The Many Uses and Abuses of “Biblical”

When people say something is or isn’t “biblical,” several things may be in view. The simplest use of the word is understandably literal. By “biblical,” the speaker would be inquiring whether a debated idea, subject, imperative or even a word appears anywhere on the pages of the bible. Typically, the implicit notion is that if the debated thing is found in the bible—usually with little regards for context – the speaker is prepared to give in. For example, a parent may observe that baby Jesus was named on the eighth day and then conclude that such an act is “biblical.”(Naming the child on the eighth day is probably after a Roman cultural practice, not Jewish.) A literal use isn’t always correct and can often be dangerous.

The literal use also works conversely when people rule out an idea or practice as being unbiblical because it does not occur on the pages of the bible. For example, someone may say it is unbiblical to celebrate Easter or Christmas because there are no records of these occasions being observed in the bible. This application is also problematic. Yes, it is true that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. However, it is equally important to note that paganism did not inform the Church’s choice of date. Indeed, it arguably was the other way. Yep, that’s right. Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted the festival of the “birth of the unconquered sun” on December 25, 274 AD – a time after some Christians have already decided on December 25 as a date to honour the birth of Jesus. 1See McGowan, Andrew. “How December 25 Became Christmas.” That something doesn’t exactly occur in Scripture is not necessarily an argument against it. Some principle may cover such a thing. 

There is a higher-level use of “biblical” that is even more troublesome. One instance of this use almost severed the tether of a social group in Naija recently. I’m speaking about tithing. Abraham once paid a tithe to a king of Salem after a military campaign. (Some of Abraham’s descendants would later be required to pay institutionalized tithes so that some of their brethren would not lack basic necessities of life, but that’s a different matter.) The mainstream position of Naija church leaders is the conclusion from Abraham’s unprompted act that Christians ought to pay tithes. The derivation of “ought” here may be sincere, but it is dubious. By the same illogic, Christians would fast 40 days (without breaks) and would occasionally jump in the ocean hoping that Archimedes would save them. This kind of the use of “biblical” is typically guilty of illegally making prescriptions from descriptions.

Perhaps the highest-level misuse of “biblical” concerns imperatives. What can be clearer than, say, the following? 

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.” Ephesians 5:22-23 NIVUK

Or,

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” – Ephesians 6:5 NIVUK

The first quote is well known for its use during marriage counselling or seminars. To properly evaluate just how “biblical” this passage is, we need to make a quick detour. Contrary to what our churches may selectively project, the phrase “Christian marriage” is not self-explanatory. We know that the idea of marriage occurs very early on the pages of the Bible – that a man shall leave his parents and cleave to his wife, a notion that Jesus would reiterate centuries later.  That much is clear. But just about from the beginning, however, things got messy. Men took multiple wives; Jacob married two sisters and received the sisters’ slaves (or servants) as add-ons; of course, we should carefully note that the sisters were also his cousins. How about David? Well, having already had multiple wives, he had a man murdered so he could take the man’s wife by a move that would today be very likely seen as rape. Solomon? We had better skip him, for he took masculinity to another level. To further complicate things, there was the institutional levirate marriage program that required a brother of a deceased man to marry the widow. These are all facts about biblical marriages.  My reader may think, “Well, all these are Old Testament examples.” Yes, they are. The New Testament does not do much better on how “biblical” marriages should be. For instance, we know that Peter was married, but have no records of how he treated his wife. We remember Ananias and Sapphira for dying on the same day, and we have not many marital details about Priscilla and Aquila. Simply put, the bible does not have fully developed views on how to daily do healthy marriages. 

A few commentaries are appropriate: 

1. In all these cases of what might be called derailed marriages, except one of David’s, not a thing was said about how these practices were deviant. We didn’t read, for example, about a prophet calling anyone out for disobeying God by taking many wives. Even David wasn’t condemned for taking multiple wives; he was condemned for abuse of power.

2. In all these unpleasant biblical marital situations, women bore the weight. There is no instance of a woman taking multiple husbands at the same time, either.

Now, of course, there was some logic to the practices. In those parts of the world at the time, unfortunately, a woman was essentially a property—not very different from Anglo-American practices. Her worth appreciated if she had kids, especially boys, for males ruled the world. Childbearing guaranteed that she would receive portions of the estate when the husband died. There are more things to be said to judge these practices by the standards of the time, but the point remains that “biblical marriage” is not a clear concept thoroughly worked out in the Bible.

Now, let us address the Ephesians passages. The entirety of Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9 is known in scholarly circles as the Greco-Roman Household Codes or Rules. The origin probably predates Plato, but this idea featured prominently in Plato’s Republic. The Greco-Romans ordered their families thus: man (husband) > wife > children (boys>girls) > slaves. (They typically got their slaves from wars, purchases, and from exposed children.) Many non-Christian contemporaries of Paul including Philo of Alexandria also have these codes in their writings. In other words, Paul did not write in a vacuum. In these passages, Paul (and Peter, in his version)  Christianized a cultural practice the best way he could. Here are some critical moves that Paul made to Christianize the culture:

1. Whereas the Roman man had absolute power of life and death over his household, Paul subtly diluted that power by reminding the Christian Roman man that he too had a master—and this master is the real big deal.

2. In traditional Roman household codes talks, only the men took part. Serious conversations, especially the kinds that have to do with how the city-states were to be ordered, only took place among men in a designated place in the city. Had it been strictly traditional, the content of Paul’s letters would have been directly known only by the men in the communities addressed. Paul, however, addressed all members of the household encouraging the recipients of his letters to read them publicly. The genius is that, in reading the letters in the presence of all, the men would know that other members of the household know how the men ought to behave; everyone would know when there was an abuse of power. Paul’s embedded his Christianization of the cultural practice in 5:21,

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

That would have been seen as utterly unnatural outside Christian circles – the Roman man was told to submit to other household members, including the slaves! Whether things would work out as intended was another matter. But what is clear from these passages is that Paul neither endorsed the subjugation of women nor slavery. It is wrong to use these passages to claim that slavery is “biblical.”

While dealing with this famous passage, there is another relevant point worth fleshing out. If Christians are being consistent, they would know to not selectively enforce Ephesians 5:22 without enforcing 6:5. If we will toss out the imperatives in the slavery portion, we must do the same with the whole piece. Yes, there are things of theological importance to pursue in this passage, but Paul intended the instructions in the passage for a particular people group at a definite time. Let me say it a different way: it is NOT “biblical” to asymmetrically require women to submit to men using this passage (and others like it.)

So, what does “biblical” mean? It still means a lot of different things depending on the context. But I hope I have helped by tracing out a few things that it is not.

Reference

McGowan, Andrew. “How December 25 Became Christmas.” Biblical Archaeology Society. Biblical Archaeology Society, 10 Dec. 2019. Web. 16 Jan. 2020.

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