Things the Bible Doesn’t Say (But You Thought It Did)

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.


Fleet Bible signing a Royal tradition

Fleet Bible signing a Royal tradition

Fleet-Bible-PicLocked in a safe in Sydney's St Philip's Church, the Fleet Bible has been signed by every monarch to visit Australia in the past century.

In some cases the Bible was taken to Government House for the occasion.

Church rector Reverend Justin Moffatt says the book has an "extraordinary place in the European history of Australia".

Brought out in the First Fleet, the large leather-bound Bible is inscribed with the address of Botany Bay.

It is believed to have been used by chaplain Richard Johnson to conduct the first Christian service in the colony.

The morning prayer service would have provided solace for the convicts after their long passage from England, Reverend Moffatt said.

Photo: Signatures from English royalty adorn a Bible that came to Australia from the United Kingdom on the First Fleet in 1788. (Church Hill Anglican)

The Bible is charred in places, bearing the marks of a fire in 1798 that destroyed Sydney's first church.


Paying homage to this history, every Royal to visit Australia has visited the church on York Street to leave their mark.

The first, in 1920, was Edward VIII, who is renowned for his scandalous abdication of the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

George VI - known as Albert or Bertie - and his wife, Elizabeth, also signed the book.

Their daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, signed it in 1954 when she was on a whirlwind tour of Australia, visiting 57 cities and towns in about as many days.

Newlyweds Prince Charles and Diana penned their names in 1983.

"I'm very happy that Will and Kate have taken the time to look, understand and sign this precious book," Reverend Moffatt said.

"[Christianity is] at the heart of the First Fleet and at the heart of the settlement in Sydney.

"Very few people know about this Bible and this prayer book which is a pity."

Photo: The Bible came to Australia from the United Kingdom with the First Fleet. (Church Hill Anglican)


Hebrew tablet suggests tradition of resurrected messiah predates Jesus

Hebrew tablet suggests tradition of resurrected messiah predates Jesus

A 3-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, because it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era - in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.

It is written, not engraved, across two neat columns, similar to columns in a Torah. But the stone is broken and some of the text is faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate.

Still, its authenticity has so far faced no challenge, so its role in helping to understand the roots of Christianity in the devastating political crisis faced by the Jews of the time seems likely to grow.

Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the stone was part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.

"Some Christians will find it shocking - a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology - while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism," Boyarin said.

Given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding all Jesus-era artifacts and writings, both in the general public and in the fractured and fiercely competitive scholarly community, as well as the concern over forgery and charlatanism, it will probably be some time before the tablet's contribution is fully assessed. It has been 61 years since the first Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered, and they continue to generate enormous controversy regarding their authors and meaning.

The scrolls, documents found in the Qumran caves of the West Bank, contain some of the only known surviving copies of biblical writings from before the first century A.D. In addition to quoting from key books of the Bible, the scrolls describe a variety of practices and beliefs of a Jewish sect at the time of Jesus.

How representative the descriptions are and what they tell us about the era are still strongly debated. For example, a question that arises is whether the authors of the scrolls were members of a monastic sect or in fact mainstream. A conference marking 60 years since the discovery of the scrolls will begin Sunday at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the stone, and the debate over whether it speaks of a resurrected messiah, as one iconoclastic scholar believes, also will be discussed.

Oddly, the stone is not really a new discovery. It was found about a decade ago and bought from a Jordanian antiquities dealer by an Israeli-Swiss collector who kept it in his Zurich home. When an Israeli scholar examined it closely a few years ago and wrote a paper on it last year, interest began to rise. There is now a spate of scholarly articles on the stone, with several due to be published in the coming months.

"I couldn't make much out of it when I got it," said David Jeselsohn, the owner, who is himself an expert in antiquities. "I didn't realize how significant it was until I showed it to Ada Yardeni, who specializes in Hebrew writing, a few years ago. She was overwhelmed. 'You have got a Dead Sea Scroll on stone,' she told me."

Much of the text, a vision of the apocalypse transmitted by the angel Gabriel, draws on the Old Testament, especially the prophets Daniel, Zechariah and Haggai. The expression "Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel" appears many times, as does the name Jerusalem.

Yardeni, who analyzed the stone along with Binyamin Elitzur, is an expert on Hebrew script, especially of the era of King Herod, who died in 4 B.C. The two of them published a long analysis of the stone more than a year ago in Cathedra, a Hebrew-language quarterly devoted to the history and archaeology of Israel, and said that, based on the shape of the script and the language, the text dated from the late first century B.C.

A chemical examination by Yuval Goren, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the verification of ancient artifacts, has been submitted to a peer-review journal. He declined to give details of his analysis until publication, but he said that he knew of no reason to doubt the stone's authenticity.

It was in Cathedra that Israel Knohl, an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, first heard of the stone, which Yardeni and Elitzur dubbed "Gabriel's Revelation," also the title of their article. Knohl posited in a book published in 2000 the idea of a suffering messiah before Jesus, using a variety of rabbinic and early apocalyptic literature as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But his theory did not shake the world of Christology as he had hoped, partly because he had no textual evidence from before Jesus.

When he read "Gabriel's Revelation," he said, he believed he saw what he needed to solidify his thesis, and he has published his argument in the latest issue of The Journal of Religion.

Knohl is part of a larger scholarly movement that focuses on the political atmosphere in Jesus' day as an important explanation of that era's messianic spirit. As he notes, after the death of Herod, Jewish rebels sought to throw off the yoke of the Rome-supported monarchy, so the rise of a major Jewish independence fighter could take on messianic overtones.

In Knohl's interpretation, the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone could be a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, according to the first-century historian Josephus. The writers of the stone's passages were probably Simon's followers, Knohl contends.

The slaying of Simon, or any case of the suffering messiah, is seen as a necessary step toward national salvation, he says, pointing to lines 19 through 21 of the tablet - "In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice" - and other lines that speak of blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.

To make his case about the importance of the stone, Knohl focuses especially on line 80, which begins clearly with the words "L'shloshet yamin," meaning "in three days." The next word of the line was deemed partially illegible by Yardeni and Elitzur, but Knohl, who is an expert on the language of the Bible and Talmud, says the word is "hayeh," or "live" in the imperative. It has an unusual spelling, but it is one in keeping with the era.

Two more hard-to-read words come later, and Knohl said he believed that he had deciphered them as well, so that the line reads, "In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you."

To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says "Sar hasarin," or prince of princes. Because the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of "a prince of princes," Knohl contends that the stone's writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.

He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David, a messianic figure, whom the stone also mentions along with David.

"This should shake our basic view of Christianity," he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he is a senior fellow and the Yehezkel Kaufman professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University. "Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."

Yardeni said she was impressed with the reading and considered it indeed likely that the key illegible word was "hayeh," or "live." Whether that means Simon is the messiah under discussion, she is less sure.

Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University, said he spent a long time studying the text and considered it authentic, dating from no later than the first century B.C. His 25-page paper on the stone will be published in the coming months.

Regarding Knohl's thesis, Bar-Asher is also respectful but cautious. "There is one problem," he said. "In crucial places of the text there is lack of text. I understand Knohl's tendency to find there keys to the pre-Christian period, but in two to three crucial lines of text there are a lot of missing words."

Moshe Idel, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University who has just published a book on the son of God, said that given the way every tiny fragment from that era yielded scores of articles and books, "Gabriel's Revelation" and Knohl's analysis deserved serious attention. "Here we have a real stone with a real text," he said. "This is truly significant."

Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

But there was, he said, and "Gabriel's Revelation" shows it.