Article II in a Series About a Book so Important They Called it “The Book”
Welcome back to The Bible: Rated X! This week we’re tackling the Founding Fathers, the Antichrist and Solomonic T&A.
To pick up where we left off in Article I, the Bible is the most quoted yet least understood text in history. It is the Word of God for more than 2 billion people on our Little Blue Planet, and, unfortunately, a Public Policy for Dummies for millions of misguided theocrats across the Fruited Plain. Oddly, the Bible also has enough sex and violence, plus just generally bizarre things to say (unless you’re accustomed to talking asses), to cause editors of Children’s Bibles to go into anaphylactic shock.
As we discussed last time, the Bible, ironically, can be used in the political realm to ward off Christian fundamentalism. With a little research, the average progressive should be able to arm himself or herself with enough ammunition to get fundamentalists to stop dead in their tracks, and in so doing, might be able to advance civilization a step or two. (Now if only we could airdrop Bibles on the Texas Legislature.)
Let’s return to the complex theme of biblical translation.
The Bible: A Founding Father’s Translation Experiment
Some years ago, I worked at an antiquarian bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia. One evening, a patron entered the premises and stated in hushed tones that he was the owner of a rare book of incomprehensible worth he was eager to sell. I listened; Charlottesville is a town where such statements are more than a remote possibility. After all, one of my rare book colleagues once found a signed James Joyce first edition in a recycling dumpster.
The patron leaned in and said he was the owner of an exceptionally rare copy of the King James Bible. Believable enough. I mirrored his lean until our noses were almost touching.
He whispered, “Signed by King David.”
When King James’ dutiful theologians finished one of the most incredible translation projects in history in 1611, King David had been in the grave more than 2,500 years. When I informed the patron of this fact, he told me he must have remembered the version incorrectly.
Another man from Charlottesville, Mr. Thomas Jefferson, believed the New Testament contained exceptional guidelines for ethical living as presented by Jesus. Tea Partiers should cover their eyes at this point, because Jefferson denounced every miracle in the Bible. Those who suggest otherwise sell Evangelical snake oil.
Jefferson wrote to John Adams regarding his personal translation of the Bible: “In extracting the pure principles which [Jesus] taught …. [t]here will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”
Not surprisingly, you won’t find miracles in The Jefferson Bible, or as he called it, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines as Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrassed with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.
As we know, our third President was no less human than other biblical heroes. King David had Bathsheba; Jefferson had Sally Hemings. And who knows why Jefferson thought Jesus’ teachings were so well-suited to Native Americans. Perhaps in his presidential wisdom he understood that endless cheek-turning from Uncle Sam’s bloody oppression lay ahead for them.
In all, The Jefferson Bible is more a work of biblical redaction than translation, but part of a translator’s job is determining what passages are valid and invalid. In Mr. Jefferson’s opinion—one I do not share—the Bible is more dunghill than diamond.
The Bible: Like Two Unicorn Foals Frolicking in a Field of Rainbow Fruit Flavor
If you haven’t read Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon as it is also called, take a few minutes to peruse this book of quirky erotic poetry, which is dropped as a canonical postscript after King Solomon’s more common works of wisdom, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
Song of Songs is the book of the Bible that every fundamentalist translator dreads (but secretly hopes he gets assigned to).
If you’ll recall from an earlier article, Solomon was a man about town in Jerusalem, with 1,000 wives and concubines. Anyone in the day who described himself as “a sachet of myrrh lying between a woman’s breasts” apparently was followed mindlessly to the altar.
Solomon was an okay erotic poet, but he was obsessed with breasts. He tells us breasts are clusters of fruit. At other times they’re henna blossoms. Also fawns: twin fawns, gazelle fawns, anything to do with Bambi. And grape clusters.
Here’s my favorite: “I am a wall and my breasts are like towers” (Song of Songs 8:10). I had no idea implants predated the New Testament.
Solomon should have stuck to mammary verse, however. It is hard to imagine any of his wives, or even his concubines, were flattered to discover their hair was like a flock of goats or their teeth were like a flock of shorn sheep.
Meanwhile, Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century French abbot of the strict Cisterian Order, had absolutely no business giving sermons about Solomon’s omnipresent breasts. Here is a passage from one of St. Bernard’s “Sermons on the Song of Songs”:
“Now let us try to see the meaning of this commendation of the Bridegroom’s breasts. These two breasts are two proofs of his native kindness: his patience in awaiting the sinner and his welcoming mercy for the penitent.”
St. Bernard wasn’t the only preacher through history who wanted us to think twice about breasts. Classical rabbinical teachings would have us believe that the Beloved’s breasts are metaphors for Moses and Aaron. Because, you know, nothing says knockers like bearded brothers. Not surprisingly, when Christianity took theological hold of the Old Testament, the Beloved became a metaphor for the Church—which perhaps explains early Christianity’s architectural predilection for domes.
I could go on about how Song of Songs has been interpreted down through history—including the centuries’ tug-of-war as to whether it should even be included in the Bible. But I don’t wish to drift far from the theme of translation. So let’s examine two English variants of Song of Songs 4:5:
Here is the King James Version: “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.”
Here is the New International Version: “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.”
Let me pose a simple question: If you were a Bible translator and you had to describe the female anatomy erotically, would you liken a bosom to “roes” or “gazelle fawns”?
As an experiment, try it on your next ChristianMingle blind date and come back with the results.
