Jesus Wept, Einstein’s Regret & How a Frenchman Fueled the Hermeneutics Wars

With 20 centuries under its biblical belt, Christian history offers its fair share of landmark bloopers.

Major flubs that immediately spring to mind are the Great Schism, the Avignon Papacy, and that dreadful day in 2013 when Liberty University invited Kirk Cameron and Justin Bieber’s mom to speak at convocation.

If I could hop in a DeLorean and correct any single moment in the Holy Church space-time continuum, it would probably be the year 1551, in Geneva, when Robert Estienne, “royal typographer” and “printer in Greek to the [French] King,” translated the Latin Vulgate and added a formatting innovation to the New Testament: Verse Notations.

Estienne was not the first individual to segment holy writ for navigable reading purposes. A monk named Pagnini did this to the New Testament a few decades prior to Estienne, but back then apparently no one cared for the opinion of Italian Dominicans.

Centuries before Estienne, the Pentateuch had been sectioned for the purposes of cantillation and public recitation. And down through time, the sacred texts of other world religions have been separated into respective chapters and verses, suras and ayat. Similar projects have even been undertaken for major works of literature, including the addition of line markers in the plays of William Shakespeare (for which many an actor is grateful).

In the end, it was Estienne’s verse notation casserole that stuck to the scriptorium wall. Remember that the next time you share a smile over “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) being the shortest verse in the Bible—yet have to be reminded that this important Gospel moment is from the story of Lazarus, not the prayer vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Now, you might be wondering how anyone could possibly equate the creation of Bible verses with the decadence of Pope Clement VI and the “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy”?

Well, it’s a matter of interpretation—literally.

Christians all across the theo-political spectrum have a remarkable knack for treating individual Bible verses as if they were submarine torpedoes, perfectly designed to be loaded into contextual vacuum tubes and launched at enemy human beings and socioeconomic causes. And in our 21st-century meme culture, where keyboard strokes are as precious as platinum, things only stand to get worse unless philosophically-minded theologians and Christian leaders intervene.

Just the other day, I found myself the target of an intercontinental ballistic Bible verse. A responder to my Forward Progressives article, “An Open Letter to Ken Ham, Creationist (Not So) Extraordinaire”  felt compelled to inform me that he possessed the mystically Divine power to “judge the condition of [my] heart.”

As proof of his preternatural powers, my critic cited Matthew 12:34: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Dude even got all NKJV in my face.)

Let’s take a minute to examine the context of Christ’s words in Matthew 12. Jesus is being dogged by the Pharisees, who are eager to find any possible grounds not just to arrest him, but to murder him. Jesus and his followers pluck some grains in a field on the Sabbath for a snack; Christ stops to heal a crippled man’s hand. Bam!  Trumped up capital offenses!

Jesus gives the priestly class the slip and heals more folks on the sly. Yet when he grants relief to a demon-possessed man, the Pharisees jump from the bushes a la Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition and accuse the once and former carpenter of driving out Satan in Satan’s name. At this point, the Messiah loses it. He says (paraphrasing), “Knock it off, you idiots, how can a person doing good things be bad? I know for a fact that you guys are plotting my death, when all I’m doing is helping to restore sanity and physical wellbeing around here!”

Then Jesus says (direct quotation): “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (NIV)

Consider again the context of Christ’s words. He has been hounded day in and out by religious leaders who are obsessed with legalism and who have long forgotten the Prime Divine Directive to love one’s neighbor as oneself. So Jesus finally goes Lewis Black apoplectic and delivers scathing remarks to his would-be murderers.

Now, there probably is some general principle that one can extract from Christ’s words—something along the lines of “morally, you are what you eat.”

But such a truth existed before Jesus chastised the Pharisees. And this truth would have remained true whether or not the Gospel of Matthew survived to its fourth-century canonization.

So one has to wonder why my critic didn’t just say, “Hey, man, I don’t understand why you seem so angry. It seems antithetical to the broader message of Christ’s call to love.”

But Robert Estienne’s 16th-century lexical micro-tagging of Scripture makes it irresistibly tempting to turn Jesus’ sentence into a scriptural incantation that, with a wave of a paratext notation, can be directed at another human being whom one just knows needs some good old-fashioned fire & brimstone condemnation.

And…

BOOM!

A Matthew 12:34 torpedo explodes on my computer screen.

Context be damned:  I am Jesus’ brood of vipers. I am a murderous Pharisee.

And here’s the irony: my heart is apparently wicked because I am righteously indignant that Ken Ham is applying execrable exegesis to Genesis and is misleading tens of millions of individuals down a dark path of preposterous cosmology and other godawful trappings of fundamentalism.

