By Leonard Jayawardena –
Three references to the Bible (two direct quotations and an allusion) in two recent articles appearing in the Colombo Telegraph impelled this article.
The allusion came first and was seen in Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka’s article titled “The New Opposition & The old Neoliberalism“ It opened with the following glorious blooper: “New wine cannot be put into old wineskins. And vice versa.” Dr. DJ’s “vice versa” is wrong, for old wine can be put into new wineskins, as explained below, though the political view that he intended to express through this (erroneous) inversion of Jesus’ parable of the new and old wineskins may have merit. To his credit, he at least did not claim to quote the Bible, though the allusion is clear.
The two direct quotations appeared in the article “The Women at Gates of the Mahara Prison“ by Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka (SDeSJ), who is none other than Dr. DJ’s spouse. The first, Mattthew 25:39, taken from the account of the judgment of the sheep and goats, opens the article and has Jesus saying, “And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?â€ The second, containing another saying of Jesus in the same context, closes the article and reads, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to meâ€ (Mathew 25:45). In the article the scripture reference is erroneously given as 35:45 (!) but that is the lesser error. The greater error is pulling these sayings of Jesus out of their original context and applying them to rioting inmates in the Mahara prison.
I have no interest in commenting on the content of either article and am writing to draw to attention to these errors as examples of the misuse/abuse to which the Bible is constantly subjected, to discuss two other common examples of this kind, which many readers may have already encountered before, and to point out the moral lesson to be drawn from this.
To deal with the first blooper, here are the actual words of Jesus taken from Matthew’s Gospel (9:17):
Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will spill, and the wineskins will be ruined. Instead, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.
In Jesus’ day wine was put into clay jars to be stored or into botles made of sheep or goat skins (wineskins) if it was to be transported some distance. New wine was put into new wineskins as they were pliable enough to resist the pressure of the fermenting liquor. They would yield to the fermenting wine and not burst. But old wineskins, which had already been used and stretched out, could not be so used since they could not stretch again and would burst if filled with wine which was still in the process of fermenting (“new wine”). Grape must stops fermenting when the all of the sugar in the must has been converted into other chemicals by the yeast or when the alcohol content has reached a percentage that is toxic to the yeast (about 15%).
So new wine was not put into old wineskins for the reason stated above, but there was no physical reason against putting old wine into new wineskins since they would not burst! Therefore Dr. DJ’s “vice versa” is wrong! Old wine could be put into new wineskins but it would have been a waste of a new wineskin. By the way, wineskins are still used in some parts of the world.
It is beyond the scope of this article to enter into an exposition of the parable of the new and old wine skins in its biblical context.
The two sayings of Jesus quoted by SDeSJ, reproduced above, both occur in the Gospel according to Matthew in the scene of the eschatological judgement which was to take place at the coming of “the Son of Man” (a reference to Jesus himself). In this judgement, which is metaphorically described with figures drawn from the Old Testament and has no literal reality, all nations are gathered before him and the “sheep” are separated from the “goats” (Matthew 25:31-33), who represent the righteous and the unrighteous respectively. There is a third party featured in this scene of judgement, whose presence is implied by the words “one of the least of these my brothers” in Matthew 25:40 and “one of the least of these” in v. 45. The additional words “my brothers” in v. 40 show that this third party consists of Jesus’ disciples, who are his spiritual brethren. Though these words are omitted in v. 45, it is clear that the reference there, too, is to the same group of people, i.e., Jesus’ disciples. He tells the sheep that whenever they helped his disciples in the form of visiting them in prison and caring for them in other ways they did it to him because he was present in spirit in his disciples. Compare this with Acts 9:4, where, appearing in a vision, Jesus tells Saul (later and better known as the apostle Paul), “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” At that moment Paul was on the road to Damascus to arrest Christians in that city and his persecution of Jesus’ followers amounted to persecution of Jesus himself as he lived in them in spirit. Indeed the very definition of a Christian as per the New Testament is one who has the spirit of Christ.
As the New Testament reports, Jesus’ followers were constantly subjected to persecution on account of their faith, which included imprisonment. Those whom the “sheep” visited in prison were Christians who had been imprisoned for that reason (the referent of the demonstrative “these” in vv. 40 and 45). Therefore to apply these passages to rioting incarcerated criminals and remanded suspects, as SDeSJ has done, is to do violence to the biblical texts. It is interesting that SDeSJ skips right over v. 40, where the longer form “one of the least of these my brethren” occurs, and conveniently cites the shorter form in v. 45 (“one of the least of these”). SDeSJ is not alone in this error; some “scholarly” biblical exegetes, too, have fallen into it. In his commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series), R.V. G. Tasker opines that Jesus can “refer to suffering men and women as His brethren” because he was able to feel “the sorrows and afflictions of the children of men as though they were His own” (p. 238, first edition). But by Jesus’ own definition his brothers (and sisters, mothers, etc.) are “those who hear the word of God and do itâ€ (Luke 8:21). Jesus and his disciples formed one spiritual family because they all had God as their spiritual Father.
