God is too cute to be a literalist

And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning is a litany of how the mapping from Hebrew to other languages has resulted in a distortion of the precise idiom of the original. I actually thought the best example of this given was a non-Biblical one, the fact that English-speakers are totally clueless as to the implication of the title of the Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate, which sends a rather clear message only intelligible in a Spanish speaking context. English speakers have tended to generate novel meanings from the cryptic title at total variance with the original intent and clarity in Spanish (I actually recall spending some time trying to figure out the deeper meaning of the title when I first watched this film).

This all got me to thinking: what exactly was God thinking in delivering his revelation in verbal form? It seems clear that formal logic would have been much more precise, or even some form of ancient mathematics. The fact that God delivered his revelation in the flexible form of language seems to weigh in on the side of those Christians who are not Biblical literalists, since literalism is pretty much a joke. This sort of assertion by me is a rejection of a position I held several years back whereby non-literalist Christians were slippery types who always attempted to fit the scripture to the context of their times. That may be true, but it is likely true for self-described Fundamentalists as well, except they don't admit it. Some atheists, myself in the past, are wont to declare that the Fundamentalist despite the falsity of his beliefs at least adheres to an honest "plain" reading of the text of the Bible. The reality is that there is no "plain" reading, for believer and non-believer alike.


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"The reality is that there is no 'plain' reading, for believer and non-believer alike."

Amen. Recently, some fundamentalists in the southern US have engaged in Bible burnings because of their belief that only the King James version of the Bible is the true word of God. The truth is, though, that all existing versions of the Bible are full of errors of translation, many of which were deliberate, and in his book Misquoting Jesus biblical scholar Bart Ehrman demonstrates why the King James version is among the least accurate.

However, I asked Dr. Ehrman how it is possible to misquote Jesus if he probably never existed. He said he is working on a book dealing with that. If others haven't managed to find the evidence, I don't see how he is going to.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink

Well, I am Colombian, and as a Non-Mexican Native Spanish Speaker, I had no idea what the title "Like Water for Chocolate" implied until you directed me to the hidden meaning.

So you may want to add "Different even if very closely related cultures" to the list of factors that can distort the original meaning of a text.

I tend to the view that the fundies read their books better simply because their readings sound closer to the sort of stuff the writers probably did think. I have a hard time taking seriously the sort of scholar who says martyrs are actually promised 72 raisins in heaven.

What exactly was God thinking?

A question for the ages. If we knew that....

I have the Oxford Bible Commentary from O.U.P. It's basically a religious commentary, probably High Church Anglican. Archeology, historical documents, and philological study are only taken to the extent that they can be fitted to some version of existing theology. By now, no serious critical reading of the "Bible" (a very miscellaneous collection) is consistent with any sacred interpretation of the book.

Even back in 1500 when Erasmus produced a scholarly new theological version of the Bible more accurate than the Vulgate, it caused revolutions. By now the Bible has to be read as a fossil if it is to be the Holy Book. (One sect has declared the King James translation canonical and actually had a symbolic bonfire burning all the other translations they could find.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink

So you are now willing to consider my basic premise, which is that all Fundy's are idiots, fools or charlatans?

Most Bible "literalists" in the US believe in the Rapture, a concept invented in the 19th c. with no convincing scriptural basis.

The same arguments can be applied to the US Constitution and "original intent"ists.

Worshipping texts, whether religious or secural is just silly. Words are too slippery.

I'd be wary of taking anything Hoffmann says too seriously. After reading a fair amount of his book through Amazon, I have very little respect for what he has to say. He is way to pedantic. Take this quote:

"While ro'eh was common in Hebrew, shepherd is uncommon in English. We know that this is always a mistake."

Plus stuff like translating melekh as president. The guy's a complete donkey. (A much better guide to these issues is Robert Alter, in his own books and in the prefaces to his own translations.) I am paraphrasing, but I remember one writer commenting that any work depicting manners is going to require notes.

I'd also suggest that a good number of Bible study groups do go into these kinds of issues, when appropriate. They do use commentaries and interpretive books to help them get a handle on ancient texts.

I agree. As progressive Christian Marcus Borg says, the Bible is poetry plus, not science minus.

By now, no serious critical reading of the "Bible" (a very miscellaneous collection) is consistent with any sacred interpretation of the book.

Piffle. The best scholarship in this area is from Roman Catholics like Raymond Brown and John Meier.

Piffle right back at you. I don't grant your premise.

Archeologically, it's very difficult to find evidence that King David every existed. What can a theological reader do with that?

