Discourse 34 – The inspiration of the Bible and the literal interpretation.

The inspiration of the Bible and the literal interpretation / Commentary, N. Tischelmayer 00, 2001-07-03

The translations.

The authority of the Bible.

The literal interpretation.

The inspiration of the Bible.

(Texts in a black frame are quotations from visitors to this site or from other authors.)

(The inspiration of the Bible and the literal interpretation / NT00, 2001-07-03)

I am not completely convinced of the absolute and literal "truth" of the Bible. And this is because of the translations. It is a fascinating book, but by now not even the church will dispute the fact that at least three sources ("authors" or "narrators") were active at different times in producing it. For instance the story of Genesis occurs twice, it doesn’t quite fit together. This has of course nothing to do with the existence of God, or in other words God’s existence does not depend on one’s taking the Bible as LITERALLY true. It is after all just a translation - along with all the weaknesses that this implies.

We really ought to:

1. read the Bible in the original (in Hebrew - or rather in that dialect of Hebrew that was spoken at the time);

2. and also to know precisely what the various expressions used were meant to convey AT THAT TIME. To take just one example, the translation about "a camel going through the eye of a needle" is probably incorrect. Of course a beast like this isn’t going to fit through a sewing implement. This is just incongruous, and it isn’t necessary in any case to exaggerate like this in order to describe a difficult task. Analogously speaking, in such an illustration there should at least be the theoretical possibility - even if it should be exceedingly difficult - of the task’s being achieved. But with a camel this would be a flat impossibility.

Here I find "rope" (as Lapide translated it) more convincing. It is after all hard enough to force a thick rope through the eye of a needle. And we can find the same situation probably with many other scriptural passages. I am aware that for millennia the Pentateuch (and only the Pentateuch) has been jealously guarded out of concern that it should be "properly handed down", and even the words are counted in any new transmission of the text. But this, after all, works only in Hebrew, and is not an obstacle (unfortunately) to "wrong" translations or interpretations in other languages. (...)

Many of these illustrations or texts are simply parables, and we just do not know the sense in which they were meant at the time.

Now of course a person is at liberty to say (and I find that in the discussions where I take part this is always brought forward as an argument) that the translators are guided by the Holy Spirit - a nice put-you-down for anyone who has critical reservations. But I have considerable problems with this position!

(Norbert Tischelmayer norbert.tischelmayer@it-austria.com / https://www.wein-plus.de/glossar/ )

The translations.

The "camel", in the simile of the rich man who cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19,23-24), is translated by Pinchas Lapide in his book "Ist die Bibel richtig übersetzt?" ["Has the Bible been correctly translated?"] as "ship’s cable". He writes in volume 2, on p. 54:

"Our traditional text of the Gospel however includes a distorting mistranslation. In Aramaic, Jesus refers to a well-known saying: ‘Sooner will a ship’s cable go through the eye of a needle than a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Because of an incorrect letter in the original text, the cable (gamta) in this simile has been turned into a camel (gamal) - seriously distorting Jesus’ imaginative illustration."

When we analyze this statement, several questions suggest themselves:

1. On what basis can Lapide claim to know that this turn of phrase was a "well-known saying" at the time of Jesus? No such saying has been passed down to us, either in the Bible itself or in the records of known historiographers.

2. If this was really a well-known saying, then surely the Evangelists - in this case Matthew - would, as contemporary witnesses, have had to be aware of it. So why should they have rendered this turn of phrase inaccurately? The Christian congregation in Jerusalem would have been the first to point out that it should have been "gamta" - cable - in this passage.

3. Lapide claims that this is a case of mistranslation. This is incorrect. As he himself confirms, the term found in the original text is "gamal" - camel - so here "cable" would rather be - and is - a case of mistranslation.

4. We can conclude that we are confronted not with a translation error but - as so often with Lapide - with the attempt to demonstrate that the writers of the New Testament were not so particular about the truth. We do not desire in any way to detract from his valuable work in explaining other problems of translation - especially in connection with the Old Testament. As he was Jewish, however, his attitude to the New Testament is subtly different.

Finally, a completely similar use of this connection can be found in other Jewish and Islamic writings. Concerning sinners the Koran says: "There will be no opening of the gates of heaven, nor will they walk in the garden of God until a camel can go through a needle." In the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, the "eye of the needle aphorism" concerns "unthinkable thoughts" that can also appear in dreams. The Talmud says about the meaning of dreams: "One does not see (in dreams) a palm tree of gold or an elephant passing through the eye of a needle."