A fuller exposition of the judgement of the sheep and goats in the Matthean passage, including the exact identity of the “sheep” and the “goats,” would take us beyond the scope of this article.
Now let us look at two other examples of notoriously misused biblical scriptures.
“Blessed are the peacemakers”
This is one of the Beatitudes delivered by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount and in its complete form reads, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God” (Matthew 5:9 and para.). Those who misuse it always omit the second clause.
Its most eggregious misuse occurs when the Beatitude in its amputated form is used in praise of those who work to bring about “peace” agreements of a political nature between warring nations or other parties. It appears, for example, in the publications of the UN. Such peacemaking cannot be contemplated in this Beatitude. For one thing, this sort of peace agreements are reached when one or more of the warring sides decide the war is unwinnable, not because they assent to the principle that violence should not be resorted to in order to resolve conflicts. Jesus taught non-violence and pacifism in the same sermon. At the time Jesus uttered this Beatitude (early first century AD) there was peace (in the sense of absence of war) in the Roman empire (Pax Romana) and so that sort of peacemaking would have had little relevance for that time anyway. And Jesus certainly could not have had the Pax Romana itself in mind since that peace was achieved through the Roman military might. Furthermore, the “peacemakers” in view are deemed worthy of being called “the sons of God,” but we have seen that this appellative properly belongs only to Jesus’ disciples, which again argues against mere political peacemaking being contemplated in the Beatitude.
Is peacemaking in relationships between individuals a possible interpretation? Christians are exhorted to live peaceably with all men as far it depends on them (Romans 12:18). Jesus told his disciples to “have peace with one another” (Mark 9:50). Paul advised his fellow Christians likewise (1 Thessalonians 5:13). “Pursue peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). Paul urged two female co-workers in the Philippian church to be reconciled to each other and so acted as “peacemaker” (Philippians 4:2). But this sort of living peacefully with one another and peacemaking, whatever its quality, is not unique to Christians, so peacemaking of this kind cannot justify the privilege of their being called “sons of God.” On the other hand, when non-Christians engage in peacemaking of this sort, they still do not qualify as “sons of God” by virtue of that alone.
By the above process of elimination as well as in the light of other biblical teachings touching on this subject, it can be concluded (indeed we are shut up to the interpretation) that the peacemaking envisaged in this Beatitude has as its goal peace of another kind, that which figures prominently in the New Testament: peace with God. In biblical teaching, sin has alienated man from God and put him in a state of hostility and rebellion against Him in a spiritual sense. Christ delivers sinners from their sins and reconciles them to God (the exact method need not concern us here), thus “making peace” between them (Colossians 1:20). This is the basic message of the Christian Gospel, for which reason it is also called “the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15). Those who cease hostility (spiritually) and make peace with God are peacemakers. This peace begins at conversion, when they become “sons of God,” being imbued with His spirit (in a moral/ethical sense). Some of them, viz., the emissaries sent by God to preach this message of peace, will become peacemakers in the further sense of being “brokers” of peace between God and the recipients of their message (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18-20), though whether the term “peacemakers” in the Beatitude under discussion contemplated this secondary sense is uncertain.
“Thou shalt not kill”
This is one of the Ten Commandments given by Yahweh to the ancient people of Israel. It means, “Thou shalt not murder,” since that is the intent of the word in its context. The Hebrew word involved does not by itself mean “murder,” as some think, as in other passages of the Old Testament the same Hebrew word is used in contexts where no murder is intended or implied.
The misuse of this verse occurs when this is cited by opponents of capital punishment in the form “Thou shalt not kill,” since translated in that form and quoted in isolation the commandment affords plausible support for that position. But such misuse can only be attributed to mind-boggling ignorance of the Old Testament scriptures or disingenuity, for even a casual reading of the OT book of Exodus alone, in which this commandment first appears, will provide numerous instances in which the killing of humans is sanctioned or even commanded in certain circumstances, including murder.
As the readers are well aware, the issue of whether capital punishment should be re-implemented in this country crops up from time to time. The last time it happened, no less a person than a bishop of a certain denomination (I forget which) cited “Thou shalt not kill” as providing biblical authority for his opposition to it! If this clergyman was sincere, it is a testimony to the abysmal level of biblical illiteracy that prevails even among those who are expected to know better.
In a lighter vein, an animal rights activist opposed to animal slaughter once quoted this commandment to lend biblical authority to his/her position, little aware that in the Mosaic Code, which it forms part of, animal sacrifices constitute an integral part!
The moral lesson to be drawn from what has been said above is that those not in possession of a high level of biblical literacy should desist from quoting or in any sense referring to the Bible in public speech or writing because of the high likelihood of being wrong. Those who do so regardless do a disservice to it. It is enough that the Bible has been misinterpreted, misrepresented and suffered abuse over the centuries at the hands of even the supposed experts—the theologians and scholars—that it could do without further abuse by “laymen” who have no serious interest in the Bible and do not put in the necessary effort to be at least reasonably biblically literate.