Saturday, October 15, 2011

Getting It All Wrong

NFL legend Mike Ditka was giving a news conference one day after being fired as the coach of the Chicago Bears when he decided to quote the Bible.“Scripture tells you that all things shall pass,” a choked-up Ditka said after leading his team to only five wins during the previous season. “This, too, shall pass.” Ditka fumbled his biblical citation, though. The phrase “This, too, shall pass” doesn’t appear in the Bible. Ditka was quoting a phantom scripture that sounds like it belongs in the Bible, but look closer and it’s not there. Ditka’s biblical blunder is as common as preachers delivering long-winded public prayers. The Bible may be the most revered book in America, but it’s also one of the most misquoted. Politicians, motivational speakers, coaches - all types of people - quote passages that actually have no place in the Bible, religious scholars say. These phantom passages include:“God helps those who help themselves.” “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” And there is this often-cited paraphrase: Satan tempted Eve to eat the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden. None of those passages appear in the Bible, and one is actually anti-biblical, scholars say. But people rarely challenge them because biblical ignorance is so pervasive that it even reaches groups of people who should know better, says Steve Bouma-Prediger, a religion professor at Hope College in Michigan. “In my college religion classes, I sometimes quote 2 Hesitations 4:3 (‘There are no internal combustion engines in heaven’),” Bouma-Prediger says. “I wait to see if anyone realizes that there is no such book in the Bible and therefore no such verse. “Only a few catch on.” Few catch on because they don’t want to - people prefer knowing biblical passages that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs, a Bible professor says. “Most people who profess a deep love of the Bible have never actually read the book,” says Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

Phantom biblical passages work in mysterious ways
Ignorance isn’t the only cause for phantom Bible verses. Confusion is another. Some of the most popular faux verses are pithy paraphrases of biblical concepts or bits of folk wisdom. Consider these two: “God works in mysterious ways.” “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Both sound as if they are taken from the Bible, but they’re not. The first is a paraphrase of a 19th century hymn by the English poet William Cowper (“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform). The “cleanliness” passage was coined by John Wesley, the 18th century evangelist who founded Methodism, says Thomas Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University in Texas. “No matter if John Wesley or someone else came up with a wise saying - if it sounds proverbish, people figure it must come from the Bible,” Kidd says. Our fondness for the short and tweet-worthy may also explain our fondness for phantom biblical phrases. The pseudo-verses function like theological tweets: They’re pithy summarizations of biblical concepts. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” falls into that category. It’s a popular verse - and painful for many kids. Could some enterprising kid avoid the rod by pointing out to his mother that it's not in the Bible? It’s doubtful. Her possible retort: The popular saying is a distillation of Proverbs 13:24: “The one who withholds [or spares] the rod is one who hates his son.” There are some phantom biblical verses for which no excuse can be offered. The speaker goofed. That’s what Bruce Wells, a theology professor, thinks happened to Ditka, the former NFL coach, when he strayed from the gridiron to biblical commentary during his 1993 press conference in Chicago. Wells watched Ditka’s biblical blunder on local television when he lived in Chicago. After Ditka cited the mysterious passage, reporters scrambled unsuccessfully the next day to find the biblical source. They should have consulted Wells, who is now director of the ancient studies program at Saint Joseph’s University. Wells says Ditka’s error probably came from a peculiar feature of the King James Bible. “My hunch on the Ditka quote is that it comes from a quirk of the King James translation,” Wells says. “Ancient Hebrew had a particular way of saying things like, ‘and the next thing that happened was…’ The King James translators of the Old Testament consistently rendered this as ‘and it came to pass.’ ’’

