DESCRIPTION: Jack reads from and discusses a two-part article from his blog, concerning how it simply takes work to study the Bible, and how the book, as fabulous as it is, simply wasn’t designed for lazy-minded people.
Introduction to Reality-Based Thinking: This is Jack’s video podcast, which only has three episodes, which together comprise a thorough introduction to the concept of Reality-Based Thinking.
The Extraordinary Visit of Benjamin True: The State of the Union as No One Else Would Tell It. This is Jack’s novel that introduces the basics of Reality-Based Thinking as it explores what an angel might say (from his heavenly perspective) about the American government and the political thinking of the American citizen.
Text for this Episode
The text below is copied from the two blog articles in question at jackpelham.com. This is the basis of this episode, along with other observations Jack makes while reading.
Jesus was talking to some from a religious faction (Sadducees) one day and he told them a most instructive thing:
Matthew 22:29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.
They were wrong about something because they did not know the scriptures. They could have had the right answer, but apparently, they had chosen not to go find it in the scriptures. Immediately after telling them they are wrong, Jesus explains the right answer to them, alluding to previous writings.
Their ignorance did not keep them from having an answer, mind you. Indeed, they had an answer, but it was “wrong”, said Jesus. And that “wrong” answer was worthy of correction; this we can tell because Jesus took the time to correct it.
So let’s review: They didn’t have to be wrong, but they had neglected to learn all the available information on the topic before settling on a (flawed) model of understanding, and this was worthy of correction in Jesus’ mind.
Does this have any implications for us? We’ll come back to that.
For now, though, we’ll look at another example. In his epistle to the Roman Christians, Paul seems to be correcting some misconceptions held by his audience. In his explanation of what they are missing, he appeals thus:
Romans 11:2b Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?
Now, we have every reason to believe that the Roman Christians were good guys, not like those mean ol’ Sadducees, yet still, Paul was explaining to them something they could have already learned for themselves had they cared to do the research.
And now let me give you another passage to consider. Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for something they didn’t know enough about. Look at his response:
Matthew 12:3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?
This one’s even more interesting because, if you know anything about the Pharisees, you know that they had read these passages. It was one of the fundamental paradigms of their group to know all about the scriptures. Indeed, they were very proud about this, so they definitely knew the passages Jesus was referring to. Obviously, though, they had never fully processed what they had read (perhaps because they did not like what it said?). So once again, they could have known better, but had either neglected to “do the math” or to make themselves believe the answers. So here they were leveling an erroneous criticism.
There are many passages of this sort in the Bible. They don’t all use the phrase “have you not read”, so it’s not super-convenient to find them all. But it’s well worth your time to search through and make a list of such things.
Anyway, in religion, there are lots of players; lots of people who want to be involved. Yet it seems quite easy to make cognitive (thinking) errors about the facts of religion. Why is that? Why isn’t it easier? Why didn’t God create a way for us to all have a fuller and more convenient knowledge of the facts?
It gets worse.
When Jesus came to the Earth as the Son of Man, he spoke to people in parables. A parable is a story that teaches us about something other than the story itself. For instance, the parable of the mustard seed wasn’t really about mustard seeds at all, but about reliance upon God and what a good return on investment can be expected from it. Well, this muddies the waters considerably for the casualist, because with parables, it becomes practically impossible for the cognitive miser to understand Jesus. (“Cognitive miser” is the term that cognitive scientists use to describe our stinginess with our thinking.)
QUESTION: Did Jesus know this? Did Jesus know that humans tend to be cognitive misers? Did he know that the more complicated his statements, the fewer people would understand them? Did he know that if he told parables, lots of people would lack the mental energy to mine out from those parables the meanings he had in mind?
You bet he did! Yet he told the parables anyway!
Consider this one:
Matthew 13:34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
Interestingly, even though he was uttering what had been “hidden”, but was still not spelling it out in the most direct and clear terms. We are told elsewhere, however, that he told his own disciples everything in plain language, unlike how he spoke to the crowds:
Mark 4:34 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
Is it just a coincidence that his own disciples had signed up for the full course, and not just the passerby version? I think not. Their intense interest was rewarded by a much fuller understanding; they were much less likely to get things wrong than were the casual listeners in the crowds.
