Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.4.10: American Genesis

Those practitioners of oxymoronic (emphasis on the ‘moronic’) “Creation Science” are at it again. If the have it their way, when you take your kid, or grandkid, to the Grand Canyon, and they ask you how old that huge natural wonder is, you can answer: “Oh, somewhere between 5 and 6 thousand years. It was made by the great flood as told in the Bible. You know, the one with Noah and all those animals.” So sayeth a book you can purchase in the park book shop there titled: Grand Canyon: A Different View. 

Use of the “holy scriptures” for crackpot “scientific proofs” of religious beliefs is nothing new, and would be laughable were it not for the fact that there are a lot of serious jerks out there who want this stuff either to be “alternate” scientific explanations, or exclusive explanations of natural phenomena taught in our schools. These are people who were born without metaphor or allegory glands and would be pitied for being condemned to lives of terminal literalism were it not for the fact that they are so freakin’ irksome.

Today’s issue recounts a story based on an incident a few years ago, but might well have happened yesterday.

V004-10_grand-bibleThe Gospel According To Tisdale

To the chagrin of religious fundamentalists it was recently reported in the national press that a group of 200 biblical scholars that has met for the past six years as the “Jesus Seminar” reported their conclusions. Approximately eighty-percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus, many of those commonly quoted by fundamentalists, said the scholars, were probably composed by the authors of the gospels and other early Christian writers.

Many who have read the Bible—having seen the movie doesn’t count—must wonder just how literally one can take the world’s most published and quoted book. Consider the fact that the Bible has gone through a lot of translation over the years. First its stories were transmitted through a Hebrew oral tradition, then written in ancient Hebrew, later translated into Greek, then Latin, then Old English (with the thees and thous), and finally into a more contemporary English. Even the people who are quoted in the Bible spoke a variety of languages. For example, Christ spoke Aramaic, a dialect different from Hebrew. We all know that a lot can get lost, misinterpreted, and embellished over time and in translations between languages.

Not long ago I was innocently washing my car when I was pounced upon by one of those roving evangelicals who wanted to give me a copy of the Bible if I would give her a chance to save my soul. I didn’t have the support of 200 biblical scholars to back me up, but perhaps I anticipated their findings a bit in conjuring my defense against her intrusive preaching.

I tried to fend off my zealous evangelist’s annoying recitations of chapters and verses by posing several questions about the accuracy of scripture. “Even the alphabet of ancient Hebrew could have made a great difference,” I suggested as I soaped down the roof. “What, for example, if the ‘t’ sound in ancient Hebrew was represented by a letter that looked like our letter ‘g’. This would means that God’s name isn’t really God, but Todd, and we should be saying ‘Todd bless you’, ‘For Todd’s sake,’ and ‘Oh my Todd’!”

“Blasphemy!” she retorted, and cited a verse that implied that God (or Todd) would punish me for such an utterance. “Every word in the Bible is true!” she insisted.

“Come one,” I said, resisting an impulse to let the hose spray over in her direction. “Do you really believe that Methuselah lived 900 years? Maybe he just felt awful one morning after a night of heavy drinking and said, ‘Boy, I feel 900 years old today’, and just like that it gets into the Bible that he lived three centuries. Just bad reporting.”

“So I take it that you don’t believe in miracles either,” she snapped. 

“I’d believe it was a miracle if my car could get through a couple of days without being used as a toilet for half the bird’s in this city,” I replied, scraping a guano deposit off the hood.

“I mean biblical miracles,” she said. 

“You mean like the healing of the lepers?” I suggested.

“Yes, how about that one,” she said.

“That one is a good example of mistranslation,” I replied. “Obviously you are unfamiliar with Prof. Norman Tisdale’s work.”

“Never heard of him,” she scoffed.

“Well, Tisdale, the great scholar of ancient languages, says that ‘leper’ is actually a misinterpretation of the ancient Hebrew for ‘leaper’. He says that the ‘leapers’ of Biblical times were actually irksome practical jokers who hid behind trees and temple columns and leaped out at passersby to startle the daylights out of them. Since they often waited so long for their victims to appear that they were neglectful in their personal habits, they were called, as the Bible says, ‘unclean’.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she snapped. “The Bible says that the ‘leapers’, I mean lepers, were healed, so they must have been ill.”

“Tisdale explains that as well,” I replied. “He says that the word spelled h-e-a-l should properly be translated as h-e-e-l. According to him the ‘leaper’’ problem was finally solved in the first century A.D. when a holy man went about teaching people to bend over quickly at the waist when they were about to be pounced upon by a ‘leaper’, at the same time thrusting out one of their legs straight behind them to strike the leaper in the groin with the back of the foot. This karate-like movement was referred to as ‘heeling a leaper’. Over time, and because of mistranslation, it was fashioned into the story of a miracle.”

“I’ve never heard anything so absurd in my life!” she growled. 

“I’m sure you have,” I replied, scrubbing more guano off the bumper.

“I suppose your Prof. Tisdale has his own version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.”

“You mean the miracle of the lox and bagels,” I corrected. “Want to hear about it?

“No thank you, I’d rather take a moment of silence to pray for your sick mind and your imperiled soul.”

“I’m for that,” I said, wringing out my chamois, “I might even do a little praying myself.” 

She was probably praying that those two gulls circling over my car had diarrhea. When she finished she looked at her watch and exclaimed: “My Lord! I’ve got to go or I’ll miss the Padres game,” and disappeared as quickly as she had arrived.

“Thank Todd,” I murmured, “my prayer has been answered.”

©1991, ©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.17.2004)

Originally published in Umbrella Magazine, Issue No. 33, May 1991