The Problems with the Census in Luke’s Gospel

Jesus his life Poster-Art-768x1152In the episode of Joseph in the series Jesus: His Life, which airs Monday, March 25, 2019 on History, I make a reference to the problematic census in the Gospel of Luke that biblical scholars have wrestled with for at least a century.

Luke 2:1-3 reads:

(1) In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. (2) This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. (3) All went to their own towns to be registered.

There are a couple of problems with the census.

First, Quirinius and Herod the Great did not rule at the same time. Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. (If that fact alone causes you some hesitation—the fact that Jesus would have been born 4 to 7 years before Christ (BC)— please read my 2009 article, Why Christians Should Adopt the BCE/CE Dating System, which explains why this is the case.) Anyway, Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, and yet Publius Sulpicius Quirinius wasn’t appointed as the governor of Syria until 6 CE, that is, after Herod the Great’s son, Archelaus, was banished as ruler of Judea.

What does this mean? It means that Quirinius didn’t rule until until 10 years after Herod the Great had died! This means there is no way that Quirinius could have called a census while Herod the Great was king–Herod had been dead for a decade! And this means that Jesus couldn’t have been born during the reign of Herod the Great and in Bethlehem because of the census of Quirinius! The chronology is off by a decade.

There is a second problem with the census in Luke 2. Simply put, Romans did not require subjects to return to their ancestral homes to be counted, rather their made them return to their present homes. To explain this, I’ll refer you to what I wrote on pg. 230 of my 2016 book, The Cities That Built the Bible:

First, censuses were taken for the purpose of taxation. Although there are certainly literary records of censuses taking place throughout the Roman Empire at this time, [12] there is no evidence that those who were being counted were required to travel to their ancestral hometowns in order to be counted. Indeed, an Egyptian census edict of Gaius Vibius Maximus, the Roman prefect of Egypt from 103 to 107, did require that “all persons who for any reason whatsoever are absent from their home districts be alerted to return to their own hearths, so that they may complete the customary formalities of registration and apply themselves to the farming for which they are responsible.”[13]

Although this edict of Gaius Vibius Maximus does mention a return home for the purposes of taxation, residents were not required to return to their ancestral homes, but to their present homes, so that both people and assets could be assessed for purposes of taxation. Essentially you couldn’t be “out of town” when the government came to take the census and collect taxes. Indeed, traveling to one’s ancestral home would not allow pilgrims to “apply themselves to the farming for which they are responsible.” Rather, residents under Roman rule were to go to their present homes so that they and their possessions could be counted and taxed. Luke further strains credulity by arguing that the nine-months-pregnant Mary would have made the arduous three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Thus, any registration would have required Joseph and his family to return to their present homes to be counted, and Jesus’s present home was in Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

[12] Josephus, Antiquities 17.13.5 (17:354); 18.1.1 (18:1–2).

[13] Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, 156. The census edict of Gaius Vibius Maximus of 104 CE from Alexandria is written on papyrus and cataloged as P.London 904 in the British Museum. See also Hunt and Edgar, Select Papyri.

Essentially, we don’t have evidence that subjects of ancient Rome were required to return to their ancestral homes for counting and taxation purposes. Returning to an ancestral home actually defeated the purpose—all a subject’s property would still be back in their present home. The Romans wanted to see who was in each present household and what they owned so they could tax it.

Rather, Luke used this chronologically-challenged census as a literary device to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem temporarily so that Jesus could be born there, as Luke depicts Joseph and Mary as living in Nazareth both before and after his birth.

Remember, this is different from the birth narrative in the Gospel of Matthew, which depicts Joseph and Mary as already living in Bethlehem, and Jesus simply being born at home. Note, there is no mention of Nazareth (or a census for that matter) prior to Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel, the star appears, and the magi begin their trek from the east to Bethlehem. They stop to speak to Herod the Great on the way. This all takes some time, and is not congruent with a short, temporary stay in a guesthouse.

These are two problems with the census in Luke 2. Quirinius and Herod the Great didn’t rule at the same time so Jesus couldn’t have been born during both of their rules, and Romans didn’t require their subjects to return to their ancestral homes to be counted.

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“Jesus: His Life” to premiere on History Mon. March 25, 2019, 8/7c

Jesus his life

Jesus: His Life is an epic eight-episode series following Jesus’ life from before birth to after his resurrection. Each episode tells the extraordinary story of Jesus through the eyes of those closest to him. These various first-person points of view allow viewers of the program to discover Jesus as both his disciples and detractors discovered him, and to witness these individuals as they wrestled with whether or not to believe this teacher from Nazareth’s message and who he was claiming to be.

The show premieres Monday, March 25 at 8/7c on History. History will air two episodes of Jesus: His Life back-to-back on each of the following nights:

Monday, March 25 @ 8/7c — Joseph: The Nativity and John the Baptist: The Mission
Monday, April 1 @ 8/7c
Monday, April 8 @ 8/7c
Monday, April 15 @ 8/7c

You can watch trailers and a sneak peek of the first episode at History.com.

