Censorship in the Bible

I’m a big fan of freedom of speech. Here are a few of the reasons it’s important for everyone to be free to talk about controversial things without being forcibly silenced:

  • Think about important truths that were strongly rejected in the past. Those ideas could never have become accepted if people hadn’t been free to discuss them and to advocate for unpopular views.
  • The people deciding which views to forcibly suppress could easily be in the wrong, and end up suppressing the truth. The use of force doesn’t favor the people who are right. It favors whoever happens to be more powerful and capable of violence.
  • Even if it is in fact wrong views or potentially harmful ideas that are being suppressed, that just hides the fact that people have wrong beliefs, which makes it harder for anyone to actually do anything about it. If discussion of a topic is banned, there is no opportunity for anyone to correct people who are developing dangerously wrong beliefs about it. And if people aren’t allowed to talk about their desire to harm people, that just means the victims will be less likely to be prepared to do anything to stop them.
  • Banning the expression of false beliefs can also backfire, causing people to assume (quite reasonably) that the truth is being hidden from them, and that the things people aren’t allowed to say must be true. And they will never realize how weak the arguments for those bad ideas are, if they never even get a chance to hear those arguments.

Many people believe that the USA, the country that values and protects freedom of speech more than any other, was founded by Christians as a Christian nation based on Christian principles. If that was true, you would expect that the founders’ regard for free speech would have some basis in the Christian Bible. Or at least that the Bible would agree with them about it. Or at least that the Bible’s instructions wouldn’t be completely incompatible with it. Let’s look at what the Bible says about silencing speech, and see if that’s the case…

There are parts of the Bible that describe censorship disapprovingly. In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned several times by powerful people who didn’t like what he was saying. Everybody thought he should die for making unfavorable prophecies about them. A priest had him beaten and put in the stocks. A rival prophet tried to get another priest to put Jeremiah in the stocks and neck-irons just for prophesying at all. A king imprisoned him because he thought he should have made a different prediction. Another king burned what Jeremiah had written and tried to arrest him. And another king’s officials, who thought Jeremiah should die for what he was saying, captured him and kept him in a deep cistern.

There was another prophet, named Uriah, who a king actually had killed for predicting the same things Jeremiah predicted. And a priest tried to get the king of Israel to force the prophet Amos to leave the country because he didn’t like his words. Amos said God would punish that priest and his family for trying to stop him from prophesying in Israel.

In the New Testament, the Jewish leaders demanded that the early Christians stop telling people about Jesus, and had them beaten when they didn’t stop.

Since these prophets and Christians are portrayed as the persecuted heroes in these stories of censorship,1 it seems the Bible is pro-free speech, right? Well, no, not really. Nobody thinks speech that they agree with should be suppressed. Wanting your own ideas to be protected from censorship is not enough to make you a free speech proponent. You’re not actually in favor of the right to free speech unless you’re in favor of free speech for everyone. Which the Bible certainly is not.

Jephthah, who the Bible never describes as a bad guy, had tens of thousands of people from a certain tribe of Israel slaughtered because he didn’t like what some people from that tribe said once. Nehemiah thought people should be enslaved as a punishment for insulting people.

People in the Bible thought that people should be killed for saying their current leader wasn’t a good one. The leaders in question sometimes disagreed and thought people should be allowed to criticize them, but not always. Some kings in the Bible thought people should be killed for what they said about them.

Some of the kings who thought that way are portrayed as bad kings, but even supposedly good kings like David silenced people. Solomon declared that people he deemed not to be wise enough must not open their mouths. The Bible approvingly describes a king making a decree that anyone who said anything against the God of Israel must be killed.2 Paul said people who taught things that he didn’t agree with must be silenced. He also threatened his own followers and said he wouldn’t spare those who questioned his authority.

The God of the Bible clearly isn’t into free speech. The Bible says God killed thousands of his people for expressing disapproval of their leaders’ actions. David praised God for silencing his enemies, and asked him to do it some more. God told Ezekiel he was going to have the Ammonites slaughtered for their insults. He told Zechariah he was planning to ban people from saying the names of other gods, and to make (false?) prophecy a crime punishable by death. The one sin that God will never forgive, according to Jesus, is a speech offense. God thinks some people don’t even have a right to talk about God’s laws.

Speaking of which, the Bible’s laws include speech laws punishable by death. It was against the law for people to pray to foreign gods, to promote other religions, to use God’s name wrong, or to say anything disrespectful about God, or about the ruler of their people, or about the priests. People could be sentenced to death for speaking “blasphemy”. In the USA, laws like that are unconstitutional.3

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