When phantom Bible passages turn dangerous
People may get verses wrong, but they also mangle plenty of well-known biblical stories as well. Two examples: The scripture never says a whale swallowed Jonah, the Old Testament prophet, nor did any New Testament passages say that three wise men visited baby Jesus. Those details may seem minor, but scholars say one popular phantom Bible story stands above the rest: The Genesis story about the fall of humanity. Most people know the popular version - Satan in the guise of a serpent tempts Eve to pick the forbidden apple from the Tree of Life. It’s been downhill ever since. But the story in Genesis never places Satan in the Garden of Eden. “Genesis mentions nothing but a serpent,” says Kevin Dunn, of Tufts University. “Not only does the text not mention Satan, the very idea of Satan as a devilish tempter postdates the composition of the Garden of Eden story by at least 500 years,” Dunn says. Getting biblical scriptures and stories wrong may not seem significant, but it can become dangerous, one scholar says. Most people have heard this one: “God helps those that help themselves.” It’s another phantom scripture that appears nowhere in the Bible, but many people think it does. It's actually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the nation's founding fathers. The passage is popular in part because it is a reflection of cherished American values: individual liberty and self-reliance, says Sidnie White Crawford, a religious studies scholar at the University of Nebraska. Yet that passage contradicts the biblical definition of goodness: defining one’s worth by what one does for others, like the poor and the outcast, Crawford says. She cites a scripture from Leviticus that tells people that when they harvest the land, they should leave some “for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 19:9-10), and another passage from Deuteronomy that declares that people should not be “tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.” “We often infect the Bible with our own values and morals, not asking what the Bible’s values and morals really are,” Crawford says.

Where do these phantom passages come from?
It’s easy to blame the spread of phantom biblical passages on pervasive biblical illiteracy. But the causes are varied and go back centuries. Some of the guilty parties are anonymous, lost to history. They are artists and storytellers who over the years embellished biblical stories and passages with their own twists. If, say, you were an anonymous artist painting the Garden of Eden during the Renaissance, why not portray the serpent as the devil to give some punch to your creation? And if you’re a preacher telling a story about Jonah, doesn’t it just sound better to say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, not a “great fish”? Others blame the spread of phantom Bible passages on King James, or more specifically the declining popularity of the King James translation of the Bible. That translation, which marks 400 years of existence this year, had a near monopoly on the Bible market as recently as 50 years ago, says Douglas Jacobsen, a professor of church history and theology at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “If you quoted the Bible and got it wrong then, people were more likely to notice because there was only one text,” he says. “Today, so many different translations are used that almost no one can tell for sure if something supposedly from the Bible is being quoted accurately or not.” Others blame the spread of phantom biblical verses on Martin Luther, the German monk who ignited the Protestant Reformation, the massive “protest” against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church that led to the formation of Protestant church denominations. “It is a great Protestant tradition for anyone - milkmaid, cobbler, or innkeeper - to be able to pick up the Bible and read for herself. No need for a highly trained scholar or cleric to walk a lay person through the text,” says Craig Hazen, director of the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University in Southern California. But often the milkmaid, the cobbler - and the NFL coach - start creating biblical passages without the guidance of biblical experts, he says. “You can see this manifest today in living room Bible studies across North America where lovely Christian people, with no training whatsoever, drink decaf, eat brownies and ask each other, ‘What does this text mean to you?’’’ Hazen says. “Not only do they get the interpretation wrong, but very often end up quoting verses that really aren’t there.”
From CNN, by John Blake


Anandajoti said...

Dear Ven., now you should write a post about the misquoting of the Buddha

Err, ummm, or maybe you had better make that a series :)

Shravasti Dhammika said...

If you go back and have a look at some of my old posts you’ll find at least four on this very subject. Indeed as I was reading this article I was thinking, ‘Nice to know we’re not the only ones.’

Lonlysky said...

Sorry Bhante, but one verse you quoted actually does appear in the Bible:

Book of proverbs chapter 13 verse 24:

"He who holds back his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him early."

You can look at it here:

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Lonlysky,
Thanks for the comment but you’ll have to take it up with the author John Blake (see bottom of article). However, I think what he meant is that people are paraphrasing when they think they are quoting this saying from the Bible. Related to this, I was hoping to read some ‘mind impressions and insights’ but found only lonely sky.

Sundara said...

It seems to be the case that the Bible is the most revered book that nobody has read, and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf is the most reviled book that nobody has read*.

Both books are often misquoted, taken out of context, and even lied about outright.

*Or at least very few have read.

Anonymous said...


Buddhism is not an Academic Subject

When pressed by some worldly scholars (whose names were not made public), Bhikshu Tenzyn Gyatso said publicly that ’Buddhism is an academic subject.’ The newspapers published it, everywhere.

However, the truth is that Buddhism is not an academic subject, and therefore it is necessary now to present here a statement of facts:

The first fact is that Bhikshu Tenzyn Gyatso is not legally entitled to represent, or to speak, in the name of Buddhism, that is, the Buddhist religion in general.

