Anachronism Blocks Understanding Scripture

Anachronism Blocks Understanding Scripture October 5, 2019
Anachronism on Bike
Image by Albert Dezetter from Pixabay

Anachronism is a widespread plague preventing millions of Western Christians from understanding the Bible or Jesus.

Anachronism and Bible reading make a wretched couple whose child is ignorance. In his Commentary on Isaiah, Saint Jerome writes: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Let’s be honest: Do the majority of Catholics care enough about the Bible to be informed as to what it is? Do they read it carefully? Do they understand what they are reading?

In pondering these questions, we reach the depressing reality of the vast majority of Catholic Scripture studies offered in homes, parishes, Catholic centers, and social media. They are either…

  • Well-meaning prayer circles where the literal sense of the text is disregarded for a sentimental exchange of “What did this text mean to YOU?”
  • Or a triumphalistic, intellectual “basic training” for Bible wars via a Catholic-fundamentalist “connect-the-dots” session. Here leaders/lecturers dictate to YOU how the passage “proves” our Catholic religious claims and devotions as being the “best,” “first,” “pure,” and “only” meanwhile “disproving” and often demonizing other religious positions and traditions.

Faulty Communication

Watching Todd Philips’ controversial Joker film this weekend, I was struck how it emphasized failures at human communication. On almost every level within the story, characters are blocked at being understood or even given a chance at communication. This is especially true with the marginalized Arthur Fleck, who is frustrated by the degrading antipathy of the Gotham elites. This brings disastrous results.

In a similar way, even 21st century Christians who claim to “love the Bible” and desire to “live biblical lives,” refuse to communicate with the Sacred Page on its own terms. We impose roadblocks onto the Scriptures, baggage from our time which ill fits the world of ancient authors. This leads to disasters also, not the least of which is completely losing Jesus in all but name.

The recent words of Pope Francis are clear—Catholics need sound Scripture study. This sings well with the Second Vatican Council (1962—65) and its document on Revelation. But what makes a good Bible study “good”? Or what roadblocks keep us from really studying and understanding the Bible? What follows over several blog posts will be a list of qualities and explanations to help us in our discernment of these questions. Hopefully helped as well will be our own spiritual journeys and exploration of God’s written word.

Anachronism Makes Scripture Study Impossible

There are five major obstacles, abuses which prevent the study of Scripture no matter how much we claim otherwise. These five problems are rampant everywhere in Catholic circles. They are difficult to see, much less root out. They are anachronism, ethnocentrism, fundamentalism, honest ignorance and sincere stupidity. In this post we examine anachronism to see the myriad of problems it brings.

Anachronism Defined

When it comes to comprehending the Biblical texts, anachronism means trying to force-fit the Scriptures and Jesus into our historical situation. Generally speaking, anachronism is attributing any custom, event, or object into a time period to which it does not belong.

As with any sound historical research, authentic Bible study provides scholarly resources that keep chronological information correct. But achieving this is more difficult than it seems.

Literally hundreds of examples of anachronistic abuse of the Bible can be given, but the following should suffice for now.

Biblical Glass Mirrors = Anachronism

Howsoever the Woman in Song of Songs knew she was beautiful, it could not have been by way of modern glass mirrors. These did not exist in the ancient world and the Bible does not know any. Both the 1611 King James and 1582 Douay-Rheims versions lie when they anachronistically betray Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12

(KJV) For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

(DR) We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know I part; but then I shall know even as I am known.

(NABRE) At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

The New American Bible Revised Edition, together with the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version, are all likewise mistranslated. “Mirror” should read metal mirror. Despite humans making glass since 2500 BCE, the only mirrors known by Paul were polished metal, as Pliny the Elder informs (see his Natural History 33.9). Alas, mistranslated biblical passages often reinforce absurd anachronisms,

The Woman in Song of Songs knows she is beautiful the same way anyone in the Bible—including Jesus!—knows anything, namely, by being informed by their group. She was told she was beautiful by her Lover and Ingroup. In the Bible “self” means “GROUP-SELF” and “conscience” means “GROUP-CONSCIENCE.” There is nothing introspective or psychological in the Bible. There is no 21st century Western individualism in Scripture, either. Do keep that in mind when reading Mark 8:27 and Matthew 16:15.

Roman Citizen = Anachronism

English-translated passages in the text we call “Acts of the Apostles” (16:37; 22:25; 23:27) inform readers that Paul was a “Roman citizen” (in Greek, Ῥωμαῖον = a Roman). But the Paul found in “Acts,” written by an anonymous spinmeister only a century later called “Luke,” is a theological fiction that does not correspond to the Paul we learn about from his own writings (2 Corinthians 11:8-9; cf. Philippians 4:10ff). We have at least two very different Pauls in the New Testament!

