Evangelical Questions: Handling Difficult Texts
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about handling difficult scripture texts. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Before we get started though I want to let you know about a very cool event coming up. Every year FAIR hosts the most fantastic 3-day conference that you should think about attending. I will be there, I’d be happy to meet you. I’m speaking on one of the days, though I don’t think the schedule is finalized yet so I don’t know which day. One of the talks I really looking forward to hearing is from Dr. Jenet Erickson. Sister Erickson has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, Slate Magazine, and more. She’s a social science researcher and digs into all areas that affect family life. She will be bringing her expertise to talk about the new For the Strength of Youth. Even if you’re beyond the stage of life where you have young people in your home, Dr. Erickson is absolutely worth listening to as she applies wisdom from social science to theological concepts.
Our scripture this week comes from Matthew 19:9:
And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
We’re not actually going to talk about divorce or adultery in this episode – I’m brave but not that brave. What we’re going to do instead is look at the different ways Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints handle the really difficult texts in the scriptures. And like most topics, this one is easier to understand with some historical background.
There has never been a time in history when people of faith have not had to grapple with difficult scriptures. Sometimes there are difficulties come because we don’t understand something about the context or language of a passage, but sometimes they come because the passage is just painful or hard. And all along people have had to figure out what to do with those.
One way of handling it was that sometimes the scribes who would hand-copy the manuscripts would change them intentionally to make the verse easier. Let’s talk about the New Testament as our example. There are lots of changes – or what we call “textual variants” – between various NT manuscripts. In an ideal world we would have original copies of what was actually written by the hand of Paul to compare the manuscripts to. But we don’t. There are no originals. There are only copies of copies. The Book of Mormon and the Bible actually have this in common – no originals to compare them to. Just lots of copies – And those copies vary in quality. There is a branch of study called “Textual Criticism” which isn’t about criticizing what the scriptures have to say, despite the misnomer. Textual criticism is the study of figuring out what the most likely original word was in a text. There are about 5,500 hand-written manuscripts of the New Testament that range in date from about 150 years after Christ to the year 1550 AD. At that point, the printing press was established enough that no one was interested in making hand-written copies anymore. Of those 5,500 manuscripts some are very tiny – about the size of a business card – and just contain 1 verse or a part of one verse. Around the year 350 AD we get the first complete Bible manuscript. It’s called the Codex Sinaitcus and you can go see it – it’s on display at the British Library in London. But before the Sinaitcus we have about a hundred or so fragments, and after it we still get lots of small fragments, but as the centuries go on, better care is taken of newly produced manuscripts, and they last longer, so the newer a manuscripts is, the more likely it is that we have more than just a fragment. Every manuscript is numbered, and some are named – like Codex Sinaitcus. They are also categorized into 5 groups. Category 1 manuscripts are considered the best, but not because they’re the most complete, because they’re the oldest. A Category 5 manuscript might be complete, but if it was created in 1500 it has had the opportunity to have a lot of textual variants.
And, so what? What do we do with this information in our conversation about how to handle difficult texts? If I was fancy, and I knew how to put graphics into these videos, I would show you a copy of Papyrus 28. Papyrus 28 is about 3×2 (considered medium-sized for its category) and is from John 6, the story of the loaves and fishes. It used to be housed at a University in Berkeley, but it was sold to a private collector about 10 years ago. There are 2 really interesting things about 28….1) In that small manuscript there are 5 variations or 5 unique differences between it and other similar manuscripts and 2) it looks like someone took an exacto-knife and cut out 1 word very deliberately. The word that is cut out means, “those who were sitting down.” Somewhere in the history of this papyrus someone probably decided they didn’t like that detail, or they thought it didn’t fit, so they just cut it out. And I suppose that’s one way to solve your issues with difficult texts – just cut the passage out. However, it’s not a very efficient or good way to deal with a difficult text.
Another example of how the scribes deal with difficult passages is to simplify them. Even though the scribes who copy these manuscripts lived across many centuries there are some patterns that appear in their work. One of those patterns is that scribes tended to add words to the text to explain or clarify what they were copying. They were trying to be helpful to the reader in doing this, but for modern purposes what they were doing is giving us a general rule to follow that says, “The shorter reading is probably closer to the original.” If you have 2 manuscripts, and one has extra explanatory words in it, that is probably the manuscript that has been altered. In a similar way, scribes also tended to try and “harmonize” the texts, sort of smooth them out, or make very difficult sayings less difficult. The rule here becomes, “The harder reading is probably closer to the original.” So here we see a slightly more sophisticated version of editing than just cutting the word out of the page – this is deliberate scribal changes because they thought they were doing the right thing.
Modern ways of dealing with difficult passages
So, fast-forward from all of that history to today. How are difficult passages handled today by Evangelicals? There’s 2 answers – the scholars and the people in the pews.