Incidentally, there is a perfectly plausible explanation of the eye of a needle in this illustration. In the mountainous regions of Israel - at the northwest end of the Dead Sea in the Qumran district, for example - there are, on the caravan routes going in the direction of Jordan and Syria, narrow passages between the cliffs which would shorten the distance considerably but which allow passage at best only to a person on foot - being much too tight for a camel or a caravan. These passages were apparently known as "needle’s eyes", so it has been suggested that this is where the illustration comes from.

Whatever our view of this, one thing is certain: the reader of the Bible who is seriously concerned about results wants his activity of reading to provide him with substantial information. And the information in this saying of Jesus Christ is most certainly not to be found in the reference to the "camel", but rather in the preceding verse, as shown below:

It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Mt 19,23 And Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 19,24 "Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Mt 19,23-24;

As a matter of plain fact, then, what this means is that a rich man has as much chance of entering the kingdom of heaven as a camel would have of passing through such a "needle’s eye". Just as the camel is too big and too broad to go through the "eye of a needle", so the rich man is too influential and powerful and has too little humility to enter the kingdom of God through the narrow gate.

The impossibility of a rich man’s entering the kingdom of heaven is thus not the direct result of his wealth, but of the mentality, the spiritual attitude, which it induces in him. For most people wealth is deleterious to character: they become puffed up, covetous, inconsiderate and ruthless.

The best chance for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven is that which the Lord pointed out to the rich young man in Mt 19,21: "Go and sell your possessions and give to the poor." This is the failsafe method.

But as the reason for this inability to enter the kingdom of heaven does not lie in wealth directly, but rather in the attitude which it brings out in a person, there is a second - admittedly rather theoretical - option here. I say theoretical, because only few people are capable of resisting the temptation that money presents.

Paul tells us in 1Cor 7,29-31:

Those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it.

1Cor 7,29 But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; 7,30 and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; 7,31 and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away. 1Cor 7,29-31;

Those who buy should be as though they did not possess, and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it. With reference to riches, this could mean that the wealthy should regard their wealth just as a "loan", which they may have to return at any time. On the basis of this attitude - put into practice every day afresh - it is conceivable that a rich man may be able to withstand the temptation money offers for the exercise and accumulation of power.

The Lord also indicates, at the end of this illustration of the camel and the eye of the needle, that there are exceptions to this rule

With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

Mt 19,25 When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?" 19,26 And looking at them Jesus said to them, "With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible". Mt 19,25-26;

We can see then that this illustration of the Lord’s involves a fundamentally Christian truth of faith, which may even be decisive for the issue of our salvation.

So if a person is really seriously interested in finding out what the Bible says, and if he is prepared to take the trouble (which is by no means inconsiderable) of reading this book with attention - for himself! - he will concentrate on the essential and not get caught up in such peripheral questions as this choice between the camel and the cable.

Pinchas Lapide, on the other hand, did not want to understand the content of the New Testament. His motivation was quite different. He suffered - as have many Orthodox Jews over the last two thousand years - from the "Jesus syndrome". In their hearts they recognize that their supreme religious leaders of the time condemned Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, to death; but they suppress the knowledge. And what is still more, they are eager to find arguments to prove that Jesus Christ actually cannot have been the Son of God or the Messiah of the People of Israel.

But this is not so surprising, when we consider that the Mosaic Jews, according to Scripture, are derived from a different stock and have a different future from the Christians. As Paul said in his time, they are the sons of Hagar the bondwoman, while the Christians (coming from Israel and from the whole world!) are the sons of Sarah the free woman. .

The son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.

Gal 4,22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 4,23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.

4,24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 4,25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

4,26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 4,27 For it is written, "Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; for more numerous are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband."

4,28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 4,29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 4,30 But what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman." (Gen 21:10)

4,31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman. Gal 4,22-31;

All attacks of Jewish theologians and religious theorists on the New Testament can be reduced to this background in terms of salvific history.

Unfortunately, these arguments emanating from the Mosaic religion are often taken up by people who do not want to have anything to do with Judaism and have not even ever read the Bible, but just want a way of justifying their unbelief.

Incidentally, Mt 19,24 is not the only passage where the Lord uses a camel as an illustration. In the course of his confrontation with the scribes, Jesus makes the following statement:

You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

Mt 23,23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.

23,24 "You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! 23,25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 23,26 "You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.

23,27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Mt 23,23-27;

As we can see, here too there is no realistic or even theoretical possibility of swallowing a camel. Presumably Lapide missed this passage - whether consciously or unconsciously. And yet the meaning of these words could have had a particular import for him!

The authority of the Bible.

The authority and authenticity of the Bible are continually being called in question. So we find three authors postulated for the Book of Isaiah, then part of the Book of Daniel is ascribed to an author who lived centuries later than the prophet - and so on. What is repeatedly overlooked here is the fact that the Bible - especially with reference to the prophetic books - is not a product of the individual authors, but is the Word of God to these prophets, which they have then proceeded to write down. It is therefore a matter of complete indifference whether a certain book was written by one prophet or another - it still comes from God..

