Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bible Interpretation Example: Luke 22:36 and the Ills of Interpretation

I'd written this about a week ago with a mind to post it eventually, when I didn't have anything else. After the murders at Virginia Tech, however, I'm posting it, now.

Luke 22:36 says, "Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one."

This is often interpreted as being a justification for broad-based self-defense. Almost always, this is in the context of using firearms.

This is an interesting case, however, of being able to test the literalness of the people who talk about the Bible. This is one of my favorite verses, because it is in most ways so totally out of line with everything else Jesus says in the Bible – the whole sell your cloak and buy a sword line is only in Luke, and it it used to justify self-defense and guns.

But if you read it literally, what does it say? It says to buy a sword, if you've got the money for it, and if you don't, sell your cloak to buy a sword.

What it doesn't say, and is said nowhere in Luke, is that the sword should be used in self-defense. That's interpretation. So is the idea that this verse refers to firearms – it doesn't. Jesus doesn't say “guns” he says “sword”. To say that Jesus is referring to firearms is also interpretation.

What does Jesus want his disciples to do with their swords? He doesn't say. And he certainly doesn't refer to anything other than swords. Specifically, his belief about firearms is untested. The purpose of these swords is also left unclear.

Yet, most Christians in America interpret this line to justify broad-based self-defense with firearms. This is, I think, an unusually clear place where interpretation takes place. Christians, rather than saying that they should arm themselves with swords, infer that what Jesus meant is weapons, generically, and for the purpose of self-defense.

Of course, from the context, it is in fact reasonably clear that Jesus is telling his disciples to arm themselves for the purposes of self-defense. I do not dispute that this is a fairly obvious interpretation, but it nevertheless remains interpretation.

This sort of thing is true of almost all cases when someone quotes the Bible in support of something. The Bible almost never says what they say it says. It says something that could – to a greater or lesser extent – be interpreted as what they believe. It doesn't say it, it is merely interpreted as them saying it.

But why are they reinforcing their interpretation with sacred text? Why do they bother to justify the owning of firearms with Bible verse? The United States, in particular, already has a culture of gun ownership. Secular reasons to justify firearms ownership are culturally powerful – I'm sure a brief tour of the NRA publications section will give you more than enough to satisfy you. Hunting, Constitutional scholarship, tradition, self-defense – the US has numerous intelligible (not necessary right or true, but intelligible) secular reasons to justify gun ownership.

It seems to me, however, that for Christians an appeal to reason isn't enough, because secular arguments are, by their very nature, human arguments, and flawed, and can be discussed. When talking about the utility of guns for self-defense, people might bring up the disturbing fact that in a household with guns, it's 22 times as likely that the guns will be used to cause harm to the residents of the household than a criminal. In short, you can bring up facts that weaken a purely secular argument.

However, by appealing to Jesus Christ, argument can be stopped. It is not longer a matter of one side that believes in firearms ownership because they believe it discourages crime and another side that believes that the damage done to society outweighs the right to own guns. The issue is now sacred. The right to bear arms in self-defense is holy, because Jesus himself said so. Who can argue with that? The perfect being has said, in their minds, that Jesus approves of firearms for self-defense. The fact that their “proof” is literary interpretation is meaningless; by assertion, their political preference has been transformed into inerrant holy decree. It is beyond discussion.

What a perfect political convenience! By stamping the sign of the Bible on something, it puts it beyond reasoned discourse and into the realm of holy law! All, of course, without the slightest sign from Christians that what they're doing is interpretation – they'll repeat, time and again, that Jesus approves of self-defense, even though a literal reading of the relevant passages don't reveal that at all, but shows, instead, Jesus ordering a discrete group of people to buy swords for unspecified reasons. This is taken, then, to be the highest form of argument, so pure and strong that it simply cannot be argued.

What a fantastic trick!

But it increasingly seems to my mind that those of us in the atheist/humanist/non-theist camp need to start calling out this stark interpretation. We're letting Christians literally get away with murder because we lack the skills to call their selfish, dishonest interpretations of religious texts what they clearly are: an obvious and duplicitous justification to a specific political agenda. We should hammer home, again and again, when Christians are interpreting the Bible – but pointing out the obviously of their interpretation, and giving no relent until they are exposed as the frauds or fools they are.

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beepbeepitsme said...

It's a classic case of retrofitting one's political and cultural beliefs into an ancient text and claiming that the ancient text means exactly the same as one's political and cultural beliefs.

Muslims do this a lot too. They state things like - Allah knew about embryos because the quran mentions a clot of congealed blood (alaqa). To imply that by mentioning a clot of congealed blood that the quran demonstrates modern scientific knowledge about conception is a huge leap. It doesn't stop muslims from doing it and it doesn't stop christians from doing similar things when it comes to interpreting their favourite book.

Nonetheless, the process is no different than me claiming that Dr Seuss was talking about american army helmets in "Cat in the Hat."

April 17, 2007 4:40 PM  
chooseDoubt said...

Well put. Not exactly the same topic but I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Luke 19:27 as well?

April 18, 2007 7:23 AM  
Chris Bradley said...


Oh, yeah, virtually everyone in every religion does it. Religions are in a bind, most of them, because they were written a long time ago for a world that's considerably different from the one we've got, and they're trying to fit in things written during the Iron Age or the Middle Ages make sense in the Information Age.

I suspect it'll probably be the thing that does religions in. They don't make any damn sense and over time people are gonna see that they don't make any damn sense! In fact, they ARE. I suspect this process with intensify and accelerate over time, tho' I doubt we'll see the end of it in our lifetimes.

April 18, 2007 10:26 AM  
Chris Bradley said...


Oh, man, that's from the parable of the minas, hehe, which is one of the stupidest parables in the Bible (even moreso than the parable of the talents). The whole thing makes no sense, to me, given the otherwise anti-wealth, anti-violence message that Jesus teaches.

Most of Jesus' parables are agriculture related, except for this one, and it's painful to watch the guy who overturned the tables and said that the poor will be rewarded in heaven, then tells a story the focus of which is making money through usury. It is part of the Gospels that is narratively nonsensical.

Likewise, specifically in the parable of the minas, there's the bit about the traveler bringing his enemies in front of him to kill them. Not only does it seem to be irrelevant to the story (which makes one wonder why it was added to the parable of the talents and what Luke was working off of), which is about diligence in service to the lord (I GET it, I just think that given the message of Jesus it is wildly inappropriate -- it'd be like an abstinence only preacher using a story about hookers screwing johns somehow equates to abstinence). It is also against the spirit of Jesus message in almost every other case.

But it might be the specific influence of Paul. Paul was sorta crazy, and almost certainly Luke was written by Paul's personal physician (along with Acts), so who knows to what extent Luke and Acts were influenced by Paul -- I'd say a lot. But it's impossible to say with certainty.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I think that the parable of the minas is a narrative flub job. Not only does it use a story about usury to try to promote Jesus' message -- which is nonsensical in the first place -- it has this weird and violent add on that isn't explained at all.

Or, perhaps, it is merely the underlying violence girding the Christian religion coming up, again. Jesus is pretty clear that his big daddy is gonna fuck up anyone who doesn't go along with the plan, and (interpretively) that's probably who the dissenters were, and why the execution.

But taken away from the context of divine judgment, it is clear that it's tyranny.

Still, I think the story is too confusing to actually mean very much unless you, ahem, "read it with faith" -- by which I mean project your own biases into this very poor story.

April 18, 2007 10:38 AM  

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