Phantom Bible passages
By John Blake
CHICAGO – Football legend Mike Ditka was giving a news conference one day after being sacked as the coach of the Chicago Bears when he decided to quote the Bible.
“Scripture tells you that all things shall pass,” a choked 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” does not appear in the Bible. Ditka was quoting a “phantom scripture” that sounds like it belongs in the Bible, but look closer and it is not there.
The Bible may be the most revered book in America, but it is 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 this often-cited paraphrase: “Satan tempted Eve to eat the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden.”
None of those passages appears in the Bible, and one is actually anti-biblical. But people rarely challenge them because biblical ignorance is so pervasive that it even reaches groups of people who should know better, said Prof Steve Bouma-Prediger, a religion professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
“In my college religion classes, I sometimes quote 2 Hesitations 4:3 (‘There are no internal combustion engines in heaven’),” he said. “I wait to see if anyone realises that there is no such book in the Bible and therefore no such verse. Only a few catch on.”
Ignorance and confusion
Ignorance is not the only cause for phantom Bible verses. Confusion is another.
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 are 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, said Prof Thomas Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University in Texas.
He said: “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.”
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 are pithy summaries of biblical concepts.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child” falls into that category. It is a popular verse – and painful for many kids. Most people have heard this one: “God helps those who help themselves.” It appears nowhere in the Bible, but many people think it does. It is actually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ founding fathers.
It is 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 are a preacher telling a story about Jonah, does it not sound better to say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, not a “great fish”?
There are some who 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.
Said Mr Craig Hazen, Director of the Christian Apologetics programme at Biola University in Southern California: “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.”
But often the milkmaid, the cobbler – and the NFL coach – start creating biblical passages without the guidance of biblical experts, he said, adding: “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?’’’
“Not only do they get the interpretation wrong, but very often end up quoting verses that really are not there.” – CNN Blog.
John Blake is a CNN writer.