It’s too tempting not to conclude with the commentary offered on this verse by the porcine Presbyterian Matthew Henry, who in 1708 offered the following nugget of wisdom: “If each of these comparisons has a meaning applicable to the graces of the church, or of the faithful Christian, they are not clearly known; and great mistakes are made by fanciful guesses.”
At least Henry knew better than to call two boobs Moses and Aaron.
The Mark of the Beast
Awhile back, I went to the drycleaner to pick up a suit and some dress shirts. The bangle-bedecked cashier punched up my total and stared at me as though I were the Son of Belial.
“Is something amiss, ma’am?” I inquired.
She pointed at the green digital tally on the register—$16.66—then blurted, “You don’t have to pay that amount, sir! I mean, it containing the Mark of the Beast and all!”
I insisted on writing a check for the precise amount, then bared vampire fangs, shouted incantations from Malleus Maleficarum, sprouted demon wings, and flew in haste to the Whore of Babylon’s secret lair on the other side of town.
Let us now turn to a biblical text that even Iron Maiden groupies know by heart, arguably the most abused text in history: “This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666” (Revelation 13:18).
For the past 2,000 years, charlatans the world over have been using the cryptic final book of the Bible to instill unwarranted fear into otherwise innocent drycleaner cashiers.
The Book of Revelation has been interpreted by members of every Christian generation to mean that Jesus is returning in glory at any second. Guess what? Each generation has been wrong.
Again, Matthew Henry: “What or who is intended by this, remains a mystery.”
As to the supposed “Mark of the Beast,” here is a fact not generally known: One of the oldest manuscript fragments of the Book of Revelation records the Number of the Beast as 616. Several other important biblical manuscripts, including Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (one of the four oldest extant Bibles, early fifth century CE), also has 616.
Here is a plausible explanation as to why some ancient manuscripts have the familiarly formidable “666,” while others have the totally mild-mannered “616”:
St. John’s Apocalypse was written in code. Not a Tom-Hanks-in-a-mullet-running-around-the-Louvre-solving-Christ’s-love-life code. More along the lines of a Christians-are-being-fed-to-lions-by-the-Romans-so-let’s-keep-this-message-on-the-hush-hush-as-I’d-really-rather-not-be-a-Colosseum-Burger-today kind of code.
The Apocalyptic Beast isn’t Henry Kissinger or Wolf Blitzer or Peter Frampton or any cultural personage whom Pat Robertson would have you fear.
The “Beast” of Revelation was a real person: the Emperor Nero.
As with Latin, ancient Greek and Hebrew numbers are represented by letters of the alphabet. In Greek, the recorded language of the New Testament, the number 666 is represented as chi-xi-sigma; the number 616 as chi-iota-sigma.
Get this: in Hebrew, the letters for the name Neron Kesar (Caesar Nero) add up to the number—you guessed it—666.
But the sadistic Roman emperor was also known simply as Nero—without the final “n.”
Let’s see: The Hebrew value for “n” is equivalent to 50. 666 – 50 = 616. Bingo.
You won’t learn any of this from reading Tim LaHaye’s garbage, best-selling Left Behind series.
Why? Because learning that 666 was merely an ancient Christian codeword for the nefarious Emperor Nero isn’t nearly as fear-provoking as predicting that, any moment now, Mikhail Gorbachev and his turbo-charged birthmark will bludgeon every Evangelical on the planet.
If you’ve been living in fear of the number 666 all your life, you’ve been duped. There’s a term for the fear of this number. It’s called hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.
Listen to me when I say: Live in hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia no more!
The Bible: Concluding Thoughts on Translation
When engaging in political discourse with Christian conservatives, as a first step, get them to recognize that the Bible is a translated work. Ask them why there are differences between one translation or another for a given text being thumped. Ask them to explain why they use a particular translation. Ask them if they know how or when their translation was compiled. Odds are they have never thought about these things.
If they use the King James Version—still a fan favorite for fire & brimstone mongers—suggest that while the KJV was a magnificent literary project, it really is the incandescent light bulb of Bible translations. Perhaps they would be interested in trading in the KJV for something more efficiently illuminating. If they insist on using the KJV, then offer that King James forced translators to conform their work to the theology of the Church of England—you know, the church started by that King Henry VIII guy who cut off his wives’ heads.
You could also introduce the fact that whether or not the Bible smells of Divine breath, it is most definitely a human construct.
The New Testament alone is compiled from more than 20,000 complete or fragmented manuscripts in all manner of languages, including Greek, Latin, Sryiac and Coptic. And the earliest extant Bible containing both Old and New Testaments dates only to the fourth century C.E. Don’t worry, we’ll get to Codex Sinaiticus, scholarly skullduggery and other matters of canon in a subsequent article.
None of the above is intended to discount the Bible as a spiritual guidebook. Yet too often such conversations with fundamentalists begin in the peaks of unreason; these steps should add a layer of complexity to your dialogue. If nothing else, you’ll be encouraging a fundamentalist to think about historical processes. And it’s likely been some time since the person you’re talking with has stood at the base of the mountain of his or her religious beliefs and examined them.
I doubt either President Jefferson or Matthew Henry would have attended a screening of The Bible: Rated X. Solomon might have, when he wasn’t busy writing Penthouse Letters. To be honest, there are parts during which I would probably slip out to grab more popcorn—especially during scenes of limitless “begatting.” Yet there are other parts where a twin-towered, wild roe fawn browsing through the lilies couldn’t drag me out of my seat.
In our next article, we’ll talk about the biblical canon. If you think translating is problematic, wait until you learn just how the Bible survived to the 21st century.
Nothing is as simple as “The Bible says so.” The Bible is in fact no less human than Jesus.
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