You and I, however, are not among those whose honor it was to sit at Jesus’ feet. He is not here to “explain everything” to us and to answer our questions. If we want to know, we’re going to have to find out from what is in the Bible—and if it’s not in there, we’re either going to have to do without, or we’re going to have to engage in some speculation—which may or may not be as accurate and as reasonable as we might like to think it is.
UNDERSTANDING THE NATURE OF THE MATERIAL
We may have lots of questions, but the inconvenient truth of the matter is that a great many of our questions are not answered conveniently in the Bible. Sure, some things are easy to pick up, such as, for example, where Jesus says that we should not make a show of our good deeds. That one’s pretty simple. Other things, though, require much research if we are to understand them accurately. For example, when Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man”, we cannot possibly comprehend how loaded that statement is unless we have searched out all the “son of man” language in the Bible in order to understand how it was used and what it meant. Or when he speaks of “this perverse generation”, how are we to know what he had in mind unless we have searched all the scriptures to find out what it might have been?
“But who has the time for that?” someone may wonder.
I’m glad you asked. A devout student has the time for that. Others do not. The Bible itself divides people into two groups: those who will work to understand, and those who don’t care that much.
There is no Bible for cognitive misers. There is no Bible for lazy people. There is no “Bible for Dummies”, as we might expect to find in the bookstore. (Yes, there is a book called “The Bible for Dummies”, but it can’t begin to explain all these things.) There is no Bible that magically imparts the full information of the scriptures in convenient form. It was not written that way. It was written in a rich mixture of history and metaphor, parable and poem, narrative and vision. It’s almost as if the idea were to keep the cognitive miser in the dark. It’s as if God intentionally makes it hard for the casual reader to get things right.
And that brings us to the epidemic of error regarding the scriptures. When we have thousands of opposing camps—each one claiming to have a better take on things than the rest. So, logically speaking, we can rest assured that most of us are wrong about a great many things. And wrong we are—yet we may never know it this side of that dreaded appointment with God, for so many of us tell ourselves again and again that we have got it more or less figured out, and that if we were wrong about any of it, we’d surely know we were wrong!
This is what the church corporations tend to do. They whittle it down for us into a convenient packet of information, and then they assure us that we needn’t bother ourselves to learn much beyond what they repeat again and again for us. This catering to convenience and “belonging” has led us to a great many misunderstandings of scripture. Their constant assurance that our continued attendance is more or less all we need to work at is a surefire way to keep the cognitive miser a cognitive miser—satiated, incurious, self-assured, complacent, and wrong about a great many things.
People of that sort, however, do not have a special Bible of their own; they have the same one that everyone else has—all 1,100 pages of it. Funny, so many of us (who believe) claim that the Bible is a treasure from God, yet a great many people dispense with the lion’s share of the texts, counting them unworthy of their apt attention.
And what is the consequence of this?
The consequence is that they are wrong about a great many things. And further, they are wrong about being wrong. What I mean is that Jesus, as we have seen, believed that errors were to be corrected, but the average modern Christian has managed to live with his or her errors, not lifting a finger to correct a thing–nor having many friends, if any at all, who will dare to make those corrections for them. Indeed, the average Christian may do so little reading as to rarely come across any signal that his erroneous understanding of this or that is in fact erroneous.
If we have no interest in learning the whole of the Bible, we demonstrate what terrible “disciples” we would be. Many of us remember that one-liner from Jeremiah 29:30, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Many, however, seem to hope that God is not really the sort to mean such things. They hope that God will count their spirit of convenience as a spirit of diligence, and their ignorance as knowledge. They hope he will count their wrong answers as right ones, without they, themselves, having to lift a finger to learn or to correct anything.
Any why not hope for such things? Without regular time in the texts to warn them against such ideas, why not believe it? Why not imagine God to be exactly what would be the most convenient for the cognitive miser?
Well, if you know the scriptures, you know why not. And once again, we see how the scriptures tend to make the differences between people fairly obvious. If those of us who diligently study still have many things to learn and to correct, those who don’t study are hopeless in the Bible sense of that word. Thus do they invent the hope that God is not as he says he is, and they build entire church organizations around that hope.
In my previous post, I talked about how:
- We have to actually read the Bible to know what’s in it.
- Jesus seems to have thought that people’s misunderstandings were worth correcting, so we are to be in the habit of correcting ourselves by our further study.
- We have to deliberately process what we read in order to get it right.
- We have to crosscheck what we read in order to understand when one passage alludes to information found elsewhere, such as with the parables or apocalyptic literature.