You can also follow the show on social media at the following locations:

Facebook: Facebook.com/HISTORY
Twitter: #JesusHisLife
Instagram: @History

Please tune in!

March/April 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (45/2) is now on newsstands

BAR 45-2-2019The Biblical Archaeology Society is pleased to announce the publication of the March/April 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (Vol. 45, No. 2). This issue contains some wonderful articles:

“Resurrecting Easter: Hunting for the Original Resurrection Image”
By John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan

All of the main events in Jesus’s life are directly described in the New Testament—except for the Resurrection. This central event happens off-screen and is not directly witnessed. As a result, early Christians created two very different depictions of this moment. Join the Crossans as they hunt for the earliest images of Jesus’s resurrection—and attempt to resurrect the original Easter vision.

“Biblical Archaeology 101: The Ancient Diet of Roman Palestine”
By Susan Weingarten

What did people eat in Roman Palestine? Milk and honey? Olive oil and wine? Food historian Susan Weingarten takes readers on a culinary adventure through historical and archaeological remains to reconstruct the diet of the average person in Roman Palestine.

“Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel”
By Avraham Faust

Purification practices of ancient Israelite society before the introduction of mikva’ot remain largely unexplored. Recent excavations at Tel ‘Eton, in the southeastern Shephelah, yielded rich data on household life and practices in the tenth through the eighth centuries B.C.E. A large four-room house at Tel ‘Eton offers a rare glimpse of how Iron Age Israelites coped with the issues of ritual impurity, and it enables the author to reconstruct the purification ritual.

“Colossae—Colossal in Name Only?”
By Michael Trainor

The once great city of Colossae in modern Turkey has never been excavated. To the untrained eye, the site may appear unimpressive, but great archaeological treasures lie beneath its surface. Join Michael Trainor on an exploration of this ancient city awaiting the spade!

FIRST PERSON
“Was Pontius Pilate’s Ring Discovered at Herodium?”
By Robert R. Cargill

SITE-SEEING
“Surprising Susa”
By Todd Bolen

BIBLICAL VIEWS
“As in the Days of Noah: The Apocalyptic World of 1 Peter”
By Katie Marcar

ARCHAEOLOGICAL VIEWS
“Jewish Graffiti—Glimpsing the Forgotten Lives of Antiquity”
By Karen B. Stern

REVIEWS
“The Human Drama of St. Paul” Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright
Reviewed by Joshua McNall

Enjoy! And click here to subscribe to both print and online versions.

Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (45/1) is now on newsstands

BAR 45-1The Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) is pleased to announce the publication of the January/February 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR 45/1), which is on newsstands now.

During my first year as Editor, I am particularly proud of the number of new authors who have contributed to BAR, as well as the number of women and young(er) scholars we’ve been able to publish. We’ve also implemented a few changes, such as our new policy against publishing unprovenanced objects.

As I begin my second year as Editor, you can look for a few more gradual changes, including a redesign in the second half of 2019, a new website, more video and online resources, and a very special double issue highlighting some of the best archaeologists and biblical scholars in the academy.

This Jan/Feb issue is the annual “Digs” issue, so if you’re interested in going on an archaeological excavation, this issue has info on active excavations, contact info, and (perhaps most importantly) scholarship information ($2,000 awards–see pg. 27) for volunteers who want to go and excavate.

The featured articles include:

“Digs 2019: A Day in the Life”
By Robert R. Cargill
When the alarm clock blares at 4 a.m., it’s time to get up and start the dig day. Join BAR Editor Robert R. Cargill in his trademark tie-dye shirt as he walks you through a typical day in the life of an archaeological dig participant. It’s always grueling but never dull. And find out what excavation opportunities are available in the Holy Land this summer!

“The Last Days of Canaanite Azekah”
By Oded Lipschits, Sabine Kleiman, Ido Koch, Karl Berendt, Vanessa Linares, Sarah Richardson, Manfred Oeming, and Yuval Gadot
Excavations at Late Bronze Age Tel Azekah reveal various aspects of daily life in this Canaanite city, including its close interactions with Egypt. The gruesome discovery of four human skeletons poses questions about the final days of Azekah and how those dramatic events might be related to the Bronze Age collapse of Mediterranean
civilizations.

“Commander of the Fortress? Understanding an Ancient Israelite Military Title”
By William M. Schniedewind
From Tel Arad to Kuntillet ‘Ajrud to Jerusalem, Biblical scholar William M. Schniedewind guides BAR readers on a survey of ancient Israelite seals and inscriptions with an enigmatic title that has been variously translated “Governor of the City” and “Commander of the Fortress.” Who was this figure? Discover his importance and place in ancient Israelite and Judahite society.

“The Legend of Tel Achzib, Arkansas”
By Dale W. Manor
Excavations are underway at Tel Achzib—meaning “ruin of deception”—in Searcy, Arkansas. Created by archaeologists at Harding University, this artificial tell serves as a Biblical archaeology lab that introduces students to excavation technique and methodology. Especially for students unable to travel and dig in the Biblical lands, Tel Achzib offers a valuable, informative, and fun experience.

