the worst thing that ever happened to the bible


The inescapability of biblicism–and other nonsense–in chapter-verse delineation

When my children come of age, I won’t have them learn memory verses, as generations of Protestants have been wont to do. I won’t have them doing Bible Quizzes, joining Quotation Clubs or otherwise doing what is tantamount to memorizing a textbook.

This isn’t because I find the Bible to be unimportant to a Christian life, but precisely because it is.

Now, I am not blind to the important role the Bible has played in Western cultural life: global efforts toward literacy–and we can all agree that literacy was and remains amongst the noblest of causes–were often spearheaded by using the scriptures. Regardless of your take on its importance, theology was long considered the queen of the sciences. Counter to popular opinion, it was a foundational appreciation of the scripture that was the catalyst for the Reformation, which led to the Renaissance, which led to the Enlightenment. Even that eminent biblical scholar Orson Welles said on several occasions that the only two sources one needed to learn drama were Shakespeare and the Bible (an arguable point, but one made nonetheless by one of the titanic, formative figures of modern cinema.)

Flop a Bible open, though, and you’ll find staggered lines and strange line breaks making a mess on the page. Try reading the text, and it likely won’t make a whole lot of sense. For that, you can thank those who have gone before and decided to build in an indexing system. At least poets had the good sense to keep the line system off to the margins, keeping the text in a flow and, thus, more readily comprehensible.

I am indebted to others for a very cursory look at the history of chapter and verse in the Bible. We can thank Archbishop Stephen Langton (c. 1160-70-1228) for the chapter system, and roughly three centuries later, Robert Estienne (1503-1559) for further dividing the text into verses. Langton’s work was so influential that Jewish scholars adopted a similar system for the Talmud; whereas Estienne, a Royal Typographer for the French monarchy but not sanctioned by the Church, in publishing the Bible got in trouble with Rome and as a result became an early Protestant and was banished from his position. [Contrary to what many modern Christians view of the Protestant Reformation, much of the break was not ecclesiastical as much as it was political. Estienne’s son returned to Catholicism and Paris restored his father’s legacy.]

Needless to say, the Church and the Bible both survived, and the chapter-verse breakdown has largely survived intact today. That said, what is the legacy of these moves? I would argue that what we gained in memorization we have lost in internalization. I would further submit that memorization is the enemy of biblical literacy, and the absence of biblical literary has led us to the largely impotent, self-marginalized and anti-apostolic position the global body of Christian believers tends to be today.

For the sake of conversation, let’s consider a verse just about anyone who has spent any appreciable time in church–or has seen any number of extra point kicks in football–is familiar with, John 3.16: ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.’ 

I’ve been able to spout this verse since I was four, but let’s face it: a four-year old knows as much about meaning and significance of words as a fencepost. ‘For’ indicates that this, at best, a secondary or supporting statement, which means it does not stand on its own and isn’t even the locus of concern for Jesus or the author. Yet, in being able to readily deploy John 3.16, we ignore Jesus and the author and make it our point. This, by any measure, is a textbook example of eisegesis and is thus inappropriate.

Let’s look at the logical literary unit:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”

This is closer to what you see in your book:

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.

20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”   

It took me years to read the text, skipping the numbers and reading for paragraphs/logical literary units. (Isn’t that a mess???) We generally don’t teach this–or anything resembling literary technique– to either clergy or laypeople, and we have a tendency to divorce education from religious belief and practice: this isn’t advanced Seminary study as much as it is elementary literary comprehension.

The generally accepted interpretation of 3.16 is that God sent Jesus, his son, that whoever embraces his death and resurrection will live forever. Even something as simple as paragraph translation demonstrates the inherent problems with this interpretation: first, Jesus is not referring to salvation as much as he is speaking in riddles and outlining the Messianic mission. The former is very Johannine, the latter very much in the vein of immediate and existential gospel emphasis of salvation in the moment, undermining the widely held assumption of substitutionary atonement. We read our assumptions and biases into the text, and thus are not interested in what it has to say. 

To wit, what of the person who chose to follow Jesus who died before the Christ-event, death and resurrection? What of a Christian who died on the Saturday between Friday and Sunday? What of a righteous person before the Abrahamic covenant, say, Melchizedek? They didn’t have a Levitical system in place, much less the opportunity to make Jesus their personal lord and savior. The interpretation is flawed because it both disregards literary context and the very work of the Spirit we claim verbal plenary inspired the infallible text.

Moreover, the interpretation is flawed because we unwittingly engage in biblicism: worship of the text instead of the God to whom the text is oriented. In citing chapter and verse, we are propping up a hidden and unintended idolatry, engaging in well-intended sacrilege. John 3.16 doesn’t say what we want it to say; it contributes to a larger understanding, an authorial intent to outline the work Jesus set out to accomplish: reconciliation.

Further, consider one of the anchoring verses for scriptural authority, 2 Timothy 3.16: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. First, it’s a sentence fragment: verse 17 ‘that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work,‘ has to be plugged into the verse. Second, the words ‘breathed out’, or ‘inspired’ are loaded: ‘breathed out’ is a translational choice emphasizing infallibility, while ‘inspired’ is a decision to emphasize verbal plenary, falsely equating the words of an author with the words of God.

Both of these choices reflect later doctrinal bias and neglect several points of emphasis the author actually means to underscore: to watch out for imposters and to rely upon the sacred writings with which Timothy was familiar: Paul was not writing about his own letters! Paul has an ego, of this there is no doubt, but he’s not foolish enough to think that his work is on equal footing with Tanakh. Scripture is not its own end, but it is to help the work of the Spirit for the individual and the community in doing what we as Christians are supposed to in the first place, continuing the Christian work of reconciliation in the present moment.

Meaning and internalization toward fulfilling our shared responsibility are the goal, not memorization, which is the essence of self-righteousness, the very thing Jesus explicitly calls out in Matthew’s gospel. This also enables the possibility of the ongoing work of ‘inspiration’: what makes Titus inspired and, say, Shepherd of Hermas or Thomas’ Imitation not? At best, these decisions of canon are arbitrary, at worst, it is a historical exercise in posturing, limiting the work of the Spirit and hamstringing our efforts to share and live the gospel. And, I might add, neglecting the words of Christ shortly preceding John 3.16–The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. 

The Holy Spirit didn’t start blowing at Genesis 1 and stop at Revelation 22, but the way we treat the text seems to betray that we think otherwise. In so doing, we’ve necessarily said that the very chapters and verses are as inspired as the words they’ve indexed, which are as sacred as God noun-self.

If your head is spinning, that’s OK, you’re not alone. Mine is, too. There’s a good reason it’s called circular thinking, and a better reason that circular thinking is a logical fallacy.

The only way to make it stop is to reject chapter and verse; some of that is already happening, moving from a static and indexed instructional manual or reference book toward a story or narrative in which we can place ourselves, as the flow of history places us all in the same stream, just a little further down the way. The idea of being Acts 29 is sublime, precisely because it undermines almost everything I’ve pointed about above, a continuation of a redeemed and limitless people demonstrating the limitless depths of God’s grace and mercy in the world as shown in the death and resurrection of Christ, inviting everyone to share in it.

The worst thing that ever happened to the Bible was that we Christians chose to view ourselves as less than those who have gone before, less than Christ and unworthy to continue adding to that anthology.

Is it any wonder we are plagued with any number of cultural and social maladies and timid in our witness?

***

Scripture references taken from the English Standard Version (ESV), via BPBible

A History of Chapters and Verses in the Hebrew Bible

Concordances of the Bible

Robert Estienne at Wikipedia

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