Sessions isn’t the first to ‘textjack’ the Bible.
The game was tied and there was no time left on the clock when Dina Disney stepped to the foul line. Tears welling in her eyes, the college senior sank two free throws to seal her school’s first NCAA basketball championship.
Asked how she stayed so calm, Disney didn’t get philosophical, she got biblical. She cited a popular New Testament verse often invoked by athletes and inspirational speakers.
“The only thing that was going through my mind was that verse, ‘I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” Disney said after the game sportswriters dubbed, “The Miracle on Eighth Street.”
If Robert E. Van Voorst had been there, though, he might have rushed onto the court to whistle her for a foul. The infraction, he’d say: “textjacking” a biblical verse by robbing it of its original meaning.
Van Voorst, a biblical scholar, says people have long been turning that passage from Philippians 4:13 into a Rocky Balboa-like affirmation without knowing its true meaning.
When the Apostle Paul wrote that line, he was referring to a Christian’s ability to withstand suffering. It wasn’t about winning; it was about enduring loss. Paul wasn’t taking a victory lap; he was in prison contemplating his execution, says Van Voorst, a professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan.
“When people in a very heated situation quote the Bible, watch out, because on the right and left it’s often not going to be too reflective,” says Van Voorst, who tells the story of Dina Disney’s 1990 victory in his book, “Commonly Misunderstood Verses of the Bible: What They Really Mean.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was condemned recently when he cited a passage in Romans 13 to justify the Trump administration’s policy of separating parents from children at the border.
But plenty of ordinary people have been misstating the true meaning of that and other popular New Testament passages for ages, biblical scholars say. Romans 13 has been used to justify everything from slavery to apartheid. Ephesians 5:22 — “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” — has been cited to support the abuse of women.
Then there are those verses even some of the most literal readers of the Bible ignore because they are just too inconvenient. Take Luke 18:22: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Biblical scholars and pastors even keep an unofficial list of the most misunderstood scriptures, the ones people keep quoting and getting wrong.
Here are five of the most textjacked passages in the New Testament:
A Polyanna gospel
Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Romans 13 isn’t the only passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans that people keep getting wrong. Romans 8:28 is often invoked like a spiritual lucky charm, some scholars say: No matter what kind of glorious mess you found yourself in, God will bail you out like a cosmic 911 operator.
“This verse is used to comfort people going through tough times with the idea that these bad things are happening for a reason and eventually everything will work out for the best,” says Marc Pugliese, associate professor of religion and theology at Saint Leo University Florida.
Pugliese gives some examples of this type of thinking:
“If you lose your job it’s because God has a better one for you. Falling off a ladder and breaking your leg was part of God’s plan to get you to meet your future partner when you were at the hospital.”
But Paul was actually talking about something more than God bailing out people in tough situations when he wrote those words, Pugliese says. He was talking about God bailing out all of creation in a future age. Paul was explaining his apocalyptic theology, which is foreign to many 21st century ears. But if you read the rest of the chapter, he says, the context becomes clear.
“What he means is the future when Christ comes back,” Pugliese says. “Even though we’re suffering now, things are going to work out, but not like ‘I’m going to get that job’ or ‘I’ve lost this loved one and I’m going to meet someone new.’ It’s not a thing in this life or a specific event in your own life. It’s bigger.”
Nor does Romans 8:28 promise a happy ending for every Christian in every situation, says Van Voorst. In his book, he writes: “It is a blessed ending for the whole universe, the renewal of all things.”
Paul knew in a fallen world that bad things, “left on their own, generally go from bad to worse,” Van Voortst writes. To those who still insist Romans 8:28 is about things having a way of working out, Van Voorst says:
“This is the gospel according to Pollyanna, not the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
What would Jesus cut?
Matthew 26:11: “The poor you will always have with you.”
The midterms are this year, so you may hear a politician or two mangle the meaning of Matthew 26:11. Some conservatives cite it as a reason to weaken the social safety net or discourage spending on programs for the poor. The implication is that Jesus would have thought such programs were a waste.
