The Bible Says?

We’ve all seen the bumper sticker which reads, “The Bible says it; I believe it; and that settles it!” And many of us have been “blessed” by Christians who constantly remind us, “The Bible says. . .” This article addresses both claims. 

A more truthful and humble way of rewording the first claim (“The Bible says it; I believe it; and that settles it!”) would be the following: “I interpret the Bible to say; I believe my interpretation; and that settles it for me.” We all interpret the Bible through our own limited lens. The term “eisegesis” refers to reading into the Bible what we want it to say. “Exegesis” refers to reading out of the Bible what is there. No one practices infallible exegesis. The most we can hope for is to understand the historical, literary, and theological contexts as we seek the original intent of the passage and to open our minds and hearts to the leading of the Spirit.  Such an endeavor requires study, knowledge, honesty, and purity of heart. Respectful and humble objectivity in our approach to Scripture will help keep us from wrongheaded and “wronghearted” eisegesis. 

The following quote recently appeared on Facebook: “I can do all things through a verse taken out of context” (2 Opinions 4:17). “Cherry-picking” Scripture has always been a temptation for Christians. We focus on what we like and what we assume affirms our beliefs and prejudices while ignoring those verses which would challenge our interpretations. Slavery, genocide, child abuse, misogyny, persecution, inquisitions, torture, wars, homophobia, and the rape of the environment have been justified through a very selective and biased reading of Scripture. Simply quoting parts of the Bible (a parrot can be taught to quote) without an understanding of the context and meaning of passages (not to mention the overall trajectory of the biblical witness) can result in cruelty and arrogance. 

When I was at seminary, I had a friend whose aunt bred dogs. The sale of these canines constituted a major part of her income. She was an active member of a local church but never tithed the income from her dog business. She defended this practice by quoting Deuteronomy 23:18 which reads, “You shall not bring the hire of a harlot or the wages of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow; for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.” What she did not know (and probably didn’t want to know) is that the word “dog” in the verse referred to male temple prostitutes, not to “bow-wows.” As the saying goes, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” And a lack of knowledge can be even more dangerous. 

Another example of eisegesis is the quote from Jesus, “The poor you will have with you always.” I have heard this verse quoted by many supposed followers of Jesus to excuse their unwillingness to share with the less fortunate. However, the background to this quote comes from the Hebrew Scriptures and reads, “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore, I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother and sister, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) Those who would use Jesus’ quote as a defense of their stinginess and lack of compassion overlook the multitude of places where Jesus commands a sharing with the poor. Whenever our reading of the Bible “lets us off the hook” from our calling to do unto others as we would want them to do unto us, we are conveniently and blasphemously interpreting Scripture. 

Another problem with saying “The Bible says,” is that the Bible says a lot of things, some of which are not reconcilable. The Bible is not some magical book which can be opened to any page and communicate infinite and infallible answers to our questions and problems. As I have written elsewhere, the Bible is a collection of human testimonies to the perceived presence and actions of God in this world. Those testimonies are limited by the historical, social, and religious conditions of the times in which those different generations lived. The traditions which make up the Bible cover many hundreds of years. (Some traditions go back to peoples like the Mesopotamians, Canaanites, and Egyptians several millennia before Jesus.) Those bearing witness to God’s presence and actions understood God within the confines of their knowledge and experience. As time passed, new questions and challenges arose which required a new approach to both God and the human situation. Although it’s not wise to suggest a progressive revelation (people can regress in religion, something we are experiencing today in Christian Nationalism), I believe there is a trajectory culminating for Christians in the radical vision of Jesus. 

An example of radical newness in the Bible is the development of hope.  Most of the Scripture has no concept of a desirable “life after death.” Except for the book of Daniel, which was written in the 2nd century BCE, the Old Testament assumes the good, bad, and indifferent all went to sheol, a shadowy place under the earth where the shade of a person drowsily withered into oblivion. It was only after experiencing grave persecution that the question of theodicy (how evil and suffering can occur in a world created by a good and powerful God) caused the Jews to be open to the idea of some type of resurrection. If one assumes that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant word of God and every verse is as valid and true as every other verse, then one will have great difficulty reconciling the message of Ecclesiastes (which argues that there is nothing beyond the grave) with the New Testament hope of resurrection. 

Another example of a radical development in the Bible is Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist with violence one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-390). The commandment from God regarding an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth is found three places in the Pentateuch, the most sacred part of the Hebrew Scriptures (Exodus 21:23-24; Leviticus 24: 19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). The original purpose of the commandment was to limit the retaliation one could afflict on another human—one tooth for one tooth, not a mouthful of teeth for one tooth or both eyes for one eye. Jesus, however, prohibits retaliation altogether and, instead, commands unlimited forgiveness, not limited or unlimited revenge. How many times have Christians defended their practice of revenge by quoting the Pentateuch rather than paying heed to Jesus’ radical departure from the tactics of retaliation? 

Rather than saying, “The Bible says,” we would be more correct to say, “This verse/passage of the Bible says” or “Isaiah/Paul/John says.” “The Bible says” should be reserved for those ideas, revelations, truths, and divine characteristics which are found throughout the Scriptures. Examples would be justice, love, truth, peace, etc. Justice, for example, is found from Genesis to Revelation. For those who claim Jesus as their Lord, anytime and anywhere Scripture says something contrary to the life, teachings, and example of Jesus, priority and allegiance must be given to Jesus. As John Dominic Crossan wisely quips, “Jesus trumps the Bible.”

The center of the Christian faith is not a book, much less a theology or theory about a book. The center of our faith is a Person through whom we trust that God has revealed the essence of the Divine Self. As Jesus and the entire New Testament reveal, that essence is unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, nonviolent, and everlasting love. When the Bible is quoted and used to deny or sully this ultimate revelation, it can become a demonic tool for inflicting a sick religion characterized by manipulating guilt, needless suffering, unconscionable violence, and profound misunderstanding. The Bible, when it’s at its best, bears witness to God. At its worst, it mirrors the human propensity for greed, violence, and arrogance on a personal and corporate scale. And at it absolute worst, it becomes a form of idolatry  (bibliolatry) as dangerous and misleading as Baal. Jesus’ command to love God with all our mind assumes that we have the capacity to reject that kind of idolatry. 

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.