We are celebrating Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, who advocated the idea that everyone should read the Bible. It’s a good idea, especially for those who read it as a devotional exercise. The major problem that I see is people who simply read the Bible without knowing the context of the stories. This can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. As a case in point, many people like to quote, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24) as an excuse for retaliating a perceived wrong or injustice. The quote, however, is taken out of context. It was meant to discourage escalating violence. Retaliation was to be limited to similar offenses and not overkill. (You killed my dog, I will kill your child.) The discussion is about how to respond to personal injuries. (Exodus 21:12-36)
In addition, many people get their ideas about the Bible from art. The famous painting of Paul being thrown from his horse is a good example. Nowhere in Acts does it say Paul was riding a horse. Or “The Last Supper” by da Vinci with Jesus and his disciples sitting at a long table. In Jesus day people did not sit at table, they reclined. There are many Biblical stories, books and movies based upon the imagination of the writer. Many are interpretations of Biblical stories with little basis in history or culture. But we believe them.
The television series by Franco Zeffirelli, called Jesus of Nazareth, has a scene of Mary and Joseph in the temple having baby Jesus circumcised. The scene is taken from Luke 2:21-24 “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”, and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons.’”
Zeffirelli got it wrong, and I believed it for years. In the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born, baby boys were circumcised on the 8th day following birth. At the same time, the new mother was confined to her house for forty days after the boy’s birth. She was then allowed to go out to a mikva (ritual bath) to be “cleansed.” If Mary and Joseph were still in Bethlehem (we don’t know that for sure), then they could go to the temple in Jerusalem and present Jesus to God in the customary way. Zeffirelli and I collapsed two different time periods into one based upon ignorance of the culture of the time. Is this knowledge necessary for the devotional reading of Luke? No, not really. But it is important to know if you are teaching Bible stories to others.
Another area that keeps cropping up is related to whether Jesus had siblings and/or whether his mother had more children. Catholics say no, and Protestants say yes. It all hinges in passages like this one: Mark 6:3-5 ”Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.”
What I did not know, until I studied anthropology, is that many cultures, including the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time, do not have a word in their language for ‘cousin.’ So, cousins were all referred to as siblings – brothers and sisters. This information will not change devotional reading, but it is a sticking point for Catholics and Protestants. For Catholics, it does not change the belief that Jesus’ mother Mary had no other children besides Jesus.
Reading and praying over the Bible is a good thing. Thinking about the stories that are told and trying to imagine what was happening and why, takes study. Our imaginations only tell us about our time and our culture and we interpret everything we read by that lens. That is wrong. We need to inform our imagination by studying the context in which the books of the Bible were written.
We also need to be aware that every translation of the Bible changes the nuances. Anyone who knows more than one language knows some words simply don’t translate, so a similar but not exact meaning is sought. This changes the message. There are many different versions of the English language Bible. The degree to which they conform to the original Greek meaning is probably the best. If you cannot read the original Greek or Latin versions, you are limited to your own language. I am told that there is a new English gender inclusive Bible available. Instead of the Our father . . . prayer (Mat 6:9-13 NIV), the translation reads: “Our parent . . .” Some Bibles have changed John 1:1 from “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” to “. . . the word was a God.” This changes the meaning totally.
I agree with Martin Luther. We Christians should read the bible, meditatively and prayerfully. But we also need to be reminded that Jesus did not live in N. America in the 21st century. His life experience was a far cry from ours. We would be well served by trying to learn what life was like for him in the first century.
*I have no idea why some of these paragraphs are in bold. I can’t seem to change them. My apologies