Linguistics scholar explores textual confusion


Academic lecturer Joel Hoffman took the stage in front of a packed auditorium Monday night to give a lecture that could effectively turn some worlds upside down.

Promoting his new book, “The Bible Doesn’t Say That,” Hoffman asserted that the Bible does not call homosexuality a sin, that “coveting” is not as big of a deal as it is made out to be and that the death penalty is biblically OK, at least as far as the Ten Commandments are concerned.

Hoffman, who holds a linguistics doctorate, said the largest obstacles inherent in modern understanding of an ancient text like the Bible are mistranslation and inaccurate quotation.

To illustrate his point, Hoffman divided people into three groups: what he called “professional atheists,” like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins; “radical fundamentalists,” who take every word in the Bible as fact and disregard all else and, finally, those who try to reconcile science with the Bible.

“We’re missing the point, that this was written in a pre-scientific era,” Hoffman said. “This was not supposed to be literal truth.”

Hoffman said the Old Testament is divided up into three parts that can be identified by the ages of the characters. In the beginning, near the creation of the earth, people live many hundreds of years.

In the second, which deals with the creation of the Israelites, Hoffman said that people only live for a few hundred years.

“These ages are clearly symbolic,” Hoffman said.

He said the Babylonians had trouble multiplying large numbers, but small numbers were fine.

“Moses lived to be the age of 120, which is two times three times four times five, a nice Babylonian round number,” Hoffman said.

The third part regards Jewish life in ancient Jerusalem as historically valid according to Hoffman.

“Historians and archaeologists only have evidence for the third part,” he said. “They have no evidence for the first or second part. In the third part, people live what we would call scientifically plausible lifespans.”

Hoffman said it appears as if the authors purposefully exaggerated the ages in the first and second parts to illustrate an obvious sign that these sections
are not historical. Then pausing, Hoffman glanced around the room as if to a punch line.
“Some people missed the sign,” he said to the delight of the audience.

Continuing as the laughter abated, he said the first two parts of the Old Testament were more like art than science and that those trying to use science to understand them are doing themselves a disservice.

“In this regard, it was much more like art,” Hoffman said. “Art is supposed to tell you something meaningful, and it doesn’t have to be a photograph.”

Addressing the self- contradiction in the Old Testament, he said that it should not be used as a marker against evolution, because it contradicts itself before it even begins to contradict science. In regard to the creation story, Hoffman discussed how Genesis introduces both genders of humankind as being created together, which is directly followed by the story of Eve being created from the rib of Adam.

He also supported his point with the dual stories of Noah and the flood as evidence. He said that despite being contradictory, the stories are valuable not in terms of the events they depict, but instead as fables with important messages.

“In this regard, the Bible is a lot like a newspaper,” Hoffman said. “Some things are exactly what happened, some things are opinion, some things are even like comics. When we try and shove all these things into a mold, we do a disservice to the original.”
Shifting, Hoffman then launched into his criticism of the mistranslation of the Bible with the Ten Commandments.

“They’re pretty commonly misunderstood,” he said. “The Ten Commandments are not a legal code — they are a moral code.”

Hoffman said that while other parts of the Bible deal with civil law, the Ten Commandments deal strictly with moral law.

“The American legal system, for example, tells you what will happen if you break the law,” he said. “It doesn’t tell you whether or not you should break it.”
The first mistranslated Commandment he brought up is “Thou shalt not covet,” as stated in King James Version of the Bible.

“The verb ‘chamad’ is mistranslated,” he said. “It’s translated as ‘covet,’ which is an internal state or a thought, but ‘chamad’ is actually an action. The verb actually means ‘to take.’ The Ten Commandments do not take a position on how you feel.”

Hoffman said the Pope’s recent declaration that the death penalty should be abolished because it violates the Ten Commandments is based on a misinterpretation of the Sixth Commandment.

“It’s not my position to tell a religious movement what to believe or what to promote, but it’s not in violation of the Ten Commandments,” he said. “The verb refers only to and specifically to illegal killing. They take no position on legal killing, which for the Bible, contains self defense and the death penalty.”