Also check out the columns in the issue:

FIRST PERSON
“A Little Jot on a Jerusalem Column”
By Robert R. Cargill

CLASSICAL CORNER
“Phidias and Pericles: Hold My Wine”
By Diane Harris Cline

BIBLICAL VIEWS
“Safeguarding Abraham”
By Dan Rickett

ARCHAEOLOGICAL VIEWS
“Tall Jalul: A Look from Behind the Jordan”
By Constance Gane

REVIEWS
“King David’s Stronghold at Khirbet Qeiyafa?”
In the Footsteps of King David: Revelations from an Ancient Biblical City by Yosef Garfinkel, Saar Ganor, and Michael G. Hasel
Reviewed by Aren M. Maeir

Enjoy! And click here to subscribe to both print and online versions.

 

 

The Importance of Archaeological Provenance – BAR Sept/Oct 2018

My First Person editorial for Sept/Oct 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR 44/5) is titled “The Importance of Archaeological Provenance.” I hope you can give it a read and learn about some new policies we’ve instituted at BAR regarding newly-introduced unprovenanced objects and our publication of them.

BAR-SO18-FP_Provenance_all

One of the major issues facing archaeology is the issue of provenance, or specifically the lack thereof, with regard to archaeological objects.1

The word provenance (alternatively spelled provenience) comes from the Latin provenire, meaning “to come forth, originate.” Thus, archaeological provenance refers to the verifiable information regarding the origin of an archaeological object—the dig site or location in which it was discovered, its locus, stratum, dating, etc., as well as its chain of custody, that is, who possessed the object since its discovery.

Conversely, an unprovenanced object is an object whose origin and chain of custody is unknown or partially unknown. These objects may have been looted from an archaeological site, forged, or otherwise acquired, legally or illegally, by a private collector, who often keeps the objects out of the hands of scholars. Some collectors, however, do offer their collections to scholars for study, but this process often merely increases the value of the objects for the collector, who then sells the objects for a greater profit. Other collectors sell their collections but demand that their identities be kept anonymous for fear of criminal prosecution or the stigmatic consequences of dealing antiquities on the black market.

Once the archaeological context of an object is lost, it is worth far less academically, as it can no longer reliably tell us anything about the people who made it. This is because the archaeological context—the place in which it was found in the ground—offers archaeologists as much information about the object as the object itself, like clues as to who was using the object, what it was used for, how old it is, etc.

Scholars and the Israel Antiquities Authority have condemned the purchase of unprovenanced objects by antiquities dealers for decades because it encourages the looting of archaeological sites by providing a financial incentive to those who would attempt to sell them to unwitting tourists and treasure seekers. Because objects discovered in licensed archaeological excavations belong to the state in which they were discovered—the most important of which typically end up displayed in the various states’ archaeological museums—those who wish to collect artifacts often turn to antiquities dealers. And while some antiquities dealers are licensed by the state to sell legally obtained objects, many others engage in the sale of illicitly obtained objects and, in turn, often collaborate with shadowy middlemen to acquire their goods (i.e., the black market).

Claims (typically made by licensed antiquities dealers) that the purchasers of illicit antiquities often act as “rescuers,” who ransom the looted artifacts from a life of shrouded anonymity on the black market so that they can be researched and published, are unconvincing. Continued illicit purchases only fuel further demand on the black market, which inevitably encourages looting. And even if a particular object has already been looted and is already on the black market, the sale of these antiquities, both legal and illicit, drives future looting, as stock must be resupplied. Reducing the demand by banning the non-state sanctioned sale of all antiquities and obstructing their transport is the only true way to begin to curtail looting. Furthermore, the damage done to potential and excavated archaeological sites by unscrupulous thieves far outweighs any benefits gained by the research and publication of these now decontextualized objects, which have been stripped of the valuable contextual data derived from a verifiable provenance.

One might object, “But what about the Dead Sea Scrolls? They began as unprovenanced objects before they were systematically excavated!” This is true, as did many objects that are now prominently displayed in the world’s greatest museums. These objects, as well as the additional problem of the transport of cultural history objects out of their homelands, contributed to the establishment of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Simply put, since it went into force in 1972, nations of the world agreed not to trade in illicit cultural heritage objects. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered beginning in 1947, prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but you can understand why news of the recent acquisition of scrolls by the Museum of the Bible from contractually anonymous black-market dealers caused so much furor among scholars.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have all established policies on unprovenanced antiquities that prohibit participation in the trade of undocumented antiquities and the activities that give sanction to that trade, including exhibiting unprovenanced objects in museums, publishing articles on them in their respective journals, and presenting professional papers on them at annual conferences.2 This is all done in an effort to discourage the looting of archaeological objects. By scholars refusing to participate in research, the unprovenanced objects lack the professional credibility required to authenticate the objects—authentication that enhances their monetary value. Thus, in theory, by scholars refusing to authenticate the illicit objects, their value is diminished, which results in lessened demand, leading to less looting.