Following up on Isamu, and fair proportion of the supposed literalists accept a far fetched symbolic interpretation of the Bible, for example the Scofield Bible.

What the literalists mean is that, where a literal reading of scripture conflicts with science or secular scholarship, they'll follow the literal Bible reading. But when they're reading the Bible on its own, not in contrast to science, their readings are wildly metaphorical and symbolic.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink

"This all got me to thinking: what exactly was God thinking in delivering his revelation in verbal form? "

Could be that He's just bad at math. But, assuming He could swing the math if he wanted to ... Maybe He actually likes the imprecision of verbal language -- the way language always comes with overtones, looseness, ambiguity, etc.

Hey, maybe by choosing verbal language over math, he's actually conveying something about the nature of the universe! Ie., maybe he's telling us that it takes something like language rather than math to capture certain aspects and elements of What Life Is Like.

What, for example, does the historical existance of David logically have to do with the divinity of Christ? Not much, so far as I can tell. You're trapped in dichotomies of your own making.

P.S. To the other fellow above, Bart Ehrman is to biblical scholarship what Michael Behe is to science.

The best book on the Ancient Israel controversies is Bill Dever's Who Were the Early Israelites. It is available here. His other book, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? is also very good. Available here.

Perhaps it is simply this - the making of meanings is central human work ;-).

Again, the sheer range of areas of inquisition in your posts is the reason yours is my favorite science blog.


Everybody was an atheist in the past. Everybody still is, in regard to the tremendous amount of religions on earth, and only theist to one. At most. The bible is nice. Filled with anecdotes about atrocities, child abuse, hate, blood sacrifices, unimpressive tricks only fools see as magic, self fulfilling prophecies, zombies and so on. No matter which language, what date printed and what religion version. It stinks.

The deepest problems with the Bible as expressing The Word of God seems to hang little on subtle nuances of language, but on what seems to be pretty plain meaning of that language.

I can't say I've read all of the Bible with an eye to its absurdities, but I have always been gobsmacked by the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Herewith a relevant passage:

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. "My lords," he said, "please turn aside to your servant's house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning."

"No," they answered, "we will spend the night in the square."

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodomâboth young and oldâsurrounded the house. They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them."

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof."

Now here's what gets me about this story. Lot is the "good man" of Sodom - the one God is indeed going to save because of his goodness, and to whom he has sent the two angels. And yet what do we find this "good man" proposing to the other men of Sodom who want to, well, experience the two angels? That they should take his virginal daughters instead, and "do what you like with them".

Now if you're really only interested in the literal meaning of the Bible, it's hard to get around the absolute bizarreness, even simple wickedness, of what is being depicted as correct, moral behavior here -- or at least behavior meeting the approval of God.

Fundamentalists are really only literal minded regarding the meaning of the Bible when it suits their purpose. When it doesn't, God is just speaking in metaphors, or some such.

To be totally clueless as to the meaning of "like water for chocolate" you'd have to have not seen the movie.

Well... perhaps that's unfair. You'd have to have never cooked also.

Really... did that title give you that much trouble? If so, I can understand difficulty with Bible reading :-)

Someone above (or below) mentioned that in Misquoting Jesus, Dr. Bart pointed out that the KJV of the bible is the least accurate. We followers of Jesus did not need Dr. Bart to point that out. We have know that for at least my lifetime. After reading several of his books I've concluded that on almost every front, his books and his thinking have added nothing new or insightful to the discussion.

@ Sodom and Gomorrah comments: Watch out there--there is still today brimstone pellets located in the area were Sodom and Gomorrah were once located.

@ Lot being a "good man" or not so good. When referring to a human, "good" is always a relative term. If the context, God spared Lot only because He chose to spare him and not on any merit in Lot.

There is no merit in anyone of us. All mankind is bent towards sin and evil--even us followers of Jesus.

It's not that fundies follow a more 'plain' reading of the bible, what makes them more 'authentic' as believers is that their view of religion is more in line to with, for example, the nomadic savages that invented Judaism.

Religion is an in-group/out-group thing. It's meant to be as externally divisive as it is internally cohesive, and fundies understand that instinctively. Only first world social liberals and affluent hippy/new agey types actually believe that religion's ability to bring people together is actually a good thing, because they've re-fashioned religion to fit into the liberal and cosmopolitan society they live in.

Fundies rightly know that the proper purpose of religion (for most of humanity through the ages) is to bring people together to attack non-believers and to keep a firm grip on the lives of the faithful.