All this was concerning how it’s hard work to know the Bible—much harder than many assume.
But it gets worse. Here are yet a few more difficulties the devoted Bible student faces.
Our English Bibles are not in the original language. No matter how good a translation we have, it is inevitable that some information will be lost or distorted in a translation. That is, there’s no way that we will glean as accurate an understanding of a passage’s original intent as would a reader fluent in the original language who is reading the text in the original language.
We must understand that when translators do their thing, they are limited by the limitations of the language into which they are translating. Here’s a great example:
Matthew 5:5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth
Our English word meek connotes a person who is weak of will and easily overrun by others. Thus is it not an accurate translation of the Greek word praus in this passage. William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew 5:5 says of praus: “It is the regular word for an animal which has been domesticated, which has been trained to obey the word of command, which has learned to answer to the reins. It is the word for an animal
which has learned to accept control.” In other words, what is being indicated by the word praus is a person of great strength—one who can keep himself on the straight and narrow, resisting the temptation to turn to the left or to the right. This is hardly what we get from the word meek.
What does this mean for us? It means that we don’t know as we read along in English whether we are getting the full sense of the original intent or not. So how can we know? Well, we have to look into the original language. This takes our Bible study effort to a whole new order of magnitude as it forces us to leave the mere task of reading (such as we might read a novel) and consult other reference works.
But wait, it gets even harder still!
The Bible Is Not Complete
This one’s really going to rattle a lot of folks, but so be it; we must follow the truth wherever it may lead.
Many believers have no idea that the Bible is not a complete record of all the things mentioned therein. The reason they do not know this is very simple; they do not investigate matters deeply enough to discover that many of the questions that arise through the curious reading of the texts are not answered in the texts.
2 Corinthians 12:2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.
Paul writes to the Corinthians as if they will understand what he means by “the third heaven”. Indeed, in this very letter, Paul has already told us something about his way of thinking about the letter he is writing:
2 Corinthians 1:13 For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand—
So if in 12:2 Paul is still holding to this idea of writing only what they can read and understand, then we can assume that Paul thought they would understand his meaning of “the third heaven”. Otherwise, would he not have stopped to explain it, so that they could “fully understand”, as he hoped they would?
So what’s the problem? Our problem is that we don’t understand the third heaven. While there are many mentions of “heaven” and “the heavens” in the Bible, there is no passage that mentions any other ordinal number (first, second…) regarding any heaven. No passage tells us how many there are or were in total. No passage explains the need for more than one. No passage explains whether the three exist at one time, or whether the first was made obsolete by the second, and the second by the third. In short, we are simply not told by means of any direct language. That’s not to say that something couldn’t be figured out with regard to all this, but you’ll not find an explicit statement in this regard anywhere. And if you go to the extrabiblical Ancient Near Eastern writings, you’ll find various accounts that do not use the same number of heavens. In some of them, for instance, you’ll see “the highest heaven” mentioned in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, though it doesn’t say how many there are in total. You’ll find five heavens mentioned in 3 Baruch. And you’ll see ten heavens in The Secrets of Enoch.
There are many such challenging topics, raised by scripture, but not detailed in scripture. The devout student knows this; the novice is surprised by it.
But wait, it gets even harder still!
Allusions to or Quotations from Extrabiblical Works
What do we do when the Bible quotes or alludes to other writings that are not in the Bible? Here’s a good example:
Jude 14 It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”
The prophecy quoted here is not found elsewhere in the Bible, but in The Book of Enoch (also called 1st Enoch). This passage constitutes the whole of Chapter 2 of that book. Not only does Jude quote it as fact, but he specifically calls it a prophecy. And that really bakes the noodles of those who have been taught that the Bible is a tidy little package, all wrapped up and complete. It opens quite an uncomfortable door for the cognitive miser, who must now choose whether to process this information, or simply to ignore it. (And what do you think that most choose? Ignoring it is easier by far, provided that one does not keep regular company with devout students of the texts.)
If it increases the Bible student’s work to have to consult reference works in addition to the Bible itself, exploring the extrabiblical works increases the work all the more.
But that’s not all, folks!
Dealing With All The False Ideas
The devoted student of the Bible has to swim through a veritable sea of confusion as to what the Bible is, where it came from, what was its purpose, how it works, what time it is now, and what we should make of it in our own lives. He or she will quickly discover that a great many beliefs about the Bible are held very strongly, even with very little supporting evidence—and sometimes, even against the evidence.
