The Bible for Dummies

It is a sad, but clearly observable, truth that practically any time a major tragedy takes place, the news media will interview someone who demonstrates a general lack of proper English grammar usage. This is illustrated by the preponderance of the subject’s use of the incorrect phrase “I seen”. Frankly, this happens so often that one has to wonder if the news media deliberately seek people out who lack a fundamental grasp of English grammar usage, for whatever reason.

I make this point in order to set the stage for relating something that most biblical scholars know quite well, but that the common folk generally do not know. Just taking the New Testament into account here, there exist a wide variety of grammatical styles between each writing contained therein (one might think that this would not be so much the case if the Holy Spirit practically dictated all of this information; but I digress). Even books attributed to the same author often differ significantly, in some respects, in style and usage of the original Greek language in which each letter/book was written (I am not going to get into the, in my view, errant theories that one or more of these tracts were originally written in either Aramaic or Hebrew. For me, such is completely fictitious).

From the very beginning, any prospective ministerial student who studies Greek as part of his/her coursework in college and/or seminary is made aware that the New Testament documents that we have fragments of today were written in what is termed “koiné” Greek – the common form of Greek spoken by most during that time period in the ancient world. It is understood that this was done so that the gospel could more readily be understood by the common folk of that day. The writers wanted the gospel to reach the people (one main reason why none of it would have ever been written in Hebrew, which was a language no longer commonly in use at that time. There was literally no one who would not have understood Greek, so it would have been foolish to have written any of it in Hebrew).

Knowing this, many scholars still go out of their way to work toward a form of homogenization of the language so that it actually makes sense, not only in Greek, but also in English, as well as any other language it is translated into. In so many words, they dress-up the language so that it can be better understood by readers today.

What this really means – what most scholars and theologians will not tell you – is that the authors literally wrote “gospels for dummies”. Some were better than others, but all contained the types of errors and incorrect usages that those who were, perhaps, a little less skilled in proper Greek language usage would have perpetrated. Even, arguably, the “best” of the Gospels (that of John), contains the types of incorrect usages that suggest that (1) he (or his scribe) really did not have a firm grasp of the language. OR, it could be that (2) he/they did have adequate understanding of proper usage, but dumbed-down the language so that the common folk could more readily understand. Frankly, the latter is more likely, although there could have been some combination of the two at work here.

In any event, the intent was that the common folk would be able to understand that which was written easily, regardless of their command of the Greek language. Thus, for example, one finds within the text of the Gospel According to John several examples of the use of an asyndeton, which is a literary device which deliberately omits several conjunctions in a phrase from a series of related clauses. The best known example perhaps being Julius Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”). A dumbed-down version of this might be “I seen”, although the correlation is not exact here. But, I hope the reader gets the picture. In addition, the style that John’s gospel is written in varies greatly from the style that the Synoptic Gospels are written in, utilizing a smaller (perhaps, more precise) vocabulary.

A further truth is that, although there are errors even in the writings of Paul (those that we can be fairly certain were his), his standard is generally above that of the other New Testament writers. Since the other disciples are referred to as “rough and uneducated” in the book of Acts, this is automatically to be expected. But that does not mean that all of the other disciples/apostles could be classified in this way. No doubt, their education and backgrounds varied, perhaps considerably. We really don’t know very much at all about several of them, and not much more than that about the rest. I, personally, like to think that Thomas and John tended to be the most likely to have been intellectuals, of a sort. The reason for this is that their purported writings (with the exception of the Apocalypse of John) tended toward more intellectual themes, including Gnosticism, the study of which would indeed have required some level of intellect. So, although their writings were still basically “dumbed-down” for the audience, they were at least a little bit above the others, generally.

Thus, when you observe some supposedly “intellectual” theologian or preacher straining over this or that Greek word or phrase, keep in mind that what he/she is doing is probably an unnecessary exercise in futility. Unless he/she wishes to translate the entire New Testament from the Greek into the English (or any other language) all over again completely from scratch, there is little need for this other than, perhaps, to illustrate a minor point. You, the audience, do not need to understand exactly what every word or phrase means. What you need to understand is what the intent of the author may have been for you to understand. And that is more difficult to convey than a simple translation of select words and phrases. Plus, select words and phrases meant different things to the people of that day than they would to you and I, in many cases. One has to get into the mindset of the ancient peoples the New Testament was written for in order to even begin to understand. In short, as hard as this will be for some to accept, the New Testament really was not written for us; it was written for people long past and gone. It was written for THEM to understand, not so much for us to understand. They were NOT thinking two-thousand plus years into the future, no matter what anyone says.

Another thing that your average preacher-type won’t ever tell you is that the Gospel According to John and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) are both written in very distinctive styles, so that it seems obvious that they must not have been written by the same author. So wedded are Christians to the idea that the author of both works simply must have been the same person that they are determined to remain oblivious to the idea that this might not be the case. After all, they are regularly told by their religious “leaders” that John wrote the Apocalypse in his old age while imprisoned on the island of Patmos, he having written his gospel many years prior to this. Some try to account for the differences by the simple “fact” that there exists a difference in time. Of course, they don’t like to tell people that this is all based on supposition – on myth. They don’t like to tell you that the idea that John was even imprisoned on Patmos comes from much later tales of Christian martyrs, probably containing no first-hand observation of the purported events laid out in said writings. And, as I think I successfully laid out in my initial work, “Apocalypse and Armageddon“, a good case can be made that the Apocalypse, whether written by the apostle or not (but probably not), was actually among the FIRST New Testament books written, not the last.

In the end, I think we should begin to be of a mindset that accepts that these writings were written so that literally anyone could understand them – at a third grade level, one might say. One really should not take offense to this. I know that many literalists will, but, in my mind, that is unnecessary. We really should be able to sort-of laugh about this and move on with our understanding of it. Because, after all, as much as these writings have been dressed-up for us, we still literally have a “Bible for dummies”, no matter how it is read and understood. It simply does not meet the level of reading Plato and Aristotle, period.

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