Welcome to the Hermeneutics Wars.

At this point, if you find yourself rolling your eyes because the world seems intolerably overrun by fundamentalists, you may go about your way. Then again, you may wish to stick around—as I would argue just as strongly that launching “progressive” Christian ICBM Bible verses at conservative Christians is equally poor hermeneutics.

Human beings learn methods of interpretation from experience, from other human beings, and apply a chosen (or select) hermeneutical methodology to the Bible (as well as to other texts), then in turn use biblical text in a manner, generally, that resembles that methodology.

Far too many Christians have learned to read and use the Bible in a “forest for the trees” manner. Approaching the Bible through the lens of subjective chapter and verse notations, I would argue, leads the reader on a path away from contextual understanding. And, often, to sacrilege.

Case in point, the most abused of all New Testament verses, II Timothy 3:16:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” (NIV)

The reader cannot understand II Timothy 3:16 outside the context of II Timothy as a whole, outside the full corpus of the Pauline epistles, outside the context of the life and times of the Early Church, let alone outside the tremendously complex breadth of biblical history.

But millions of Christians have lifted this fragmented sentence out of context and used it as a bizarre, self-referential proof that the Pauline epistles and the rest of the New Testament is “God-breathed” Scripture.

I don’t know how else to put this:  the Apostle Paul is not referring to his own letter to Timothy when he uses the term “πᾶσα γραφὴ”—which, by the way, probably is better understood as “every passage of Scripture” rather than “all Scripture.”  Paul is referring to Jewish holy writ at the time—the holy writ that Timothy grew up reading and hearing.

In short:  A housecat is not a housecat because a housecat calls itself a housecat—especially when that housecat never even called itself a housecat but was referring to a lion.

Even shorter:  authentic Christian spirituality abhors a holy writ vacuum.

That’s fine and all.  But if I’m going to hop into a Gadamerean Horizontverschmelzung bulldozer and raze biblical hermeneutical models left and right, I should probably present what I consider an appropriate model of biblical interpretation.

Here’s my model applied to Einstein’s greatest regret—which isn’t even a biblical quotation, but is a statement of significant moral value and worthy, in my mind, of the same interpretive model I apply to the Bible.

Albert Einstein once famously said:

“Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger.”

This quotation has been around the block; a Google search of the keywords “EINSTEIN ATOMIC BOMB LIFTED FINGER” nets more than 1.2 million results.  The quote appears to be used most frequently as a pillar of pacifism and as a generic bulwark warning against scientific stoking of Promethean flames.

While the quote has taken on a political life all its own, somewhat separate from the brilliant physicist who once uttered it, oddly, its relevance as a convincing quotation, as a potent rhetorical device, still depends on Einstein’s cultic personality.

In other words, it’s far more important that Einstein said these words than Kirk Cameron or Justin Bieber’s mom.  But the simple truth is, most people don’t care about the context in which Einstein said these words—just that he said them.

Sound familiar, Bible readers?

Yet what does the context of Einstein’s words reveal?

Even with the basic context that the average reader brings to the table, Einstein’s quotation appears relevant: a superior human mind is expressing a great regret (we assume) about a technological discovery he made that ultimately led to the murder of thousands of human beings.

Yet reread Einstein’s quote very carefully. Germany didn’t use atomic bombs. The United States did.

Wait. Einstein was a German-born European. How did he “lift his finger” with respect to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein happened to be traveling in the United States. He taught briefly in California, then returned to Europe but never made it beyond Belgium—thank goodness. In Antwerp, he renounced his German citizenship in response to growing Nazism, then bounced over to England, and finally landed in New Jersey at Princeton University, where he remained for good, ultimately becoming a U.S. citizen.

On August 2, 1939, with the help and at the convincing of Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd, Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. Einstein had become fearful that Germany was racing to develop a uranium-based armament that, if “carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”

In other words: Mr. President, you better build such a bomb before the Nazis. The fate of humankind may depend on it.

A few months later, on October 19, 1939, President Roosevelt replied in essenceNever fear, Dr. Einstein, we’re on the case!

Enter Fat Man and Little Boy. Almost six years later, on August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States of America killed nearly 250,000 Japanese citizens with atomic bombs.

Two years later, in the March 10, 1947, issue of Newsweek, in an article entitled “ATOMS: Einstein, the Man Who Started It All,” Einstein said: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger.”

Aha! Our quote at last!

