We’re all familiar with the occasional maulings that take place during language translation, and most of them are harmless enough to be ignored. There’s one in the Bible, however, that is so massive that very few people know about it, and those that do rarely speak of it.
As it turns out, this extremely famous quote is not at all what it seems. The word “neighbor” is an incorrect translation of the original word — reyacha. Rather than mean “a fellow human”, which is how most Christians are taught to accept the word “neighbor”, reyacha actually means “fellow Jew“.
Jesus was in fact Jewish (contrary to popular belief) and he was telling his followers to be kind to fellow Jews. This teaching doesn’t say to go out and love those that weren’t like them. That’s a contrived, feel-good translation based on modern morality. It wasn’t about brotherly love and open acceptance. It was about not mistreating those within your own special group.
Interestingly enough, this is a tenet (unspoken or otherwise) of Jewish culture, and it has been for some time. In fact, Jews are often criticized precisely for this behavior. I’d argue that it’s not so much that they treat others poorly, but more so that they treat each other better.
And that’s the interesting part — Jesus was promoting the same negative behavior that we see within religion today — the idea of grouping together and only looking after your own.
Some may say that Jesus taught a more open kindness in the good Samaratin story, but it matters not if there are clear cases where he teaches the opposite. And that’s the point — people take what they want from the Bible; if it exemplifies poor moral character there will inevitably be those that emulate that behavior.
Example: In Matthew 15:23 a Canaanite (non-Jewish) woman is trying to get help from him. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” And when she pleads, “Lord help me!” Jesus says,
So, the food was for the Jews, and a Canaanite was asking for it. That, to Jesus, is analogous to the family dog being fed food intended for human children. I think this meets even the highest standard for racism. To be fair, Jesus actually ends up healing her daughter after she says, “yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”, but I’d argue that this doesn’t help matters much.
To me, the following serves as a good summary of the encounter:
Woman asks for help.
Jesus says he only helps Jews.
She begs him.
He says it’s not right to give human food to dogs.
She says, “Ok, I’m a dog, but dogs get scraps from their masters!”
He acknowledges that her faith (and submission) is strong and heals her daughter.
To me, the fact that he ended up helping the woman doesn’t make it better in the slightest. Based on his own words, it was more like tossing scraps down from the table — like it was a dog’s reward for submitting. Remember, she basically accepted being compared to a dog (relative to a Jew) in hopes she would be helped.
So what does all this mean? What’s my purpose in pointing this out? Simple, really: I’m illustrating why we shouldn’t get our morality from the Bible. Here we have Jesus being racist against non-Jews, other places he’s being rude to his mother, and in another random case he kills a fig tree for no reason. But then he’s also espoused some of the most beautiful language ever written.
The only path for a modern, moral person is to pick and choose from the Bible — embracing the good within it and pretending the horrible parts don’t exist. And that’s the point: decent Christians already have an innate moral compass that guides them through these decisions. My hope is that we as humans will one day start listening to it instead of ancient and dogmatic texts that do far more harm than good.: