Apples, unicorns and Jesus’ childhood are all missing from the Bible. Why?
The Bible is the most hotly debated and influential book of all time. Christians vehemently disagree with one another about what the Bible says and doesn’t say; which Biblical laws are eternally proscriptive and which are defeasible; and what the Bible actually means and who gets to decide. But even apart from these debates there’s a lot of blank space in the Bible—places where a lack of information has led readers and interpreters to supply extraneous information. Add to that all the things people think are in the Bible but aren’t and you have a whole different book.
To start off, there’s the insertion of mammals and botanicals in places where they shouldn’t be. Most people grow up learning that Eve took an apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, gave it to Adam, leading to the ejection of humanity from the Garden of Eden. But there’s no apple in the Garden—there’s only a piece of fruit. The interpretation that it’s an apple sneaks in in the King James Version of the Bible.
And there isn’t any mention of unicorns processing twosies by twosies, hooves–a-clattering onto Noah’s Ark. Once again we have fearless band of translators to thank. The English “unicorn” is a translation of a Latin rendering of a Greek word that sounds unicornish (monokeros—one-horned). The Greek is itself a translation of the Hebrew word for wild ox (re’em). From wild ox to unicorn in three easy steps—that’s one heck of a makeover.
Jonah also wasn’t swallowed by a whale. Both the Hebrew original and the Septuagint (the earliest Greek translation) are clear that he was swallowed by a “big fish” or “sea creature.” Even the KJV describes Jonah as being swallowed by a “great fish,” but when translating a verse in Matthew about Jonah it suddenly switches to “whale” for no good linguistic reason. The mistranslation doesn’t even come from the right testament. Of course, logically we might wonder if other sea creatures would be big enough to swallow Jonah whole, but if we’re bringing logic into things then I suspect we all have some questions about the climate and fresh water supply in the stomach lining of earth’s biggest mammal.
It’s not just plot details that are missing; there are “Biblical sayings” that have nothing to do with the Bible. In addition to “Watch out for that whale!” “Look at that unicorn!” and “What a delicious apple!” we can add, “God helps those who help themselves.” This common justification for shirking social duty likely comes from Aesop’s fable of “Hercules and the Waggoner,” and probably found its way into our theological lexicon via Benjamin Franklin. Protestant favorite “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is a loose approximation of a saying by Mahatma Ghandi in 1929.
There are many things the Bible doesn’t actually say that tradition has read into the text. But some of these Biblical omissions are actually purposeful. In her recent book Silent Statements, New Testament Professor Michal Beth Dinkler writes that silence and narrative omissions are important rhetorical tool for Biblical authors.
There are many things the Bible doesn’t actually say that tradition has read into the text.
Take, for example, the complete void surrounding the childhood of Jesus and John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke. Apart form a single incident in which Jesus preaches in the Temple, we don’t know anything about what either individual was doing before John started baptizing. It’s an odd omission, because ancient biographies often included childhood stories. Dinkler argues that the gap isn’t the result of a dearth of information, but rather a desire to show John the Baptist fulfilling the prophecies made about him by the angel Gabriel. As she writes in her book, “The absence of any childhood stories of the Baptist focuses the reader immediately on the narrative fulfillment of the prophetic picture painted before his birth.” Silence is strategic.
The same thing happens with all of the scenes in which Jesus appears to be evasive. In another famous story in Luke, a sinful woman anoints Jesus and dries his feet with her hair and Jesus forgives her sins. Those present were irked and said to each other “Who is this who even forgives sins?” In Sunday school we learn that the answer is God or—bonus points for showing your work—Jesus himself. That might be right, but Luke never answers the question. He just lets it hang there.
Dinkler told me that silence is not “the unambiguous opposite of the sound of speech” but instead “creates puzzlements that pique curiosity… and draws readers more deeply into the interpretive process, since they must fill in the narratological gaps themselves.”
If she is correct, then those of us prone to bouts of passive-aggressive monosyllabic answers should rejoice: even the Bible agrees that a well-placed silence does a lot for one’s argument. In the end the things that the Bible doesn’t say are just as interesting as the things it does.