The English “citizen” is a bad choice. Our understanding of citizenship originates in 18th century political events and documents (think The Declaration of Independence, 1776). More to it, related terms “state,” “nation,” and “human rights”—without which our notion of “citizen” becomes unintelligible—possess modern connotations completely absent from the world of the Bible. Sorry, Acton Institute!

English translations such as the RSV, NRSV, and NABRE all impose onto “Acts” anachronistic distortion. Paul being thought of as a citizen is like imagining Neanderthals being United States construction workers operating sauropodsyabba dabba do! But unlike humorous and sometimes satirical Hanna-Barbera cartoons, biblical anachronism is a vehicles for ignorance. Eighteenth century meanings could not possibly belong to the author of “Luke-Acts” or to the historical personages he spins.

What our English translations botch as “citizen” should really be “Roman,” that is, “one bearing the privileges that comes with the Roman status as if he was an elite-resident of the polis, Rome. “Luke” does indeed spin his portrait of Paul thus, but it is doubtful that the Paul of history enjoyed such high social status. Suffice to say there is nothing like our modern citizenship or human rights in the Biblical world. Hence, “Roman Citizen” must be anachronism.

New Testament Theologians = Anachronism

The title “the Theologian” (ὁ Θεολόγος) was bestowed on the anonymous evangelist we call “John.” Was he indeed a theologian? Is everyone who writes theologically automatically a theologian?

While it is true that the Gospels and “Acts” do give us theological portraits (rather than historical photographs/phonographs), and that these works are full of theologies, that doesn’t make their authors theologians. Even though the Scriptures do give the normative theologies of the Church, it is anachronism to see any New Testament author as being a theologian.

In order for there to be theologians there must first exist a worldview that distinguishes with the categories of natural and supernatural. Not until Origen of Alexandria (d. 253) did such distinctions emerge in the Jesus Groups. Before Origen, everything was seen as belonging to one single environment. The sky of Scripture is not a supernatural world, but a vaulted enclosure to, and part of, one total closed environment. To get a picture of this cosmology, see the Farnese Sphere.

Everything in that closed universe acted according to “nature” (meaning divinely-established custom) from the highest God all the way down to the lowest of beings. Therefore nothing “supernatural” was in the mind of sacred authors as they wrote!

Thus everything God does in the Bible is “natural” (customary) for God. Everything humans do in the Scriptures is “natural” (customary) to humans, except when they go against “nature” (custom). But no one acts above nature (supernatural) in the Bible. We will come back to this when we speak of “miracles,” momentarily.

History & Historians = Anachronism

Did anyone in antiquity have a sense of history?  By that I mean was any ancient aware that past and present are qualitatively different, and not simply in what order things happen? For ancients like our Biblical ancestors in the faith, the expectation was to live up to the past. To them, past and present had the same quality. Therefore stories of the past must be the norm and pedagogue for today, legitimating the status quo. How radically different from our modern idea that the past does not need to be cloned by the present, and that status quo can and should be challenged!

All this impacts how we read so-called “Salvation History” into our sacred stories. Did Biblical authors—or Irenaeus of Lyon for that matter—hold to Western linear views of time heralded by Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins and their Calvinist-influenced charts? Did they read the Scriptures as an 18th century novel, with plot and climax? Did they distinguish fact from fiction?

Before the Enlightenment, history was much more story than anything remotely like historiographical recording and research.

For the 18th century Romantics reacting to dry rationalism, human life unfolds like a novel. Everything a novel has, so life must also have—including characterization, plot, progression, dramatic close, etc. Literary criticism applies all that Romantic-era stuff to the Bible. But we must ask: is that legitimate and respectful of the ancients and how they viewed things? Much of this is in reality anachronism, alien to how Biblical writers saw their world.

Many popular Catholic figures teach the Bible as if it housed a novel story. Look at Jeff Cavins and how popular his method is in parishes, how it is said to “unlock the Bible.” Many commentators treat the Biblical stories like narratives in a novel, all peopled by characters bearing deeply psychological motives. This, of course, is recognizable to us Westerners, from Joseph Campbell to the average catechist.  But is it there or are we putting it into the Scriptures? We’ll come back to this in a future post on ethnocentrically reading the Bible.

