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The Christian right wants schools to teach the Bible — but doesn’t understand what the Bible is about

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This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Call it MACA: Make America Christian Again. 

A fresh offensive with that goal has gone into overdrive in the past two weeks, first with a ruling in Louisiana that the Ten Commandments must be displayed on the walls of every classroom, then a directive by Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction, that all public school students must be taught the Bible, with a copy to be placed in every classroom. 

It is true that biblical illiteracy has long been a problem in our culture. Students ought to be given the opportunity to study the Bible as a critical force in shaping history and culture. An education in it from a secular perspective can and should incorporate archeology, historical analysis, textual interpretation, and cultural studies focused on the comparative context of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. (Some years ago, a group that honestly wanted to address this problem produced a textbook — crucially, for elective high school courses — that presented the Bible in this way.) 

But that kind of comprehensive, critical education is not what decision-makers on the Christian right in Oklahoma or Louisiana have in mind.

In Oklahoma, Walters has sought to make his directive sound free of religious intent. The Bible, he has declared, is “the basis of our legal system,” and a historical document of primary importance that must be introduced to schoolchildren. More than that, he argues, the notion of “inalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence derives from the Bible. 

All are compelling points. And all but the second are false. 

Our legal system is not based on the biblical legal system, instead drawing its precedents from British case law. And the concept of inalienable rights is not in evidence in the Hebrew Bible’s condoning of slavery and provision of laws for its regulation.

In point of historical fact — something that appears to scarcely concern Walters — the source of the notion of inalienable rights is the French Enlightenment. If he really wanted to achieve the lofty civic aims he has laid out, he would do better to put a copy of the Declaration of Independence or of President Abraham Lincoln’s collected speeches in classrooms.

And why any of this might need to be taught in math and science classes — as Walters has said the Bible ought to be — is deeply unclear. Does he contemplate grounding the laws of thermodynamics in Deuteronomy?

With Walters’ would-be secular explanation for his decision dismantled, it’s clear that his real goal is to further a MACA agenda. He does not raise the question of how comfortable Jewish students might feel with a Bible in which the Old Testament is seen as simply a precursor to the New. And what the Bible would say to Muslim students, is of course, not addressed.

What MACA advocates like Walters misunderstand about the Bible is just how far from preaching nationalistic religiosity its message is. The Bible — especially the Hebrew Bible — is a compendium of different viewpoints, some of them sharply contradicting others, and many of them by no means consonant with conservative American notions of Christian piety.

English translations of the Bible, moreover, reflect a Christological bias in rendering the Hebrew — that is, a bias toward finding in it intimations of Christ — from which modern versions, supposedly based on sound scholarship, have not entirely freed themselves. 

Let me offer a single example from one of the best known of all biblical texts. In the 23rd psalm, the King James Version — the standard bearer in terms of English Bible translations — reads “Thou anointest my head with oil,” an expression of the speaker’s trust in God’s caring for him. All the modern versions use the same verb — even, shockingly, the Jewish Publication Society. 

But all those versions are based on a mistranslation — one that suggests a sacral act or even something messianic rather than enjoyment of the good life here and now. 

There is only one verb in biblical Hebrew for anointing, a verb cognate with mashiach, “messiah.” That is not the verb used in the 23rd Psalm; instead, the verb is dashen, which means “to make luxuriant,” and unlike the word for anointing, has nothing to do with messiahs or the consecration of kings and priests. 

It’s easy to imagine, in such an enormous text, how many more examples there are like this one — tiny translation choices that add up to a significant skewing of the English Bible toward reverence of Christ, and away from the rich diversity of its original Hebrew meaning. Putting an English Bible in every classroom, without the correct secular framing, will inevitably lead to acquainting students with a Bible that in certain respects can be misleading or actually tendentious — a goal designed not to improve education, but to advance a hardline conservative agenda.

These initiatives, of course, have triggered protests, and legal suits against them have been undertaken by groups concerned with civil liberties and the separation of church and state. For the sake of our democracy, one can only hope they will prevail.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the J. or the Forward, where this article was first published.

Robert Alter

Robert Alter is an emeritus professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. He is the author of numerous books, including "The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary," and the National Jewish Book Award-winning "The Art of Bible Translation."