Way back around my sophomore year of college, a forum post went around criticizing the Bible for advising people to be shallow and avoid complex communication:
But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5:37)Going to the actual book and reading the passage in context revealed the truth. The admonition was not to keep your speech simplistic, but to avoid swearing. Say “yes” instead of “hell yes”. Say “no” instead of “good God, no”.
I felt pretty
damn smug for figuring that one out. It showed the power of digging into an issue yourself, of trusting your interpretation of a source rather than someone else’s.
Fast-forward to a couple of days ago. I found myself pondering Jesus’s “turn the other cheek” advice. “If someone assaults you, let him do it again. If someone steals from you, offer him even more.” At face value, it appears to lie on the crazy side of radical. Profoundly pacifistic, perhaps even Buddhist. It was highly irregular coming from someone with a track record of random bouts of dickery, like that time He killed a fig tree because He wanted a fig but the tree was bare due to the expressly-mentioned fact that it wasn’t fig season.
As the Bible itself was not forthcoming with additional details, I consulted the Book of Google, which sent me in turn to Wikipedia, which provided some interesting background:
- The point about turning the other cheek presumes the first blow was a right-hand backhand slap, which was symbolically dismissive in those days. A blow to the other cheek would have to come from the left hand, which was taboo, or be something from the right besides a backhand, which would undo the dismissiveness.
- The point about also giving your shirt to someone who demands your coat as debt payment was to shame him with your nudity and to get him in trouble for violating Hebrew law against leaving debtors bare.
- The point about walking two miles when someone demands one was to get the demander in trouble for violating Roman law that strictly limited the amount of labor and message-carrying that the occupying force could demand from the natives.
That’s one point. Here’s the other: I wouldn’t have discovered that if I’d consulted only the primary source. The original context is several thousand miles and two thousand years distant. Too much of what it means just isn’t in it. I have no reason to believe that’s an isolated problem.