Saturday, July 9, 2011

Pseudo Biblical Wisdom

When you hear certain phrases, they sound like they must be from the Bible. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” “God works in mysterious ways,” or “This too shall pass,” But in fact, they’re not found specifically in those forms and some aren’t found in the Bible at all. The propensity to associate Biblical identity and authority to quotes that in fact are not in the text comes from religious illiteracy, particularly in the U.S. where pretty much all of these quotes are used commonly. But it also reflects the undue respect we give to a text when people believe it is inspired. I’m not saying you can’t believe that, but to speak as if everything from the bible is wisdom is to ignore a book that shows a harsher side of religion as well. I don’t hate believers or religion. I’m just someone who thinks we should take even the Bible’s wisdom with a grain of salt.

The first of the pseudo-biblical sayings is a bit less common. “This too shall pass” is nowhere in the bible and the two possible explanations for its association are either the King James Version translations of a phrase to the effect of “and it came to pass” or, more likely, a story involving King Solomon (among other possible characters to replace him), who asked his advisors to give him a ring that will make him happy when he is sad. They gave him a ring which has the phrase, “And this too shall pass away,” on it. Either way, this one is just the first in a sampling that people will no doubt be familiar with as we progress from the idiosyncratic to the popular.

“Cleanliness is next to godliness” is another one and it seems less likely to be from the bible, except possibly in the Old Testament, with the common association of ritual purity and being clean before God. This exact formulation was from John Wesley, well known for being the founder of the Methodist church. He was apparently quoting a Jewish sage, Phinehas ben-Yair, who noted that cleanliness led to godliness. Of course, we can agree that cleanliness is a good thing, but to say it represents divinity in some way seems a bit excessive, probably even to Christians who would say God is holy, not clean.

One of the few pseudo biblical sayings that has roots in the Bible is “Pride goeth before a fall”. The verse in question that it’s paraphrasing is Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” When you put it this way, you might say this is actually shortened biblical wisdom. But attributing the exact phrase is disingenuous to people who take the bible as an authoritative text and then use these quotes as if they can be found in the form they speak it. It’s not as if we can’t agree that being prideful can cause trouble, but again, the biblical method of injunction complicates a relatively simple matter.

Also rooted in biblical verses, but paraphrased is “spare the rod, spoil the child”.  The actual verse referenced is Proverbs 13:24: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes,” This one’s a bit more controversial as this kind of child rearing can go too far in terms of discipline. It stands to reason children’s behavior should be maintained with discipline. Saying you will somehow ruin a child’s development by not beating them with a stick or belt is silly. I don’t recall ever being beaten or spanked as a child myself in terms of punishment, though perhaps I’ve suppressed memories. Even if I wasn’t, one might say the fear was a deterrent to my behavior. But I don’t think I was a willfully bad child. Few children are such, but merely ignorant of the consequences. Saying a stick will make a child obedient is like saying the death penalty will stop serial killers.

“God helps those who help themselves” is no doubt a popular phrase in America, emphasizing individualism and independence in the land of opportunity for self reliant people seeking a better life. But many Christians would say this counters the notion of grace from God, since it implies that you can get help from God by doing things just for yourself instead of tempering ambition with generosity towards others. I imagine Benjamin Franklin realized this, though he was admittedly in a state of transition when he wrote up this quote, fighting against British oppression in the 18th century. Franklin was moreso a Deist, though he clearly had a Biblical sort of disposition with many other quotes, like “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” and “A penny saved is a penny earned,”

 “God works in mysterious ways” is probably the most popular little snippet of wisdom that seems to be from the Bible, but as far as we can tell, it’s not actually there. It might be implied with many other sayings, but the phrase itself as said here is first found in a 19th century hymn by William Cowper, where it reads “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform,” This seems odd to derive Biblical wisdom from a hymn. That’s not to say there aren’t many hymns derived from Psalms, but Proverbs is for wisdom, not music. I suppose wisdom could be found in lyrics occasionally, but the point remains that there seems to be a lot of overlap and misunderstanding about what constitutes being from the Bible.

When you say that “Satan tempted Eve to eat the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden” there are more technical distinctions and corrections to make. Technically, what tempted Eve was just a serpent and the forbidden fruit was just that, not an apple. People read Satan into the serpent through Revelation 12:9 or 20:2, where it calls Satan “that old serpent,” Of course, whether the serpent was actually Satan is a separate issue, but people shouldn’t just presume this anymore than presuming Lucifer was Satan pre-fall. Apple is read through a Latin reference to malum meaning bad and maalum meaning apple, so that has even less truth in it, but more a popular interpretation. Some say the forbidden fruit was a fig, for instance. In this instance, the issue isn’t so much associating wisdom with the bible, but like the issue of Satan being Lucifer, it’s a common understanding that is nonetheless incorrect by the facts of the immediate text. People can interpret the snake to be Satan, but most Jews wouldn’t agree to that idea, considering Satan didn’t have the role of God’s enemy like he does in Christianity as Diabolos in Greek, with a similar meaning to Satan in Hebrew. The traditional aspect of this quote still rings relevant, though it’s more along the lines of a misquotation to the Bible’s strict text, especially in the original Hebrew.

All in all, my original point must be emphasized: people have every right to believe the Bible has wisdom, even divine wisdom, in it, but to misattribute quotes to it demonstrates you only take its authority seriously instead of the content itself of the text. If you look at the text itself and see what it says instead of just going with traditional interpretations as authoritative, you’ll not only be more of an individual, but you’ll show that Americans aren’t as ignorant about the bible as we continue to appear to be. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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