Another argument frequently brought forward involves denying the divine origin of these prophetic writings altogether. People assume - and this is just as much the case in theological circles - that the authors were thinking up these stories in order to, shall we say, get politically active and find a way of building up their power base against those who were then in a position of authority in Israel. Although this may well remind us of the old proverb "The rogue thinks according to his nature", any discussion with such people is bereft of any kind of foundation, because they patently deny the divine origin of the prophetic books. So you might just as well talk of color to a blind man.

To present more clearly what is at issue here, let us take an example.

In the life of every human being there is probably another human being whom he has specially valued or even loved - a friend, a girlfriend, someone in his family or simply an idol or role model, from Elvis Presley to Albert Einstein and from Madonna to Rosa Luxemburg.

Let us now suppose that this person has long been dead, and the only memento that we have of him is a letter that he or she once wrote to us. Every so often, when we happen to talk about this person, we get out the letter and read it - perhaps together with others who knew him (or her) as well - and remember the many beautiful times that we had together..

Over the years, the image of this person in our memory becomes increasingly faint, so that in the end we only have the letter left as the last means of connecting with him in thought.

And now somebody or other intervenes and claims that this letter was not written by our friend at all, and that our supposed recollections are just a fantasy trip. When we look into the matter more closely, we find, astonishingly, that these people did not know our friend at all in person - and they haven’t even read his letter. All the same they stick to their argument.

Quite irrespective of the motivation of such persons - whether they just want to attract attention to themselves, or hope to pull the wool over our eyes or whether they just cannot accept the fact that they have never had this experience themselves - for us there are just two possible ways of reacting. Either we trust - against all reason - in the assertions of these people, in which case we will jettison the letter, and all our memories with it; or we will trust in our recollections, and in the love or esteem that still links us with our departed friend.

This is, roughly speaking, the situation in which Christians who believe in the Bible find themselves, when they are admonished by a great many self-appointed specialists (including theologians, what is more) to the effect that they are taking Scripture too seriously and understanding its content in a naively literal sense.

It is beyond question true that even the Bible includes errors, and that we have translation problems in certain passages. What is a far greater problem, though, is the fact that all too many people who have never seriously engaged with the Bible, and so have never yet been in a position - even if they had wanted to - to formulate a well-founded opinion with reference to its contents, now feel inspired to deliver an "expert report" on the question whether Scripture conforms to this, that or the other arbitrary requirement.

The literal interpretation.

As for the criticism of the literal interpretation of Scripture, there are two aspects to be taken into account. This "concrete" interpretation of Scripture takes those statements literally which can be categorized as real on the basis of universal human experience. When, for instance, we are told of 144,000 Israelites in Rev 7,4-8, consisting of 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel, these being listed by name, then the concrete line of interpretation takes this to mean just what it says: 144,000 Israelites, and not - as some think - millions of people coming from all nations, the congregation of all time.

But when, on the other hand, we are told (in Rev 12,3) of a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and with seven diadems on his heads, this lies outside our experience of the real world, so we must understand it as a symbolic statement.

And here a further serious problem in biblical exposition is revealed. Some commentators explain thoroughly realistic statements - like that relating to the 144,000 Israelites - as being simply symbolic. This is either because they want to find a way of hijacking these texts in support of their preconceived opinions and to deprive them of the force of counterproof, or in other cases because they have no profound acquaintance with Scripture and so just do not understand what is being said. They therefore "symbolize" these scriptural passages, after which of course they can read into them whatever they please, without fear of refutation. It is rather analogous to the paintings of the abstract school. If the artist announces that a mass of colored spots in his pictures represents a sunset - who would venture to contradict him?

As the commentator quoted at the start of this Discourse puts it - quite correctly - it has

"nothing to do with the existence of God, or in other words God’s existence does not depend on one’s taking the Bible as LITERALLY true.""

It is not the existence of God that is being put to the test, but our faith. And not faith in the Bible, but rather our belief that it is possible for this God actually to bring to the awareness of those who believe in him those things that he wishes to communicate. The matter at issue, then, is what kind of God we believe in. Is it a God who has to labor under human errors and weaknesses, one who is incapable of communicating his message - or is it a God who is really almighty, one who - with his omnipresent Spirit - can reach every single human being at any time and wherever they may be?

The inspiration of the Bible.

This brings us now to the question of the Holy Spirit. In the commentary quoted above we find the following:

"Now of course a person is at liberty to say (and I find that in the discussions where I take part this is always brought forward as an argument) that the translators are guided by the Holy Spirit - a nice put-you-down for anyone who has critical reservations. But I have considerable problems with this position!"

