There is a difference between being religious and being spiritual. Being religious implies focusing on dogma, rituals and symbols that are common to organized churches. Yet, Jesus did not promote these things in his message. Jesus spoke of being kind and caring to others in the here and now, and that is being spiritual. Spirituality comes from within and is not dependent on earthly inventions. The Bible should be recognized as written by ordinary people who were influenced by their culture, interpretations of historical events and personal beliefs. It has been written, rewritten and reassembled with some material excluded that could fill information gaps. The important takeaway is that embracing the message of the love of humanity that Jesus preached is more important than believing the Bible word for word; more important than believing Jesus was God at birth; more important than rituals and dogma. The world would be a more peaceful place if only people would become more spiritual.
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How the Bible Became the Bible
Spirituality comes from within and is not dependent on earthly inventions. The Bible should be recognized as written by ordinary people who were influenced by their culture, interpretations of historical events and personal beliefs. It has been written, rewritten and reassembled with some material excluded that could fill information gaps.READ NOW
Donald O’Dell begins his book How the Bible Became The Bible by saying that many people try to interpret the Bible literally, and it reflects a desire to control knowledge of good and evil. Through that control, they feel certain about what God wants. It is a desire for security by creating the “known” and being able to answer questions with certainty about Jesus and miracles or modern-day issues like abortion. The desire to control is why people want to believe their religion is the right one, but that implies the beliefs are fear-based.
The author builds the case throughout the book for the belief the Bible cannot be interpreted literally because it was written by real people over time. As he points out, God did not send it to earth, yet there are biblical literalists who worship the literal Bible itself (bibliolatry) because they say the Old and New Testaments were written by Jesus according to the following logic: “Jesus is God. The Holy Spirit flows from Jesus. The Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible. Therefore, since the Holy Spirit flows from Jesus, Jesus actually wrote the Bible - all of it.” Thus the Bible should be worshiped as literal writing. From there, people make the eternal words of the Spirit fit their perceived world.
O'Dell writes from a perspective developed as a result of his attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and his studies of A Course in Miracles (ACIM). His spiritual awakening emerged during the completion of the AA Twelve Step Program. He began to realize that blame and control are fear-based responses that justified his drinking. He also began to realize that people who hate, deride and fear those who disagree with their Bible interpretation really want a sense of security and safety.
Elevating the writers of the Bible to a status that makes them more than ordinary people contributes to bibliolatry. Rather, O’Dell says they should be appreciated for being down-to-earth people who came to know and believe in a Supreme Being. They are people who overreacted, misinterpreted events, and wrote from their historical perspective and their understanding of how the world worked and how God should work. They told stories in a familiar language.
Part I of the book discusses the Old Testament and history as it unfolded. An interesting perspective is that Israel’s shift from oral recitations to the written word laid the groundwork for the current and future institutionalization of acceptable and legal behaviors believed to please God and led to the giant churches that exist today where pastors preach about acceptable behaviors like they are religious laws.
O’Dell discusses the fact that the Old Testament has many historical information gaps as the stories are rewritten through the centuries. Though based on historical events, stories center on people that include Moses, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There is a definite patriarchal narrative in which the men entered into a personal relationship with a deity – a ritual called covenant-making. Ritual is a big part of modern-day religion. The author describes the ancient rituals of purifications, sacrifices and offerings, and sanctification (think: baptism), all of which exist in new forms today. During the time of tribal patriarchs is when the first grains of monotheism emerged which united tribal people differently than by legality, and sacrifice and purification became the pillars of worship.
Israel was chosen by Yahweh as a covenant people in an act of divine mercy. Israel was expected to respond with holiness and always strive for pureness. The book of Deuteronomy codified rituals and the meaning of piety. Deuteronomy included the belief in divine blessings and punishment, but it also added a strong belief that obedience and disobedience in one’s heart could be measured by the code. People had to follow the ritual code to get blessings. The question became: What does it mean when faith does not bring expected blessings but rather hardship? The prophet Habakkuk answered by concluding it is faith in God and not sacrificial rituals that matter. Over time, opposing messages emerged in which the prophets say Yahweh wants a personal sense of justice and righteousness, while the priests said people must follow rituals of the Temple Law. This is easily relatable to modern times in which people are told they must believe a certain way (could be about abortion, God’s blessings, politics, etc.) to receive blessings.