It is for this reason that last November at the SBL annual meeting in Boston, I announced that BAR would no longer publish newly discovered or introduced unprovenanced archaeological objects in its pages. BAR occupies a unique place between the academy and the public. While it is our primary mission to convey the latest archaeological discoveries and research to the public, we also have a responsibility to discourage looting and the forging of archaeological objects by not promoting them in our magazine.

If and when the next sensational unprovenanced archaeological object is introduced to the media, BAR may use its position as a media outlet to explain to our readers what the claims being made are and why the unprovenanced nature of the discovery makes the discovery problematic. But as a practice, BAR will no longer publish newly introduced unprovenanced objects in an effort to play our small part in guarding against looting and forgery.—B.C.

1 A portion of this column was adapted from an earlier blog post (robertcargill.com/2017/07/19/the-museum-of-the-bible- why-are-archaeologists-and-bible-scholars-so-mad/).

2 ASOR and SBL provide an exemption for cuneiform tablets (see, e.g., www.asor.org/ initiatives-projects/asor-affiliated-archaeological-projects-2/standards-policies/policy-on- cuneiform-texts-from-iraq/).

Let’s Talk about Roseanne and Respecting the National Anthem

OK, let’s talk about respecting the National Anthem and our flag. Let’s do so in the context of what happened to Roseanne Barr yesterday, who was fired from her eponymous ABC television show for a racist tweet mocking the appearance of former Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman.

30ROSEANNE-tweet-superJumbo

Here’s my question: Have any of these kneeling NFL football players ever desecrated the National Anthem mockingly like Roseanne Barr, then grabbed their crotches and then spit? Watch the video below.

Until Trump supporters condemn Roseanne–which conservative Christians did en masse back in 1990 when the show was considered to vulgar and un-Christian to watch, unlike many of today’s Trump-endorsing conservative Christians, who see only politics–until they condemn Roseanne for her desecration of the National Anthem, they should shut up about NFL player protesting, silently and peacefully, the unequal treatment of African-Americans in this country at the hands of certain law enforcement officials.

An Explanation of Why I Oppose the Proposed Iowa “Bible Literacy” Bill

Iowa lawmakers recently introduced an election-year piece of legislation into the Iowa legislature. Mackenzie Ryan describes the bill in a recent article Iowa City Press-Citizen report:

House File 2031 would direct the state Department of Education to prepare material and teacher training for a high school elective course that focuses on the Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible’s New Testament. It would be a social studies class.

“Basically, I want to give students the opportunity to study the Bible from the perspective of its impact on history and culture,” said state Rep. Dean Fisher, R- Montour, who introduced the bill along with 11 other Republicans.

On Tuesday, July 30, a three-person subcommittee voted to advance the bill to the full Education committee for consideration.

In response to this legislation, I and two colleagues who teach Biblical studies at regent universities in Iowa–Prof. Hector Avalos of Iowa State University and Prof. Kenneth Atkinson of University of Northern Iowa–penned a guest editorial for the Press-Citizen, which can be read here. In it, we explain why we oppose such legislation.

In addition to the reasons mentioned in the letter, let me add a few thoughts that were too lengthy for the short op-ed.

First, our public high school teachers are already asked to teach too much for far too little pay. Are Iowa legislators really going to ask high school teachers to take the additional time necessary to receive adequate training in religious literature and Biblical studies in order to teach this course for the same pay? Are state legislators going to set aside extra money to train high school teachers how to teach the Bible as literature objectively? (Or, were the Iowa Republican sponsors of the bill just going to allow high school teachers to teach whatever denominational interpretation of the scriptures those teachers choose to bring into the classroom?)

THE PROBLEM WITH THE OPENING PARAGRAPH

Second, despite couching this bill as one establishing a “Biblical literacy” course, note that the opening paragraph of the legislation would allow a school district the option of offering a course on the New Testament alone. That is, each school has the option of offering a Hebrew Bible course, a Christian Bible course (i.e., an Old and New Testament course), or simply a New Testament course (option 2). Were option 2 to be chosen, it would cease to be a “Bible” literacy course, and would become a “New Testament” literacy course, as the New Testament comprises only 30% of the Christian Bible. That is to say, the Hebrew Bible is the complete Bible for Jews, and the Old and New Testaments comprise the Bible for Christians. However, a “New Testament only” course is NO ONE’S BIBLE. No Christian denomination views the New Testament alone as its Bible. Marcion of Sinope attempted this very thing in the second century CE, and he, his Bible (with no Old Testament), and his entire movement were branded heretics and excommunicated!

A “New Testament only” course is not a “Bible” course; it is nothing more than an attempt to teach the teachings and life of Jesus to public schoolchildren using taxpayer dollars.

