Newsweek claims that virtually no one in America is biblically literate, citing a 2010 Pew poll reporting that those who self-identify as Christians rank only a little higher than atheists at biblical literacy.
Christians and non-Christians alike do frequently misquote the Bible and misunderstand many parts of it—the Western perception of heaven as being “up in the sky” and Satan “living in hell” are just a couple of out of many inaccuracies that permeate not just Protestant churches, or the Catholic church, but our society as a whole. And those are the least divisive. Liberals and conservatives, Christians and atheists alike seek to use Scripture to justify their own viewpoints on everything from pork consumption to homosexuality.
Some of those arguments come from careful consideration of the text and contextual understanding, while others are drawn from a quick Google search or “common knowledge” and are little more than a perceived trump card thrown down onto a dozen other baseless assertions and appeals to conventional wisdom.
While many will disagree with some of Newsweek’s assertions, their analysis of the world’s most influential book is a worthy pursuit. Here are some clarifications on eight of the most consequential Scriptural misunderstandings in popular culture.
Myth 1: ‘Money Is the Root of all Evil’
This statement could be one of the most well-known biblical truths in popular culture… if it were in the Bible. This quote is what one might call a “pocket verse.” We’ve all met that person who, when losing a debate, rummages around in his pocket for another card to play and then flicks a Bible verse at your face. After all, you can’t trump the Bible.
But as with most pocket verses, it turns out to be a misquotation, in this case of 1 Timothy 6:10a: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (ESV). The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. That’s a completely different sentiment than the one people typically throw around. Saying “money is the root of all evil” gives the idea that posessing material things tends toward evil, but the whole passage in context actually teaches the exact opposite. Just a few verses down, Paul commands Timothy to “charge [the rich] not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are… to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (v. 17-19).
Paul does not teach that rich people ought to become poor; rather, he says that rich people need to be generous and glorify the giver of those riches instead of the riches themselves. He affirms that God is the one who provides us with things to enjoy. There is nothing wrong with enjoying goods, so long as we do not make them gods. 1 Timothy 6:3-10 is not a condemnation of private ownership of goods, but rather a condemnation of hedonistic materialism that refuses to be content with one’s God-given lot. The passage aims toward exposing the greedy televangelist and cutthroat businessman, not a hard-working person who has been materially blessed by God, enjoys his blessings, and is generous in sharing them. According to this passage, we are supposed to live our lives consciously, day by day, as if we were living for the next world, “for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (v. 7). That means lavish generosity with money, not shunning money.
Myth 2: ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’
This declaration has been propagated far and wide by the film industry. There is even a movie from 1982 titled “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, and two from 2014 titled “20:13 Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “La Guapa: Thou Shalt Not Kill.”
In fact, this quote is so pervasive that if you type “thou shalt not” into the Google search engine, the word “kill” is first in the dropdown menu. It even has its own Wikipedia page, which ironically, but rightly, points out the more appropriate translation of the text (“thou shalt not murder”).
The Biblical misinterpretations Hollywood makes are sometimes understandable and based on a lack of context surrounding the verse in question, or a lack of basic biblical knowledge. Twelve Bible translations, including the massively popular New International Version and the English Standard Version, translate Exodus 20:13 as “Thou shalt not murder.” The King James translation of Exodus 20:13, along with three or four more obscure translations, reads “thou shalt not kill.”
So perhaps our Hollywood friends prefer King James, but a single translated verse means very little without its context. Numerous other passages of Scripture make distinctions between justified, lawful killing (such as capital punishment) and unlawful killing, or murder. Numbers 35:30 reads, “Anyone who kills a person is to be put to death as a murderer, but only on the testimony of witnesses.” Justified killing extends beyond capital punishment, as Exodus 22:2 indicates: “If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed.” Moreover, should Exodus 20:13 have been an absolute prohibition of taking human life, God would not have commanded the destruction of entire nations by the hands of the very people to whom he delivered the Commandments.
The myth isn’t in the actual word choice, but the way it has been interpreted by pop culture. The English word “kill” is very clearly different from the word “murder.” While every murder is a killing, not every killing is a murder.
Perhaps the reason this myth still circulates is because it justifies pacifism. Pacifism is easy because it is absolute. There’s no need to debate who should be slain in the name of justice and who shouldn’t, whether you should feel guilt for killing in self-defense or not—just a blanket surrender of yourself to the violence around you. One can roundly condemn all killing everywhere no matter what and feel righteous about it. No need for the discernment or difficult choices one faces by accepting that killing as moral and just in some circumstances.
