The Bible, Rated X: Careful Where You Stick Your Colon

Article III in a Series About a Book so Important They Called it “The Book”

Click here for Article I and Article II.

[1] In the first two articles in this series, we learned that, contrary to what Rick Warren and Focus on the Family would have you believe, the Bible is sometimes more Penthouse than Guideposts. [2] Between Onan’s speed spilling, Isaiah’s three-year streak of Palestine, Solomon’s boobs fetish and Ezekiel’s horse loads, [3] it can be hard to remember that the Bible is equally socially revolutionary with concepts like debt forgiveness and socialism (dare we say communism?)—to say nothing of the behavioral landmark Golden Rule.

[4] Whether or not the Bible is a book of fairytales, as some hold, it is without a doubt the most complex text in history and definitely takes expertise to understand in full. [5] But in the hands of religious bedlamites like so many members of the Texas Legislature, [6] all hell can break loose. [7] In fact, someone ought to remind those Lone Star political misfits that if they want to be literally faithful to Scripture, the entire Texas State Capitol should be declared unclean in light of TamponGate. [8] After all, with or without her Maxi-pad: “anything she sits on [during her period] will be unclean” (Leviticus 15:20).

[9] Let me reiterate: the point of this series is not to discount the Bible, but to properly humanize it. [10] I am myself a Christian. [11] It is a call for progressives to arm themselves with enough information to refute fundamentalists with the very text they use as a political thump-bludgeon. [12] In doing so, fundamentalists might just embrace the light of reason, and civilization would advance a wee bit in the process.

[13] Just imagine pulling out these articles next Thanksgiving when the pumpkin pie is being passed around the table and asking Uncle Rob and Aunt Jane why the Old Testament command to tithe (to give 10% of your earnings as an offering) is still relevant but not the prohibition to [14] touch a man who has been spit upon by a bloke who has recently ejaculated (Leviticus 15:8).

[15] As for today, we’re going to spend time discussing the arbitrary division of biblical text into chapters and verses as well as visit a tale of biblical manuscript skullduggery.

[16] You’re probably wondering about all these annoying bracketed numbers. [17] Well, I’m glad you asked.

The Bible: Careful Where You Stick Your Colon

Unless you read the Bible with some regularity, you may have no idea why each biblical quotation in these articles concludes with parenthetical text that includes an obscure word like “Deuteronomy” or “Habakkuk” and is followed by two numbers separated by a colon. Here’s an example:

“A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.” (Proverbs 5:19)

Want to take a guess who wrote that? Surprise, surprise. King Solomon the jugs-lover.

If you grew up watching Monday Night Football, you might recall that weird guy with the rainbow wig who somehow snagged sweet end zone tickets every game and held up a sign that read JOHN 3:16 during field goal attempts. Just what the heck does “John 3:16” mean?

“John” is the biblical book known as The Gospel of John, one of the four New Testament books that recount the story of Jesus. The “3” refers to the third chapter of The Gospel of John. And “16” refers to the 16th verse of Chapter 3.

Here is the text of John 3:16, arguably the most recognizable Christian text:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Here’s the problem: more or less, there is no such thing as John 3:16. The delineation of Scripture into clean-cut chapters and verses is a later publishing phenomenon. Much later. French printer Henri Estienne introduced the now commonly used chapter-verse Bible divisions in 1551, more than 12 centuries after the Council of Nicaea, when the biblical canon was close to being declared a finished product.

Jews and Christians of course had been marking special sections of holy writ for cantillation and public recitation for centuries, but let’s be clear: no Christian in first-century Rome was showing up at major Colosseum events with decorated scrolls advertising chapter-verse references from Psalms.

Hey, look over there at that guy in the toga with the amazing Technicolor wig! I think he’s holding a Psalm 104:21 scroll! “The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God.”

Why does any of this matter?

Try this on Uncle Rob and Aunt Jane at Thanksgiving. Ask them to quote John 3:16. No problem. The words will roll off their lips.

Next, ask them about the context of the sentence. Who uttered the words? (Jesus. Maybe they’ll know between the both of them.) Who was Jesus talking to? (I’ll be shocked if they say Nicodemus the Pharisee.) Here’s a really tough one: ask them to quote John 3:17, the next verse. (I will down a can of cranberry sauce if they can recite it.)

Frankly, the next two verses after John 3:16 are theologically problematic. Jesus assures Nicodemus that God didn’t send himself to our Little Blue Planet to condemn folks; then Jesus turns around and declares that everyone who doesn’t believe in him is condemned.