THE PROBLEM WITH SECTION 2.2

There is also a problem with § 2.2 (pg. 2, lines 16-23) of the bill, which states:

A student enrolled in a course offered and taught pursuant to section 256.7, subsection 33, and this section, shall not be required to use a specific translation as the sole text for the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament of the Bible for the course, and may use instead a translation other than the text chosen for the course by the teacher, the school improvement advisory committee, the school district, or the state board of education.

This is one of the most problematic paragraphs of a highly problematic bill! This bill is being touted as a “Bible literacy” course. And regardless of the pros and cons of its text, the King James Version of the Bible has had the most impact on the English language because, among other reasons, it has been around the longest.

However, we don’t speak King James English anymore. So, this bill proposes that Iowa public high school teachers teach the Bible (which was originally written in Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic, and Hellenistic Greek) in English translation.

And yet, this bill states that students “shall not be required to use a specific translation as the sole text for the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament of the Bible for the course” (emphasis mine). This means that the state will be asking high school teachers to teach a Bible literacy class, in English, while students in that course are allowed to use different versions and translations of the Biblical text!

Anyone who has ever taught even a Sunday School class knows how difficult it is to read the Bible in a class where students are reading from different versions of the Bible–the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the American Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, the English Standard Version, the New Living Translation, the Christian Standard Bible, and so on. And Heaven forbid some student choose to read from a paraphrase like Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Yet, according to the legislation, all of these will be permitted. This will be chaos!

(Insider’s note: The reason this clause was likely added to the bill was because many Christians–the King James Only movement–believe that the King James Version of the Bible is the only ordained, infallible, inerrant, authorized, etc., version of Holy Scripture, and that all other translations are in error (read: heretical). However, the Iowa educators sponsoring this bill know they can’t dictate that Iowa public schoolchildren learn the King James Version of the Bible, as teaching Iowa public schoolchildren King James English would look silly, and would likewise instantly betray the theological exercise this entire enterprise has been from the start.

So, they have written a bill that proposes a curriculum in a modern, readable English translation, but have included an exception that allows for students to use whatever translation they choose, making accommodations in advance for what will certainly be the theological objections of religious conservatives who would demand to use only their King James Version. That’s why section 2.2 is in the bill. It is a tacit admission within the text of the bill itself that there are already theological issues with this proposal, and that those issues are not coming from Jews and Muslims and atheists, but will be coming from conservative religious fundamentalists.)

There is still another problem with section 2.2 of this “Bible literacy” bill. Note that section 2.2 does not limit the student’s choice of a translation to an English translation. This is either a mistake on the part of the drafters of the bill, or a concession that they cannot limit translations to English translation for the same reason described above. Let me explain.

Many Iowans are devout, Spanish-speaking Christians. And for many of these Spanish-speaking Christians–Catholics and Protestants alike–the Reina-Valera, the dominant Spanish translation of the Bible and one of the top-ten bestsellers annually in the United States, holds the same authority to them as does the King James Version to “King James Only” Christians. Even for some bilingual public school students who speak English while in at school, asking them to read from any version of the Bible other than the Spanish language Reina-Valera would be the equivalent of asking a “King James Only” Christian to read from the New International Version–they would have serious, and constitutionally credible first amendment religious objections to such a requirement–objections that this bill has already conceded and attempted to remedy with section 2.2 of this bill!

The result, of course, is that we now could potentially have some students reading from the Spanish Reina-Valera, some others reading from the KJV, still others reading from The Message, and still others reading from the New American Standard verstion. When this happens the entire idea of a “Bible literacy” class becomes a cacophony of Bible-babble.

And of course, my children, the sons and daughter of a professor of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, will be learned in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And because they can bring with them any version of the Bible they choose according to section 2.2 of this bill, they may very well bring with them to class the actual Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible, and read from the actual Bible in their “Bible literacy” class. Hopefully their teachers will have taken Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and will be able to understand the contributions they are making to the class.

All of the above scenarios fall well within the parameters of § 2.2 of the present bill.

THE LARGER PROBLEM WITH THE BIBLE LITERACY BILL

Of course, there is still the larger underlying problem with this “Bible literacy” bill. The problem stems from a fundamental rule of translation:

“THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TRANSLATION WITHOUT INTERPRETATION!”

This is true for any language, and it is not limited to religion. It is simply not possible to translate without interpreting. It is certainly not possible to translate religious scriptures without making theological value judgments while making said translation. Thus, the very act of reading a translated religious text to a classroom full of high school students is by nature a theological act, because the English text being read in the class required theological judgments to be made in order to produce the translation!

This is why some denominations produce their own English translations, and why so many Christians live and die, for instance, by the King James Version–they see other, variant translations as theologically flawed, not simply literarily flawed.

And in the end, this is the reason why I cannot support a “Bible literacy” class in public high schools, despite the fact that I teach Bible literacy for a living(!)–the very act of selecting passages from religious scripture and reading it to a class in translation is a theological act! I’ll explain how in a moment.

