This past Tuesday, I posed a question to Twitter: “What’s your favorite example of something that people see in the biblical texts but that isn’t actually there?” Forty eight hours later, and that tweet has been seen over 65,000 times, and has garnered thousands of responses. As I write this, the conversation is actually still going.
What’s your favorite example of something that people see in the biblical texts but that isn’t actually there?
My two faves:
1) The apple in Eden
2) Moses floating down the Nile
— Eric Vanden Eykel (@evandeneykel) February 19, 2019
In my tweet I gave two of my favorite examples of things that people see in the biblical texts but that aren’t actually there: an apple in the Garden of Eden and the image of Moses floating down the Nile River as a baby. A couple words on those.
In Genesis 3, where we find the famous story of the “fall” of humankind, the author does not specify that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil produces a specific type fruit, much less an apple. But, thanks to a number of factors (artistic, linguistic, etc.), when people read the story involving the tree, they often see an apple because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to see.
Likewise the story of Moses: nearly every Hollywood production involving Moses begins with his family floating him down the river in a basket. But if you read the story in Exodus, you see quite clearly that Moses’s mother doesn’t float him down the river; she places him near the bank of the river, among the reeds. People see Moses floating down the river when they read the story because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to see by the cinema and, more likely, their children’s Bibles.
These are two relatively insignificant examples, of course, that in the grand scheme of things have little impact on really anything. They’re favorites of mine because I see them pops up regularly in my classrooms.
But I was curious to see what other examples people could come up with, hence my tweet. My question gained a lot of traction quite quickly thanks to two commanding voices on Twitter. First, Nyasha Junior responded with what I continue to think is probably the best response to the question: white people.
— Nyasha Junior (@NyashaJunior) February 19, 2019
And second, the tweet got the attention of Chris Stroop, who then amplified it to his 40,000 or so followers. The past couple of days have been busy to say the least.
When tweets becomes as popular as this one did, it’s easy to lose control of them, and to lose track of who’s responded and what those responses were. But as I’ve been scrolling through the thread, I’ve been struck by a number of responses that seem to appear over and over again. There were two in particular that stuck out to me: one doctrinal and the other moral. A few words on each of those, beginning with the doctrinal.
By far one of the most common responses to my question was “the Trinity.” And there’s nothing terribly controversial about this. After all, the theological definition of the doctrine of the Trinity did not occur until the early fourth century, long after the texts of the New Testament had already been written. As such, those who find the doctrine of the Trinity spelled out in clear terms in the New Testament are wishful thinkers at best. But it’s also interesting to note the extent to which the ideas that would lead to the doctrine of the Trinity are present in someway in the New Testament. Relevant here is David Yeago’s important distinction between “judgments” and “concepts.” While the concepts of the Trinity and the eternal coexistence of the Son with the Father are not present in the first century, the judgment that Jesus is somehow God most certainly is, at least in some New Testament texts. One does not have to read too deeply in John’s Gospel, for example, to see this spelled out relatively clearly. So while the Trinity is certainly not present in the New Testament, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the seeds that would grow into this doctrine almost certainly are, at least in some form.
Another extremely common response to my question was “condemnation of homosexuality,” or some variant of it. This one struck me because it is really only a half truth (don’t go anywhere – keep reading). There are, in fact, a number of places in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament where homosexual acts are spoken of in less than positive terms. The most famous of these is found in Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (NRSV). But Paul also probably had a few things to say about it (see Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10).* So in one sense, the idea that “the Bible” doesn’t condemn homosexuality is untrue.
But, on the other hand, the statement that the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality is also actually quite true. Because while the biblical authors do have some things to say about homosexual acts, none of them probably have any conception of sexual orientation, our understanding of which developed in the twentieth century. Would Paul’s thoughts on the topic have been different had he had a concept of orientation? Maybe, or maybe not. It’s a fascinating question that is relatively impossible to answer. The bottom line regarding this and other moral/ethical issues is that it’s unwise to presume that the authors of the biblical texts are necessarily addressing the same issues that we (in the 21st century) are.
In addition to these common threads there were also a number of responders who revealed through their responses that they had spent little time actually reading the texts themselves. One gentleman, for example, responded: “the idea that God is love.” Well, regardless of whether you think that to be true, that’s a claim that the author of 1 John makes. Others responded with: “the idea that the gospels are written by eyewitnesses.” My own opinion as a biblical scholar is that the gospels were not, in fact, written by eyewitnesses. Luke goes so far in his prologue by distinguishing himself from eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2). But at least one of the evangelists (John) does claim to be an eyewitness account. Does this mean that it actually is? Of course not. A claim is not necessarily true just because an author says it is; to think otherwise is madness. But, if the question is “what do people see in the texts that isn’t actually there?”, then in order to answer that question, you first have to be aware of what is actually there in a plain sense. The question of whether you “agree” with or “believe” what’s there is a question that you answer later.
At any rate, those are some thoughts on the last 48 hours. And now that I’m finishing this post up, I see that the original tweet has been retweeted by Rachel Held Evans, so it looks like things will get more interesting before they get less.
* Some have suggested that Paul’s language here and elsewhere is meant to address exploitative sexual relationships like pederasty rather than homosexual relationships more broadly. See, for example, the work of Victor Paul Furnish, Dale Martin, and Robin Scroggs, among many others.