For people who generally say they believe 100% in a literal, prescriptive, true-in-every-way interpretation of the Bible, evangelicals sure do have a habit of adding and removing things from their idolized book. The Bible even commands that they not do this, as well as telling them to ignore not one jot or tittle of its contents.
But evangelicals must square not one but two impossible circles: making their indoctrination in literalism make some sort of sense, and proclaiming themselves the best and most truest Christians of all time. These are tall orders! But don’t you worry. Evangelicals have it covered. Long ago, they figured out ways to change whatever they need and ignore whatever they like in the Bible. Today, I’ll show you how they do it.
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How evangelicals use the Christianese not one jot or tittle and the Revelation command
Evangelicals love the entire phrase not one jot or tittle. Maybe it’s the slightly-salacious sound of “tittle,” who knows. Back when I was evangelical, I heard sermons about what these terms meant: a jot was a tiny letter, while a tittle was a decorative stroke added to a letter. Not one of them could be taken away or added. One site even gives us the same basic illustration I saw back then:
My tribe took this statement in the Bible to mean that we all had to be as fundamentalist and literalist as possible, because nothing in the Bible could actually change. All of it was meant to last forever. Its commands were binding even to Christians thousands of years away.
Similarly, we thought that Revelation 22:18-19, which forbade adding or removing anything to “this scroll,” actually applied to the entire Bible. Got Questions agrees, incidentally, as do a number of other evangelical sites. So yes, evangelicals today largely think the same way we fundamentalists did back in the 1980s and 1990s.
Evangelicals today also come to the exact same conclusions my tribe did decades ago. Their stance rationalizes everything they do. Some even take matters much further, using the “not one jot or tittle” verse to justify all kinds of cultish extremism.
Imagine my surprise when I found out, long after deconversion, that most Jews think it’s funny that gentiles, or non-Jews, feel bound in any way to Jewish laws.
Ancient Jews took copying the Bible very seriously
Back when I was Pentecostal, I was fascinated by accounts of how the Bible had to be copied before printing presses came along. The Jewish site Aish describes the process that historian Scott Manning says Jewish tribes developed around 500 BCE (and then lost for centuries after Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE):
A Torah Scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is added.
A Torah Scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is deleted.
The scribe must be a learned, pious Jew, who has undergone special training and certification.
All materials (parchment, ink, quill) must conform to strict specifications, and be prepared specifically for the purpose of writing a Torah Scroll.
The scribe may not write even one letter into a Torah Scroll by heart. Rather, he must have a second, kosher scroll opened before him at all times.
The scribe must pronounce every word out loud before copying it from the correct text.
Every letter must have sufficient white space surrounding it. If one letter touched another in any spot, it invalidates the entire scroll.
If a single letter was so marred that it cannot be read at all, or resembles another letter (whether the defect is in the writing, or is due to a hole, tear or smudge), this invalidates the entire scroll. Each letter must be sufficiently legible so that even an ordinary schoolchild could distinguish it from other, similar letters.
The scribe must put precise space between words, so that one word will not look like two words, or two words look like one word.
The scribe must not alter the design of the sections, and must conform to particular line-lengths and paragraph configurations.
A Torah Scroll in which any mistake has been found, cannot be used, and must be fixed within 30 days, or buried.
Scott Manning tells us that between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, European Jews revived that process. As a result, the Old Testament is considerably more standardized than the New. Its vanishingly few differences almost all consist of spelling variations.
The New Testament doesn’t even come close to that rigor
By contrast, Aish tells us, just The Gospel of Luke alone contains “more than 30,000 different readings” between 150 Greek manuscripts of it—with the New Testament itself containing some 200,000 different variants. About 400 of them could be significant problems, and about 20 “are of great significance.”
They might be lowballing there. One scholar quoted by La Wiki thinks there might be as many as 750,000 variants, while Bart D. Ehrman thinks there might be upwards of 400,000. Another scholar thinks there are 500,000 variants that aren’t just “spelling variants.”
And here, we’re not even getting into all the apocrypha, which are books that didn’t make the cut to be in the Bible. There are a lot of them, especially for the New Testament. Some of the New Testament apocrypha significantly alter the character of Jesus and the early church’s beliefs.
Jews had their own sort of apocrypha called pseudepigrapha, though it doesn’t sound like nearly the same squabbles erupted over whether or not to include them in the Jewish Torah. Thanks to their rigorous copying method, nobody had a lot of questions about what belonged and what didn’t. For Christians, though, they seemed to have constant squabbles along those lines. The entire Synod of Hippo in 393 CE was a committee’s attempt to set the Bible’s books in stone for Christians. Afterward, the Council of Carthage ratified that lineup in 397.