Understanding the holy scripture of any religion requires extensive training, preferably in the original languages in which the religious texts were produced. At the very least, teaching religious texts to students requires a thorough knowledge of all of the texts–not just the parts you like, the parts that inspire you personally–as well as a knowledge of how to teach these texts objectively so that the teaching of the literature does not cross over into proselytization and the teaching of the religion, and most troublingly from a legal perspective, why the student ought to come to believe in or adhere to the religious texts being taught in class.

The fact that a text is taught in a public high school classroom is a tacit endorsement of said text. It is why our public schools rightly teach courses on the U.S. Constitution and great works of English literature by Shakespeare, Dickens, and Salinger, but not all schools teach courses on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, or Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book–many parents don’t want their high school students exposed to literature that challenges what they have been taught to this extent, at least not yet.

Some parents don’t want their kids exposed to Christian religious scriptures in public schools for the same reason that many Christian parents would immediately object to the Islamic Qur’an being read in the public classroom, even just as literature! To read the Christian Bible in the public classroom and expose students to it is to make a theological claim. It not only implies that Christianity shaped America (which it absolutely did), but suggests to some students that they should learn about the Bible and Christianity so that they can continue to shape America. Again, this is a theological, value judgment.

The Iowa lawmakers proposing this “Bible literacy” bill are arguing that the Bible teaches “American values”, and should be taught along with Shakespeare, Dickens, and Salinger. However, they are wrong on two counts. The first is simple: the works of William Shakespeare are not religious texts (except for some at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Dept. of English, who no doubt worship them as such).

The second issue with the claim that the Bible is the core of “American values” is rooted in the myth–the absolute myth–that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” I have written on this before here and here. The U.S. was founded by many Christians, but they chose not to found it as a “Christian nation”. They had already thought this through and knew better than to mention Jesus and/or Christianity in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. They wanted religious education left to parents at home and to priests and preachers and rabbis and imams in houses of worship.

“BIBLE LITERACY” AND “AMERICAN VALUES” IN THE CLASSROOM: AN EXERCISE

Let me demonstrate for a moment how a teacher could frame a “Bible literacy” course in a public high school, if his or her intent was to demonstrate that “American values” came from the Christian Bible.

When I teach the Bible at the University of Iowa, I give my students the English translation, and then show them the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek that underlies the text. They don’t need to know Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, I just want to show them that these verses come from a context–a context that is not in America, and not in Europe, but a context that is in the Middle East about 2000-3000 years ago. And because these religious scriptures that came to be known as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible became sacred to Jews and Christians, what is said in them indeed influenced the laws that were made throughout Europe and in the United States.

A public high school teacher could do what I do in my university courses. He or she could show students how the Bible influenced America’s laws and culture. In fact, they could show them the very verses from Holy Scripture that were used by European and American politicians to support civil legislation in the modern world.

SLAVERY

For instance, Iowa high school teachers could show their students where slavery in America came from. When we established the United States, slavery was legal. Interestingly, the Bible supported, defended, and positively influenced the ownership of slaves in the United States. This is because, of course, God himself told his faithful followers precisely how to make slaves in Leviticus 25:44-46:

Lev. 25:44–As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that YOU MAY ACQUIRE MALE AND FEMALE SLAVES.

Lev. 25:45–You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; AND THEY MAY BE YOUR PROPERTY.

Lev. 25:46–You may KEEP THEM AS A POSSESSION for your children after you, for them TO INHERIT AS PROPERTYTHESE YOU MAY TREAT AS SLAVES

Why was there slavery in the United States? The Bible says it is OK. GOD HIMSELF says it is ok. Read it yourself.

An Iowa public school teacher could also show his or her students how, far from some “I have a Dream speech”, the New Testament never rescinds these slavery commands, but, in fact, three times reinforces slavery in Colossians, 1 Peter, and Ephesians:

Col. 3:22–SLAVES, OBEY YOUR EARTHLY MASTERS IN EVERYTHING, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.

1 Pet. 2:18–SLAVES, ACCEPT THE AUTHORITY OF YOUR MASTERS WITH ALL DEFERENCE, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

Eph. 6:5–SLAVES, OBEY YOUR EARTHLY MASTERS WITH FEAR AND TREMBLING, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ

They could then show public high school students how God instructs his faithful on the proper way to sell one’s daughter as a slave, as sanctioned by Exodus 21:7-11:

Ex. 21:7–WHEN A MAN SELLS HIS DAUGHTER AS A SLAVE, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.

Ex. 21:8–If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her.

Ex. 21:9–IF HE DESIGNATES HER FOR HIS SONhe shall deal with her as with a daughter.

Ex. 21:10–IF HE TAKES ANOTHER WIFE FOR HIMSELF, HE SHALL NOT DIMINISH THE FOOD, CLOTHING, OR MARITAL RIGHTS OF THE FIRST WIFE.

