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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Reading ... Unmasking the Bible by Leopoldo Hernandez Lara

This book, published in Mexico City, is a translation of the author's original text, which appeared in Spanish in 2008. For reasons that I'll get to in a minute, you may be better off with the original if you actually read Spanish (which, alas, I don't).

Unmasking the Bible is a very detailed critique of both the Old and New Testaments, identifying many contradictions, errors, absurdities, and atrocities. The author is not, as this might suggest, an atheist, but seems to be something like a deist or pantheist who is appalled by what he finds in the Bible and much religious practice. He is more anti-clerical than anti-supernaturalist. He states his position with respect to God in a poem, "I Believe", in which he claims to believe in a God with, among other things, "no revealed books ... no rewards or punishments ... no clergy ... no Church ... no Temple ..." (page 397). Still, whatever exact position he is coming from, he has produced a comprehensive attack on the fundamental texts of Christianity. If you are building a reference library that contains such material, or simply want to see a book that develops it in almost unprecedented detail, you might want to add Unmasking the Bible to your collection. It's perhaps the nearest thing of its kind to an encyclopedia.

I wish I could say more than that to recommend the book, as it shows an enormous amount of work and thought, and much of it could be useful. Well, I can: the additional good news is that the translation is in English prose that can be read quite quickly - translator Alexander Milenko Tomich has rendered it in a clear, unpretentious style.

Unfortunately, however, the text also contains many distracting errors. For example, the word "prophesy", as a verb, appears throughout as "prophesize", and there are many other points of awkwardness, such as (opening the book at random) a heading that says: "Criticisms to Yahweh's cruelty in the Bible" (obviously, this should be "Criticisms of ..."). In fact, there are so many of these errors in English prose that it detracts seriously from the experience of reading the book, and (no doubt unfairly) from its credibility. More damage is done to the credibility of Unmasking the Bible by heavy use of passages in bold or italics or both - so much so that these cease to have much effect in creating emphasis and simply clutter the page. This is the hallmark of a publication from a small press that has not provided professional editing. It is not only distracting - it looks amateurish.

My greater concern, though, is that a book like this really needs to engage with the latest mainstream biblical scholarship. Lara is not in the position of somebody like Richard Dawkins who can (at least arguably) dismiss the importance of Bible scholarship to his project, since he is criticising belief in God on scientific and philosophical grounds, and need not bother with too much detail about the holy books, their provenance, or what they can reasonably be taken to mean. Lara, by contrast, is engaged in a fine-grained reading of biblical verse against verse, often reconstructing what happened historically during the development of ancient Judaism.

But it's just not good enough to do this in isolation from the theories and findings of mainstream textual scholars and historians of the period, as he tends to do. A deeper engagement with the scholarship might show that some of the events recorded in the biblical text are not as absurd as they appear, but it might also help Lara's case: for example, I didn't pick up any awareness that the current state of biblical archeology suggests that there was never anything remotely like an Egyptian captivity of the Jews such as narrated in the book of Exodus. It would have been better if Lara had showed more familiarity with the rich body of scholarship that compares the biblical text as we have it with the secular historical and archeological record.

In all, I'm pleased enough to bring this book to the attention of my readers but I must warn that it would need to be used with care. The long chapter on the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), in particular, would need to be triangulated with other sources to get a clearer and fairer picture of the emergence of Judaism and the construction of the sacred text itself. Even a relatively brief account of mainstream scholarship, such as the synthesis in the relevant chapters of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, would provide a useful corrective.

Speaking of which, I plan to get back to The Evolution of God tomorrow. There's a lot more to say about it.


Anonymous said...

nice article. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did any one hear that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again.

Russell Blackford said...

If anyone wants to follow me on Twitter, it's easy. You'll find me as "Metamagician".

Gregory Sams said...

The Bible certainly need unmasking for some. But once that mask is removed the interesting subject is what it has been covering up all these centuries.

Solar religion - sounds primitive and backwards until you look at modern solar science and the complexity of the star it describes. It sure looks more like a life-form of some sort than a senseless ball of gas.

And if it is, the implications are far more interesting than wasting more time bashing the Bible.

Yes, I wrote a book on the subject and it's the only one out there - titled Sun of gOd, by Gregory Sams.

More at

sailor1031 said...

surely you are joking, Mr. Sams.

gregory sams said...

The joke is on us sailor, and it's been going on for a long time. It is forehead slappingly obvious when you look at the evidence. Einstein did point out that “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”