Here are some examples of commonly-held beliefs that are hard to support from the Bible:
- “God determined exactly what would be in the Bible.” No passage of scripture says this.
- “The Bible is complete.” No passage of scripture says this.
- “The Bible replaced the original New Testament apostles and prophets.” No passage of scripture says this.
- “The _________ version was translated infallibly with the help of God himself.” No passage of scripture says this, and it doesn’t take much investigation to confirm that it’s a false idea.
- “Every word in the Bible was written by direct inspiration, as if God himself were holding the pen.” Not only does no passage say this, but it’s very clear in the original languages that the style of writing changes from document to document in the Bible, indicating that it is not the work of a single author.
- “There are no contradictions in the Bible.” This is simply not true. For example, compare the order of events in the various accounts of the Last Supper and see that the accounts do not all agree. (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11) Dishonest students will lie about this and pretend that there are no contradictions, or alternatively, that they “don’t matter”. The fact of the matter, however, is that it tells us something very important about the nature of the Bible when we stop and observe the obvious.
- “The Bible is life’s instruction manual.” No it’s not. There’s nothing in it about a great many things we need to know in life.
- “The Bible is a blueprint for the church.” If that’s what it is, it is grossly incomplete. There are a great many questions that arise quite routinely in the practice of “church” that are not answered in the Bible. This is further evinced by the great variation from one church to another today; they have answered these questions by some means other than direct answers in the texts—because not all the answers are there. (They have also strayed from some of the answers that are there, but that’s another topic!)
- “The Bible was written to us.” No, it wasn’t. There is not one passage in the Bible that is explicitly addressed to any audience later than the First Century AD. This is quite obvious, but many lie about it, preferring to pretend otherwise.
- “All Bible study should end with life application.” This is a really bad idea, for the cognitive miser–if he cares at all about such things, will likely find himself in a rush to figure out what to “do” about every passage he reads. And why in a rush? That’s because cognitive misers are quite unhappy in thinking mode, and are always in a hurry to get out of it. But this rush to application distracts him from what should be the primary goal of study: to determine what was believed, what happened, and what it meant to the writer. To divorce ourselves from the meaning of the texts in a rush to “do something” is to divorce ourselves from our chances of figuring out accurately what should be done! Those who study the whole Bible generally have considerably different ideas how to conduct themselves than do those who only read parts of it.
The devout student of the texts will have to swim against the tide of popular opinion. This includes not only such items as those in the brief list above, but also the accusations of cognitive misers who are made uncomfortable at the idea that they, too, probably need to invest more effort in their own study. From this are born accusations such as “you think too much”, which are commonly launched against the devout student in an attempt to get him to shut up about his findings.
The fact of the matter, of course, is that we have over 1,100 pages of Bible about which to think, and the typical cognitive miser believer generally concerns himself with only a few one-liners from scripture—often only from those printed in the New Testament, and often only those printed in red letters–if he knows what a Red-Letter Edition is. From these, they simply guess at the meanings with no intent whatsoever to confirm or deny those guesses from the rest of the 1,100 pages.
There is no Bible that eases the load of the cognitive miser. There’s no way around it. Assuming that the Bible contains things that pertain to God—and for the record, that’s what I believe— then the person who is really interested in God is going to be interested in everything that’s in it. I think that one’s level of curiosity about understanding the texts may well be a good indicator of one’s interest in God himself. I am reminded of the account of the “Rich Young Ruler”, who simply didn’t consider a radical investment in Jesus to be worth the cost:
Mark 10:17 Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.
Is this really any different from someone who would like a family, but not a full-time family? Is it any different from one who would like an occasional lover, but not a spouse? Is it any different from one who would like lots of money, but not lots of work?
The fact of the matter is that a full and accurate understanding of the scriptures is a very costly thing. Much ado is made in the churches about “knowing God”. From this, we may infer that “knowing God” is considered a very important thing. Yet if we study the habits of those making such proclamations, we generally see that very few of them are interested in knowing everything that can be learned from the very texts that they hold to be God-breathed.
And one has to wonder at what point having only a partial understanding of what God is like is about the same as having a false understanding of what God is like.
For more on these ideas, see my related post, Whittling Christianity Down to a Twisted Lie.