Church & State = Anachronism

It almost never fails. Whenever a Western, 21st century Christian talks about the story of Jesus being tested about paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17 // Matthew 22:15-22 // Luke 20:20-26), it gets twisted into a biblical prescriptive about how Church and State should relate. For 21st century Westerners, religion—as with kinship, politics, and economics—is a basic social institution. Today people argue about keeping religion separate from politics—a phenomena from the 18th century forward. This leaks into the Bible via anachronism.

First century Mediterranean peasant Jesus was oblivious to our 21st century perspectives. Church and State and their separation would have been completely alien to  him. Ancient Mediterranean religion lacked any separate, institutional existence in the modern sense. Ancient religion was an overarching system of meaning that unifying political and kinship systems into a whole vision.

To Jesus and all his peers, religion wasn’t conceived of as a closed system, equipped by a special theory of practice and a distinctive organizational structure. Rather, first century religion was embedded into and inextricably intertwined with the systems of kinship (e.g., ancestrism) and polis (e.g., temple, messiah, theocracy). Ancient religion was thus political (Temple; empire) or domestic (home).

So how could Jesus be talking about keeping Church and State separate with the question about paying taxes to the Emperor? Such future distinction and prescriptive would make no sense to him! Therefore, our familiarity with this story must be spurious and anachronistic!

Biblical Free Market Economics = Anachronism

Having considered Church and State, let me ask: Does the Bible understand Market/Bank and State being kept separate? In the ancient world, families not only consumed; they produced. This is radically different than our post-Industrial society where families are usually only consuming units. But biblical families were producers and therefore Jesus knew a kinship economy.

And consider that because elite powers controlled the polis, they dominated the flow and distribution of goods (especially goods for luxury, temple and warfare). So Jesus knew political economy as well. Ancient economics were thus either that of the state (taxes and redistribution) or family (gifts and sharing).

What Jesus and his peers would never know would be economic systems in our 21st century sense. First century Mediterranean societies never speak about market, monetary systems, or fiscal theory. As with religion, ancient economics only exists embedded in either the polis or the family. This means that political and domestic concerns drove economic production and goals, roles and employment, organization and systems of distribution.

There is nothing like capitalism in the Bible! But give an American Christian youth minister the Parable of the Talents and she or he will read into the story capitalistic overtones and prescriptives (interested in profit) for “successful ministry growth.” Go to any “Ministry Leader” seminar these days and watch this parade out. Look into the educational backgrounds of popular Catholic writers and speakers, thought erroneously to be exegetes and theologians.

Biblical Universalism = Anachronism

Ask any Christian about Jesus and Paul and you will likely be told that their concerns were universal, meaning for all humankind. To us 21st Christians then, Jesus, Paul, and the Twelve were universalists with global concerns. These men sought to evangelize the whole world and turn everyone into Christians.

The Bible, and even the Gospels, paint a very different picture. The New Testament was written by, for, and about Israelites. The prepaschal Jesus’ interest and focus was renewal of first century Israel in Israelite theocracy. As the Context Scholars have explained, statements like the edict of Matthew 28:19, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” are high context. Disciples are being commanded to go to Israelites living among all peoples, not non-Israelites! Prior to this in the Matthean story, the mission was limited only to Barbarian Israelite lands (Matthew 10:5).

In a later post we will see how Paul, whom tradition recognizes as “apostle to the Gentiles,” was really interested in civilized Israelites living as emigres among non-Israelite majorities. We will also learn how his communication was homophilous, and what that means.

Monotheism All Over the Bible = Anachronism

As seen with reading universalism into the Bible, theological commitments often drive anachronistic readings of Scripture. Christians are monotheists, even if Trinitarian monotheists. The problem is that true monotheism is rare in the Bible. When it popped up under Persian influence around 400 BCE with Isaiah 40—55, it didn’t last very long.

The Bible is predominantly henotheistic (Exodus 20:2-3; 1 Corinthians 8:5). Henotheism means “ONE-GOD-ISM.” Monotheism, on the other hand, means “ONLY-ONE-GOD-ISM.” Henotheism therefore means being loyal to one God living among a large variety of Gods. Henotheism means each ethnic group or even each subgroup renders allegiance to its own supreme God, without denying that other gods exist as sky patrons to other peoples (Judges 11:24).

Anachronism about Monotheism
Fellow Dying Inmate / All rights reserved

Scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain that in the Hebrew Scriptures, the social structure of Israelite monarchy served as the theological image of God. Because this monarchy was confined to a single ethnic group or people, the Bible presents henotheism instead of monotheism.  Since this was a monarchy confined to a single ethnic group, the Biblical ways of looking at God are predominantly henotheistic rather than monotheistic. Since the man who sat enthroned in Israel was just one king among many kings, so the God of Israel was seen as one God among many Gods, even if he was the highest one.

