The Bible, misused
Jan. 29 was National Bible Sunday. Sadly, its celebration all year round consists of posting Bible quotes pulled out of context. Social media is full of verses used to silence debates, quash dissent, and defend wrongdoing.
To see why this is both dangerous and absurd, let’s talk about the Bible itself.
The Old Testament books were written in Hebrew or Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek, sometime between 50 A.D. and 100 A.D., most likely not by eyewitnesses, but writers (or a group of writers) operating under the traditionally accepted names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Today’s translations, therefore, require several layers of interpretation to get close to the original meaning of the text. First: a translation of the words; then, an interpretation of the ideas, which are rich in symbols; and then another interpretation according to the historical and cultural context surrounding the verses.
As the late Bible scholar Rachel Held Evans once said, the Bible was written for us, not to us. That is, the Bible has lessons for today, but it is not written in today’s language, nor should it be read that way.
Last week, I talked about “he who is without sin …” When paired with “judge not, lest you be judged” and “why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” these verses seem to say: Do whatever you like because no one can or should judge you.
Each of these lines, however, was uttered when Jesus castigated the Pharisees for being hypocritical and condemning. His words are a reminder that we must be angry at the sin, not the sinner; and if we must point out wrongdoing, then we must not humiliate those in the wrong, but uplift them.
Don’t forget the last lines of Jesus to the adulteress: Go forth and sin no more.
When taken as a whole and read in its context, the Bible has much wisdom to share. When disaggregated into lines, the Bible can be used to rationalize wrongdoing.
There are isolated verses, for instance, in St. Paul’s letters, that have been used to justify misogyny. He tells women to be silent in churches and claim no authority over men.
Each of the letters, however, was written to a specific church with specific problems: One had to deal with disruptive women; another had arrogant women. The advice was for specific people at that time, not for all women for all time.
It would also make no sense for Paul to put women down, as he honors them in the same letters: Priscilla, a teacher; Phoebe, a deacon; Timothy’s mother and grandmother, for their efforts at educating him.
Isolating verses can also be deadly. For example, the book “To Train Up a Child,” written by a Christian pastor, has figured in many abuse cases. It draws on a line from Proverbs: “The rod and reproof give wisdom; but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.” The solution, according to the book: Hit misbehaving children with a plumbing pipe.
Interpreting Bible verses literally is toxic. Take the abused Romans 13: “Obey the government, for God is the One who has put it there … Those who refuse to obey the law of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow.”
Overeager social media users have used the verse to justify dictatorship. However, St. Paul wrote the words to Romans suffering under the rule of Emperor Nero. Christians then could not risk disobeying the law, or they would put themselves and their church in jeopardy. For as long as human law was not contrary to God’s laws, then they should obey.
How could we imagine Paul simply bowing to a leader, when he and his followers kept on preaching, even when the authorities told them to stop and renounce their God? Paul was never talking about nationalism or blind submission; he was talking about keeping order within the bounds of principles.
There are many more phrases in the Bible that are used to mislead people. To quote out of context, therefore, is abuse.
We often hear the phrase, “Do not bear false witness.” It would do good to remember that this sin includes misrepresenting God by using the words of the Bible according to one’s whims, or picking and choosing the parts that one likes.
To quote the Bible without insight from scholars, context, history, and language is not holiness. It is willing ignorance and pure arrogance.
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