The Bible tells me so

CNN.com features a story about popular phrases that are wrongly attributed to the Bible. At the time I’m writing this, it has 111 pages of comments. That’s like 6,200 comments. And to think that editors sometimes wonder if religion stories have enough appeal.

The piece begins by quoting NFL coach Mike Ditka saying that Scripture tells us “all things shall pass.” He points out it’s not actually in the Bible and that neither are “God helps those who help themselves.” and “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

What I liked about the piece was that it showed the difference between errors, not treating them as all equal. For instance, the latter phrase up there is very close to an actual verse in the Bible. Here’s the section on the other verse from “That’s Not In The Bible“:

Most people have heard this one: “God helps those that help themselves.” It’s another phantom scripture that appears nowhere in the Bible, but many people think it does. It’s actually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the nation’s founding fathers.

The passage is popular in part because it is a reflection of cherished American values: individual liberty and self-reliance, says Sidnie White Crawford, a religious studies scholar at the University of Nebraska.

Yet that passage contradicts the biblical definition of goodness: defining one’s worth by what one does for others, like the poor and the outcast, Crawford says.

Crawford cites a scripture from Leviticus that tells people that when they harvest the land, they should leave some “for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 19:9-10), and another passage from Deuteronomy that declares that people should not be “tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.”

“We often infect the Bible with our own values and morals, not asking what the Bible’s values and morals really are,” Crawford says.

I’m highlighting this section in part because this mis-statement is one of my pet peeves — and particularly because it’s anti-Biblical. But I also thought the reporter just handled it well. With an economy of words, he explains the popularity and history of the saying and shows, briefly, how it contradicts actual Scriptures. It’s clear that this is no “he-said, she said” journalism here. This is a very substantive discussion of a topic that society encounters all the time.

The piece also went into some deeper analysis about why biblical ignorance is so pervasive. And again, the reporter doesn’t paint with the same broad brush. Some of the wrong verses are because of how influential a past writer was, others because of our desire to condense complicated ideas into bite-size pieces.

There are parts of the article that I find odd — we’re told that the mistaken view that the Bible says there were three wise men when the actual number is not included is dangerous. Dangerous? I mean, it’s another pet peeve of mine but I have a hard time believing it’s really dangerous.

And another section about the serpent in the Garden of Eden could have used much more context and would have provided a great opportunity to talk about Biblical criticism or include more viewpoints.

Here’s another area I thought was somewhat confusing:

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. …

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. …

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.

I have no problem with pointing out how much Luther thought that the Bible should be much more widely accessible. And I have no problem with pointing out the downsides of such a situation. But it seems to me that this gives the wrong idea that Biblical illiteracy increased with the Reformation, which is something I would counter vigorously, and it also presents only a negative without the positive.

But really these are quibbles. I don’t agree with everything in the piece, but I think it was a really fun but substantive read on a major issue affecting religious adherents and society in general.

On the other hand, many of those 6200 comments are from people who think the reporter is all wet. What do you think? And what do you think about this type of story in general?

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  • Bethany

    I’m glad you covered this story, or blog. My first thought was that I didn’t like how all the different kinds of errors seemed lumped together. To put “spare the rod, spoil the child” and “God helps those who help themselves” in the same list at the beginning bothered me a lot. In fact, I wouldn’t even call the former an error, it’s a paraphrase. Though the author later went back and explained this, the distinction was lost in the first impression.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Franklin? He almost certainly cribbed it from Aesop’s “Hercules and the Carter”.

    Hercules, it is said, appeared and thus addressed him: “Put your shoulders to the wheels, my man. Goad on your bullocks, and never more pray to me for help, until you have done your best to help yourself, or depend upon it you will henceforth pray in vain.”

    The Moral is given as “self-help is the best help”, but in popular editions it often becomes “The gods help those who help themselves.”

    For further research, everyone should read Potter’s “Is THAT in the Bible?”, and Boller and George’s THEY NEVER SAID IT. (Do we have to keep on pointing out that Shakespeare does not refer to “gilding the lily”, and Emerson said “a FOOLISH consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Nor did Holmes say “Boston is the hub of the universe.” (That was “Boston Statehouse is the hub of the solar system.”)

