Does the Bible Really Say That?
February 1, 2002 - "I don't want to take a bath! I'm clean enough!" My impassioned protests as a six-year-old were quickly rebuffed by this powerful tool from my parents' arsenal of guilt-inducing mottoes: "Well, the Bible says that cleanliness is next to godliness." And as I recall, that was the end of the matter—I dutifully took my bath in the fear of divine reprisal.
by Kenneth Boa
It wasn't until years later that I discovered that this statement, "Cleanliness is next to godliness," isn't in the Bible at all; this famous expression came from the sermon "On Dress," by John Wesley.
When I was growing up, I heard people summarize their homespun religion with the maxim, "God helps those who help themselves." Even then it seemed to me that this self-help proverb was something out of "Second Opinions" or "First Hesitations," respectively from Aesop in "Hercules and the Wagoner" and from Benjamin Franklin in "Poor Richard's Almanac."
The same is true of other sayings that are falsely attributed to the Bible, such as, "To the victor belong the spoils," from William Learned Marcy's "Life of Jackson"; and, "No man is an island," from the English poet John Donne, in his "Meditation XVII."
Even expressions that really are derived from the Bible are sometimes distorted in the popular imagination, such as, "Money is the root of all evil." The Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil, but something quite different: "The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil."(1)
In many cases, people who question the reliability of the Bible do so because of false impressions they may have gained from other sources. Many people's knowledge about the Bible is derived largely from secondhand or thirdhand sources, rather than from direct encounters with the Scriptures.
Thus, misconceptions run rampant, such as a myth that the books of the New Testament were written centuries after the events they describe, or the myth that our earliest New Testament manuscripts go back only to the fourth or fifth centuries A.D. Also, many people seem to have the impression that the English-language version of the Bible is a translation of a translation of a translation of the original, and that in each new translation fresh errors were introduced.
People frequently say that the Bible is loaded with contradictions, but when asked, few people can think of any contradictions. Those who can usually mention the stock objections that they have been taught, such as the two "contradictory" creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. It is a rare person who has examined the text to see if the alleged contradiction really is there.
Another popular fiction is that the Bible teaches that the sun and planets revolve around the earth. Some writers delight in referring to the trial of Galileo for his "heretical" notion that the sun may be the center of the solar system, but this blunder was based on a misinterpretation of the Bible.
Similarly, people have misunderstood the phrase, "the four corners of the earth," to mean that, according to the Bible, the earth is flat with four literal corners. But Scripture uses this phrase figuratively, referring to all directions.(2)
When someone says, "I don't believe the Bible," it is helpful in many cases to ask, "Do you understand the message of the Bible?" Most will acknowledge that they do not, and those who think they do will almost invariably present a distorted picture. We can graciously point this out and say, "I think that you owe it to yourself to have a correct picture of the basic message of the Bible before you decide to accept it or reject it." This approach is most appropriate when the objection to the Bible is vague or is being used as a smokescreen. Giving direct answers is most appropriate when a person has honest intellectual questions about the Bible.
The best strategy is to encourage people to read for themselves one of the Gospels so that they can make informed decisions about Jesus Christ. One evening spent reading the Gospel of John could be a revolutionary experience for those who have never been exposed to the Good News. In fact, this was John's purpose in writing his Gospel: "These have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name."(3)