PART II: SERIOUSLY – BUT NOT LITERALLY

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(CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK’S POST)

(Last week, I introduced you to a twenty-four year-old man named Joe Dearing. I indicated that I had at least two major problems with what he said. In last week’s post, I wrote about my initial concerns. In this post, I continue with the second problem I have with Mr. Dearing’s statements.)

The second problem I have with what Mr. Dearing believes is that beyond his odd reasoning, the truth is that no matter how much one may want to read the Bible as a clear account of actual events, the Bible inherently resists such literalism. His apparent ignorance about the Bible and his insistence that “the King James Version is not just a translation of the word of God. It is literally the supernatural word of God” troubles me and it should trouble you as well.

In the first place, the King James Version, like all versions of the Bible, is a translation.

Detail of Moses (circa 1513–1515) by the Italian High Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, housed in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome

Detail of Moses (circa 1513–1515) by the Italian High Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, housed in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome


The books of the Jewish Scriptures were written in Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures that were later added were written in Greek and Aramaic. Any versions in any other languages, then, are translations – including the King James Version. And as we all know, much is often lost in translation. Other translation problems are more obvious. For example, in the fourth century the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate, Moses, the great Lawgiver of the Jews is described as coming down from Mount Sinai with horns on his head. (Exodus 34:29) The error was compounded by the Italian artist, Michelangelo, in his sculpture of Moses, which portrays Moses with two horns. But this imagery comes from a mistranslation of the Hebrew word karnai’im, which can mean “horns,” but in this instance it means “light rays.” This mistranslation has led to the stereotype, which was common until quite recently, that Jews have horns or are demonic!

The King James Version of the Bible, which Mr. Dearing believes is “literally the supernatural word of God” derives its name from the King of England and Scotland – King James I/VI – and is the product of a political decision as much as anything else. The King James Version, also known as the Authorized Version is an English translation of the Bible for the Church of England begun in 1604 and completed in 1611. This version was the third translation into English to be approved by the Anglican Church authorities. The first was The Great Bible commissioned in the reign of King Henry VIII (1535) and the second was The Bishops’ Bible (1568), translated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In January 1604, shortly after he became King of England and Scotland and Head of the Anglican Church, King James I of England convened the Hampton Court Conference where a new English version was conceived in response to the perceived problems of the earlier translations as detected by the Puritans, a faction within the Church of England. King James I gave the translators specific instructions intended to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy. The translation was done by forty-seven scholars, all of whom just happened to be members of the Church of England.

For the Old Testament, the translators used a text originating in the editions of the Hebrew Rabbinic Bible by Daniel Bomberg (1524/1525), but adjusted this translation to conform to the Greek LXX (Septuagint) or Latin Vulgate in passages to which Christian tradition had attached a Christological interpretation. For the New Testament, the translators chiefly used the 1588/1589 and 1598 Greek editions of Theodore Beza, which also present Beza’s Latin version of the Greek and Stephanus’ edition of the Latin Vulgate. Both of these versions were extensively referred to as the translators conducted all discussions among themselves in Latin.

(A word to Mr. Dearing. If you really want to know what the Bible says, become proficient in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.)

Secondly, the Bible is not in any literal sense “the word of God” and certainly not “literally the supernatural word of God” as Mr. Dearing claims.

Only someone who has never read the Bible would make such a claim. The Bible portrays God stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites (Joshua 10:13), and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites (I Samuel 15:1-35). Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”?

The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! (Psalm 137:9) Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?

The book of Deuteronomy when read literally, for example, states that children who are willfully disobedient to their parents shall be stoned to death at the gates of the city. (Deuteronomy 21:18) Is that the word of God? Would any rational person be drawn to worship such a deity?

Leviticus tells us that people who commit adultery, people who are homosexual and people who worship a false God shall be executed. (Leviticus 20) Is that the word of God?

II Samuel suggests that God will cause the baby born out of an adulterous relationship to die as punishment for the adultery of the child’s parents! (II Samuel 7:11b-16) Is that the word of God?

The Epistle to the Colossians instructs slaves to be obedient to their masters. (Colossians 3:2) Are these attitudes in compliance with “the Word of God?”

Paul writes that women should be silent in the churches (I Corinthians 14:34) Is that the word of God? And the author of I Timothy says: “I forbid a woman to have authority over a man.”(I Timothy 2:12). Are we reading in these instances “the Word of God?”

Certainly not!

Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity. To refer to all of the words of the Bible as “the Word of God” or as “The Word of the Lord” encourages a kind of ignorant fundamentalism that sucks the very life out of Christianity today.

In every parish I have served, I have instructed lay readers to simply say at the conclusion of the reading, “Here ends the reading” (or “Here ends the lesson”), instead of “The Word of the Lord.” It is a small step, but one that hopefully discourages this kind of Biblical literalism.

Some of our other traditional, liturgical customs feed this same ignorance. In the worship of my beloved Episcopal Church, for example, I have to ask what are we as a church communicating to GOSPEL
our congregations when we process into our Sunday services holding the Gospel Book high as if it is to be worshipped or adored? What are we communicating when the one reading the Gospel (always an ordained person, never a lay person), proceeds to the center of the nave led by a full complement of crucifer, torch-bearers, Gospel bearer, and thurifer, and goes through all kinds of physical acts of crossing oneself or making the sign of the cross on the text of the Gospel before it is read or in some places intoned? What are we communicating when, before the Gospel is read, the reader censes the Gospel Book with no less than three swings of the thurible so as to cover its words with a “mystical” smell? All of these practices suggest that it is the Gospel itself, rather than the God to whom the words of the Gospel point that is the object of worship.

Biblical literalism has plagued the church for centuries. It needs to be exposed for what it is. These “pious practices,” which we have so universally wrapped around the Bible, are not just, as their defenders claim, acts of devotion; they are rather practices rooted in the claims we have made for a literalistic attitude toward the Bible. That attitude reflects a form of idolatry that is called “bibliolatry.”

Finally, The Bible requires interpretation.

In spite of the popular belief that the “true” religious stance is one of biblical literalism, the fact is that even the most orthodox branches of religions are not, never were, and cannot be, based on the literal reading of ancient Scriptures. No Jew, for example, lives by the strict word of the Torah, and none could, because the Bible can be very unclear. What does that verse about “don’t stew a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19b; Exodus 34:26b; Deuteronomy 14:21b) really mean? Often such verses rely on metaphor, and were written by a different culture with references to things that no longer exist. This is why the Jews created both the Talmud (extensive documents that openly present questioning and arguments about the meaning of Bible texts) and the Midrash (a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings, and fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities at which there are only hints).

Similar to what we find in Judaism, theologians of all faith communities (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist) continually debate and hone the meaning of their sacred writings. Such refining and examination is not an attempt to ignore, or to whitewash, or to avoid what is written, but is the very process by which religions grow and stay relevant.

I wonder if Mr. Dearing realizes any of this.

As a priest, do I believe that God – the eternal, non-physical, ground of Being itself – actually “wrote” the Bible and gave it to us exactly as we have it? No, I do not believe that.

In his 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. De Mille seems to believe that God literally wrote the Decalogue. In the film, De Mille dramatically depicts a lightning bolt from heaven inscribing two tablets of stone with God’s words. Well, that’s Hollywood for you! Unfortunately, many people’s knowledge of the Bible comes from popular culture such as films rather than from the Bible itself. To such people, I must say that the simple truth is that God neither inscribes stone tablets nor writes books. People do.

Scene from De Mille’s The Ten Commandments in which the fire of God burns the commandments into the mountainside, then carves them out into two stone tablets. When the commandments are finished, Moses cautiously approaches the tablets, proclaiming that they were “written with the finger of God.”

Scene from De Mille’s The Ten Commandments in which the fire of God burns the commandments into the mountainside, then carves them out into two stone tablets. When the commandments are finished, Moses cautiously approaches the tablets, proclaiming that they were “written with the finger of God.”

Do I believe that the Bible is the source of spiritual insight and thought that is taken to levels of discernment and beauty that, in my experience, literalism has never produced? Yes, I do believe that.

For me, the ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes our human limitations and calls us to recognize that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is not about religion at all, but about how we can become more deeply and fully human. That certainly was the message of Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps best expressed in words that John’s Gospel has Jesus speak: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (Quote is from Mr. Dearing’s beloved King James Version).

When reading the Bible, we do not need to choose between a literal reading and a rejection of that reading. Both, I find, are small-minded and spiritually deadening positions. The Bible is far too rich to be reduced to such an insipid formula, and we are far too magnificent to allow ourselves to be reduced to such trifling behavior. If I may paraphrase a headline from an article for Progressive Christianity.org: We should take the Bible seriously, but not literally.

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