The main problem with originalism in terms of the U.S. Constitution is that many espousing it are only interested in discerning original intent, or describing it accurately, when it matches their own agenda. Claims of Biblical inerrancy have a far greater problem — that every single word is said to be accurate because it comes from God — and should serve as a warning sign in someone who is also a constitutional originalist. Just as you shouldn’t turn your finances over to someone who can’t do simple math, there’s cause for concern in letting someone interpret the Constitution after saying every single word in the Bible is the literal truth.
All one must do to question a literal reading of the Bible is step into a religious bookstore and compare texts from one edition to the next. One of the more recent versions of the Bible is the scandalous, profane and out of print Queen Jane’s Version, which employs icons to highlight themes such as torture, sex and misogyny verse by verse, blunt language in place of flowery and, by the writer’s admission, some very loose translations, all intended to “inspire people to live for life rather than for death.”
It’s not hard, then, to find a contemporary Bible purposely mistranslated to conform to an individual’s agenda; what’s remarkable is that belief in the inerrancy of the Bible demands belief that no one has ever before purposely mistranslated the Bible for the same reason. What are the chances?
Not very good. For an example of why, take a peek at an essay at ReligiousTolerance.org that quotes nine Bibles’ versions of 1 Samuels 20:41 and finds, not surprisingly, nine different interpretations of whatever the orginal text says. Here’s how the New International Version has it:
David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together — but David wept the most.
Interestingly, only about half the Bibles end the passages with this image. The other half, give or take, say things such as “David got control of himself” (from the Amplified Bible).
Eight of these Bibles say David and Jonathan kissed. The Living Bible says “they sadly shook hands.”
It’s not plausible for one of nine Bibles to innocently have such a radically different interpretation, but there’s a far greater possibility that all of these Bibles are cheating, not just the Living in Denial Bible. The essay’s author, B.A. Robinson, notes that in the original language David and Jonathan wept together until David “became great.” Robinson may be wrong. Otherwise, why none of these Bibles attempted to interpret this more closely is left to the reader’s imagination.
Problems of mistranslation are endemic to ancient texts, and not limited to Christianity. In 2001 a German scholar noted that some images in the Koran are borrowed from the works of Ephrem the Syrian, who naturally wrote in the Semitic language known as Syriac. Going back over the translation from Ephrem’s Syriac, in a work called “Hymns of Paradise,” to the Arabic in the Koran, the most serious reconsideration is that Ephrem doesn’t talk about the dead being greeted by houris, or virgins, but by hur, meaning white raisins. There are many youths martyring themselves expecting endless sex when they reach paradise — the sex their culture and religion deny them on Earth — who will instead be greeted by relatively abundant fruit.
And the “72 wives” aren’t even reserved for martyrs. In an example of bad math skills and an ignorance of the needs of the female faithful that belies Islam’s claims of exalting their women, unlike us soulless Westerners, tradition actually says:
The Prophet Muhammad was heard saying: “The smallest reward for the people of paradise is an abode where there are 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine, and ruby, as wide as the distance from Al-Jabiyyah to Sana‘a.”
Even when passages are translated accurately, it’s not easy to know what the Bible is trying to say.
“People will dismiss plain Bible teaching about moral issues (such as homosexuality, divorce, or abortion) or about salvation from sin or the church because they say the teaching is too confusing or difficult to understand,” BibleStudyLessons.com says. “As Christians we believe God speaks to us through the holy Scripture of the Bible. It is our duty, then, to do our best to understand what the Bible says to us,” TwoPaths.com says — as though the history of religion isn’t just a series of disagreements over intent.
This includes everything from Martin Luther’s great break to Nikon’s somewhat incremental but controversial attempts in 1652 to make the Russian church more like the Eastern Greek (including saying a third “hallelujah” during ceremonies and giving up two of seven consecrated loaves) all the way to the creation of the International Church of Christ only decades ago and its insistence (based on Acts 11:26) that one must be a committed “disciple” before baptism, not be baptized and then study religion.
Jessica Stern, in her “Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill” (HarperCollins, 2003), offers another example:
“Pretribulation” fundamentalist Protestants believe that Jesus will save them from experiencing the Apocalypse through a “divine rapture,” the simultaneous ascension to heaven of all good Christians. Followers of Christian Identity expect to be present during the Apocalypse. Christian militants who subscribe to “posttribulation” beliefs consider it their duty to attack the forces of the Antichrist, who will become leader of the world during the Endtimes.
These are all pretty important issues, especially considering that people are dying and killing based on their belief in them, and yet debate goes on about what the truth is. Irreconcilable debate, in fact, made all the more difficult by contradictions in religious texts themselves no matter what the source of translation.
There are notoriously many contradictions in the Bible, not just from book to book, but even within books. It starts right in Genesis, which describes creation twice, once with animals coming first and once with humans — well, Man — coming first. It doesn’t stop with Judas’ death, which may be by hanging (in Matthew) or by “falling headlong [so] his bowels gushed out” (Acts). The Koran is riddled with contradictions as well, from how many days it took Allah to create the heavens and the Earth to whether there is “compulsion in religion” (there isn’t, but the faithful are commanded to “slay the idolaters wherever ye find them”).
It’s common sense that the Bible is not the literal truth. Anyone who says it is should not be put in a position of authority to interpret the constitution also. They are certainly free to be; but any culture that appoints such a person is asking for trouble.
None of this is to imply John G. Roberts, the nominee to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, is such a person. There’s question he’s an originalist, let alone a Christian fundamentalist. But with a government overrun by people claiming to be Biblical textualists, one never knows when one might be slipped before Congress for confirmation.