Ex. 21:11–And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

So, if we want to know about “American values”, and we want to know where the idea that one human can own another human being came from, we can read the Bible, because it is the Bible that sanctions the making of slaves. As a bonus, the class could discuss how God allowed men to take on second wives (polygamy) in Exodus 21:10.

WOMEN

An Iowa public high school teacher could then turn to the role of women. The issue of equal pay for equal work for men and women is hotly debated today, but before that it was women’s suffrage–a woman’s right to vote–that dominated the national debate. When this country was established, women did not have the right to vote. But why was that the case? Why weren’t women afforded equality with men?

Once again, the Bible is an excellent place to turn to see why women always took a back seat to men. First, an Iowa public high school teacher could have students read Leviticus 12:2-5:

Lev. 12:2–Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears A MALE CHILD, she shall be ceremonially unclean SEVEN DAYS; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean.

Lev. 12:3–On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

Lev. 12:4–Her time of blood purification shall be THIRTY-THREE DAYS; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.

Lev. 12:5–If she bears A FEMALE CHILD, she shall be unclean TWO WEEKS, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be SIXTY-SIX DAYS.

Apparently, according to God’s commands in the Bible, mothers who gave birth to daughters were unclean for twice as long as those who gave birth to sons. Likewise, a new mother’s time of isolation following the birth of a daughter was twice as long than had she borne a son. So from birth, giving birth to a son possessed an advantage.

The teacher could then have students read Leviticus 27:2-7, which states explicitly that men are quantitatively worth more than women:

Lev. 27:2–Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When a person makes an explicit vow to the Lord concerning the equivalent for a human being,

Lev. 27:3–THE EQUIVALENT FOR THE MALE SHALL BE: from twenty to sixty years of age the equivalent shall be FIFTY shekels of silver by the sanctuary shekel.

Lev. 27:4–IF THE PERSON IS A FEMALE, the equivalent is THIRTY shekels.

Lev. 27:5–If the age is from five to twenty years of age, the equivalent is TWENTY SHEKELS FOR A MALE and TEN SHEKELS FOR A FEMALE.

Lev. 27:6–If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a MALE is FIVE shekels of silver, and for a FEMALE the equivalent is THREE shekels of silver.

Lev. 27:7–And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the equivalent for a MALE is FIFTEEN shekels, and for a FEMALETEN shekels.

But it is not just in the Old Testament that the value of women is less than that of men. The New Testament preserves the subjugation of women in its literature. For instance, 1 Corinthians 11:3 says the following:

1 Cor. 11:3–But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and THE HUSBAND IS THE HEAD OF HIS WIFE, and God is the head of Christ.

The teacher could then ask students whether it is ok for the women in the classroom to raise their hands and ask questions. When they look at the teacher with a perplexed look, he or she could have them read the literature present in 1 Timothy 2:11-14–an argument that is rooted in a historical Adam and Eve:

1 Tim. 2:11–LET A WOMAN LEARN IN SILENCE WITH FULL SUBMISSION.

1 Tim. 2:12–I PERMIT NO WOMAN TO TEACH OR HAVE AUTHORITY OVER A MAN; SHE IS TO KEEP SILENT.

1 Tim. 2:13–For Adam was formed first, then Eve;

1 Tim. 2:14–and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

We the high school students have a discussion about whether it is ok for women to have authority over men, either as Governor of Iowa, Mayor of an Iowa city, CEO of an Iowa corporation, or the Speaker of the Iowa General Assembly. And imagine the awkwardness when all of the wonderful women teaching in our Iowa public high schools read 1 Tim. 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach.”

But of course, the subordination of women is not limited to the public realm–it extends to the religious realm as well, as least so says 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

1 Cor. 14:34–WOMEN SHOULD BE SILENT IN THE CHURCHES. FOR THEY ARE NOT PERMITTED TO SPEAK, BUT SHOULD BE SUBORDINATE, AS THE LAW ALSO SAYS.

1 Cor. 14:35–IF THERE IS ANYTHING THEY DESIRE TO KNOW, LET THEM ASK THEIR HUSBANDS AT HOME. FOR IT IS SHAMEFUL FOR A WOMAN TO SPEAK IN CHURCH.

This text appears to be consistent with the literature found in Ephesians 5:22-24:

Eph. 5:22–WIVES, BE SUBJECT TO YOUR HUSBANDS as you are to the Lord.

Eph. 5:23–For THE HUSBAND IS THE HEAD OF THE WIFE just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.

Eph. 5:24–Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also WIVES OUGHT TO BE, IN EVERYTHING, TO THEIR HUSBANDS.

I guess it is possible that an Iowa high school teacher could explain that “just as Christ is the head of the Church” is actually a positive thing, but this would require the teacher to engage in some rather sophisticated theological explanation, which of course would be prohibited by law.

You can also imagine how the mothers and fathers of daughters in Iowa high school classrooms might feel to have this “literature” read to their children, not to mention how the women in the classroom might feel when they hear that the Bible is telling them to “be subject” to their future husbands. Of course, what it means to “be subject in everything” ventures into some conversations that I’m guessing most public high school teachers don’t want to have with their students!

