I came to read this book by an extraordinary encounter. I was speaking at my local Humanist Group on “Darwinism and Religion” a month or two back. At a couple of points in my talk I was interrupted by a member of the audience who went off on a rather long rant about what Genesis and the Bible were about. At first I thought this person was a troll (one of his questions was a common rhetorical question used by Christian apologists), but by the end of the talk I had concluded that he wasn’t; it became apparent that he was a former Catholic who had become an atheist. In the pub afterwards, I saw him standing alone, so I went over to chat with him. For the next half hour he told me his story, along with his views of the Bible. They were, shall we say, heterodox. Leaving the pub together, he accompanied me back to my car and before I got inside, placed a book in my hand, which he had written, saying “keep it”.

It was all distinctly unusual. But, upon getting home, I couldn’t help opening the book to see what it was all about. And I couldn’t put it down. Over the next three weeks I read it straight through. So I thought I’d tell people about it.

First, a bit of background. The author had a career in the physical sciences, and educated at what appears to have been a very pious and conservative catholic school run by priests. Later in life he asked the following question: How is it that an organization (specifically the Catholic church) which ostensibly wishes to do good, actually ends up causing such harm in the world (e.g. child abuse, opposing contraception and stem cell research, oppressing women, homosexuals etc)? It occurred to him that there must be something fundamentally wrong with the  doctrines of the church. What was it? This book is about where his research led him.

The book’s main thesis can be summed up as follows: the Bible is mostly fiction; it was written by “Gnostics” whose aim was to provide the key to knowledge of good and evil for those able to find it hidden in the texts; the essential narrative is therefore hidden in word tricks and riddles that will be lost through translation. If one is to decipher the message of the Bible then, one must work from the original Greek texts as far as possible. They essential keys are set up in Biblical Genesis and repeated throughout the Bible. Examination of Genesis in Greek leads to the conclusion that there are two Gods, not one; an original one, “God” who created another flawed version “The Lord God”(Satan), also referred to as “The Person”(“Son of Man” or “Son of The Person” therefore refers to an offspring of Satan), who believes he is the only God and who tries to persuade humans of this. The Lord God is corrupt, and people who follow him have failed to gain the knowledge of good and evil, whilst those who “know God” instead, have.

Another theme is that of pastoralists and nomads being good, associated with “God”, whilst those who grow crops are evil, associated with “the Lord God”. The serpent is a corporeal form of The Lord God, and reference to snake or crops (bread, grapes, wine) serves a marker of this. Reference to animal-based foods or meat serves as a marker for God. Adam gains the knowledge of good and evil, and his son Abel (a pastoralist) also, but Cain (a farmer) is a son of The Lord God, and is evil, and kills him. The theme is repeated throughout: Esau and Jacob, and significantly, John the Baptist (good, killed) and Jesus (evil, lives still). References that confirm this interpretation come primarily from the use of the word “Cain”, hidden in the Greek texts in key places (many times around Jesus), often accompanied by “serpent” (Satan). The followers of Jesus are followers of Cain, and the Lord God, and fail to see him for who he is. Those who do not see who he is crucify him, but fail to destroy him because he is resurrected, just as the evil in Cain lived on. Those who can decipher the text see Jesus for who he is, and ignore him, by which means he cannot persist. But mankind is flawed, and fails to see the difference between good and evil. Hence evil persists, and the battle between good and evil goes on.

As the author points out, if all this is true, the irony of the present day Christian church doctrine could not be more extreme. For the present day churches have all emerged from a tradition which treated the Biblical narrative literally, based on Latin translations which have completely lost any chance of revealing the gnostic riddles. As a result, they take Jesus literally as their Lord and saviour, precisely the opposite of what is intended by the Gospel writers.

As you can see, the book is a fascinating (rollocking good) read, and I have to say that I was completely hooked by it. At the end I felt that I’d definitely benefitted from reading it. But, of course, I wanted to know how true this all was. So here is an honest appraisal of what I think:

First, I think we have to treat this as an interesting new hypothesis, that needs good evidence to be accepted. Because it’s new, and is not written by a theologian or Biblical historian, it’s unlikely to get substantive debate from Biblical scholars. I feel that’s a shame, because it might be correct (see below), and if so, needs to be taken seriously. I encourage anyone to read it and talk about it, and especially if you’re a Biblical scholar.

The evidence for this: I didn’t feel completely convinced, but I was intrigued. I felt something statistical was needed. For example, if the word “Cain” really does serve as a marker used as a word trick, does it appear improbably commonly next to other themes or words that would be predicted under the above hypothesis? So far the evidence is presented rather anecdotally. I wanted something more numerical.

Some other thoughts occurred to me. We should try to disprove the hypothesis. If it stands up after testing, we’d have more confidence in it. What would disprove it? Strong evidence that the gospel authors or Genesis authors were not gnostic would be one thing. I don’t have a feeling for how likely that is. Strong evidence for historicity to the Jesus story, or essential components, would also. Some other problems with the hypothesis include: why does so much of the Bible not revolve around the same theme? The above book covers mainly Genesis, and the Gospels, with some reference to other books (Isaiah, Revelation and Acts especially). What about the rest of it? What’s the rest of it all for? If Jesus is meant to be Cain reincarnated (I readily admit that he says and does some things that are consistent with this), why are there equally some (many) acts or sayings that seem so totally opposite?

OK, I can think of some immediate responses to some of these problems myself, but I put them out to provoke debate. To be fair, there were many things that I think the author’s hypothesis explains. The first is the use of the terms “God” and “Lord God”, and “Son of Man”. I’ve often wondered about this. They seem to be used deliberately, and yet that doesn’t make sense if they are all meant to refer to one being. It makes sense of the pastoral/agricultural imagery that is so prominent. If makes sense of the obvious Genesis good/evil contrast. It makes sense of the bad things that happen to good people, and of the bad things done/said by Jesus. It also, intriguingly, makes sense of the weird numbers and objects used in the Bible, that seem to shout of some ancient coded meaning. The author goes into this in great detail in the book, but in brief, some of them serve as alerting components for gnostic riddles. For example, in the event when the disciples tell Jesus that they have five loaves of bread and two fish, the words “bread” and “fish” are hidden in the following Greek text five times and two times respectively. When you see a specific but counterintuitive number deliberately mentioned when it seemingly could be any number, that often carries special (gnostic) significance.

Overall, I was awakened to how little we truly know about the Bible and it’s intended meaning. The story portrayed here seems perfectly plausible to me, but I still felt that it needed better support to be accepted. If we truly know so little about the Bible, isn’t it presumptuous to attach the particular significance to it that serious religious people do? That of course, is the author’s main thesis, and I agree with him. On another point I am not sure I agree. The author’s quest began because he felt that misinterpreting the Bible would lead to evil, because people are convinced that what is truly evil is in fact good. Certainly I agree that that following Jesus through faith, and belief in an afterlife is going to lead to harm. But I also think that about other religious beliefs. I think the simple act of faith as opposed to rational thought and reason explains this, and I’m not sure that “knowledge of God” which was the alternative that the gnostic writers wanted us to achieve, equates to rational thought. So I think it’s possible to spot the gnostic tricks and still do harm. And if that’s true, it raises the biggest question of all that sticks in my mind; what was the gnostic message about how we should behave? Ignore evil? Take care before concluding that something is good? Beware of farmers? Knowledge and understanding leads to salvation? Ah, now that’s a message I can believe in.