The image of Donald Trump holding up a Bible while standing in front of St John’s Church, the church of presidents, across from the White House is appalling on so many levels that it is hard to know where to start. The news coverage of this photo op has mostly been negative, so it may not work out as Trump planned. But then again, it might.

Trump is an easy target when it comes to religion. His hypocrisy is overwhelming. He has never been religious. And his put-on religion is clearly a facade to appeal to evangelical white Christians who make up a large part of his political base.

The videos of Trump fumbling with the Bible, trying to figure out how to hold a Bible were both funny and disturbing. Clearly, he has never held a Bible, much less read one. He made no effort to open it, to peer inside to see what might be there or, even to pray. When asked by a reporter if it was his Bible, he responded that it was “a Bible,” with the clear implication, “not mine.”

Trump’s clumsy encounter with a Bible almost dares one to ask whether he has ever held or read a book!

The photo op with Trump brandishing a Bible as a symbol of LAW AND ORDER and his fidelity to Bible-believing Christians was intended to send a signal to his base that he would defend their churches and by extension their values from the attacking terrorists, as he and they saw the protestors.

But Trump’s use of the Bible as a symbol or a talisman is nothing new, only the latest in a long developing process to a point of absurdity.

“The Bible” is a medieval Christian creation. It derives from the Greek word ta biblia, meaning “the books” (plural). The original usage was Jewish in reference to the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Much later, the phrase “the Books,” or “Writings,” was taken over by Christians to refer to both the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament.” John Chrysostom’s, around 386, is the first extant use of the phrase in this combined sense. In late Latin the neuter plural biblia (books) was gradually understood as a feminine singular (book). This then passed into the European vernaculars as the Bible, and keeping the feminine gender in both French, La Bible, and German, Die Bibel.

“The Bible” is a usage from the middle ages. The making of the Sacred Scriptures (“Writings”, plural) into the Bible (singular) was the first step on the road to Trump in front of St. John’s. It transmogrified a collection of writings into a single thing, THE BIBLE, with a unitary point of view and unitary, single meaning.

The emperor Constantine almost certainly was the first person to place a large order for Bibles when he requested bishop Eusebius to oversee the making of fifty copies of the Sacred Scriptures, notice not Bibles. Constantine’s letter makes it clear that their purpose is for instruction, not for use in worship. Their purpose was educational.

The Sacred Scriptures (Writings) have long been venerated as a sacred object, bejeweled and carried in procession by a deacon, honored with incense. But while it was being venerated, it was in Latin and remained unread by the people.

It was precisely against this Catholic Bible that Luther thundered and revolted. By translating the Bible into German, he sought to make it common and available to all the people.

        The Martin Luther (1483-1546)                  monument in Dresden, Germany.  

Protestantism’s placing of the Bible at the center of Christianity, a status it had never had before, had an effect opposite to Luther’s desire. It became a talisman, a magical object. Translating into the vernacular made the Bible seem transparent. It was in my language, not a foreign language, therefore its meaning was obvious, even contemporaneous. It did not need interpreters because its meaning was self-evident and obvious. Thus, fundamentalism was born. A so-called literal interpretation of the Bible replaced faith and reason which was the traditional way of understanding. Now a wooden ideology reigned: “the Bible says” ended all discussion. No effort was made to find out what it really says, because it had been made transparent, obvious, and infallible.

In American evangelism that making of the Bible into a talisman has carried on apace, as Timothy Beal has shown in his fascinating book The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. In his close examination of evangelical bible guides, Beal shows how the actual text of the Bible is printed in old fashioned typeface and often in King James English, which is hardly intelligible. It is surrounded by commentary in modern English and modern typeface. Commentary (read “conservative ideology”) has replaced the Writings themselves.

Trump’s brandishing of a Bible in front of St. John’s Church makes evident what was already true. It is not what’s between the covers of the Bible that counts, but the cover itself.

The push back to this is the hard work of critical scholarship of the Sacred Scriptures. Quoting the scriptures against Trump is an easy out with little effect. That very move falls into the bibliolatry to which fundamentalism has led. His followers are not really reading the sacred writings. They are using THE BIBLE to support their ideology. In that ideological reading of THE BIBLE, Trump is the anointed of God.

A critical reading of the Bible points out the good and the bad, the beneficial and the problematic. Our critical insight is always called for and can never be set aside. It is the same case as with Covid-19: follow the science. Pay attention to our hard-won knowledge. Westar has been bringing this critical insight to the public for thirty-plus years. The task is unending. But any other way forward will lead to yet another Trump holding up a Bible as a talisman of his power and authority.

Bernard Brandon Scott

Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Bernard Brandon Scott is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

Academic Credentials

  • A.B., St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology
  • M.A., Miami University
  • Ph.D., Vanderbilt University