It comes down to this: Despite the Book of Revelation’s stern warning in 22:18-19 about adding or removing anything from “this scroll,” which evangelicals take to mean the whole Bible, and Jesus’ admonition that “not one jot or tittle” of Jewish laws could be safely ignored till the end of the world, evangelicals sure do make a real hobby of doing both.
The results: Not one jot or tittle, except for that whole Great Flood genocide myth
Long ago, evangelicals developed methods of hand-waving away all of the problems in the Bible.
For instance, when I joined the Southern Baptists and then the Pentecostals, both groups’ leaders taught that the Great Flood didn’t kill babies or children because somehow Yahweh had totally made all women infertile for the years leading up to the flood. Seriously. That was a doctrine taught by every evangelical preacher I heard speak on the topic.
My church leaders explained this idea the same way that “Nechamah Goldfarb” does on Quora:
[T]here is no indication from the wording that there were children at that time. It is quite possible that leading up to the flood, in order to make sure there were no children involved, the people were not conceiving.
That’s how I heard it too. Imagine my surprise to learn that the Bible never actually says that anywhere.
At the same Quora link, we find an even more ridiculous addition to the Bible proposed by one “Clayton Smith.” He asserts that everyone on Earth except for Noah’s family line were actually Nephilim. Those are ancient angel-human hybrids that he infers existed in great numbers because of a single Bible verse about human women breeding with “sons of God.” So Yahweh totally had to destroy all the Nephilim so that humans could flourish again.
No word on all the innocent animals and plants that would have died in such a global slate-wiping genocide, but Clayton’s totally sure there were no human babies or children killed. Since he believes that Nephilim were all completely evil from birth, he doesn’t care about their children.
Obviously, we can totally trust Clayton’s account. By his own reckoning he has “studied the Bible at High School and Some College.” We got us a badass Bible scholar, here!
Of course, both explanations require a lot to be added to the sparse Flood myth in the Bible.
Not one jot or tittle, except for rationalizing deception and cruelty toward LGBT people
A few years ago, we extensively discussed the Preston Sprinkle book People to Be Loved. He thought he had a “scandalous” new strategy for converting LGBT people and their allies to his brand of evangelical bigotry. His approach consisted of faking kindness to his marks, especially through endless “coffee dates,” and refusing to straightforwardly answer any of their questions about exactly where he stood in the culture wars. Once his marks had fully invested in the fake friendship he offered, then and only then he’d lay out his demands that they conform to his tribe’s bigotry.
The staggering dishonesty he suggested with such bright chirpiness was just flabbergasting. But perhaps even worse was how he rationalized it.
In one of those posts, I talked about how he got around one very obvious problem: the Bible he said he believed was literally and objectively true in every way doesn’t condone or suggest anything he’s suggesting. In fact, the New Testament demands that Christians not fake love.
So he just added a few lines to his idolized holy book:
I think at some point, in the context of a relationship and love, Jesus probably said to Matthew, “So, about this whole tax-collecting gig…” . . . Jesus desires obedience, but to get that obedience he fronts love.
It really was a disturbing passage to me. If someone is “fronting” love to get obedience, their goal is obedience, not loving the other person. It’s really that simple and that dishonest.
And Preston Sprinkle added quite a lot to the Gospels in those few short sentences to make his dishonesty okay.
Not one jot or tittle, except for that whole Fall of Man thing
Here’s another I still see evangelicals reach for today: all the diseases and physical problems animals and humans fall victim to only happened since the Fall. That darn dirty Fall wrecked everything!
You can find entire libraries’ worth of books about this stuff. There’s tons of it. Real science tells us that carnivores probably existed first. Moreover, they existed many long eons before herbivorous animals ever evolved into being. But the brain trusts at Creationist websites think that all animals were originally herbivorous. Once Adam and Eve disobeyed Yahweh, every animal not herbivorous now magically became whatever it is now.
Considering the vast adaptations required to evolve animals from carnivorous to herbivorous diets, going backwards must have been equally surprising to see happen instantly through magic. It must have been even more surprising to be, say, a lion and have one’s intestinal tract instantly shorten, one’s teeth and claws instantly grow to lethal form, and one’s entire instinctual mindset become oriented toward hunting prey.
And all of it is simply a punt to mystery. It was just magic, okayyyy, isn’t an explanation. It’s a thought stopper meant to silence anybody questioning the mythology. By those terms, absolutely anything could be explained by resorting to that thought stopper, and I’ve sure heard almost everything described that way by evangelicals.