Yet in the very next paragraph, the article’s author reveals that “[t]he progress of science, [Einstein] conceded, would have released atomic energy sooner or later…”

And, truth be told, it was the Hungarian physicist Szilárd who originally explained to Einstein how his theoretical discoveries could lead to the creation of atomic weaponry. Einstein admitted to Szilárd: “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht” (I had not thought of that at all).

And, finally, Einstein had nothing to do with the development of the atomic bomb; he was actually banned from working on the Manhattan Project due to his pacifist leanings.

So how did Einstein “lift his finger”? By signing his name to a letter addressed to President Roosevelt—which, of course, is not at all what the reader assumes when reading Einstein’s quotation out of context.

The Newsweek article concludes with nearly a page of Einstein’s activities as head of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists and his mission “to enlighten public opinion on the real situation about the bomb. Only the prevention of war by action on an international scale, which will make preparation for war unnecessary and even impossible, can save us from its consequences.”

Einstein didn’t feel bad about his theoretical discoveries. He felt bad about writing a letter. And he did everything in his power to redirect the world away from the horrors of atomic warfare once he realized how his theoretical discoveries had been applied—not by Nazis, but by his newly-adopted country.

So, our original quotation is not just a quote. It is part of a complex narrative.

And using the quote of out context is ignorant propaganda.

All told, my little Einstein quotation project took me several hours of Internet research, including a trip to my local academic research library. That Newsweek article was not easy to track down.

It wasn’t easy, but now I feel I have earned the right to use the quotation in a responsible and respectful manner. And knowing the history surrounding the quotation greatly empowers my use of it.

And that is the kind of rigorous respect that the Bible deserves from we who call ourselves Christians.

I recognize that not every person is a scholar or a research librarian. But there are thousands of credible hermeneutical tools available for readers of all educational backgrounds. What you can’t find on your own, you can likely find by reaching out to responsible, balanced experts, be they laypeople or professionals.

By the way, this is exactly what you’d do if you had a question about something you didn’t understand about your HVAC system, plumbing or your car. Why should the Bible be any different?

I am convinced that habitually placing decontextualized Bible verses onto PowerPoint trebuchets and launching them onto social media sites, or anything resembling such, is spiritual irresponsibility.

If you truly feel compelled to point biblical text at your fellow human being, take the time to frame it contextually and present it respectfully.

The Bible is not an ammunition magazine.

Be humble before it.

Arik Bjorn is a writer who lives in Columbia, South Carolina. His educational background includes archaeology, ancient languages, and biblical studies. He has run the gamut of Christian experience, from Evangelical to Orthodox catechumen to live-in Episcopalian sexton to Roman Catholic. Follow Arik on Twitter @arikbjorn and on Facebook. And check out his website, Viking Word.

  • Alan Christensen

    I have some of the same thoughts whenever I hear a verse quoted verbatim as in “For God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16, probably the most quoted Bible verse of all time) as if the verse divisions are immutable. That word “For” at the beginning dictates that we look at the content of the previous verses! In that particular instance it’s more of a pet peeve, but you’re definitely right that too often people wrench single verses out of Scripture with no regard for the textual or historical context. Look at the snake handlers for an extreme example.

    • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

      Exactly! John 3:16 isn’t even a complete sentence.

  • hermanprovi

    Wow! Thanks, I think!

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    I heartily agree with you about versification of the Bible. I do not use verse references to biblical passages on my blog. I only use chapter references so readers can find the passages easily and read them in context.

    • Arik Bjorn

      You know, I was actually going to suggest that practice in the article. I am so encouraged to hear it from someone else first! I think that’s a very well-balanced approach. Peace!

  • Raymond Watchman

    Excellent comments Arik, thanks. I think the problem of ‘cherry-picking’ decontextualised passages of scripture has its genesis in the manifestly false notion that the Bible is the ‘inerrant, literal word of God’. In other words, because ‘the Bible says so’ the pilfered verse must be right, irrespective of the context from which it was lifted. This is of course, nothing more than a particularly pernicious form of idolatry – an idolatry which has generated massive division within the church and has brought and continues to bring Christianity into contempt and ridicule.

    • Alan Christensen

      I don’t even like to call it “the Bible” anymore for just that reason–it suggests the notion that “the Bible” is a single, inerrant book that speaks with one voice, i.e., God’s. I’ve come to understand there are many voices speaking through the Scriptures–including God’s voice!!!–and that sometimes the human voices in a passage are the most interesting ones.

      • Raymond Watchman

        Yes Alan, I agree. the Bible is a library of books spanning many centuries. I think regarding the Bible as the inerrant ‘Word of God’ actually dehumanizes it, thus missing the point of many of the stories it tells..


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