The author continues to weave his way through history and how events led to the addition of new literature into scriptural writings. After the fall of Jerusalem and the Hebrews were in exile in Babylonia, the temple is replaced with a synagogue, new ideas about astrology and dualism are introduced, and demon mythology is integrated. The synagogue became the seat of worship and new rituals appeared and a priestly class emerged which were considered the only ones who could guide the Hebrews into holiness. This led to stricter rituals and codes of behavior for regaining God’s favor. Traditions became the authority. The prophets had denounced the corruption that accompanies ritualized worship, meaning the priests were reversing their teachings. Corruption includes things like selling penances. The forced paying of taxes to priests and God replaced the original sacrificial offers like the burnt offering of a ram. Malignant spirits (demons or devils) became the source of evil and the cause of disasters. Even today we say, “Why did God do that to me?”
After reviewing the early history that produced the Jewish and Christian faiths, O’Dell continues with a discussion on Old Testament themes. It is a set of historical stories that codifies sacrifice, worship and identity. A major theme is that Yahweh wanted to use Israel to touch all of his creation with loving kindness, justice and mercy, but Israel did not listen. Today, people still are not listening. Instead of focusing on the evil world out there, people should focus on themselves and how they express kindness, justice and mercy each day. Making codified laws and norms does not prove goodness but rather doing the right thing to do God’s will does.
In Part 2, the New Testament is explored. Like the Old Testament, it leaves the reader with many questions about historical gaps, missing information concerning described events and the same stories told in different versions, like the Last Supper. By the time of Jesus, there were two strong influences on Judaism – Greek and Roman. The Greco-Roman hedonistic influence became a threat to the old identity which led to people like Paul railing against homosexuality and prostitution. O’Dell compares this to the influx of immigrants in the 19th century in which local ethnic churches tried to maintain native customers in a new world that ministers called materialistic and sinful.
Once again, O’Dell works his way through history, including the Hellenistic period, the Hasmonean Dynasty, the fall of Jerusalem, and how the early Christians lost their favored status with the Roman government which led to persecution. Jesus is born to a Jewish family, grows up and begins gathering personal followers. The constant theme of Jesus’ messages was the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and look inside one’s self where the Kingdom is found. This is a return to the pre-ritual times. Jesus also called for an ideal society that was an alternative to the hedonistic Greco-Roman society. He called upon people to change their behavior, to live a different life and to find God within themselves. As the book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living advises, people need to be their unique selves and not live with worry and anxiety by trying to control things they cannot control. Applying this to Jesus’ message, happiness does not come from worrying about whether you are rigorously following external rituals.
In the book Stumbling on Happiness, the author explores why people are often wrong about what makes them happy and how day-to-day happiness is really based more on little events rather than big dreams and expectations. When Jesus became enraged in the Temple, he was acting like the old prophets and flew in the face of the priestly upper classes who made their own rules. The priests believed imposing rituals and rules were justified and convinced people that adhering to them would make them more religious, but they were misperceiving reality. Rituals are based on a delusion that following them will automatically get people into the Kingdom of God, even when it is small kind events shown to others each day that are more likely the keys to happiness and entrance into the Kingdom.
After Jesus’ death, Jesus movements and Christ congregations developed over the next 40 years. The early Jesus movements were based on oral traditions or the personal memories of being with Jesus but were eventually turned into a collection of stories. In addition, preachers and prophets roamed the countryside, visiting Jewish Christians. Jesus was discussed in synagogues. Who was Jesus and how did he fit into traditional Judaism? Jesus movements took several forms, including Hasidic, Essene and Gothic.
