Biblically Illiterate Bible Quoting

Biblically Illiterate Bible Quoting January 25, 2021

Nothing gets my dander up like biblically illiterate bible quotations. Social media makes this worse. Southerners fall into this trap quite easily. Biblically illiterate Bible quoting was once the justification for supporting slavery, the death penalty, and opposing scientific education. But there is a problem for everyone who claim to hold the Bible as authoritative and never read it.

The Bible Says

There is no higher appeal to authority for some folks than to appeal to the Bible. “The Bible says” begins some of the strangest conversations in which I have taken part. These conversations range from whether women may serve in pulpits to the nature of angels. Often the conversations lean to the speculative. The majority center on matters of race, homosexuality, marriage, and abortion.

The problem with claiming “the Bible says” is that it is a biblically illiterate claim. The belief that the Bible speaks with one voice on every issue is just wrong. There is no way around this fact. The letter of Paul to the Romans contains important assertions. But not every biblical text supports these assertions. The claim from Hosea, “I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel…”(1:4a) is directly contradicted by the command “You shall strike down the house of your master Ahab. so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets…the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and no one shall bury her” given to Jehu. (2 Kings 9:7-10b) Can it be just to command an action and condemn it? The two prophets are both considered faithful (because they are canonical) even though they contradict.

Biblically Justifying the Unjustifiable

There is no worse abuse of scripture than deliberately quoting to justify prejudice. I recall right-wing parishioners who quoted Psalm 109:8 against Barack Obama. I pointed out to those who did that the next verse which reads “May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow.” I asked, “Do you hate this man so much?” One person publicly recanted this action. When another left wing Christian friend used this same passage about Donald Trump, I replied the same way. Unfortunately, she doubled-down on the claim. Recently, the same approach has been used to attack Kamala Harris.

Biblically illiterate quoting assumes a literalism that is morally untenable. People cannot help quoting in  such a way that makes the words the opposite of their meaning. The famous story of Mary anointing Jesus in John. Jesus’ response to Judas is quoted to justify ignoring poverty. “You always have the poor with you” is followed by the statement “but you do not always have me.” (12:8)

I wonder sometimes if we continue to have poverty because of this misquote. Was Jesus justifying ignoring poverty? Or was he taking Judas to task for his statement? The writer shows this latter idea is accurate. “(He said this not because not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it)” (12:6) The parallel statement in Mark includes the phrase, “and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”

Hostile Quoting

Judas is not merely unconcerned about the poor. Judas robbing the purse was a way of robbing the poor. When the Bible is quoted by people who are hostile to the good of others, it sends a false message. A White House spokesperson a few years ago claimed it was “biblical” to obey the evil laws used to separate refugee children from their parents.

Both sides in political debates are guilty of biblically illiterate quoting for the purpose of propaganda, But the right wing misuse is more pernicious. Appealing to conservative evangelicals by misquoting the Bible works because it manipulates evangelical language. Claiming a “biblical worldview,” politicos misuse “biblical authority” to justify the unjustifiable. Hostile quoting must be called out for what it is.

The evil produced by claims of divine blessing has always exceeded the good that is produced. Often, it does the opposite of what it claims. The road to Hell cannot be paved with good intentions if the intentions are never good. Until the churches begin critically reading the Bible, this evil will prevail.

Browse Our Archives