By Nick Gier
At Tea Party gatherings pocket Constitutions are handed out as eagerly as the Gideons distribute New Testaments on my campus every year. The message is clear: read God’s word and you will be redeemed, or read the Constitution and the country will be saved. In each case there are those who will very confidently tell you what text’s original intent and meaning is.
The Bible and the Constitution are similar in that they were written by multiple authors, but the two are different in that the Bible was written in three different languages over a period of a thousand years with little or no information about the intent of the authors or the original meaning of the words.
With regard to biblical interpretation, my all-time favorite example is the meaning of the “whore of Babylon” in the Book of Revelation (chaps. 17 & 18). Staying within the historical context of the author(s), serious scholars are divided on whether her identity is Rome or Jerusalem.
In his nasty polemics Martin Luther was certain that she was the Catholic Church. More recent candidates have been the Soviet Union and Hillary Clinton. A text that can give so many readings is obviously a document subject to historical context and the individual’s world-view.
The biblical passage that most pertains to constitutional rights is the one that states that human beings are created in the “image of God” (Gen.1:26). Nowhere in the Bible is this concept explained; indeed, it is rarely mentioned.
Early Church Fathers fell back on Greek philosophy for the meaning that humans are created as moral and rational beings. With the rise of liberal democracy, Christian theologians argued that the biblical view of human nature supported the principle of equality and the intrinsic value of every single individual.
We now have archaeological evidence that shows that this interpretation is not the original meaning of the Hebrew phrase. The inscription is in Aramaic, later to become Jesus’ own language. The exact linguistic equivalent “likeness and image of God” here means that Adam and Eve were God’s sole representatives on earth, standing as a king would to his subjects ruling them by divine right.
This explains the fact that Christ alone has the “image of God” in the New Testament (Col. 1:15) and in one passage only the man has it in relation to ruling his wife (1 Cor. 7:11). This hierarchical view of human relations also squares with the ancient Hebrew belief that women, counted as men’s property, are worth only three-fifths the value of a man, with the elderly having less value and young children even less (Lev. 27:1-7).
Some might object saying that the laws of Leviticus no longer apply, but some Christians want to use the same laws to condemn gays and lesbians to death. Originalism in the Bible and the Constitution fails as a theory when people start applying it in some instances but not in others.
Conservative jurists insist on following the original meaning of the Constitution, but they do not always agree. Some originalists believe that the authors of the 14th Amendment would not have supported school desegregation, but Robert Bork strongly disagrees. Justice Antonin Scalia believes that the 14th Amendment does not support a woman’s right to vote because female suffrage was not in the minds of the amendment’s authors.
With regard to abortion, originalists demand to know where one can find the right to privacy in the Constitution, but then where does it say that corporations are legal persons? This was the assumption used by conservatives to decide this year that corporations should not be limited in their support for political campaigns. At the time of the nation’s founding, personhood was limited to human beings (excluing non-viable fetuses) and God.
Returning to the parallel between legal and biblical originalism, I want to point out a troublesome irony. Judges who are nominated to serve on our courts are expected to have the best legal education and to have displayed excellence in the legal profession.
Many conservative Christians, however, have nothing but distain for scholars who have spent their lives learning difficult languages and/or laboring in archaeological sites searching for the original places and meanings of biblical texts.
There is at least consistency—but certainly no virtue—in those who reject the expertise of both judges and biblical scholars. In these essential areas of our lives they arrogate all decision making to their own ill informed minds.
Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.
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