As a pastor, I have a lot of conversations with people on Sunday mornings, not to mention the continuous conversation going on in my own head: “What are the Words of Institution again? Why isn’t the powerpoint working? Why didn’t I use the restroom before the service started?” So it takes a lot for me to remember a Sunday morning conversation I had two years ago after a worship service. A congregant came up to me and asked, “Could you please show me in the Bible where it says, ‘God only helps those who help themselves? I have a lazy family member who needs to hear that, and he’ll listen if it’s from the Bible.’” Patiently–and much to the chagrin of this congregant–I explained that this particular quote is not in the Bible. I told her there were scriptures that spoke to the value and calling to work, but that I wasn’t really into giving people biblical ammunition for their predetermined arguments to bring the hammer down on their opponent. OK, maybe I didn’t say it quite like that, but you get the picture.
There are lots of things the Bible doesn’t say, which is one thing. There are a number of things that many people assume, think, or wish the Bible said that it doesn’t, which is a whole other thing. It’s these common ‘additions’ to the biblical text I’m going to examine in this sporadic series. Every so often, I’ll take on one of these sub-biblical nuggets of gospel truthiness. Many of them have hints of biblical wisdom, but either end before the whole story has been told or take a sharp turn away from the Bible’s message.
Where do these misquotations come from? Well, it varies.
1) Cultural proverbs: every culture has its proverbs or “words of wisdom.” The Western world has been significantly shaped by Christianity and the Bible, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t come up with some of our own brand of proverbs. With all the Bible quotes circulating in our culture, it can be easy to just lump all proverb-sounding phrases into biblical phrases. (This, I think, is the case with “God only helps those who help themselves,” but we’ll save that for another time.)
2) The cliche-ification of faith: This stems, admittedly, from pastors like myself. We try to distill a biblical lesson down into catchy, memorable phrases, and suddenly they become biblical. Instead of reading and memorizing Scripture, people base their faith on cliches. Now, I’m not against the practice of communicating in memorable ways, but oftentimes the quote is taken out of the lesson it was intended to sum up and takes on a life of its own.
3) Wishful thinking: combined with #1, sometimes we hear something we really want to be true and then canonize it. We wish these quotes right into the Bible.
4) Selective listening: sometimes we have a situation in our lives to which we have a pre-determined response, whether it is out of our own preferred solution or what we see as the only viable solution. We then hear a biblical message or text that sounds kind of like what we were already going for, and BAM! we’ve created our own Bible verse.
5) Historical layering: again, we live in a culture that for centuries has been filled with Christians interpreting, communicating, and creating art to depict the biblical Story. Which is great in some ways (thank God for Handel’s Messiah, no?). Except sometimes we too quickly assume that the interpretation or artistic rendering are accurate in every detail to the biblical text. For today’s focus of “Things the Bible Doesn’t Say,” I’ll give you one example of this last category that many of you probably already know.
- The Bible doesn’t say that Adam and Eve ate an apple. The text simply says “fruit.” I suppose it could have been an apple, and I don’t think anyone is really missing out on the point of the text by assuming the fruit was an apple. But still, where do we get an apple? Possibly from a Latin play on words in which
the word for evil and apple are practically the same (if this is the origin, it would be a good example of #2 as well). It ended up being an apple in John Milton’s 1667 epic Paradise Lost (which contributes more to how many people think of the Fall story than Genesis 3 does), and was frequently depicted as an apple in Renaissance art. All of a sudden, all the images of the Fall we see have apples in them, not to mention secular allusions to the story (ie. Apple, Desperate Housewives). And so we assume the Bible speaks of an apple.
The example I’ve given here is relatively harmless. I only use it to illustrate how these ideas are canonized in our minds and the minds of our culture. And my point is not to blame artists, pastors, or cultural wisdom. Rather, the common soil that allows these misquotes to grow is biblical ignorance, getting our scriptural knowledge secondhand instead of being rooted in the Biblical Story ourselves. My ultimate reason for shining some light on these things the Bible doesn’t say is to highlight what the Bible actually says, what the Gospel Story is really all about, what God is truly saying to us. My hope is that these misquotes will encourage us to delight in the sweetness of God’s Word, let the Gospel message cut to our hearts, and to be enlivened by the Words of Life God is speaking to our hearts.