Nothing could be further from the truth, says David B. Gowler, author of “The Parables of Jesus.”
“Left out of their misinterpretation of that saying is the fact that Jesus is actually quoting a passage from Jewish scripture that makes the opposite point,” Gowler says.
The passage Gowler refers to is from Deuteronomy 15:7-11, where God declares, “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor.”
Specifically, Gowler says, Jesus was alluding to the 11th verse: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'”
“The continual existence of the poor serves as the fundamental reason for God’s command to assist them, to give ‘liberally and ungrudgingly,'” says Gowler, a senior faculty fellow at the Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta.
A reader doesn’t even have to flip to Deuteronomy to figure out that Jesus isn’t saying it’s a waste to give to the poor, says Saint Leo’s Pugliese. Just read the version of the same story in the gospel of Mark.
“The parallel verse in Mark 14:7 clearly has Jesus approving of giving to the poor, as it immediately adds: ‘And whenever you wish you can do good to them,'” he says.
A scripture that scapegoats
Matthew 27:24-25: “And all the people answered and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.”
This scripture has been called the most inflammatory passage in the New Testament. It comes from one of the most dramatic moments in the New Testament.
According to the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is put on trial, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asks a crowd of Jews what he should do with Jesus. The text said the crowd replied, “Crucify him,” and afterward Pilate declared that he was innocent of Jesus’ blood. That’s when the Jewish mob cried out that Jesus’ blood shall be on “us and on our children.”
The words are clear in the passage, but the way they’ve been misinterpreted — to blame Jews for killing Jesus — has caused countless deaths over the centuries.
That misuse of Matthew 27:24-25 has led to everything from the Crusades and the Inquisition to pogroms and the Holocaust. But Christians aren’t the only ones who’ve misused scriptures for violence. All religious texts can be victims of “textjacking,” from Muslim terrorists to Hindu nationalists to violent Buddhist monks in Myanmar.
If people knew their history, they would know that Jews did not kill Jesus, says David Lincicum, associate professor of theology at University of Notre Dame
“The Romans are the ones who actually put Jesus to death, but the Jews are being blamed for the death of Jesus,” Lincicum says. “You have this long tradition of Christian anti-Semitism which finds its justification in texts like that.”
That justification has since been repudiated by Popes and scholars.
J. Carl Laney, a teacher in the Israel Study Program at Western Seminary in Oregon, wrote an essay explaining how people can get the words right but the meaning of a passage wrong.
The crowd in Matthew did not represent all the Jewish people of that day, Laney wrote. Jewish leaders had no authority to bring guilt on their descendants.
“Rather than blaming the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ, the New Testament teaches that Jesus died for the sins of the world. In a very real sense, the sin of each and every person was a factor in sending Jesus to the cross.”
A subversive on slavery
Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
The late mystic and theologian Howard Thurman was raised by his grandmother, who was born a slave and couldn’t read. It fell to him to read her the Bible. But she would not allow him to read anything from Paul.
It took him years, but one day he finally asked her why. She told him her master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves and always quoted from Paul.
“At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves be obedient to them that are your masters.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us.”
Virtually no one misuses Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to justify slavery anymore, but for centuries it was used in America to justify the enslavement of African people. There are some Christians today who still feel ambivalent about Paul because of his words on slavery.
But biblical scholar Van Voorst says it would be inaccurate to say Paul justified or approved of slavery.
In Galatians 3:28, Paul says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In other passages of the Bible, Paul says slaves shouldn’t be threatened — a common practice at the time.
“Paul’s attitude toward slavery is much more an attitude of reform rather than revolt,” Van Voorst says. “He doesn’t want a social revolution against the Roman Empire. But what he does say tends to be very strong toward reform of the system, and it is going to eventually end it.”