Christ congregations, on the other hand, saw Jesus as a divine being and used the term “Christ” as opposed to sage or prophet. The Resurrection of Jesus was a vindication of sorts. He was “granted divine reward, status and destiny in spite of death.” This belief is not found in the Jesus movements. There were differences and similarities between the two groups. They both recognized Jesus as the founder, discussed religious philosophies during meals, acknowledged baptism and believed in the Kingdom of God. The differences included the fact the Jesus movements did not theorize why Jesus died.
Over time, people came to know more about the Gentile congregations which had an organized hierarchy than about members of Jesus movements who relied on roving preachers and sayings and were ignored by re-emerging Judaism after they fled Jerusalem.
O’Dell spends considerable time describing that Paul came to a personal understanding that the Christ congregations were right. The Jewish traditions would not ensure people could be part of God’s new Kingdom. Judaism excluded Gentiles while Christ congregations were made up of Gentiles and Jews. Paul’s revelation (called a conversion in the Bible and glamorized by Luke in Acts 9:1-31) is actually a change in thinking concerning Judaism.
With the Christ congregations, Paul could freely debate difficult questions. He concluded that God’s plan was a divine invitation to all and began to preach Christianity. The problem was that Paul moved the Gospel into abstraction instead of a message of the reality of God’s Kingdom. Surprising to some readers, O’Dell says Paul did not believe Jesus was God but a man with a divine nature who was humble and obedient to God. He believed that being a follower of Jesus meant being self-sacrificing. It meant being what the book Give and Take called a “Giver” who focuses on the success of others and not self. Jesus was not God but was given the title “Lord” by God while remaining inferior to God. Jesus often reminded his followers they could exercise the same powers as he by being open and willing to God in the here and now. Paul’s themes and logic were adopted by Christians after his death and became new rituals of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Religion progressed over time to become more dogmatic and rigid.
Towards the end of the book, O’Dell dives into his personal journey into sobriety and how it helped him understand the spirituality inside him. He explains how we do not recognize events driven by spirituality and have difficulty verbalizing life-changing spiritual events. The author believes that God does not care about rituals, sacrifices and dogmatic words. He cares about each person’s awareness of a spiritual dimension. It is a message to pay attention to the things that really matter in life, the same philosophy proposed in the book Essentialism.
Some Christians would read this book with great trepidation. After all, O’Dell is saying the people in the Bible are ordinary people who are relatable rather than unique people who should be kept on a pedestal as founders of today’s churches. They argued, had personal agendas, rewrote history and acted human in other ways. Odell’s message is that believing the people were different from us has led to worshiping the Bible itself which is faith in words written by ordinary humans. He warns people to recognize the dangers of institutionalization, fear and bibliolatry.
Believing something happened or is exact just because it is in the Bible is not spiritual. Today’s Christ congregations (the Church) have embellished the messages of Jesus with rules, rituals, concepts Jesus never spoke of and personal philosophies. It was not intended to do harm, but this approach established churches with self-serving sets of doctrines and has made people willing to argue and fight based on bibliolatry. O’Dell believes that people fail to see the Spirit because they are too focused on theology when they need to focus on their spiritual dimension.
Donald L. O’Dell first published How the Bible Became the Bible in 2007. The second edition was published in July 2020 and is updated with new information. O’Dell earned a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and an undergraduate degree in history from North Texas State University which is now the University of North Texas. As an undergraduate, he also had a double minor in philosophy and psychology.
O’Dell developed a “street gang” ministry while an active United Presbyterian minister in Trenton, New Jersey for more than five years. Following that position, he pastored two small congregations after moving to Oklahoma. He also served as a chaplain of a county hospital.
O’Dell dealt with alcoholism, and during that period in his life, he experienced a visceral spiritual experience. This led to him recognizing the difference between being religious and being spiritual. His book combines scholarly research with an intensely personal discourse. Now semi-retired, O’Dell lives in western North Carolina. O’Dell remains active in New Thought groups and congregations and is a student of A Course in Miracles. He has also continued doing some consulting work, helping companies respond to Requests for Proposals as a Proposal Manager or Technical Writer.
How the Bible Became the Bible was awarded the Florida Writers Association Royal Palm Literary Award for Non-Fiction.