As a boy, my religious life was shaped by the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) and the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Both were written and spoken in exquisite and inspirational prose characteristic of Elizabethan English. Growing up I loved how the stories fed my imagination. I never felt dogmatic about them. I was fresh meat for any Jehovah’s Witness.
I have fond memories of hymns like:
Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so.
The Holy Bible, one of the sacred artifacts of our western world, hasn’t always brought out everyone’s best. The ways people can talk about the Bible, you’d never guess Jesus loves us. Literal interpretations invariably lead to dead-ends. Like political rhetoric, the Bible can polarize.
I don’t believe all of the Bible’s renditions necessarily reflect the mind of God.
I discovered that in the year 1631, Robert Parker and Martin Lucas, printers to the crown in England, were commissioned to make reprints of the magnificent King James Version of the Bible.
For a word, or more accurately, but for the omission of one word – what you and I would call a typo – this lofty commission was doomed to perdition, marking this effort as a milestone in religious infamy. This had to be the mother of all typos.
In the printing of the fourth of the ten commandments that reads: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” the word ‘not’ had been omitted, leaving the commandment to read: “Thou shalt commit adultery.”
Not long after the Bible was circulated and its fateful omission discovered, the edition became known as the Wicked Bible, the Adulterous Bible and the Sinners Bible. Today’s “X” rated would be only a slap on the wrist compared to the crown’s reaction and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s swift response to the discovery.
Shortly after the printing, Marcus and Lucas were fined three hundred pounds, the equivalent of today’s forty-nine thousand pounds and any copies that could be found were burned. The printers, although their typo may have garnered a new but limited following, the printers lost their shirts on the job.
A curious side note: the few extant copies command hefty prices. Just why one might wish to pay exorbitant amounts for a flawed edition is anyone’s guess except perhaps for those who read scripture as the literal word of God. This omission certainly would have given them a free hand to indulge the forbidden thoughts they’d frequently entertained, although reluctantly disavowed.
Unlike the Italians or French whom we regard as sexy, the Brits have a reputation for being stuffy and reserved in matters of human sexuality. Of the three or four copies of the Wicked Bibles existing in libraries worldwide, the English uncharacteristically displayed their copy at the British Museum during the four hundredth anniversary of its printing, the way institutions honor great moments in their history. The Bible was displayed, the offending page open for all to see like the centerfold in a girlie (British spelling) magazine.
I understand the Bible to be read, not as the literal word of God, but as inspired narratives from people who have discovered the wonder of Holiness. There are rules and prohibitions but far more documentations of sacred moments in people’s lives. These narrative stories, when read for inspiration have afforded men and women hope and comfort over the years. Some words of Jesus, when understood in the language in which he spoke them, assume not only deeper meaning than much of the KJV translation communicates, but suggest meanings very different from those of the English text.
Like the KJV that renders texts from Greek into English, many inspiring messages are lost from reaching the heart while others can lead us to dead ends.
Scholar, Neil Douglas-Klotz, has made a study of the teachings of Jesus. He translates texts directly from the Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, not the English translations from the Greek – the source from which our KJV Bible was written. The difference is stunning and the meaning more far reaching.
In one fascinating example, he cites Matthew 7:17, which reads (KJV): “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.” Read that way it’s tidy, clearly establishing two types of trees, good ones and bad ones. Polarizations like that, contrasting opposites, pitting this against that, is the mother’s milk of literalists and politicians; it neatly defines which kind of tree you’d better be or find yourself another orchard. It’s transparent moralism and doesn’t help us to deepen or grow spiritually or even guide us in discerning what’s needed to bear the kind of fruit that is life-giving for ourselves and others.
The Aramaic language is nuanced and less legalistic than Greek. Aramaic takes this matter of good and bad trees from being just another exercise of black and white thinking, to a place of hope and possibility.
In Aramaic, the words read like this: “A ripe tree brings forth ripe fruit, and an unripe tree brings unripe fruit.” This changes everything.
What Greek and English render as good and bad, the Aramaic speaks of as ripe and unripe. Ripe in Aramaic is the equivalent of what’s considered goodness. It’s not static, it’s a process. It reads like an invitation to developing discernment, the wisdom of recognizing the right time for just and appropriate actions. It’s all about developing the ability to live wisely, or to use the Buddhist phrase, skillfully.
I see exploring scripture as a way to deepen our understanding, not as a manual for judging others, or even legitimizing and delegitimizing claims.
As an octogenarian, I often spend time reminiscing about my life. I’ve found that my deepest regrets are in how I’ve dealt with my children and other loved ones. Over the years, I can now see how I was anything but skillful. I don’t think it was because I was a bad tree. I wasn’t ripe enough yet. I needed to live more to achieve the kind of fullness that time and ripening naturally bring.
Ignorance is endemic in the human condition; not ‘ignorant’ in the flippant sense, but in the sense, that, at the end of the day, we know so little. The upside of learning more is recognizing how little we really knew in the first place. Ripening is a natural process we see all around us in living organisms. In the spiritual world, ripening leads us one step after another from ignorance to understanding and with understanding, to love and humility.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
The right words at the right time, or rather the ripe words spoken when they need to be heard (when the time is ripe) can help us break from the constraints ignorance to become agents of grace. Our troubled world desperately needs agents of grace who act in the fullness of time.
In the beginning was the ‘Word’, John wrote. At the right time the ‘Word’ can illuminate our lives.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.