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I see he missed “Money is the root of all evil.”

  • Jeremiah

    I felt like the piece had a few gems and insight, but I was frustrated with much of the author’s willingness to equate minor Christian misspeak and pithy sayings with actual claims of Christian theology challenged by nebulous of the higher criticism bent, all the while hiding their particular bent with the nebulous “scholars say” introduction. Allowing such overgeneralization is quite unprofessional and lumps a good number of orthodox Christians into the same boat as Mike Ditka and the student who believed “This dog won’t hunt” was found in Proverbs. End result, I think it made this article a very problematic piece of editorializing.

  • Stringman

    I noticed that article too. On balance I thought it did a better and more nuanced job than I’ve come to expect from a general-readership article these days.

  • Jerry

    To answer your question: I find this type of story very interesting. And it’s an important story because if you know you’re ignorant, then there’s a chance you might decide to learn.

    As to the story itself, I thought it was a bit over the top in its paean to expertise, but I agree that is was relatively nuanced.

  • Spencerian

    The second block from the article is dubious. The scholar notes how Protestant tradition supported Bible reading–yet mass printings of Scripture, much less literacy levels among the working class of those eras that could read (much less find time to read), doesn’t support this. It’s an important nickpick as this is an example of where Biblical history doesn’t support what the journalists reported.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    “God helps those who help themselves” might be attributed to Benjamin Franklin but the earliest occurance of the saying I am familiar with is in Aesop’s fable, “Heracles and the Wagoneer” from the 6th century B.C.

    From the Harvard Classics edition:
    “A waggoneer was once driving a heavy load along a very muddy way. At last he came to a part of the road where the wheels sank half-way into the mire, and the more the horses pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the Waggoner threw down his whip, and knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. “O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress,” quoth he. But Hercules appeared to him, and said: “Tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel.”
    “THE GODS HELP THEM THAT HELP THEMSELVES.”

  • Julia

    Isn’t the writer setting up a lot of strawmen? I never knew that people claimed these sayings were in the Bible.

    gives the wrong idea that Biblical illiteracy increased with the Reformation, which is something I would counter vigorously,

    I think he meant that individualized interpretations resulted in a lot of erroneous paraphrasing.

    “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.

    That’s happening now in my Catholic parish. Small group bible studies with no moderator. Everybody just goes around in the circle asking about a line or phrase: “What do you think this means? What lesson should we take from this?” No attention paid to an entire book or chapter or how it might all fit together or what archaic words might mean.

  • Becca

    Will – I think you need to check your Bible again. 1 Timothy 6:10:

    “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Exactly. St. Paul does NOT say “Money is the root of all evil”, something the writer missed.

    In fact, most of the translations I turned up have “the root of many kinds of evil”.

  • northcoast

    Maybe it is just easier to think of spoiling the child than hating the son. Maybe it is easier to remember the popular wording. How many people quote what Churchill actually said about blood, toil, tears, and sweat?

    Related to Spencerian (#7), didn’t de Toqueville remark that the Bible was the book commonly found and read in American homes.

  • Leslie Wolf

    First of all, I am not sure that Ditka was wrong to say that the Bible teaches that all things will pass. If Ditka meant that the sufferings of this world will eventually pass away, then he is certainly right that the Bible teaches this. If he meant that particular failings will eventually be forgotten, then, again, he is certainly right that the Bible teaches this – just open Ecclesiastes. Now, it may be that Ditka meant to quote a particular passage from the Bible; and, if that was his intention, then he clearly misspoke. However, even if he did misspeak in this way, it wouldn’t follow that he mischaracterized the content of the Bible. It isn’t clear from the article what exactly Ditka meant, and I don’t think that we can know. It is ironic how sloppy the reporting of the article is.

    Also, I don’t know what Wesley meant by his statement that “Cleanliness is close to Godliness”, but if he meant it as a summary of Leviticus, then I’m not sure that what he said isn’t in the Bible. True, it would be an overly concise summary of Leviticus, but I think that it is nonetheless an accurate summary at least of parts of Leviticus 1-16. We need to distinguish between quotation, paraphrase, and summary. Someone can accurately paraphrase or summarize the Bible without quoting it. This isn’t very difficult – it’s highschool English.

