biblical illiteracy

Where do these phantom passages come from?

It’s easy to blame the spread of phantom biblical passages on pervasive biblical illiteracy. But the causes are varied and go back centuries.

Some of the guilty parties are anonymous, lost to history. They are artists and storytellers who over the years embellished biblical stories and passages with their own twists.

If, say, you were an anonymous artist painting the Garden of Eden during the Renaissance, why not portray the serpent as the devil to give some punch to your creation? And if you’re a preacher telling a story about Jonah, doesn’t it just sound better to say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, not a “great fish”?

Others blame the spread of phantom Bible passages on King James, or more specifically the declining popularity of the King James translation of the Bible.

That translation, which marks 400 years of existence this year, had a near monopoly on the Bible market as recently as 50 years ago, says Douglas Jacobsen, a professor of church history and theology at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.

“If you quoted the Bible and got it wrong then, people were more likely to notice because there was only one text,” he says. “Today, so many different translations are used that almost no one can tell for sure if something supposedly from the Bible is being quoted accurately or not.”

Others blame the spread of phantom biblical verses on Martin Luther, the German monk who ignited the Protestant Reformation, the massive “protest” against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church that led to the formation of Protestant church denominations.

“It is a great Protestant tradition for anyone – milkmaid, cobbler, or innkeeper – to be able to pick up the Bible and read for herself. No need for a highly trained scholar or cleric to walk a lay person through the text,” says Craig Hazen, director of the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University in Southern California.

But often the milkmaid, the cobbler – and the NFL coach – start creating biblical passages without the guidance of biblical experts, he says.

“You can see this manifest today in living room Bible studies across North America where lovely Christian people, with no training whatsoever, drink decaf, eat brownies and ask each other, ‘What does this text mean to you?”’ Hazen says.

“Not only do they get the interpretation wrong, but very often end up quoting verses that really aren’t there.”

‘What does this text mean to you?’… You can hear this today in living room Bible studies across North America where lovely Christian people, ask each other, ‘What does this text mean to you?”’  You hear it in Church Studies and just about anywhere the Bible is discussed today.

But I think that is the wrong question to ask.  “What does God Mean through this text” is a better question. 

The First question “What does the text mean to you?”  has no wrong answers.  It is totally a personal answer that while it can be argued, and often is, it is ultimately the person’s own interpretation. 

Much of the Bible is absolutes.  God gave the inspired Scriptures with a meaning and a purpose.  Sometimes the Bible Scholars have to understand the context and purpose the particular scripture was written, but there are quite a lot of Scriptures that do not need personal “meanings”.

Take for instance the 10 Commandments.  They are not the 10 suggestions.  There is very little wiggle room for different interpretations. 

As a general rule, I believe there is basically one meaning but different applications.  Go Teach… your go may be different from my go, but we are both supposed to go to wherever God places us and leads us. 

Back to the phantom scriptures in the title.  Misquoting the scripture as well as the personal meaning phase we are experiencing has weakened the Church and Christian fellowships as many strange beliefs and interpretations creep in.

Leave a Reply