Hoffman reiterated that, elsewhere, the Bible deals with the civil law and what to do in the place of illegal killing He said the Ten Commandments are the moral law against it.

In what might have been the most controversial section of his lecture, Hoffman addressed the problem of inaccurate quotation — what he called “missing the general context” — particularly in the context of homosexuality in the Bible.

According to Hoffman, the Old Testament does not condemn homosexuality.

“The most commonly quoted line against homosexuality is from Leviticus: ‘You shall not lie with a man as you would a woman. It is an abomination,’” he said. “First of all, the Hebrew word there does not mean abomination. It means ‘taboo.’ So in other words, it’s not something that’s universally wrong, but culturally inappropriate.”

Hoffman said Leviticus as a whole is a list of culturally inappropriate things for the time it was published.

“While male homosexual sex is something listed in a group of things that are culturally frowned upon, it is not called a sin,” Hoffman said. “The Bible does not address all of homosexuality, and it does not use the word ‘sin.’”

Hoffman said that while religious tradition has every right to teach such a thing, it cannot be said that it comes from the Bible.

“There is a huge difference between things that are a sin and things that are not a sin,” he said. “To overlook that difference to make a point is to gloss over something that is fundamentally important. This is a quotation used out of context.”

Hoffman said in situations like this, religious tradition and Biblical teachings are certainly allowed to differ, but claiming the Bible calls it a sin is not fair to the religious tradition or the ancient text.

“When Rick Warren says that he wishes he could accept homosexuality, but he can’t because the Bible forbids it, that’s misleading,” he said.

Hoffman quoted the same part of Leviticus also used in arguments about mixing wool and linen cloth together in clothing to emphasize his point: “If you want to say that you are locked in to the position of the Bible because you follow every bit of it, then you are equally bound not to wear clothes made of wool and linen,” he said. “If you’re not going to listen to that part, you cannot say that you have no choice in the matter.”

Hoffman said he believes the interpretation of Genesis says man should not be alone. He said if people shouldn’t be alone, and if it turns out that some men can only be with men and some women can only be with women, then Genesis may demand society accepts homosexual unions.

“To reduce all of this to a single quote saying ‘the Bible says homosexuality is a sin’ is a disservice to all of those people, to those who care about the issue and it’s a disservice to the Bible,” he said.

Turning to Corinthians, which also addresses homosexuality, Hoffman said its reference is extremely difficult to both translate and interpret.

“Corinthians is hard because while it’s broader in what it addresses, it still doesn’t call it a sin, which I think is important,” he said. “But it’s not as clear, because a lot of the words were made up for the text and that makes it hard to figure out their nuances. The only thing clear from those texts is that some sexual behavior is unnatural, whether it’s some homosexual sex and some heterosexual sex or all homosexual sex.”

Hoffman addressed an audience member’s concerns about people discriminating against others based on their personal freedom of religion as well.

“Nowhere in the Bible does it say whether you should or should not provide flowers to two men getting married,” he said. “I think it’s important to respect religious traditions as much as you can, but when two core principles come into conflict, there’s a point ofdifficulty.”

Hoffman said he believes that those who think two men getting married is violating God’s will have a right not to be forced to violate God’s will.

“Equally it seems to me that if we have a country based on equality before the law, you have an obligation to honor that equality,” he said. “This is the difficulty, that we have two core principles, and you can’t do both.”

Hoffman said it is important to respect those who you don’t agree with because they are also pretty sure they’re right.

“For example, Jewish people and Christian people read the same text and do different things, and America is the one place where we recognize that that’s OK,” he said.

Hoffman said that the most important part of using the text is the translation and interpretation, and bringing it into modernity. He said that if religious leaders wish to interpret the text in a certain way, then that is their prerogative. However, it is misleading to say that their decrees come straight from the text.

“Everyone is following an interpretation of the text,” Hoffman said. “There’s not really anyone who is actually following the text itself.”