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A Buddhist family is suing a Louisiana public school board for violating their right to religious freedom – the lawsuit contains a shocking list of religious indoctrination(r/news)
> Jesus can wander for days without food and water though.
Yeah, I know, 40 days and all that.
Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t really say that Jesus wandered for 40 days in the desert. We think it does, but it doesn’t. It is what’s written, but it isn’t what’s meant.
Semitic languages at the time had a bit of a problem in that they lacked a good array of the superlatives and modifiers and stuff that we take for granted as part of a language. For instance, we can easily say, “good, better, best,” but if they wanted superlatives, they often just said things three times–thus, the oft-repeated liturgical “holy holy holy” just means “holiest.” They used a lot of numbers to communicate ideas that the language couldn’t easily communicate otherwise.
An aside: a related tradition, gemetria, involved assigning a number to a person’s name based on a sort of alphanumeric code. The great King David’s, for instance, was 14. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus involves three groups of fourteen ancestors: “The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Abraham to David; fourteen from David to the Babylonian deportation; and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Christ.” (Mt. 1:17). This is likely an attempt to communicate to the knowledgeable reader that Jesus was the superlative (3 = superlative, remember) expression of the greatness of King David; he was, basically, the “Davidest guy around.” The gospels are full of these goofy games, and Matthew is in particular: the Matthew author appears to have been a well-educated Hebrew scripture scholar almost certainly writing for a highly literate Jewish audience who would’ve picked up on all of this stuff easily.
So, obviously, Hebrew numerology was something taken seriously, and used to convey a lot of ideas that, if you don’t know it, pass right by you. Simply, 40 denotes completeness, or in a sense, a long and necessary duration of time. If I say, using Hebrew numerological traditions, that I spent “40 hours” writing the term paper, I’m not saying the paper took me that long to write, but that I did it until it was well and truly done. Jesus, the line is really attempting to communicate, went to the desert for as long as he damn well needed to in order to purify himself and defeat temptation completely. The reader of the time would have not understood the duration to have been literally 40, but to be literally “sufficient” and “complete.”
EDIT: In case you’re curious, I’m an atheist, but I’ll totally send my children to Catholic schools. Anybody should read that second book, though.
EDIT 2: Just copying a response below for further clarity: /u/bob-leblaw said that the idea of there being a difference between what is written and what is meant is his “problem with the bible in a nutshell.” My response is:
It isn’t really a “problem” with the bible. Meaning (this is the point of the books I linked) isn’t derived from words, it’s derived from the culture in which the words are used. You can’t easily translate some alien’s language into English and be certain you know what the hell they’re talking about. The words are vessels of the meaning; but the source of the meaning is culture. The people of the first-century eastern Mediterranean (let alone earlier) are, functionally, aliens.
The “problem” is simply the idea that a modern individual would pick up those words and think that they mean what they mean in his own culture. “Oh, Jesus said don’t get divorced–he must mean the thing called ‘divorce’ that I’m familiar with. He meant don’t go down to the county courthouse and dissolve your civil marriage in front of an elected judge in such a manner that includes some kind of equitable division of assets and shared custody of children.” No. No he didn’t.
That isn’t the text’s problem–your problem isn’t with the bible; it’s with the reader.
EDIT 3: In funnier news, /u/bob-leblaw triumphantly misses the point. Holy holy holy shit.