Of  course, we Christians are not henotheists. We are Trinitarian monotheists. We are in continuity with the early Jesus groups of Israel and the Jesus Movement. But this must be a continuity WITHIN DEVELOPMENT. The Spirit GUIDES us through this evolution (not coerces, not dictates). Accepting that God gradually disclosed God’s Holy and Absolute Mystery and that we continue to unpack this ineffable gift is fine. But should we go around prooftexting all our highly evolved theologies from the Bible, rendering it into a connect-the-dots for Bible Wars that “prove” our tradition, as Scott Hahn and Catholic Answers would have us do?

Scriptural Science Statements = Anachronism

Christian bookstores overflow with offerings on Biblical nutrition and healthy living, subjects belonging to our contemporary science-driven world and perspectives. These stores also offer books explaining that the Bible gives the accurate science when it comes to the earth’s age and the hows and whens of human origins. Many of these books claim the Bible is a “scientifically accurate text.”

We are children of an immensely complicated history. In the 18th century West, focus turned to nature (meaning sameness) and regularity. We began testing the empirical world around us with the expectation of deriving consistent, quantifiable results. This was the time to hunt episteme, where pure reason became the authority of “the Enlightened.” The generality and uniformity of human experience was stressed in these post-Enlightenment times. We have a massive hangover from these times.

Ours is the only culture that cannot distinguish truth from facts. While all facts are true, not all truths are factual truths, Ours is a culture that holds that the only truths are those supported by science. Impacted by these cultural rules, fundamentalists feel they need to prove the Bible to a scientifically-precise accuracy. Instead of being salvifically inerrant, the Bible must be cognitively inerrant!

Don’t think that fundamentalism is excluded from Catholic circles, that only “other Christains” can be fundamentalists. Catholic fundamentalism is very much a thing. I have heard priests ranting from the ambo about how we have “scientific proofs” that there actually were Three Wise Men. Or preaching on how “Eucharistic Miracles” present “scientific proofs” about the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence and Priesthood—I tend to loathe “homilies” on Corpus Christi. And I can’t tell you the number of how many talks I’ve overheard claiming that the Shroud of Turin scientifically proves the Resurrection of Jesus. Shouldn’t Semipelagianism have gone out with the Second Council of Orange (529)?

Physical Laws Governing the Universe in Scripture = Anachronism

Can anyone ever really know what the Bible means before understanding what the Bible meant (as in, what it meant to its original authors)? “No way!” should be the obvious answer, and the Shepherding Authority of the Church agrees when explaining that the Literal Sense of Scripture comes first.

Western Bible readers have a major problem reading the Gospels because we come at it with conceptual baggage alien to anything in the ancient world. For instance, we believe in “laws of nature” or “physical laws governing the universe.” Therefore when we observe Jesus doing extraordinary, superhuman things in Gospel stories, whether we believe these factual or fictional, we declare these acts “miracles.” And we define “miracle” as “a violation of the laws of nature.”

Our Biblical ancestors in the faith did not see reality as we do. They did not recognize anything like “physical laws governing the universe.” Therefore there is no word in the Bible that can be properly translated as miracle. Just like you cannot have the concept “triangle” without logically first conceiving of “angle,” you cannot conceive of “violating the laws of nature” without first having the concept of “laws of nature.”

This is why the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament speak of marvels and wonders, never miracles. Reading the Gospels respectfully, we see that Jesus performed “mighty deeds” (dynameis) and in the Fourth Gospel, “signs” (semeia) and “works” (ta erga). But no New Testament text claims he broke any “physical laws governing the universe.”

John Pilch wisely said, “Miracle is a nice post-Enlightenment word.” As with “supernatural,” every single time someone attributes “miracle” to the world and characters of the Bible, it is anachronism.  There are no miracles in the Bible. Such violations to physical laws governing the universe were unknown to the ancient Mediterranean.

Biblical Cures & Diseases = Anachronism

As discussed in a past blog, SICKNESS is a panhuman reality. But how sickness gets interpreted is different depending on the varieties of culture. That sensible notion should give pause to English Bible translators. Sadly, many apparently pay no heed to this important point. When it comes to Jesus’ “miracles” over the sick, they are indiscriminate with words like “healing” and “curing,” as they are with “illness” and “disease.”

In our faulty English translations, we read of Jesus curing the sick, or curing diseases. But where in the Gospels are there any records of scientific methods or tools at diagnosing biomedical conditions? Where can we cite any contemporary treatments and medical care? They are completely absent. Lacking X-rays, blood tests, samples, microscopes, etc., how would we know the medical conditions which Jesus treated?

