Commentaries can be wrong?

"If we aren’t careful to look for what’s true, we might become yet another voice repeating bad information," writes Elana Keppel Levy.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

A Christmas or two ago, my husband got me a shirt that says, “Nerdy Wordy.” While the label is a pop culture reference to the “Princess Rap Battle” YouTube series, it also stands true without that context. I want to know about words and the Word. I want to know whatever we can know and then breathlessly share what I find.

A class at my church has been reading the Bible cover to cover since July 2021. We just started the New Testament. Nerdy excitement! I settled in to write the “Introduction to Matthew” handout. I was looking into the location of Matthew and/or his audience. The two major choices seemed to be somewhere in Syria (probably Antioch) or somewhere in Galilee (maybe Capernaum).

In the Smyth & Helwys commentary on Matthew, Ben Witherington III says that in Matthew 7:10, there’s a “reference to a harmless water snake commonly found in the Sea of Galilee (tropidontus [sic] tesselatus), which was nonetheless something of [a] nuisance because it would take the bait of a fisherman…” Witherington suggested that this is evidence that Matthew must be writing from somewhere in Galilee.

In Matthew 7:10, Jesus asks if there are any among you who, “…if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake?” Does this passage refer to a uniquely Galilean snake down to its proper Latin name? I didn’t know. There’s a Hebrew word that can mean “eagle” and “vulture.” That’s a pretty steep difference! It’s hard to believe that the Greek is specific down to the modern Latin name. So my curiosity was piqued.

The Greek word in the sentence is ophis, which just means “snake.” I googled tropidontus and “Bible:” no dice. Some websites mentioned different serpents that might be referred to in the Bible, but nothing made definitive connections.

Natrix tessellata observed along the shore of the Caspian Sea in Northern Iran. Photo by Payman sazesh.

Time for a new tack! I focused on the snake itself. It’s more commonly called a “dice snake.” It swims, and eats fish, gulping them down like a seabird. Neat! Also, not the point. The modern scientific name is natrix tessellata, but searching that name + “Bible” got me nowhere. What gives?

I found a reference connecting this snake with this verse in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture from 1953. Surely Witherington’s commentary from 2006 would have a more current source, I thought. Witherington cited an article from 2004, but I didn’t have institutional access to read that article. I turned back to the Catholic commentary online from 1953, which mentioned an article from 1948 … in French. Why stop now?

I typed the article into Google Translate. The author is Bòrge Hjerl-Hanseṅ. From my halting translation, I learned that Hjerl-Hanseṅ was on a camping trip at the ruins of Capernaum on May 7, 1932. Fishing from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw some locals fishing nearby with a line, a hook, and a little fish as bait. To his surprise, one fisherman drew in his line and caught a snake! Then it happened again.

If we aren’t careful to look for what’s true, we might become yet another voice repeating bad information.

Hjerl-Hanseṅ diligently ran down different theories about this snake, citing articles from as early as 1883. One proposed that a dried fish might look like a snake that was frozen during winter, but weather conditions at the Sea of Galilee don’t get cold enough to freeze. Perhaps Jesus was talking about an eel or a scaleless fish (clarias macracanthus) that looks like an eel. Yet, eels were against Jewish dietary law and aren’t found in the Sea of Galilee. Hjerl-Hanseṅ wasn’t satisfied.

He believed that this dice snake could be caught on a fishing line or tangled up in a net when the disciples fished on the Sea of Galilee. Hjerl-Hanseṅ wasn’t making a definitive statement about the singular presence of this snake in the Sea of Galilee (It’s one of the most common snakes in the world!). He said that, by refuting other theories and learning from his own observations, this snake seemed like a pretty good explanation for Jesus’s parable.

Yanking myself up from this rabbit hole, I checked to see if there were tropidontus/natrix/dice snakes in Antioch. Yep, they weren’t just in Galilee, they were in Antioch, too. The snake in Matthew 7:10 isn’t definitively the dice snake, which means this verse doesn’t prove anything about where the Gospel was written, contrary to Witherington III’s assertion. After all that: the commentary was wrong?! (Okay, if not wrong, it was at least misleading.) Besides, even if Jesus meant this specific snake, that would show that he was using references that his apostles could understand from their days fishing in the Sea of Galilee. It wouldn’t be evidence that Matthew was writing in Galilee or Antioch.

I may have muddled my facts and misinterpreted things. I’m no archaeological zoologist. But it gives me pause whenever I realize that a snippet of information about the ancient world or 1st-century Judaism is used in a misleading way. So much of what we rely on comes from a source who took it from a source without double checking, and so on. Who has the time to untangle the arguments and complexities that accompany this information? Still, if we aren’t careful to look for what’s true, we might become yet another voice repeating bad information. We might become the father who gives his son a snake.

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