Surveying today’s news reports, we see many “anti-vaxers” using the Bible to promote their cause. They most often link coronavirus vaccinations and the “evil” of face masks with the “mark of the beast” – a symbol of submission to the Antichrist found in Revelation 13:16-18. There we read: “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man. And his number is 666.” Some Christian anti-vaxers even claim that the mark of the beast is a microchip within the vaccine. They blame Bill Gates.
The link between the vaccine and the mark of the beast has also been drawn by Pastor Guillermo Maldonado of the Miami megachurch, King Jesus International Ministry, where the previous US president launched his 2020 campaign outreach to Latinos. The previous US president’s religious counselor Paula White also liked to quote from Revelation. She assured the president that he was chosen and blessed by God and had to promote “spiritual warfare” against his and God’s enemies.
The most common understanding of 666 is that in the ancient world letters of the alphabet often substituted for numbers. Each letter stood for a number. The number 666, for instance, referred to Nero Caesar, in the Hebrew spelling of the name. Later interpretations of 666 applied it to Hitler, and even (conservative US Americans take note) to President Reagan as 666: Ronald (6 letters) Wilson (6 letters) Reagan (6 letters).
As one of my old biblical theology professors liked to say: “The Book of Revelation, what Catholics often call the Apocalypse, has a wax nose. For centuries people have twisted and shaped its texts to fit a variety of enemies, fears, and anxieties.”
A distorted use of the Bible works like all great conspiratorial narratives. People select the most appealing interpretation, even when it offers a simplistic, unambiguous explanation for the complexities of the world. It is part of our “post-truth” contemporary environment. On Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, and in the news sites like Fox News, objective facts seem less influential in shaping public opinion than strong appeals to emotion and personal opinions.
In the discussion, for example, about the Apostle Peter not being the first pope, one person wrote to me that whether or not he was the first pope is simply a matter of personal opinion. I wrote back that it is not a matter of opinion but documented historic fact. “That’s YOUR opinion!” was the response.
Biblical interpretation is a complex process. It involves an historical-critical examination of the text, which aims to discover the text’s original meaning in its original historical context. Historical criticism asks, for instance, when and where a text was written and for whom. The first five books (the Pentateuch) of the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, were long held to have been written by Moses. In 1906, in fact, the Roman Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a ruling that Moses was indeed the author. Good Catholics had to accept that.
The contemporary scholarly consensus, however, is that the biblical person Moses may very well be largely mythical. But a Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in the mid to late 13th century BCE. Hardly any biblical scholar today would claim that the five books of the Pentateuch were written by Moses, or a Moses figure. Such an author would have been long dead before the first texts began to take shape. The development of the Pentateuch began around 600 BCE, with a variety of authors. By around 400 BCE these books had reached their modern form. By around 200 BCE the five books were accepted as the first section of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Historical criticism also involves understanding the language and culture of the biblical authors and the variety of literary forms in the Scriptures. There we find, for instance, myth, history, laws, poetry, symbol, and metaphor.
Biblical authors also used creative imagery, supposing what one thinks the historical biblical figure would have said in set circumstances. We see this for instance in the Gospel of John, where Jesus gives very developed theological soliloquies about himself. They are theological but not historical. We see as well much creative imagery in the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Those accounts of Jesus’ birth are more about a theological understanding of Jesus than an exact historical account of his birth. Their focus is on the theological question “who is Jesus of Nazareth?”
Many contemporary scholars suggest actually that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth and that the Bethlehem nativity narratives reflect a desire by the Gospel writers to present his birth as the fulfillment of a prophecy given by the minor prophet Micah. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel….” (Micah 5:2)
Fundamentalist believers insist that a written biblical record must be historic or else it is nonsense and meaningless. Too many people these days have very little tolerance critical questioning and are blind to nuance. I suggest, nevertheless, that if one wants to do a bonafide reading of the gospels, one must be open to the process of historical criticism and appreciate the variety of literary forms by which truth is revealed but not necessarily in a precise historical manner. These texts do indeed reveal truth but on a different level.
Biblical texts can also be the result of creative editing. For example, in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7) Jesus is clearly portrayed as the New Moses. The old Moses brought the Ten Commandments from the mount. Jesus brings from his “mount” not commandments but exhortations about how one should live. Scholars suggest these exhortations were collected from what Jesus had said at various points in his public ministry. The final author of Matthew simply edited and pulled them all together.
In the Jesus sayings in Matthew chapter 5:29 – 30, we also find Jesus using hyperbole: figures of speech usually not meant to be taken literally. “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away….And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.” The Greek word here translated as “hell” is Gehenna. It was originally understood as a grave and in later times a place of purgation where deceased people were judged based on their past deeds.
Not everything in the Bible is to be observed and followed literally. Some, mistaken, rigid fundamentalists do that. How, for instance, do we evaluate the legal prescriptions in the Hebrew Scriptures? Frankly, some of them in Leviticus and Exodus, are simply archaic and cruel. People do grow and change. Or they can! Belief and morality develop as well.