If you have some sense of the Gnostic audience to whom the Gospel of John was directed, you get used to this kind of wobbly Johannine prose. But there is definitely a reason no one puts “John 3:16 through 18” on their license plate. The first verse is a total upper; Billy Graham pronouncing it from the pulpit led to millions of conversion experiences. But one rarely hears anyone talk about the condemnation context surrounding it.

You’re probably used to fundamentalists throwing Bible verses at you as if they were plucking ingredients from The Joy of Cooking. But like any dish, you need the rest of the ingredients for the recipe item to make sense.

Imagine I came running up to you screaming, “One-third cup green shallots! Green shallots, you moron! Or hellfire upon you!” How in God’s name could you deduce by this that I mean Chicken Satay with Green Papaya Salad?

Here’s an even better example of perverse biblical hermeneutic extraction. Like many kids of my generation, I grew up with a fondness for Transformers. Cars that become robots; robots that become cars. Boyhood heaven.

One day in my pre-teen years, I arrived home from school to discover that all my Transformers—toys and comic books—were gone. I ran from my room prepared to alert the FBI of this heinous theft, only to run smack dab into the immovable wall of Nahum 3:17: “Your guards are like locusts, your officials like swarms of locusts that settle in the walls on a cold day—”

My parents sadly informed me: Yahweh had stuck a verse in an obscure Old Testament minor prophet directly related to my toy chest. While Nahum appeared to be delivering a message of doom to pagan Nineveh (of Jonah fame), he was instead foreshadowing 20th-century Hasbro toys.

Thank God my parents didn’t look across the page at Nahum 3:12 (“All your fortresses are like fig trees”), or Fig Newtons would have been banned from our home, too.

That was a turning point moment in my life. I realized there was something dysfunctional with how adults around me were interpreting the Bible. God could not possibly hate the Autobots.

My biggest problem with Christianity is that there are millions of Christians who are convinced that the historical context surrounding biblical text doesn’t matter. That is exegetical excrement.

See what happens when you confront fundamentalists with the fact that the chapters and verses are just human constructs introduced by none other than the official Greek publisher to the French House of Valois monarchs. Refuse to let them isolate their holy writ in hyperbaric chambers removed from original cultural and historical context. Watch them squirm.

As to the Transformers, don’t feel bad for me. Not only do I know a lot about Nahum and Assyrian history, but I’m also wearing an Optimus Prime T-shirt as I type.

If what I’ve shared about chapters and verses is still confusing, consider what happens when I take my makeshift Verse 13 from the article preface and pull it completely out of context:

Holy cow! I just read this article on Forward Progressives, and Verse 14 said to “touch a man who has been spit upon by a bloke who has recently ejaculated.”

The Bible: The Monks of St. Catherine’s Want Theirs Back

Constantin von Tischendorf was a 19th-century biblical scholar from the city of Lengenfeld in eastern Germany. That sentence alone may become a cure for sleep deprivation. But hang in there; things are about to get very Indiana Jones.

Tischendorf is arguably the most important biblical paleographer ever. One of his early accomplishments involved the impossible decipherment of one of the four oldest extant Bibles, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, which dates to the fifth century. The Codex is a palimpsest—that is, most of the biblical text was erased and another work laid over atop it. Tischendorf was tenacious and took great pains to get to the bottom of the original language.

Yet that wasn’t Tischendorf’s most important accomplishment. Throughout his adulthood, he scoured the Levant looking for ancient biblical manuscripts. St. Catherine’s Monastery, located in the mountainous desert of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, was a likely treasure trove given its uninterrupted Christian bookmaking service since Istanbul was called Constantinople. Also, there’s a general Moses mystique to the place, as it is located at the base of Mt. Sinai.

On an early trip to St. Catherine’s, Tischendorf was shocked to find that one of the monks had tossed some rather ancient Bible manuscript leaves into a trashcan. (For reference, imagine a staffer at the Nixon Presidential Library casually pitching a few of the Watergate tapes.) Convinced that St. Catherine’s was a manuscript mecca, Tischendorf returned several times, including one trip in 1853 under the patronage of Russian Czar Alexander II.

Here the story gets a bit fuzzy. The monks of St. Catherine’s do not necessarily agree with the history books. What everyone agrees upon is that Tischendorf realized the monks were in possession of possibly one of the 50 Bibles that the Emperor Constantine had commissioned following his conversion to Christianity in 312 C.E.