Keyed to definitions provided by Dr. John Pilch, it is improper to speak of any Biblical “curing of diseases” because this comes from a culture of scientific, biomedical views. The Bible sees sickness as a social condition, as illness, meaning, as a disvalued state of being in which social networks have been disrupted and human lost meaning. Jesus healed—that is, he restored meaning and wholeness to human life.

Twenty-first century people find it extremely difficult to tolerate a Jesus who does not address our American problems. It would be an arduous, yet extremely beneficial endeavor to attempt to recover healing in this age where meaningful existence eludes many.

Biblical Jews & Christians = Anachronism

Every Holy Week and Easter Triduum we are reminded about Jews rejecting Jesus. Despite a scholary tour de force to the contrary, ask any Christian you can find and they will tell you that Jews fill the Old Testament, whereas Christians and Jews can be found everywhere in the New Testament. This is an extremely popular anachronism. Our disastrously mistranslated English versions of the Gospel called “John” read every Good Friday helps keep antisemitic tropes alive.

Since Christendom arose in the fourth century with Constantine, there is no Christianity in the Bible. And because all things Jewish emerged in the fifth century with the Talmuds, there are no Jews in the Bible, either. It is social systems which give words (e.g., “Christian” and “Jew”) meaning. Therefore to articulate “Jew” and “Christian” in any recognizable way to us, you would first need an existing social system that could support our meanings. But that would not exist until centuries after New Testament times!

Our 21st century experience of Christians and Jews is nowhere to be found in the First or New Testaments in any sense! How then could either Jesus or Paul be Jews? How could either be Christians? Jews and Christians, in any modern, recognizable sense, simply cannot be honestly found within the Bible.

So Many Anachronistic Readings!

These terms and expressions above are commonly known and used by 21st century Christians. But they were totally unknown by our Biblical ancestors in the faith. Nevertheless, we go on using them as if they honestly represent the thoughts of Biblical writers. By doing so, we disrespect them and pool ignorance all the while believing ourselves informed.

There are many other examples. For instance, biblical circumcision as practiced by barbarian Israelites like Jesus’ family was not the full removal of the foreskin. Or consider how synagogues were not places of worship in New Testament times or for some time after. And what about how Romantic-era realities of homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality are nowhere to be found anywhere in the Scriptures? But we can cover these and other fascinating anachronisms in later posts.

Respectful Bible Reading

How do we 21st century people read “John,” or “Acts,” or “Revelation” without contaminating our readings with post-Enlightenment and 21st century popular Christian values and meanings? How can we give these Scriptures a fair interpretation as we go stumbling through the page assigning impossible meanings into the texts, ignorance pooling geometrically?

A real Scripture study is a marvel for a Catholic parish or any Christian community—wonderful, rare, and a great blessing. Such a group will avoid the pitfalls of anachronism by providing critical scholarly resources on correct chronological information. There is no real historical criticism and no real Bible study that is not culturally informed. Such study assists participants and 21st century followers of Jesus in “getting him” and his project accurately as they read the Scriptures respectfully.


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TRENDING AT PATHEOS Catholic
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Do you even believe in Catholicism? It is hard to see how you can, given you seem to think Jesus was not concerned with universal salvation.

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    I believe in what our Church believes, yes. I am Catholic, yes. I do not separate the prepaschal Jesus from the Risen Jesus, as they are the same person, but I do distinguish the modes of existence of each. Taking the prefix “in” of IN+carnation, I try hard these days to avoid Docetism.

    I accept that the Holy Spirit helps us, guides us as Church throughout the ages unpacking the inexhaustible treasures of Christ in ways that the Jesus Movement and Paul could not anticipate. That doesn’t make anything false or erroneous, except fundamentalist hermeneutics.

    I believe we are “c” catholic AND ARE BECOMING “c” catholic. We are and are not yet “universal” and “diverse.” I believe that God is always challenging us, non-violently pushing the boundaries we impose upon God as to God’s size and the volume of divine love, of who God finds lovable, of who belongs inside at the table, and those who belong outside (anyone?). This is a beautiful and MESSY business!

    I can’t recall professing on Sundays or Solemnities that the prepaschal Jesus was a universalist…

  • Ame

    Such a happy inclusion of
    historical scholarship, consideration of cultural context, and respect for Church doctrine & theology can be found in the Agape Catholic Bible Study. Yes, there are some details that I think the historian who created the study may have gotten wrong….but then I would have to say the same in regards to our Fellow Dying Inmate. Cheers!b