Unfortunately for these very excitable evangelicals, nothing in the Bible supports this beloved evangelical addition to the Creation myth. They must resort to some very impressive Bible-mangling to arrive at their version of it.
Not one jot or tittle, except for all that hard-to-follow stuff
Even worse, in my opinion, are the evangelicals who keep on ignoring whole swathes of the Bible they claim is binding on all humanity forever. They have very effectively managed to not one jot or tittle themselves straight into complete hypocrisy.
It’s a big part of why I can’t take modern evangelicals’ proclamations of literalism seriously at all. Not that old-school fundamentalists were some feared quantity of Jesus-osity, but modern evangelicals have taken on the idolatry of literalism while shearing away the tougher parts of going literalist. Maybe it’d be like someone saying they’re vegan, except they feel free to eat any kind of meat any time they want because food animals tend to eat vegetables. (Feel free to come up with a better dietary analogy!)
Of course, my tribe of fundamentalists might have obeyed more of the Bible’s written rules, but they ignored plenty of stuff too. I didn’t know anyone who strictly followed the dietary or clothing rules that Jews did. Almost nobody followed the Jewish calendar, either, or celebrated its holy days in the ways prescribed. We regarded Christians who followed more rules than we did as legalistic, which is Christianese for a stricter Christian than the judging one.
It’s not hard to imagine why evangelical leaders relaxed the literalism rules in recent years, either. This new form of literalism is clearly a lot easier for evangelicals to follow, and it sure makes recruiting new ones a lot easier. Heck, they’re still trying to relax even more of those rules!
Really, the same thing happened in Christianity’s earliest history, though, didn’t it? Early evangelists realized they needed to soften some of the harder parts of Jewish law to appeal to pagans. Once they did, then suddenly evangelism became a lot easier. If that entire fight had gone differently, chances are very good that the new religion wouldn’t have taken off at all.
Why evangelicals must constantly alter the Bible
None of this adding-and-deleting actually works on anybody not firmly-indoctrinated, any more than their hand-waving around all the Bible’s various contradictions and inconsistencies. To someone who knows that none of these mangled contortions are actually present in the myths themselves, they might seem more confusing and agitating than reassuring.
To the tribe, though, these endless contortions are just everywhere around them. They become familiar and comforting. They are a weighted blanket that dulls out clanging doubts, a fog that envelops the mind and dulls the thinking. In a way, it’s like evangelicals feel like someone’s done the heavy lifting in explaining how the Bible should be interpreted to make sense. They can just relax and let those leaders drive their brains for a bit. It might not make to them, but it makes sense to someone. Whew!
To outsiders, though, these changes are obvious contortions that add so much to the Bible’s stories and ignore so much of its commands that the whole house of cards collapses under all those additions and subtractions.
At all costs, evangelical leaders must indoctrinate their followers so completely that those outsiders can’t throw wrenches into the works by reacting naturally to displays of that indoctrination.
How that exact situation helped me break free
One time in college, I parroted a beloved evangelical apologetics routine at an atheist friend. It was the usual hand-waving around why the Gospels contain so many contradictions just in the Easter myth. It’s sometimes called “the Blind Men and the Elephant.” (The Gospel Coalition (TGC) doesn’t like it much.) And yes, it requires Christians to add a lot to the individual Gospels to massage them into a coherent, cohesive, consistent whole.
In response, he stopped dead in his tracks. He stared at me. To him, it was like space aliens had just replaced me with a changeling in mid-sentence. It disturbed him greatly. And suddenly, it disturbed me greatly. Why was he staring at me? Did I really sound that strange?
Yes, yes I did.
He wordlessly destroyed the fog that felt like it’d enveloped me as I’d spoken. Suddenly, I could clearly see myself through his eyes, and I didn’t like the image I’d presented.
I’d been on autopilot, just repeating the contortions I’d heard from church leaders. Now, suddenly, I could perceive the matter more clearly. It didn’t make sense.
After that, I became much more aware of those contortions. I tried to avoid all of them from then on. It’s probably no coincidence that it wouldn’t be more than a year or so before I deconverted entirely.
Literalists know very well that Has God indeed said..? destroyed Eve’s entire conceptualization of the rules of Eden and made all the vegetarian lions carnivores on the spot. So you’d really hope they would know that adding, changing, and subtracting the Bible’s words might just be kind of a bad idea.
But no. Sorry. We cannot expect any sort of consistency from evangelicals. For literalism to work, for their culture wars to work, for them to rationalize their political grabbiness and sheer authoritarianism at all, this is how they must treat the Bible.
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