It doesn’t take long to understand why women’s suffrage took so long in the United States. Women had to convince voters across the country that despite what the Bible clearly says, women should not be seen as subordinates to men. Women can exercise authority over men, are equal to men under the law, and should have every right and privilege that men do–again, despite what the Bible says!

OTHER “AMERICAN VALUES”

There are other bits of literature that we can read from the Bible that pertain to issues in the United States. For instance, Iowa high school teachers can show their students the proper way to commit genocide, as strictly prescribed by God himself in 1 Sam. 15:2-3:

1Sam. 15:2–THUS SAYS THE LORD OF HOSTS, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.

1Sam. 15:3–Now GO AND ATTACK AMALEK, AND UTTERLY DESTROY ALL THAT THEY HAVE; DO NOT SPARE THEM, BUT KILL BOTH MAN AND WOMAN, CHILD AND INFANT, OX AND SHEEP, CAMEL AND DONKEY.”

This text is often overlooked as an “American value”, because like slavery, it is a period in our nation’s history that we’d like to forget. But in the Midwest, and to our Native-American brothers and sisters, the biblical verses depicting God instructing his faithful exactly how to obliterate those peoples who fight against them and do not worship as they do as they attempt to conquer and settle the new land they believe to be given to them by God is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago.

It’s a difficult passage to read. In the above text, God tells Israel how to commit genocide.

Again, one might be tempted to explain, “Well, you see, what God did here is actually OK, because of the sin of Amalek…”, but as soon as one invokes “sin” or “disobedience” or “divine justification” for the genocide described in the literature, one is instantly engaging in a theological apologetic–the teacher is doing theology–which is prohibited by law. Furthermore, the fact that “God commanded them to do so, so it’s OK” is the same rationale that ISIS gives for what it does will not be lost on our public high school students.

And finally, when it comes to genocide and warfare, a public high school teacher might show his or her class one of the psalms from the Bible that celebrates revenge in the form of infanticide against the enemies of Israel in Psalm 137:8-9:

Psa. 137:8–O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!

Psa. 137:9–HAPPY SHALL THEY BE WHO TAKE YOUR LITTLE ONES AND DASH THEM AGAINST THE ROCK!

THE POINT OF THIS EXERCISE

By now, many of you should be saying, “Come now, professor Cargill, this is absurd! You are only choosing verses that cast Judaism and Christianity and God himself in a very negative light. Why aren’t you showing the positive verses in the Bible like the following:

Isaiah 40:31–but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Josh. 1:9–I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

John 13:34–I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Psalm 23:4–Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

Matthew 7:7–“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

Psalm 55:22–Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.

Proverbs 30:5–Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

Psalm 119:114–You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word.

Psalm 119:115–Go away from me, you evildoers, that I may keep the commandments of my God.

1 John 4:7–Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

1 John 4:8–Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Nahum 1:7–The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him,

Philippians 4:13–I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

(I show these verses to my class, by the way.)

Here’s the point of the exercise:

As soon as someone makes the above comment–“Why are you showing the negative Biblical literature that makes God and the Bible look “bad” instead of the positive Biblical literature that is encouraging and inspiring and gives people hope, you know, the positive, good Bible verses?”–that person has made my point for me!

Teachers obviously can’t read the entire Bible in a “Bible literacy” class. This means the teacher must choose which verses from the Bible he or she is going to share with the class. And as soon as the teacher chooses one verse over another, he or she is making a value judgment about the Bible. The teacher is choosing how he or she wants to portray the Bible to his or her class.

Let me put it another way: BY SIMPLY READING BIBLE VERSES IN A PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL CLASSROOM AS PART OF A “BIBLE LITERACY” COURSE, TEACHERS ARE ENGAGING IN THEOLOGY! This is because the verses they choose to read in class are chosen in an effort to paint the Bible in a particular light.

Note the following: at no point in the above exercise did I theologize or preach or engage in any “religious” activity. All I did was read texts from the Bible: Leviticus 25:44-46; Colossians 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18; Ephesians 6:5; Exodus 21:7-11; ; Psalm 137:8-9, etc. All I did was read verses from the Bible, God’s holy word! And still, some of you–devout people of faith(!)–were offended. Imagine if a high school teacher had done that in your child’s classroom.

I simply read “Bible literature”. And this is my point: there is no such thing as a simple “Bible literacy” class. This is because there is no such thing as translation without interpretation. This means that any “Bible literacy” class necessarily involves theology because the verses that are read are a highly subjective selection, and the very act of selecting which verses of the Bible to read in class is a theological act!

The act of reading the Bible in a public high school is a theological act. It would be a state-sanctioned violation of the separation of church and state, and therefore unconstitutional. This bill should not be enacted into law. In fact, it should die in committee.

Robert R. Cargill, Ph.D.
Asst. Professor of Classics and Religious Studies, The University of Iowa
Editor, Biblical Archaeology Review

 

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