Paul’s subversive attitude toward slavery could clearly be seen in his letter to Philemon, a rarely quoted book in the New Testament. Philemon was a slave-owner and a Christian who Paul befriended. Somehow Paul had come into contact with Onesimus, a slave who had escaped Philemon. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with a letter requesting that his friend accept his former slave as a brother in Christ, Van Voorst says.
“Paul’s command to Philemon is written as a letter to his church,” he says. “This is a church letter to be read aloud to the congregation on a Sunday morning. Everybody hears it. Maybe even Onesimus is there. And Paul says, ‘This is what I expect you to do for your brother.'”
Going the extra mile to get it wrong
Matthew 5:41: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
Extra Mile Trucking. Extra Mile Marketing. Extra Mile Dentist.
A Google search reveals a glut of companies whose names are a play on Jesus’ famous saying from the Sermon on the Mount. These are companies that are promising to literally and figuratively go the extra mile for their clients.
The original meaning of that phrase, though, has nothing to do with improved customer service or making an extra effort for someone, Van Voorst says.
“The phrase in reality speaks about doing good to one’s enemies, not about love for one’s customers.”
Again, it’s about context. Jesus was a member of an ethnic minority in a land that was under military occupation. Under Roman law, soldiers could force Jews to carry their backpacks for one mile. The law was just another in a series of humiliations for the Jewish people, who chafed under Roman occupation and often rose up in violence.
Jesus’ admonition was a form of nonviolent resistance that would later be adopted by Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s a love for the enemy thing. It’s getting your enemy’s attention and making them think you’re not so bad after all,” Van Voorst says.
There is a shrewd calculation in that kind of strategy. Pricking an enemy’s conscience would possibly lead to a change in their behavior, Van Voorst says. Jesus exhibited that attitude by the kindness he showed individual Romans throughout the Gospels.
“That kind of self-giving behavior would perhaps change some minds, and perhaps it’s why Jesus had some followers from the Roman Empire,” he says.
The invisible gorilla
Ask various scholars why people continue to misuse scripture and you’ll get fairly similar answers: declining biblical literacy; tricky biblical translations; and preachers who don’t do their homework.
But one scholar says it also comes down to something else:
The invisible gorilla in the room.
Emory’s Gowler cites a famous experiment that shows how people’s perceptions can be easily skewed.
Researchers asked participants to watch a brief video of six people passing basketballs to each other. Three of the people are wearing white shirts, and three are wearing black shirts. The white shirted people pass one ball among themselves; the black shirted people do the same.
Viewers were asked to count the number of passes the people in white shirts made to each other. In the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks slowly into the middle of the frame, faces the camera and beats his chest before walking off.
Almost half the viewers did not see the gorilla because they were focused on counting the number of passes made by the people in white shirts, Gowler says. He’s shown the video to his classes, and they miss the gorilla by a similar percentage. By focusing on the white shirts, their brains filter out the black shirts — and the gorilla along with them.
People say they want to know what the Bible means, but they often miss the meaning because they’re so focused on “what they expect — or want — to find,” he says.
As for the college basketball player who recited Philippians when she stepped to the free throw line? She’s still invoking scripture today.
Disney is now Dina Hackert, and she speaks about her faith at conferences, retreats and athletic events. She started a ministry and a church in Kentucky with her husband, Jeff. They’ve been married 26 years and have four children.
Hackert says today that Philippians 4:13 “wasn’t just a championship moment verse; this was my life verse.” She said the verse carried her through her parents’ divorce, major knee surgeries and through the exhaustion she felt at the end of the game.
“This verse had been written on my shoestring from the first day of the season,” she says. “It wasn’t a mindless quote, and frankly theology wasn’t on my mind as a 21-year-old college athlete.”
That verse in Philippians recently helped her navigate a recent cancer diagnosis, she says. And she’s still involved in basketball, coaching the girls’ varsity team at Meade County High School in Kentucky.
“A faith journey with God is personal. Philippians 4:13 was personal to me,” she says. “God had proven to me that He was faithful in my weakness, so today my life verse remains: I can do all things through Christ.”