Billboard Heckler – Esaeir tahn who tnhiks?

Next in the Billboard Heckler series. Again, this was seen at the Epping Gospel Chapel, among other places:

Uedsratnindg the blbie is esaeir tahn you tnhik. Matthew 11:15

To start with, the bible itself does not share their optimistic appraisal of the situation.

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16, NRSV)

Maybe I misinterpreted what Peter is saying here. But that would mean that understanding the bible, or at least this passage, is harder than I think. Sigh.

There’s a book called Hard Sayings of the Bible; I was going to buy it myself at one stage, but never got around to it. I read a few random sections from a friend’s copy of it though. The book can best be described as a tome – 808 pages, according to Amazon. It goes to extraordinary lengths to provide explanations for some of the Bible’s harder-to-understand topics. And yet, it’s considered an introductory text. Consider this review from Amazon:

Helpful introductory textThe short answer: Helpful answers to the most commonly asked questions about difficult texts of Scripture. Only Brauch’s section on Paul is occasionally unsatisfactory.

It may not be a tome of resolutions for those with the a priori commitment to the Bible being inaccurate, but it is helpful in presenting feasible answers to many misunderstood texts of Scripture.

Also helpful is the notion that the Bible is largely written to Hebrews and not to linear-reasoned Greco-Roman philosophers. It just doesn’t fit many folks grids because it is not necessarily written to the atomistic thinker (i.e., it’s not a text on science).

All in all, this text is an easy to use reference to commonly misunderstood texts of Scripture.

“It just doesn’t fit on many folks grids”? Is this what we would expect for a book that is supposed to clearly lay out the one true path to salvation, that is upheld as humanity’s greatest and most universal moral guide? Mind you, this does fit with Jesus’ approach during his ministry:

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
 ”they may indeed look, but not perceive,
   and may indeed listen, but not understand;
 so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”‘ (Mark 4:10-12, NRSV)

Apparently, some people just aren’t worth the effort to speak clearly.

A couple of classic examples of biblical obscurity come to mind; there are many more, but these are a couple that have stuck in my memory. There are the two well-known consecutive pieces of wisdom in Proverbs:

Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, NRSV)

So which is it? Do you answer a fool or not? Most attempts that I’ve heard to explain this say that the contradiction is so obvious, the verses being one after the other and all, that it can’t have been a contradiction, but it must be some kind of literary device. Fine, I can sort of accept that. But I still don’t know what it’s telling me. Amusingly, I’ve heard people use both of these verses (at separate times, of course) to explain why they’re either going to answer or not answer a question.

I’ve talked about the fun surrounding baptism in an earlier post, but for sheer confusion value you can’t go past the controversial “baptism for the dead” passage:

Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (1 Corinthians 15:29, NRSV)

Nothing along the lines of “baptism on behalf of the dead” is mentioned anywhere else in the bible. The Mormons are the only major group who practice the (arguably) obvious interpretation of this passage, and baptise living people in order to save by proxy people who have already died. The vast majority of Christians see this (quite rightly) as illogical; but in that case, what does the verse mean? One interpretation is that this passage is a difficult-to-translate reference to normal baptism; another is that Paul was referring to an unorthodox practice of the Corinthian church that he himself doesn’t necessarily support (but doesn’t choose this moment, the one that will last to enlighten later generations, to clear up the matter); yet another is that Paul is for some reason using a pagan practice to argue that resurrection exists in Christianity. I’m sure all of these arguments have their merits, but I’d hardly call it “esaeir tahn you tnhik”.

Of course, it’s possible that the point the sign was trying to make was that the important bits of the bible are easy to understand. (That would also fit their use of typoglycemia nicely.) But I find this hard to accept, because there is very little agreement between Christians about what parts of the bible are important. My general experience with churches has been that they tend to put their pet doctrines into the “obvious and crucial” category, and other issues into the “confusing but unimportant” category. Other people and groups who don’t take as hard a line on their pet issues are accused of watering down God’s message, while anyone who turns that accusation back on them is nitpicking about some peripheral theological detail. Yes, I’m generalising, but I don’t think anyone who’s ever been involved in a dispute between Christian denominations would disagree with this. (The bible has examples of this as well – Hosea 6:6, Matthew 12:1-4, Matthew 15:1-11, Matthew 23:23-24 come to mind.)

So what’s the verdict? I guess that understanding the bible might be easier than you think, but only if you originally thought it would be really, really hard. Otherwise, I suggest you prepare for some serious head-scratching.


6 Comments so far

  1. apostle30 July 14th, 2006 7:04 pm

    Why don’t you ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand those head scratching passages, for the things of God are not revealed by the natural man, but by the Holy Spirit, as Paul says (1 Corinthians 2)?

  2. Shishberg July 16th, 2006 4:41 pm

    Hey, first real comment. Welcome.

    Well the short answer is, I have. Many times. And sincerely, while I was still a Christian.

    A quick counter-question: if the Holy Spirit helps people to understand those passages, why has there been so much disagreement between the interpretation of the bible among committed Christians?

  3. celpjefscycle January 12th, 2008 8:50 pm

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  4. Rodney Howard Browne April 21st, 2009 11:04 pm

    This is really interesting and would like to know more about your opinions further.

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