you just strongly disliked me comparing atheists to creationists, yet for me the similarities are too many to ignore. You’re not going to change my mind here, and it seems I can’t erase the ideas you have about the Bible being more conducive to quote-mining than scientific literature. The point of the poop analogy was, how much confidence can we place in conclusions based on an argument from silence? Although it was interesting for a second, we’ve completely avoided that question in favor of discussing the quote-mining issue.

  11. Steve Bowen says:

    O.K lets leave Jesus giggling (or not) in a corner somewhere for the moment.
    The reason why I believe Arthur is correct in essence is that a scientific paper or treatise is usually authored by one person or a coherent collaboration trying to establish a pre-defined thesis by logical argument and evidence. That being the case to take a sentence completely out of context and ignore the looming “buts” and “therefores” is blatent dishonest quote mining.
    The Bible however (despite what it some purport it to be)is a compilation of short writings by largely unknown authors writing in a variety of styles and intents over a long period of time and to different audiences. Inevitably there is a lack of coherence and it suffers from internal contradictions. Also the structure of self contained numbered verses invites readers to extract them piecemeal rather than leave them in context. I agree with you cl when you say quote mining relates specifically to the scientific liturature because I don’t think you can apply the term to the Bible meaningfully.

  12. Steve Bowen says:

    O.K lets leave Jesus giggling (or not) in a corner somewhere for the moment.
    The reason why I believe Arthur is correct in essence is that a scientific paper or treatise is usually authored by one person or a coherent collaboration trying to establish a pre-defined thesis by logical argument and evidence. That being the case to take a sentence completely out of context and ignore the looming “buts” and “therefores” is blatent dishonest quote mining.
    The Bible however (despite what it some purport it to be)is a compilation of short writings by largely unknown authors writing in a variety of styles and intents over a long period of time and to different audiences. Inevitably there is a lack of coherence and it suffers from internal contradictions. Also the structure of self contained numbered verses invites readers to extract them piecemeal rather than leave them in context. I agree with you cl when you say quote mining relates specifically to the scientific liturature because I don’t think you can apply the term to the Bible meaningfully.

  13. Arthur says:

    Sorry, sorry… it was not my intent to cause a thread derailment. I thought it all pertained.
    “How much confidence would you say we can place in conclusions derived from arguments of silence?”
    An argument from silence is a kind of “inference to the best explanation,” right? So it will never be infallible, logically, and will depend entirely on how reasonable one thinks it is for the missing data to be missing. If the Bible talked a lot about laughter, or pooping, and about how important it is to God, and if there were lots of stories about other important Bible folks doing it, then its absence in the Jesus story would be proportionately meaningful.
    I have to add, though, that it doesn’t look like Ebonmuse just dreamed up that post out of nothing: it was a response to Dr. Collins’ claim, about Jesus’ mental health, which itself might well have been based on an absence of information to the contrary. The point I take from the whole thing is that Dr. Collins can cite scripture for his purpose, Ebonmuse can do the same, and so can the devil and everybody else. But that brings up… all that other stuff.

  14. Arthur says:

    Oh, what the hell. Here I go. I apologize in advance.
    Maybe your two linked quote-mine examples can serve to illustrate both our points. The John Adams appears to be an excellent one, as far as I can tell:
    “Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion at all!!!’ But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.”
    I’m assuming that inner quote is the part Dawkins used. Broadening the context slightly reveals what Adams was really saying on the subject (he has mixed feelings).
    Your other example is from the Bible and, perhaps because of that, less clear-cut. Ebonmuse quotes:
    Luke 12:4-5:
    “And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.”

    Being Biblically illiterate, I had to google Luke 12 for the rest. I wasn’t sure how much context I needed, however, because the rest of that passage (paragraph? section? verse?) doesn’t seem to me to disable Ebonmuse’s point, especially since the whole thing comes under the heading of “Warnings and Encouragements.” Encouraging someone by saying “Don’t be afraid!” plainly doesn’t erase the admonition to “fear”—if anything it’s just confusing.
    (Incidentally, you say “the very next sentence in his citation would have directly contradicted his point.” The next sentence in that above translation is: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Is that the sentence you mean?)
    I could fairly be accused of shoddy scholarship for that judgement, of course. And, while I’m confessing to that, let me willingly concede the point that “many atheists approach the Bible with shoddy scholarship.” But, if I may split a hair, this is not the same as quote mining (I conflated the two in my earlier post myself, to be honest). To accuse someone of shoddy Biblical scholarship is to say that they have an inadequate understanding of the Bible’s intended meaning; to accuse them of quote-mining the Bible is to say that they are aware of its intended meaning and are deliberately misrepresenting it. This distinction matters because believers can be just as guilty of the former as nonbelievers, and uncovering someone else’s shoddy scholarship is no guarantee that you’re doing any better. But being caught with a quote-mine would be evidence of one’s intent to mislead, and would undermine (heh) by definition any argument based on it.
    Dawkins appears to have deliberately misrepresented, as certitude, John Adams’ apparent feelings of ambivalence—it’s a quote mine. Ebonmuse appears simply to have cited the part of Luke 12 which seemed of particular interest and importance—it’s not a quote mine. Maybe it’s shoddy scholarship—what do I know? Or maybe it’s just what people do when they try to speak concisely about the Bible. Maybe, more to the point, it’s the same thing Dr. Collins did when he said: “We don’t see psychological difficulties in Jesus.”
    (By the way, there’s a little something here on the subject of Jesus not laughing. It’s most of the way to the bottom, if you want to skip the jokes.)
    But, of course, this whole conversation comes down to knowing the Bible’s intended meaning. How else can a well-intentioned individual detect, or avoid, its misuse? On what else can an accusation of bad faith be founded? Because of that, and because of this…
    “You say you don’t even have to read the Bible but can simply rely on other people’s conflicting interpretations? …I don’t think anyone should deliberate on biblical topics if they haven’t read the source material.”
    …I feel compelled to assert, again but more strongly, that I don’t have to know anything about the contents of the Bible to know about its effects on the world around me. Based on those effects alone, it is self-evident that the Bible permits, if not encourages, full conviction in any one of an enormous range of irreconcilable interpretations. In my humble uninformed opinion, in fact, to deny the Bible’s enormous interpretive flexibility one must be willfully blind and deaf to the history of western civilization. Or the Cliffs Notes on western civilization, even.
    God only knows, in other words.

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