Myth 3: ‘The Bible Makes Wives Subservient’
Ephesians 5:22-33 is often summed up by the casual reader as, “Wives, obey your husbands” (or “submit to your husbands,” depending on the translation). Many whom the media call “fundamentalists” embrace this simple translation as a commandment unto itself, while Progressive churches ignore it and mainstream culture rejects it, holding it up as clear evidence that Christians are sexist and misogynist and that Christian women aren’t allowed to be “real” women. The judge who officiated the female coauthor’s marriage ceremony actually told us outright beforehand that she would not include “obey” as one of my vows.
As with the other Scriptural misinterpretations listed in this essay, the drastic undervalue of context leads to faulty conclusions. The very next paragraph commands husbands to love their wives “as their own bodies, for he who loves his wife loves himself.” One must immediately understand that husbands do not have the right to simply order their wives about and abuse their bodies or their souls. They must treat their wives with the same respect they accord themselves. This passage also cites Genesis 2:24, which says that husband and wife “shall become one flesh.”
While Christians and secularists alike consistently tend to undervalue context, they are often guilty of reading more into a passage than is actually there. In this case, the Ephesians 5 passage has gotten the reputation as a God-breathed quashing of the agency of married women, as if they are to follow their masters about on a leash, awaiting his every command. But Proverbs describes a virtuous woman, who “considers a field and buys it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard.” It does not say, “She saw a field she wanted, so she waited until her husband got home and asked his permission to buy it,” or, “Her husband granted her permission to plant a vineyard, as her earnings were not her own.” Anyone who has read the book of Esther knows that women have been important agents of God, had tremendous influence, and made critical decisions.
There will probably be numerous comments on this article from literalists declaring that the female coauthor of this article has no idea what I’m talking about, but on careful consideration of this passage and others, and going on three years of marriage, I contend that Scripture not only permits, but encourages, couples to make important decisions together, as one body. The fact that we are of “one flesh” should mean that we are in accordance, and come to our conclusions jointly.
There are times when we are not in accordance, and in those times, I am grateful that the Bible lays out for me clearly whose course of action we should take. “Wives, submit to your husbands” and its surrounding verses are not a declaration of wifely subservience, but a structure for leadership and follow-ship based on love, respect, and harmony.
Myth 4: ‘Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged’
…On anything, anywhere, at any time, no matter who’s making the critique. That’s the pocket-verse interpretation of Matthew 7:1. The very next verse is familiar to many, and critical to an accurate interpretation of the previous verse: “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye”? Verse five says, “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (emphasis added).
This passage is about hypocrisy, not a blanket restriction on judging others. As Paul points out in Corinthians, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?” In other words, it is the church’s duty to judge those within its body. Such a statement would be completely at odds with the universalist interpretation of this verse.
Religious people trying to avoid conflict summon this verse as a call for peace among brothers, or to hold back an onslaught of disapproval toward preachers who depart from gospel truth (Joel Osteen, for instance), while drive-by secularists toss it into the debate, hoping to trip up “Bible thumpers” on their march to judging pop culture.
“Judge not” has an important message, but it has been merged with a “go along to get along” mentality that promotes the relativism of all sin while deterring those who have removed their plank, who do see clearly, from pointing out the specks in others’ eyes.
Moreover, it promotes the idea that judgment cannot be made in love, that it is somehow antithetical to it. This sort of thinking is a product of our popular culture, which preaches tolerance and acceptance above all else, no matter what destructive path our fellow human heads down. To many on the Left, especially, tolerance is the highest, purest form of love, while loving sinners and hating sin is made out to be a logical impossibility.
Myth 5: ‘The Bible Condones Slavery’
You hear this one all the time. “Well, the Bible also supported slavery, so if our enlightened culture has discovered the Bible is wrong about other things, we should listen to our culture and not the Bible.” But does the Bible actually support slavery?
The most important thing to establish is that the sort of slavery we encounter in the Bible is nothing like the slavery that jumps to the American mind—that is, racist chattel slavery that mercilessly captured and dehumanized African people until the Thirteenth Amendment passed in 1865. The Bible emphatically denounces this type of slavery in denouncing manstealing (Ex. 21:16) and its undermining racism (Num. 12:1-9; Gal. 3:28).
The slavery of Bible times was very different from the slavery we know and hate. It actually would have been much closer to indentured servitude. In ancient Israel, slaves were not expected to be enslaved for life (Ex. 21:2). In the era of the New Testament, people embraced slavery as a form of voluntary employment. Many of them were highly educated. That’s not to say slavery was a positive good, else Paul would not have said to slaves: “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Cor. 7:21).