    I apologize if that sounded snarky.

    One more thing. I myself do not believe that the snake in the Garden was the Devil, and the text does not explicitly say this. However, I think that it is overly simplistic to say that the Bible doesn’t say that the snake is the Devil. A text can say something without saying it explicitly, and many Jewish and Christian commentators throughout history have had good reasons for thinking that the snake must be the Devil, and that the Bible means to convey this information, albeit non-explicitly. Once again, a text can say something without saying it explicitly. It seems to me that many of the criticisms of this article are based on an overly simple approach to Biblical texts, which is ironic considering that the article is trying to criticize the American public for ignorance and bad reading.

  • Julia

    It seems to me that many of the criticisms of this article are based on an overly simple approach to Biblical texts, which is ironic considering that the article is trying to criticize the American public for ignorance and bad reading.

    Amen. (That’s a direct quote from the Bible)

  • Dave

    Oh, this takes me back. In the Cleveland area there used to be a Catholic priest devoted to expunging Santa Claus from Christmas, as un-Biblical. One holiday season he got not only a column in the Plain Dealer but a cartoon accompanying. It showed Santa backing out of a manger, with a camel near him, with the jolly old elf saying something like, “Oops, I don’t belong here.”

    Neither did the camel.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    The only criticism I had of the article is that it ascribed to Benjamin Franklin what had been written by Aesop.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Leslie Wolf,

    While I have no idea if the snake in the garden was actually the Devil, certainly the text uses the snake (and ‘serpents’ more generally) as a symbol for the devil. God’s words to the snake, ‘He shall crush thy head, and thou shalt bruise thy heel’, are generally considered to refer to Christ’s victory over the devil, and St. John refers to ‘that ancient serpent, called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world’. It’s a reasonable inference that people have drawn that the serpent might have been the devil, though not one I subscribe to.

  • Maureen

    In Middle English and early Modern English, “clennesse” meant
    “Moral purity, sinlessness, innocence; uprightness, integrity; chastity, continence; celibacy, virginity; also, self-restraint in marital relations; modesty, propriety.”

    For example, in the famous song “Edi beo thu, Hevene Quene”, the rhyming line is “Moder unwemmed and maiden clene.”

    So yeah, if you stay on the straight and narrow and live a good life in general, surely that’s next to godliness.

  • Maureen

    Oh, yeah, and “godlinesse” meant “Goodness, virtue, excellence; also, graciousness, kindliness; also, beauty.” Goodliness, basically. There’s an additional positive virtue implied, as opposed to the virtue of restraint expressed in “clennesse”.

  • Maureen

    Oh, and Mike Ditka was in the ballpark. Augustine seems to quote the Vetus Latina version of Job 14:2 as “omnia transeunt tamquam umbra” instead of the (slightly later) Vulgate’s “et fugit velut umbra”. If you assume (as would be natural) that the Vetus Latina quote started with “et”, you could easily translate it as “all these things pass also”, leaving out the shadow part.

    “Omnia transeunt” was also part of a Seneca quote which is often quoted in connection with Ecclesiastes: “Omnia transeunt ut revertatur. Nihil novi video, nihil novi facio.” This may be why Augustine liked his Vetus Latina version of the aforesaid passage so much.

  • Maureen

    Anyway, “al shal passe” and “haec omnia transeunt” are pretty common medieval sentiments, and backing from the Bible and Seneca both is probably part of such popularity. When you go back and find similar sentiments in the Deor poem’s famous refrain, it’s bound to be ingrained into our culture.

  • Maureen

    If you read medieval scholarship, you find that they quote the Bible verse about “piscem grandem”, and then refer to said fish as a “cetus” (which meant both a whale and a gigantic sea monster; the constellation Cetus represents the monster come to eat Andromeda). As they themselves note, “cetus” is used because the Septuagint called the fish “ketos”, which is the Greek where they got that very same name for a whale/monster.

    And Jesus, as quoted in Matthew, also talks about Jonah being in the belly of the “ketos”. Obviously any Christian would take the Gospels as definitive about what sort of fish it was!

    Man, the ignorance. The lack of fact-checking. What bad journalism as well as bad academics. Like a perfect storm.


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