Leviticus and Exodus developed indeed over a long period of time. Leviticus emphasizes ritual, legal and moral practices rather than beliefs. Exodus, starting with Moses and the delivery of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, presents the defining features of Israel’s identity. The consensus among scholars is that the events in Exodus are best understood as creative religious imagery and not historical events. Exodus and Leviticus reached their present forms between 538 and 332 BCE.
Right now I am thinking about two regulatory texts. Leviticus 25:44 states that one may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to using Mexicans. But does it apply to using Canadians as well?
Then, there is a question about working on the Sabbath. The Sabbath goes from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. My neighbor, down the street, insists on working on the Sabbath. The fellow always mows his lawn, with lots of noise, very early on Saturday mornings. Exodus 35:2 clearly states that the person who works on the Sabbath should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? Is there a biblically correct way to kill Sabbath-breakers?
Evaluating literary forms and historical critical interpretations can indeed get one into big debates. Thinking about Genesis, I would strongly agree with those biblical scholars who understand Adam and Eve as mythological biblical figures, along with Noah and the great flood. One of my friends strongly insists, however, that as a true Christian I must accept Adam, Eve, and Noah as historic people. Why?
Biblical translations also deserve special attention. Translating the Bible is not something that is easy to do. Should the translation be literal? Should the work be more thought for thought? No translation is totally literal or totally thought-for-thought. Every translation gives a particular nuance and occasionally a different meaning. I am sensitive to translation issues because I do a lot of translations. Nuance is so important.
The Hebrew Scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek in the mid 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. What we call the Septuagint is the translated Greek version. When we read Isaiah 7:14 in the Septuagint, for example, we read “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” That text, which we know so well from Christmas, was used for centuries to affirm the virginal conception of Jesus of Nazareth. When we look at the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14, however, we read “Behold a young woman will conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
The original Hebrew text referred to King Ahaz who was the twelfth King of Judah from c.744 to 728 BCE. The prophet Isaiah admonished Ahaz to trust in God rather than foreign allies. In the text Isaiah 7:14, the prophet assured Ahaz that his young wife would conceive and have a son who would be Immanuel – God with us. Ahaz did have a son, Hezekiah, who, unlike his father, became a very righteous and religious king.
Some people are reluctant to trust newer Bible translations. There is a great abundance today and in many languages. I have a modest collection of new translations in English, Dutch, and French. Each with a particular nuance. One English translation, which I generally like, uses inclusive language. It does raise some eyebrows. It is most definitely not patriarchal.
I would stress that we need to recognize that today we do indeed have much more and more accurate historical information than people had, for instance, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when major English translations were made. The Douay–Rheims (Catholic) Bible came out between 1582 and 1610. The King James Bible was published in 1610. We need to be alert as well to the changing meanings of English words. Consider, for example how the word “gay” has changed over the years. In the King James Bible, James 2:3 speaks about “gay clothing.” But the New American Standard Bible translation speaks of “fine clothes.”
A contemporary New Testament translation issue that very much interests me is about the Greek words Hebraios and Ioudaios. Strictly speaking, Hebraios means “Hebrews” or “Hebrew Christians;” and Ioudaios means “Judeans.” In most English New Testament translations, however, both words are translated as “Jews.”
Strictly speaking, there are no “Jews” in the New Testament. Inhabitants of Judea were called Judeans, not Jews. At the time of Jesus, there was no religious, racial, or national group called “Jews.” Not in Judea nor anywhere in the world. The word “Jews” appeared for the first time in an English biblical text in the Wycliffe Bible of 1382. There, citing John 19:19, we read: “This is Jhesu of Nazareth, kyng of Jewis.”
John Wycliffe (c.1320s – 1384) was an Oxford professor and priest who produced the first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts in the 1380’s. The Pope, Martin V who was pope from 1417 to his death in 1431, was so infuriated by Wycliffe’s teachings and his translation of the Bible into English, that 44 years after John Wycliffe died, he ordered Wycliffe’s bones to be dug-up, crushed, and scattered in the local river.
How does one know how to best understand Biblical texts? It is not just a matter of personal opinion. I rely on up-to-date biblical commentaries and the research of respected biblical scholars: scholarly researchers who are well informed and trustworthy. There are a great many credible scholars today. Among Catholic scholars whom I like are my friends Raymond Collins and Frank Matera, and Luke Timothy Johnson. Among Anglican and Protestant scholars I have great respect for the Anglican scholar and bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright and the Protestant scholars Michael K. Gorman, Christopher W. Skinner, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa.
All theology is faith seeking understanding. It is a collaborative effort. We inform and support one another, and we journey together, grateful for credible, wise, and trustworthy guides. Our faith is something living, something dynamic, and something life-changing.
PS Next week a shorter reflection. About a burning issue.