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The Trouble with Biblical Telephone

Have you ever played a good old fashioned game of telephone? It’s where you sit in a circle of people—the more in the circle, the better—and the game starts with one person whispering a sentence in the ear of the person to their left. Let’s say the secret sentence is, “The sunrise is even more beautiful when I get to see it with my best friends Jane, Johnny, and Janine.” What that first person hears, they then whisper in the ear of the person to their left, and what they hear is whispered in the next person’s ear, and so on until it gets back to the one who started the game. But by the time that sentence reaches the person who originally said it, the words have been heard by different ears and then spoken from different lips with different voices to the point that the original sentence and its meaning are entirely lost. “The sunrise is even more beautiful when I get to see it with my best friends Jane, Johnny, and Janine,” becomes, “Bees untie Stephen’s bowtie and seal it with blends of hay, barley, and saline.” True story.


To a lesser but still inescapable degree, this is the reality of our translations of the Bible. Not only were the words of the first books of the Old Testament written down from oral history, and the words of the gospels recorded 30 to 100 years or more after the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry, those words were translated from Hebrew and Greek to English and various other languages before those interpretations would be further translated into the myriad versions of the Bible we have today.


Here’s a game of biblical telephone: The word ‘homosexuality’ did not even exist in ancient times, let alone the twenty-first century Freudian perceptions we associate with that word, yet it made its way into the Revised Standard Version of the Bible released in 1946 in a pejorative manner. Subsequent translations of the Bible recanted that erroneous interpretation by omitting the word ‘homosexual,’ but the wayward game of telephone has done a number on Christianity. The spirit of the Bible’s message is whispered across the centuries saying, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” but it is heard as, “Homosexuality is an abomination,” or, to a make it more palatable for us hospitable southerners, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Either way, the spirit of the original message is lost in translation and reshaped in literalism that says, “My Bible says it and I believe it. End of story.”


The Franciscan priest and Christian mystic Richard Rohr, writes, “Literalism is invariably the lowest and least level of meaning.” This has been on my mind after reengaging the story of Jesus’ first miraculous sign performed in the second chapter of John’s gospel at the wedding at Cana. When Jesus’ mother tells him that the wine has run out and the guests are empty-handed, Jesus has that startling retort, “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” Setting aside Jesus’ harsh-sounding tone he takes with his mom, I looked at other translations of that verse (John 2:4), and, wouldn’t you know it, almost no two versions are the same. Not only that, but the various interpretations change the whole meaning of Jesus’ response to Mary.


New Living Translation: “Dear woman, that’s not our problem.”

Berean Study Bible: “Woman, why does this concern us?”

New American Standard Bible: “Woman, what does that have to do with us?”

King James Version: “Woman, what have I do to with thee?”


In fact, that statement in its original Greek - ti emoi kai soi - literally means, “What to me and to you?” So, the Bible I read John 2:4 from (Common English Bible) has Jesus saying it’s his business (“What does that have to do with me?”), but the spirit of that sentence implies something more relational, more interpersonal, more communal (“What does that have to do with us?”). And the spirit of Jesus’ earthly ministry would go on to consistently show in word and deed that the love of God and neighbor, and God’s demand for justice, and the moral pursuit of compassion and righteousness have everything to do with us—all of us.


Reading the Bible through a lens of literalism is an individualized method of making God’s Word fit into boxes that suit our preferences while consequentially cutting us off from loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Seen through the lens of Christ—the lens of common goodness, where every person and the whole of creation in which we dwell and upon which we rely for our communal salvation—the Bible cannot be weaponized against anyone based on who they are or where they come from, who God made them to be and where God placed them in this broken and beautiful world we share. Just like a game of telephone invites us into the spirit of a sentence’s original meaning and exposes the folly of our trying to get it literally right, our interpretations of the Word of God are meant to bless and challenge us, to steer us away from certainty and into the mystery of holiness, and to lead us in paths of righteousness for God’s namesake, not our own legitimacy.

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