Well yes, I too would have considerable problems with this position - if it is advanced as a kind of killer argument.

The view that the writers or translators of the Bible were so to speak involuntary tools of the Spirit of God must be strictly rejected. God works in his creation - and human beings are a part of creation - and he also, always, works with his creation. If we consider the feeding of the five thousand for instance, in Mt 14,14-21, Jesus could have quite simply caused the hunger of the people to disappear, and the problem would have been solved. Instead, he took the five loaves and two fish that were available, gave thanks, and broke the bread and divided the fish and the bread until all five thousand people had eaten their fill. Here every one of these five thousand was at liberty to accept the nourishment provided or to refuse it. God does not deal with human beings against their will. And it was just the same with the biblical authors.

(See also Discourse 24: "The divinity of Jesus Christ and the power of faith.")

While it is true that a human being cannot bring forth prophecy by his own will, as we are told in 2Pet 1,21, there is nonetheless a decision of the will required if a person is to open himself to the Spirit of God. But that is not all. As stated in Acts 5,32, God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him. And that again is an assurance that nothing will be done against the will of God.

But this does not mean, on the other hand, that a person suddenly becomes "incapable of error" as a result of the presence of the Holy Spirit. On the contrary - he remains just the same person that he was before, with all his faults and weaknesses, as the Bible repeatedly tells us. Let us think of Moses, for instance, who was "slow of tongue", that is to say, he probably stammered. And God chose him to be the leader of his people, though Moses brought forward a whole bunch of arguments (Ex 4) to show why he was unqualified for this role. Or consider Jeremiah, who in view of his youth was so terrified of the responsibility of spreading God’s message that he was willing to give up altogether. Or let us think of Jonah, who landed up in the belly of the whale just because he was unwilling to go to Nineveh to preach to its inhabitants about God’s anger at their wickedness. From this we can conclude that the original biblical texts - and of course also the translations - may well contain the odd human error.

(See also Discourse 40: "Are there errors in the Bible?")

It is a bit like when someone goes to the theatre, and on the following day tells his friends what the play was about. Even if with different people different words may be used, and the account may be more or less comprehensive, nonetheless in most cases it will be possible to put across the core of the matter, namely the plot of the play.

And this "plot" - the plot of God’s dealings with humanity - is likewise the thing that the Bible is designed to communicate to the reader. But this makes the reader just as important a factor for the understanding of the Bible as the authors of the various biblical books.

The reader too requires the Holy Spirit, in a special sense, in order to be able to understand the logical links and the background to what is stated. Here some will comment - like the disciples in the passage quoted earlier (Mt 19,25), "Then who can be saved?" How can a person come to have faith, if on the one hand he needs to have the Holy Spirit in order to understand the Word of God, but on the other hand he is still an unbeliever, one who cannot count on the Holy Spirit’s assistance?

Here the Lord’s other statement on the gift of the Holy Spirit (Lk 11.13) applies:

Your heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.

Lk 11,13 "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?" Lk 11,13;

So if a person is really interested in the Bible, and if it is truly the desire of his heart to come to final clarity about the content and message of this book, then he can count on the fact that the Spirit of God will come to his help.

A good example of this may be seen in the story of the "Ethiopian chamberlain" in Acts 8,26-40. Here the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia was returning to his homeland after performing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. While traveling he was reading the book of the prophet Isaiah, but as was to be expected, he did not comprehend the significance of what he read. And here the Holy Spirit went into action, by sending Philip, one of the Lord’s disciples, to explain the meaning of the Scriptures to the Ethiopian.

Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot."

Acts 8,26 But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, "Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a desert road.) 8,27 So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship, 8,28 and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah.

8,29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." 8,30 Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 8,31 And he said, "Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 8,32 Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this: "He was led as a sheep to slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He does not open His mouth. 8,33 "In humiliation His judgment was taken away. who will relate his generation? For His live is removed from the earth."

8,34 The eunuch answered Philip and said, "Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?" 8,35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. Acts 8,26-35;

As this shows, there is only one thing necessary if we are to understand the background and the logical links of the Bible, and if this book is to become, as a result, more gripping in our eyes than any other book. And that is, the sincere desire to understand the Word of God.

((See also Discourse 30: "Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?")

And it is therefore hardly surprising if people who dip into the Bible on a Sunday, or hear it read in church, should deliver themselves of the opinion that the Bible is insipid, impenetrable and archaic, and by the way it contains loads of mistakes. And then they conclude their account by saying, "Of course, it has been scientifically proved that …" People like this do not have any real interest in the Word of God: they do not want to understand it, and so they do not understand it either.