First, there are many very good Evangelical scholars who are offering their very best to help people know what to do with hard passages. The top of the heap, in my opinion, is Dr. Phyllis Trible. Her landmark book is called, “Texts of Terror” and in it she takes the 4 most disturbing passages from the Old Testament – the stories of Tamar, Hagar, the Daughter of Jephtha, and the unnamed woman whose husband is a priest of Isreal, and commits human sacrifice on her. All of these stories are extremely disturbing. And she goes through them one by one and helps the reader understand what is going on beyond all the violence and sadness that are at first so shocking. Her book is a very good example of showing what a very careful and close reading of the text can do as far as figuring out what in the world is happening. But that’s what scholars are doing, not what people in the pews are doing.
And most of the time what people in the pews are doing is…. avoiding the hard passages. In their minds at least, they tend to swap them out for broader 30,000 feet comments that are much easier to listen to. Something like, “Well, I don’t know what Jesus was really saying about divorce here, but I do know he said we’re not supposed to judge, so I’m just going to let God sort ‘em out.” It’s not that Evangelicals don’t have scholars putting out work on these texts, they do, they just prefer more practical answers that let people get on with life. One of the values in the Evangelical church really is an anti-intellectualism which comes across as just trying to get out of the scriptures what they need to live life, and move on. In 1994 an Evangelical scholar, who is also an excellent historian, wrote a book called, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”….and it turns out that the scandal is that there isn’t much of one. Things have gotten somewhat better for them since, at least at the academic level. In 2004 Christianity Today said that Noll’s book did more to change the trajectory of Evangelicalism than any other that had been published in that decade. But the anti-intellectualism in the pews remains. Several authors and speakers in the Evangelical world have tried to address this, but none of them seem to get much traction.
So, how do Latter-day Saints manage difficult texts?
A good test case for this is Doctrine and Covenants 132. That is a difficult chapter that many people need a moment or two when trying to wrap their minds around it. So how do we see people handling it?
For many people, a path that makes sense can be seen in what Scripture Central is doing (they used to be called Book of Mormon Central.) They are not shying away from the passage or making any excuses about it, they’re trying to help listeners contextualize it in history. They’ve got 15 videos explaining it from various angles that take top-level scholarship and make it accessible to regular people. Some of those are bite-sized little videos, while others are 90 min long. But what all of them are trying to do is help the listener pull the lens back and understand the entire context of a passage.
If you go to the FAIR website – which stands for Faithful Answers Informed Responses – you will see similar work being done, but with a different focus. If you have a specific difficulty or question about a passage, chances are very good that one of the FAIR scholars has already written a lot to address that very question. And not just with scripture passages, but with issues from church history, and current events (they have a new page up on understanding what in the world is going on with the Daybell trial, for example.) And they also have very focused responses like Sarah Allen’s 69-part response to the CES Letter.
And how about Latter-day Saints in the pews?
This is just my experience, but it is my experience, and I’m going to tell you something hard. One of the things Latter-day Saints do when they come across a difficult passage in the Bible is immediately jump to, “Well, clearly this is not translated correctly.” And…it’s lazy. Not because it can never be true – we all share the belief that the Bible has mistranslations. It’s lazy when it’s the first solution you jump to when you come across a difficult passage. There is no list of, “these are the passages translated incorrectly,” though you know from the beginning of this video that the science of figuring out what the New Testament actually originally said is difficult. A better approach is that if you come across a passage you don’t know what to do with, don’t jump immediately to, “mistranslation.” Go to the FAIR website or the Scripture Central website and do some reading about that passage. Both are working hard to make scholarship accessible. If you want to geek out even more go to the BYU Studies page and look up some of the academic work on that passage. Go to the BYU Scripture Citation Index – you can search up the passage and see every time it has been referenced in a General Conference talk all the way back to 1830. My point is that the tools are there for you to use and if you do some of the work to learn how to study better you can get more out of your scripture study. This kind of work isn’t a replacement of the Spirit – without the Spirit you’re never even going to get off the ground – but without taking in some content from people who know more than you, the Spirit only has so much to work with.
On a more positive note, the other way I’ve seen Latter-day Saints manage really difficult passages is with the kind of faithfulness that says: I don’t understand what is happening – Doctrine and Covenants 132 is a great example here – but I’m willing to let it ride for a while and see if I can find a way to think about it that’s helpful. One of the greatest gifts in our church is the idea that ongoing revelation exists – you don’t have to have everything all figured out today. Eternity is long, and your intelligence will have forever to learn and grow.
I hope this was helpful to you. This issue of difficult scriptures has been with people of faith for as long as scriptures have existed and I hope out discussion has helped you think about how you handle difficult passages. Join me next time and we’ll take up a new topic.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.