Opinion Columns & Blogs

How do you quote scripture?


The letters to the Editor are full of Bible quotes. It’s like watching children splash paint on a canvas. The whole Bible is their paint bucket and they dip their brushes in at random and splash away. However, one of my frequent Catholic critics, Travis Middleton, accuses me of doing much the same thing. He says I started a “campaign to convince people the New Testament is a collection of fanciful scribblings by senile old men that don’t mesh.”

That hurts. I studied the Bible for 22 years of graduate work and taught it for 10 years in a university. I had some of the leading scripture scholars of the world as my professors: Max Zerwick, Stanislaus Lyonnet, Ernst Vogt and Patrick Skehan who helped me with the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran. My doctoral degrees come from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. I love the Bible. I cringe when I see it mis-quoted.

For example, lately, much attention has been shown to gay marriage, and quotes have been splashing wildly to condemn it. Leviticus 20:13 is a favorite: “If a man sleeps with another man, as with a woman…they must be put to death.” OK, but what about verse 10? Nobody ever quotes verse 10: “If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both must be put to death.” Our Christian painters splash paint all over verse 10, or, if they want, on the bottom parts of verses 10 and 13. They can do this because they have artistic paint brushes.

When adults act in this childish way with scripture it makes me ill. When I read a scripture quote, I want to examine the entire context and then the chapter, and then the author who wrote it. Each author is different. For example, Matthew and Luke each copy most of what Mark had written decades before, but each one gives Mark’s story a special spin. Look at the four stories of the empty tomb.

Mark spends eight verses of his last chapter describing Mary Magdalene and two other women finding the stone rolled back and a young man in a white robe telling them that Jesus has been resurrected. Mark ends his gospel with “And they said nothing to anyone, since they were so afraid” (Mark.16:8). (Verses 9-20 were added later and do not appear in most Greek manuscripts.) Matthew repeats most of Mark’s content and then changes the women’s fear into joy as they run into Jesus and then race to tell the disciples. Luke adds the Emmaus disciples and ends with Jesus eating fish with his men.

But it takes John’s gospel to give us the beautiful story I love so much. Written nearly 80 years later and filled with decades of Christian memories and stories and redactions which the others didn’t have available, it adds the memorable detail of Mary Magdalene hugging Jesus. You remember: the first thing she does when she sees the empty tomb is to run to tell Peter and John, who race to the tomb, look in, but then they go home. Mary is left standing there, crying. Suddenly she sees two angels but they don’t help much either, so, she turns and sees a man who looks like the gardener. “Sir,” she sobs, “if you have removed him, tell me where you’ve put him, and I will take him away.” Jesus looks at her and says: “Mary.

That’s all it took. The sound of his voice. Mary flings her arms around his neck and covers him with kisses. We know this because the next words John’s gospel gives us in the Greek are May mou aptou, which can be translated: “Stop hugging me.” But an alternate translation is: “Stop turning me on fire!” It takes John’s gospel to tell us how Jesus and Mary felt about each other.

Is all this historical? I don’t know and I don’t care. I know this is how scores of early Christians remembered the story of Jesus: the man divine enough to be resurrected from the dead but human enough to love a woman. When we quote scripture, we’re quoting stories not words verbatim. We’re quoting a group of Greek converts sitting around a room talking about Jesus. They’re remembering bits and pieces of stories they had heard over the years from grandparents and relatives and friends, translated from Aramaic into Greek. This one adds, and this one changes that addition, and this one sums it up, and everyone says: that’s good. Then someone writes it down and we’ve got a gospel you can quote.

Not fanciful scribblings by senile old men.

Contact me: drc@billcummings.org.