The Apostle Paul wrote a short letter to a fellow believer named Philemon. Philemon’s slave, named Onesimus, escaped his master, encountered Paul, and became a Christian. Paul sent him back to Philemon with the letter, encouraging Philemon to release his slave for the service of ministry, and to now see his slave as not a slave but instead a “beloved brother” (Philemon 16). Paul accepted the reality of slavery and did not force emancipation, knowing that where the gospel spread, slaves would be voluntarily freed.
Myth 6: ‘The Bible Condones Rape’
Liberal secularists are quick to point out that many passages of the Bible recount instances of slavery and sexual abuse, concluding that this means the Bible condones such acts, encourages them, or even punishes the victim instead of the perpetrator. Difficult subjects like rape are most convoluted by simplification, isolation, and twenty-first century sensibilities. Unfortunately, even those who seek truth often read the Bible like a sixth grader reads Harry Potter. They read a passage once and demand from it a simple, literal interpretation that can be understood within a modern Western paradigm.
For instance, Deuteronomy 22 says, “the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.” Read in isolation and from our modern Western perspective, this might look like punishing the victim of a rape by having to marry her rapist. But understanding the culture of the time and taking Jewish law into consideration paints a very different picture of what happens after a rape of an unmarried woman.
It is the perpetrator, not the victim, who may not initiate divorce. It was within the rights of the woman to do so, and within the rights of her father, to begin with, to simply accept the fifty shekels and deny the man to make a wife of his daughter.
That being said, to have lost her virginity outside of marriage and to remain unmarried would be an economic hardship for the victim, since it was quite difficult for single women at the time to make an honest living on their own. The man who wronged her owed her support, having stripped her of her marriage prospects.
Myth 7: ‘If You Oppose Gay Marriage Yet Eat Shellfish, You’re a Hypocrite!’
It’s a familiar scenario—almost a cliché at this point. A Christian is asked why he opposes the practice of homosexuality. He explains biblical teaching on sexuality, and meets the reply, “Well, yeah, but the Bible also condemns eating shellfish and wearing blended fabrics!”
More often than not, the shellfish/fabric accuser hasn’t read the Bible outside of sporadic quotations, and is ignorant of the history of Christian teaching on the matter. The holiness code for the particular nation of Israel was never intended to be followed to the exact letter by the ethnically and culturally diverse church. This isn’t something Christians in the postmodern world invented in order to get around inconsistent ethics; rather, it’s rooted in the way that the death and resurrection of Christ completely changed the course of human history. The particular letter of the law is no longer binding because Christ died to purchase a people for himself from every nation, not just the Jewish nation.
Mark says that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19) and God sternly tells the Apostle Peter in a vision, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). Later in Acts, at the Jerusalem Council, the apostles and elders of Jerusalem decide to oppose the Pharisees, who wanted to order the Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). They agree upon only a short list of restrictions for the Gentiles (v. 20). The new covenant brought about by Christ changes the way the people of God must relate to the Mosaic law.
As we would therefore expect, we do not see any prohibitions in the New Testament about wearing mixed fabrics or eating particular foods. We do, however, encounter many exhortations to sexual purity, including three references to homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:9-10). Christians are not being selective about which rules they wish to follow based on some hidden prejudices; rather, we are actually reading the Bible, not just cherry-picking verses, and interpreting everything in its redemptive-historical context, as our religion has been doing since the earliest days.
Myth 8: Isn’t the God of the Old Testament an Angry Tribal Deity?
A common objection to Christianity is that the God of the Old Testament seems so different than the God of the New. The Old Testament God is a vengeful deity devoted to his particular nation, whereas the New Testament God is more open toward other nations, happy, and loving.
The answer is simple: there really isn’t quite as large a difference as people think. The Old Testament is full of examples of God’s mercy and love, as well as God showing goodwill toward Gentiles (consider how much honor he gives to Ruth, from the evil nation of Moab). On the other hand, the New Testament is full of stern warnings about God’s judgment.
God did not hate the Gentiles in the Old Testament then suddenly love them in the New. In one of Moses’ last speeches to Israel before his death and the ensuing conquest of the land, he tells them: “Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you […]the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people” (Deuteronomy 9:4,6 ESV). God knew his people would be tempted to a prideful assumption that they deserved the land, and he would have none of it. The purpose for God’s commandment to conquer the land was to judge the nations occupying it because of their evil, not primarily to reward Israel. The conquest did not happen because God hated other nations by default; it was because of those nations’ evil.
The God of the Bible is a righteous judge. The picture we get in both parts of the Bible is the same: God is a loving God who is patient and merciful and wants all people to know him, but who also judges sin and finally makes things right. He’s not a tame God nor one we would necessarily come up with, but why should we expect a being so much greater than ourselves to be entirely predictable?
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