Teaching the Bible in Public Schools
I returned home from the annual conference of the New York State Council for the Social Studies in March—where I did a presentation to the teachers on "When Israel and the Arabs Were Allies" using archaeological and biblical materials—to see by coincidence (or providentially) "Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School" on the cover of Time Magazine. While I strongly support the inclusion of the Bible in the public schools, the subtitle, "But very, very, carefully," is exactly right. Inadvertently, the very article which raises the issues demonstrates the challenge in doing so responsibly.
Consider the example given in the article of "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth." This phrase from the Book of Exodus is cited along with comment that in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus rejects that wording in favor of "turning the other cheek," another biblical phrase that has crossed into the public arena. What is the problem here? There are several. There are 613 commandments in the Old Testament and the phrase an eye for an eye appears in 2: one when two men are fighting and a pregnant woman is hurt (Ex.21: 21-25) and once regarding false testimony in a court case (Deut.19:15-21. If a man commits adultery with the wife of a neighbor, that neighbor doesn't get to have sex with the adulterer's wife. Did Matthew's Jesus think the phrase applied to all Old Testament laws? How does it apply to rape, genocide, Enron? Should the phrase be put in context?
Consider the example cited in the article of Lincoln's comment that we "read the same Bible." While the idea may be laudable, the statement is wrong. Lincoln was referring to American Protestants in the North and South both reading the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Lincoln was wrong because:
1. Catholics read from a different Bible and had protested beginning in the 1840s in Philadelphia and New York being forced to read the KJV.
2. Mormons had additional canonized material, as will be an election issue in the upcoming campaign.
3. Jews and Eastern Orthodox also had and have different Bibles.
Even when the different religions share the same books of the Bible they do no necessarily share the same sequence.
The article also comments on the literary language of the Bible and compares it to Shakespeare, who frequently alluded to the Bible. The Bible Shakespeare alluded to was the Geneva Bible and not the King James Version. One of the differences between the two had to with translating a word as "congregation" or "church"; the Puritans or Congregationalists who sailed on the Mayflower preferred the former, while the crown preferred the latter. The translation of "young woman" versus "virgin" continues to be contentious today. When the Revised Standard Version was published during the McCarthy era, it was attacked as Communist for its use of young woman.
An issue the article doesn't address, but which is an outgrowth of the previous one, is the basis of the English translation of the Bible. Despite Texas Governor Ma Ferguson's protestation around the time of the Scopes trial, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for us," contrary to popular opinion and as Mel Gibson reminded us, blond-hair blue-eyed Jesus did not speak English. The following exchange of letters from the now defunct Bible Review highlights the issue:
"Anyone with an eighth grade education, and for sure a college education, can simply weigh the evidence and see for themselves that the King James Version is the only accurate Bible" (Weage).
"Several interesting conclusions follow from that assertion. If the KJV, a 17th century English translation is the only accurate Bible, then
1. Bibles in any other language are not accurate, a notion French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc., speaking Christians would find very odd;
2. Bibles published before 1600  are not accurate, a notion St. Jerome and other Church fathers would find very odd;
3. The original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible are not accurate, a notion God himself would probably find odd" (Werner).
The matter is complicated by the fact that manuscripts in multiple languages, primarily Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, are used in Translations; that they do not agree with other; that even within a given language group, especially Greek, they do not agree with other; and that entire verses and passages that people think are in the Bible apparently were not always in the Bible. Normally the editor or editorial committee explains all these considerations and decisions in the Introduction to the Bible translation. Would a class on the Bible include the fact that there is no such thing as THE Bible except in the mind of an individual?
Certainly there is a need for the teaching of the Bible in American history even separate from a class in religion, literature, theology, or the ancient Near East. When Americans referred to their country as "God's New Israel," it is impossible to understand what was meant without turning to the Bible. But even here there are pitfalls to overcome. Yes, John Winthrop used the phrase "City on a Hill" as the article mentions. However, the city he was referring to was Boston, the destination of the Puritans sailing to America at a time when there weren't even 13 colonies let alone a United States of America. Winthrop was not even the first Englishman to use the phrase in a political context, but previously and subsequently by Milton, the English used the phrase to apply to England, not New England. There is a story to be told about how that phrase eventually encompassed a country and Boston preferred to be known as the Athens of America. Furthermore, Winthrop did not conclude his lay sermon with that phrase; instead he turned to another sermon on the mount, that of Moses preparing to die who called upon the people to "choose life, that you and your descendants may live" (Deut 30:19), the very American value that Osama bin Laden cites as proof that he will prevail in the war with America since his side chooses martyrdom.
Once upon a time, Americans knew their Bible. When H. Dean in Iowa opposed the war in a presidential election he said:
For over three years Lincoln has been calling for men, and they have been given. But with all the vast armies places at his command he has failed. Such a failure had never been known before. Such devastation of human life had never been seen since the destruction of Sennacherib by the breath of the Almighty. And still the monster usurper wants more men for his slaughter pens. Ever since the usurper, traitor and tyrant has occupied the presidential chair, the Republican party has shouted, "War to the knife, and the knife to the hilt." Blood has flowed in torrents; and yet the thirst of the old monster is not quenched. His cry is more blood (Henry Clay Dean quoted in History of Iowa, Benjamin Gue, New York: The Century History Company, 1903, Vol. II: 119).
That Dean could take for granted that his audience would understand the reference to Sennacherib. By contrast the modern H. Dean thought the Book of Job was in the New Testament. The irony is that since the speech by the 19th century Dean, archaeology has made Assyrian Sennacherib's invasion of Judah and siege of Jerusalem the best documented military campaign in the history of the ancient Near East. It was a time when all the world as they knew it from Elam to Nubia, our Iran to Sudan, was involved in a single conflict long before the term "globalization" had been invented. But that is no more taught in our public schools than when Israel and the Arabs were allies. To forget the past is to misunderstand the present and fail the future. The Bible belongs in our schools and in professional development programs for teachers.
Dr. Peter Feinman, Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, Purchase, NY
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Citation: Peter Feinman, " Teaching the Bible in Public Schools," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=667