This Op Ed is co-authored by a Rabbi and Hebrew Bible Scholar and an ordained Christian Minister and New Testament Scholar. This week, among the tens of news alerts, one in particular caught our attention as a clergy and scholars. On Monday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted the following statement: “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”
The president’s tweet was a response to a Fox & Friends segment where North Dakota Rep. Aaron McWilliams (R) discussed a bill he was co-sponsoring a bill to allow Bible classes in public schools. This bill, as it turns out, is not unique. The ACLU has reported that Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Alabama, Iowa, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky have all introduced similar legislation and, in Kentucky and Tennessee, this legislation has passed. There has, unsurprisingly, been strong pushback to such bills, in particular because they blur the lines between Church and State. As Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recently stated “State legislators should not be fooled that these bills are anything more than part of a scheme to impose Christian beliefs on public schoolchildren.” While we fully agree with Laser, and all others who warn about the challenges such bills represent to non-Christians in our public schools, as scholars our concerns also follow a different track.
Fair warning: this Op Ed will contain some very technical information. This is because both Christian and Jewish biblical studies is a very technical endeavor, and that is the crux of the problem with “biblical literacy.” The idea sounds simple, and to most legislators who may be unaware of the technical issues, it likely seems quite simple. However in practical implementation the many technical problems with “teaching the bible” make it a very difficult endeavor to implement fairly and in a balanced way in a public school setting. So this Op Ed will seek to highlight a number of logistical problems with such a seemingly straightforward endeavor, and will seek to demonstrate that such an undertaking will inevitably be one sided and will ultimately elevate one religious tradition above others.
The first question when one is presented with this kind of legislation is “Who’s Bible?” No doubt the initiatives listed above have the Christian, most likely the Protestant Christian, Bible in mind. However there is no one single bible (collection of sacred writings called a “canon”). Jews have a canon with the same collection of writings, or biblical “books” as what protestants have traditionally called the Old Testament, although the books are in a different order. Catholics have more books in their canon that include writings from the time between the Hebrew Bible and what Protestants call the New Testament writings. The Orthodox Christians (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.) also have a different canon than the Protestant and Catholic Christians. So in a public school, where all voices and traditions are equally important, who’s Bible will be taught? All this, not to mention the fact that other religious traditions such as Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, to name a few, have entirely different sets of sacred writings! Who’s sacred writings should be taught in a public school where all voices and traditions are equal?
The next question is, “Which Bible?” What most people (and perhaps most legislators) do not know is that any modern translation of “the Bible” is based on a compilation of various ancient manuscripts. No one has the original writings of either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament! What we have available to us today are copies of copies of copies (and so on) called manuscripts. The printing press had not been invented and to preserve deteriorating sacred writings they were hand copied by scribes who were subject to human error and engaged in intentional changes. Although the vast majority of these manuscripts agree with each other, there are also many differences.
For example, when Jewish scholars read “the Bible,” meaning the Jewish canon, they read it in the original language, Hebrew. The manuscript they use is the Masoretic Text, which has been deemed the authoritative manuscript for Judaism. As mentioned above, the original text of the Hebrew Bible has never been found. Instead, between the 7th and 10th centuries CE, the Masoretes took many manuscripts, including the Ben Asher, and the Ben Naphtali scripts, and created an authoritative text. This manuscript, what we now call the “MT,” differs from the texts found at Qumran, as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It also differs from the manuscript that was used to translate the Bible into Greek, known as the Septuagint. Furthermore, it differs from the Aleppo Codex, the Peshitta, and the Samaritan Pentateuch, and it differs from the manuscript used by the rabbis of the 2nd – 5th centuries CE in the Mishnah and Talmud. What we as biblical scholars see when we read the MT, in other words, is just one perspective of the Hebrew.
New Testament scholarship has a similar issue. Because we do not have the original manuscripts of the New Testament, scholars sort through the plethora of currently existing manuscripts and compile what is most likely the original text. So, what does all of this mean? Those who translate both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament into English have made choices about what manuscripts they believe are most likely to represent the original writings. These choices are seen in the (more than just stylistic) variation among translations of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
This leads to a third question, “Which translation?” Once we have established the lack of consistency in the “original” biblical texts, we can and should move on to the problems in regard to translation. If you are a typical Jew, you read an English translation from the Hebrew, perhaps the translations by the Jewish Publication Society, Robert Alter, the Plaut Chumash, or the like. A Christian might read from the New Revised Standard Version or New International Version or another of the plethora of different English Translations available. All of these translations differ, as they should, because of the vast ambiguity of the original biblical languages, (Hebrew for the Jewish bible and Greek for the New Testament) and the problems of the scribal errors and indecipherable Hebrew phrases that exist in the MT and other manuscripts. You’ll notice, in all translations of the Bible, many footnotes that point you to the all-too-common phrase at the bottom, “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain,” or “meaning of Greek uncertain.” Anyone who has translated anything into another language knows that there are ambiguities, nuances, and double meanings that simply do not translate well. Translators make choices and these choices reflect a particular theological preference.
Just in relation to the Hebrew Bible, one can imagine that the bills making their way through state legislatures aren’t actually advocating for students in public schools to read translations rooted in Jewish interpretive traditions. Rather, they are advocating for translations containing Christian interpretive traditions, which contain not only the New Testament, which is not authoritative for Jews, but the Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible through a Christian translation lens. In other words, if these bills pass and the “Bible” is taught in public schools, it will be taught through a Christian lens because the translation that they will be using is a Christian one.
Hebrew and Greek, as stated above, contain many ambiguities, but translators do not. Rather, they frequently push their subconscious or conscious agendas on the reader by choosing meanings of words that fit their theologies. [BL1] Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, and many others would be subjected to a very particular “Bible literacy,” meaning a Christian interpretation of the words of the Bible by Christian translators, with Christian theology packed into the choices of the words on the pages.
Along these same lines, within Christianity, Christians would also be subjected to a particular theological interpretation. Although Jewish and Christian scholars typically read the original languages, when they do read the Bible in translation, they do so with several in front of them, including those that have been shown to be academic and those that have varying translations so as to see the differing theories behind verses. The goal, in this case, of reading and teaching the Bible, then, is to share the many interpretations of this document. This is not, however, what would be presented to the young minds in our public schools.
Which brings us to our final question: “Who is going to teach it?” Bible study is incredibly difficult; it takes years to master, and far too many “teachings” on the Bible come from unlearned men and women with particular agendas. Just as the translator shows his or her hand by choosing particular words, the teacher has the ability to share his or her interpretations to students, whether they be educated or not. Are these teachers going to be trained to teach the ambiguity and differing opinions about the Bible, or are they going to be reading lesson curriculums meant to teach literal understandings of the texts? We all know that the New Testament contains anti-Jewish sentiment, and the Hebrew Bible contains problematic and outdated laws which challenge our moral and ethical outlook today, such as the verses on slavery, homosexuality, marriage, the roles of women, and the like.
To that end, we should note that the world of reading the Bible is far greater than opening up the Kings James version, and these bills that are being introduced place our children in danger of learning skewed perspectives, ill-informed interpretations, and morals and ethics that are no longer relevant to 21st century society. In our diverse world that thrives on science and logic, we can think of no greater threat to the learning of public-school children than a class on “Bible literacy.” In Indiana and throughout our country, we need to keep bibles where they belong: in our houses of worship.