Hoffman, Joel M. 2016. The Bible doesn’t say that: 40 Biblical mistranslations, misconceptions, and other misunderstandings. NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Joel Hoffman has held faculty appointments at Brandeis University and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Hoffman notes five different reasons that the words of the Bible are misrepresented: 1) ignorance; 2) historical accident; 3) cultural gap; 4) mistranslation; and 5) misrepresentation (mistaking tradition for the original).
The book is devoted to giving examples for each of these misrepresentations, in the form of a statement followed by a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and occasionally ‘maybe’. For example, the title of chapter 2 is “Evolution” and the question and answer are: “Does Genesis contradict evolution. No.” His explanation (in part) is that there were two separate creation stories, one in which God created the world in six days, and the second one in which He created man, animals and then Eve, from Adam’s rib. What follows is a more detailed account of what various authors and Bible versions and “stepping back from our modern, scientific view” (20). So people who take the view that Genesis contradicts evolution close the door to evolution, such that misreading the Bible keeps us from asking the right questions “to say nothing of starting to answer them” (23). This is an example of interpreting the account as history.
Hoffman establishes what he sees as a common pattern in the Bible: various, often apparently conflicting accounts, “are complementary, not contradictory, offering insight into history even though the details themselves are probably not historically accurate” (47). He applies this insight to many chapters in his book, e.g. about David and Goliath (Did David kill Goliath with a slingshot? Yes, but also with a sword. And Elhanan killed Goliath, too), Noah’s ark (Did the animals board Noah’s Ark two by two? Yes, but also no), Jesus’s lineage (Was Jesus descended from Adam? No), Jesus’s death (Did the Jews kill Jesus? No), and so on.
Each question is researched and alternative answers are given. Hoffman is not out to prove that the Bible is “wrong” but, rather, to encourage readers of the Bible to be careful in what they assert to be literally true.
In Chapter 31 “Slavery” (Does the Bible encourage slavery? No). Hoffman gives an interesting example of the atheist Christopher Hitchens misreading and misinterpretation. Hitchens said that Moses violated the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” by his own actions and commandments to his supporters. But Hoffman points out that it is “a mistake to pick one episode of the Bible and naively jump to the conclusion that the point of the episode is that we should behave the way the characters did” (192).
Hoffman appeals to Levirate marriage in order to answer the question: “Does the Bible support only a one-man-one-woman model of marriage? No”.) Monogamy is the preferred model in the New Testament, particularly for church officers, but implies that polygamy was also accepted at the time.
“Does the Bible forbid divorce? No” is the question that leads into Chapter 33. Marriage and re-marriage have always been controversial in the church and the Catholic church has long held that re-marriage is immoral. There does seem to be a “bill of divorce” recognized in Deuteronomy 24:1, although it is clear from Malachi 2:16 that God hates divorce. Jesus allows the matter of divorce to be taken in terms of certain matters of sexual immorality, such as “unfaithfulness” (Matthew 19:9). Hoffman concludes that “divorce, like polygamy, is undesirable, along with marriage itself. But this judgment hadn’t yet been codified in an absolute prohibition of divorce” (209).
Finally, consider two very relevant questions in today’s culture: “Does the Bible say homosexuality is a sin? No.” And, “Is abortion the same as murder in the Bible? No.” As Hoffman notes “More than any other topics, these two divide both religious and secular communities” (253).
Hoffman makes a startling leap of logic when he claims that because the passage on homosexuality in Leviticus is the same section as commandments on bestiality and the mixing of wool and linen, that each must be considered in the same way and if the latter two are not relevant today, then the former one is not either, although he admits that “the triviality of part of the code doesn’t necessarily extend to the entire code” (257).
Hoffman also concludes that the details of Romans 1:26-27 may refer to natural and unnatural homosexual sex and says that “the degree to it is undesirable…is all a matter of interpretation” (259). He also alludes to the degree of “friendship” between David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi as if it could be considered by some as homosexuality. As a further leap of interpretation he notes that if Adam was not meant to be alone then finding a partner “whether a man or a woman” (262) is an alternative action.
Hoffman admits that, unlike homosexuality, the matter of abortion is relevant to the sanctity of life, which is “a central theme throughout the Bible” (264). In this chapter Hoffman probes both the status of a fetus and evidence about when life begins. His conclusion is that “In the end, the Bible gives us no direct information about abortion and very little indirect information” (269) and that it looks like fetus is “similar to a body part”. He concludes the reason people care so much about abortion is because the Bible treats the matter of human life and its quality, as well as justice and other matters, very seriously.
The conclusion of the 40 chapters is that Hoffman feels he has “stripped away the accidental and purposeful grime that discolors the Bible’s original message” which means, for example, giving up miracles because there is no division of “scientific” and “unscientific” in the Bible.
This is a book that can be helpful.
I have given only a small sample of the topics Hoffman covers but, perhaps, enough to show that it is a book worth reading. It can be especially helpful to critics of Bible translation who claim that translators are distorting the original text. Hoffman shows clearly that copies of the original text cannot themselves have any claim to originality and therefore copyists cannot claim to be inspired.