The second fact is that Bhikshu Tenzyn Gyatso uttered a most unfortunate statement against his own people, and therefore delivered into the hands of their terrible enemies a powerful weapon, as they shall not fail to take advantage of the opportunity he gave to them, by reasoning on the grounds that: if Buddhism is an academic subject, as publicly proclaimed by the Dalai Lama in person, then Monks, Nuns, and Monasteries are not needed, only scholars and academies.

The third fact is that the public statement of Tenzyn Gyatso is a declaration of schism, headed by him. Time to retreat your words, Bhikshu Tenzyn Gyatso!

Buddhism is Religion

The truth is that Buddhism is Religion; Buddhism is a Monastic Religion possessing Temples, religious buildings, religious shelters, i.e., monasteries; Buddhism is a religion with sacred religious services; Buddhism is a religion possessing thousands of religious Scriptures and Holy Manuscripts; Buddhism is a religion possessing a Monastic Sangha, composed by Buddhist Monks and Nuns, i.e., Bhikshus, Bhikkhus, Bhikshunis, Bhikkhunis, who renounced the world, who are vowed to an entire life of full chastity, who are trained under religious disciplines and rules in the obedience to the Buddha, the Buddha Dharma-Vinaya, the Buddha Sangha for life, as has been done for the last 2.600 years.

Lonlysky said...

Hmmm... Sorry Bhante, but I didn't write this Blog even though I intended too...

Blogger said...

Dear Venerable,

A similar maxim is found in the Sri Chanakya Niti-Shastra[chapter 1]

"12. Many a bad habit is developed through over indulgence, and many a good one by chastisement, therefore beat your son as well as your pupil; never indulge them. ("Spare the rod and spoil the child")."

but Chanakya lived during the 3rd century B.C.


Jin Hyeok Choi said...

Dear sir.
It has been my pleasure reading your blog and it has helped me gain background knowledge for school project on different worldviews. Hence, I would like to request for a personal interview with you if you could spare me some time. Your help will be greatly appreciated and I believe it will take me a step further in understanding the world of buddhism. Do let me know when is convinent time for you and I will accomodate any time.
Yours sincerely,
Jin hyeok Choi

Lonlysky said...


Bhanta, what do you think of this
and how can I refute this nonsense which seems to me like a big crude lie?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Lonlysky,
I’m not sure which parts of the blog you give the link to is ‘nonsense.’ TM seems to me to be a fairly good introduction to meditation which has some positive effects. One of its virtues and attractions is that it is presented in a simple, uncomplicated manner. I also know that some monks, at least in Sri Lanka, do practice it, and I see nothing wrong with that. However, TMs claims about the significance of mantras and the ‘Unified Field of Natural Law’ would certainly fall into the category of nonsense, the Reverend Oshima’s claim that ‘thousands of monks’ are taking instruction under him sounds like an ego-boosting exaggeration, and I can’t say I have ever heard of the Shan Kara as ‘one of the three streams of Buddhism in Sri Lanka’. Generally the blog’s message and claims seem rather inconsequential to me.

Lonlysky said...

Dear Bhante,

The nonsense I was referring to is the way TM organization tries to convince everybody in the superiority of their technique above all the others.

Please look for example at that:

Personally I agree with you that TM as meditation technique can be beneficial, but the ways TM organization promotes itself by all means is improper.

Anyway, thank you very much for your attention :-)

Rahula said...


In "The Buddha's Meditation", Dr Evan Finkelstein, Assistant Professor of Mahrishi Vedic Science, quoted the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya) saying:

"You can drop all philosophy you’ve been given and repeat a mantra instead—one that I will now give you."

This passage is neither found anywhere in the Majjima Nikaya not any suttas.

Dr. Finkelstein took this passage from Anne Bancroft's "The Pocket Buddha Reader" or, "The Buddha Speaks: A Book of Guidance from the Buddhist Scriptures."

It is probably a mangled and distorted version of the commentary of Dhammapada 25.

Lonlysky said...

Dear Rahula,

Are you a monk?

Rahula said...

Hi Lonlysky,

No, I am not a monk.

Lonlysky said...

Dear Rahula, thank you for your reply :-)