The monks say that Tischendorf asked to borrow the book, and in the kindness of their trusting hearts, they let him take it. When one visits St. Catherine’s, the monks point to a framed letter on a wall, written in Tischendorf’s hand, which contains a promise to return the manuscript. Like so many Elgin Marbles, Codex Sinaiticus was removed from its centuries-old home never to return. For a time, it was the prized booty of the Russian Czar in the Russian National Library; later, just before World War II, the Russians sold it to the British Museum (now the British Library), where it remains.

When I visited St. Catherine’s Monastery, the monks told me to remind Great Britain that they would like their Bible back. (Prime Minister Cameron, I hope you’re reading this.) I don’t blame them for being rather sore about the matter. On the other hand, the British Government is doing a decent job of caretaking arguably the most important manuscript on Planet Earth.

So, what is Codex Sinaiticus? As you’ll recall from an earlier article, the New Testament alone is pieced together from thousands of manuscript fragments in multiple ancient languages. There is no original Bible anywhere. But Sinaiticus is as close as it comes.

Few scholars today are convinced, as Tischendorf was, that Codex Sinaiticus is one of Constantine’s “Fifty Bibles.” Based on a lot of complex textual detective work, there is no doubt the manuscript was penned between 325-360 C.E. That makes it without a doubt the oldest complete Bible in existence. The only other manuscript in the biblical ballpark is Codex Vaticanus, named after the place wherein it resides.

By the way, Codex Sinaiticus is written in Greek—as is Codex Vaticanus. No one in the Old Testament spoke or wrote in Greek. Neither did Jesus, most likely. But some of the other New Testament figures contemporary to Jesus would have known Greek, such as St. Paul.

Oh, and there’s just one problem. Remember when I said Codex Sinaiticus is “without a doubt the oldest complete Bible in existence.” It kind of depends on what you mean by “complete.” A significant portion of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) is missing. However, the New Testament portion is complete.

Also present are a few books which will surprise Protestants: Wisdom of Sirach, Tobit, II Esdras, Judith, I-IV Maccabees, as well as the Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas. These are apocryphal books.

But are they (a) canonical “God’s Breath” Apocrypha or (b) “stinky breath” apocryphya?

There are apocryphal books included in Codex Vaticanus as well, and one finds apocryphal books in Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, the two other great Greek uncial Bible manuscripts.

Wait a second?! If the four most ancient complete Bibles don’t even match up to the Bible used by Franklin Graham—

Don’t panic. Also, don’t hold your breath. Learning what books made it in and what books got the boot is an article in and of itself. All to say, by the fifth century C.E., the New Testament canon was finally settled, including the Book of Revelation—which is a real shame, given the horseshit hermeneutics that have surrounded that book down through the centuries.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians remain in disagreement with Protestants about the books that belong between the Old and New Testaments. These are called the Apocrypha (with a capital A). Sometimes you’ll hear them called the Deuterocanonical Apocrypha. They’re Scripture to Catholics, quasi-Scripture to Orthodox Christians, and just plain weird to Protestants. If you believe the Bible is the Word of God, it’s a bit embarrassing that Christians still can’t agree on all of the books that belong between the covers.

What do I think? I think it’s a damned shame to bounce a book like Judith from the Bible. I mean, what’s not to like about a widow who gains the confidence of an Assyrian general, gets him drunk, beheads him, then drags the head home to show it off to her fellow countrymen before driving the Assyrians out of town. Judith is one of the few female biblical characters who kicks ass a la Linda Hamilton. It is tragic that some have tried to drive her into apocryphal obscurity.

Conclusion to Part III

Malala Yousafzai delivered perhaps the most significant speech of our generation at the United Nations this past week. I’ll let her words speak for her:

“I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist: ‘Why are the Taliban against education?’ He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said: ‘A Talib doesn’t know what is written inside this book.’

“They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would point guns at people’s heads just for going to school. These terrorists are misusing the name of Islam for their own personal benefit.”

Here’s my question: What book was the schoolboy referring to?

To my mind, it’s the Bible, the Quran or any other book of holy writ.

Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists—fundamentalists of any religion—refuse to take the time to learn and consider the cultural and historical context surrounding their holy writ.

The more one recognizes the complexity of one’s holy writ, the more one understands that the quiddity of one’s religion does not consist in chapter-and-verse legalistic interpretations, but in gathering synthesis from a comprehensive understanding of the whole.

By the way, remember that guy with the rainbow wig and the John 3:16 placards? His name is Rollen Stewart. He is currently serving three life terms in a California penitentiary for a 1992 kidnapping. When he was arrested, he was heavily armed and raving about the Rapture.

There is a difference between spouting Bible verses and digesting the full breadth of Scripture. Just saying.

Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!


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