Thursday, October 30, 2014

BIBLICAL IGNORANCE

A recent Christianity Today article (Biblical Illiteracy by the numbers Part 1:  The Challenge) gave some stats on Bible reading habits among church-going people.  The percentages given of those who read are:
          19% - every day
          26% - a few times a week
          14% - once a week
          22% - at least once a month
          18% - rarely or never

Of course these percentages don't tell the whole story.  While I'll accept them as reasonably accurate, they don't tell how much these people actually read when they do read - a verse? - two verses? - a chapter? - a book?

One of my first classes in seminary was Old Testament Introduction, taught by Dr. Bruce Waltke.  The class covered historical backgrounds and various theories of biblical composition.  Dr. Waltke impressed us all with his vast knowledge, not only of the Bible, but (it seemed) with every book and study written about it.  He was on a first-name basis with every character in the Bible and used their stories as illustrations in all his lectures.  Complete focus was required to keep up with him and pity the student who did not come with some previously acquired amount of biblical knowledge.

In one of the early classes, I recall one of my fellow students meekly raising his hand and saying, "Dr. Waltke, many of us aren't as familiar with the Bible as you are and we'd appreciate it if you wouldn't use so many biblical illustrations.  They're hard to follow."

Now Dr. Waltke was not at all threatening in appearance; he looked like the meek quiet scholarly type, with his thick glasses and balding forehead.   But he was feared!  I believe we all were trembling in fear for our fellow student as Dr. Waltke lowered his glasses on his nose and glared at him with the look one would give to a misbehaving child - a sort of mix of pity and disgust.

"Young man," he said slowly and softly but firmly, "I'd suggest that you go to your room this evening, sit down, take your Bible and READ IT!!"

On my previous post HISTORY LESSONS, I complained about our ignorance of history.  While I still hold those same complaints, I need to soften them a bit.  When speaking of history teachers I was speaking in generalities.  There are many solid teachers who have a passion for the study of history and are eager to share that passion with their students.  One of these was Dr. John Hannah, my Church History prof at Dallas Seminary.  Dr. Hannah portrayed the historical actors with understanding and compassion, as Dr. Waltke did with biblical characters.

But many of those passionate teachers are confronted with apathetic students, who have already been conditioned to regard history as a bore.  The ignorance is not always the fault of their current teacher.

Perhaps ignorance of history might be to a certain extent explainable if not excusable.  The same could be said of ignorance of science (IGNORANCE IS NOT BLISS).  But ignorance of the Bible is definitely not excusable for the follower of Christ.

I realize that ignorance of the Bible is mainly due to the fact that people don't bother to read it.  However, if I lay much of the blame for ignorance of history on history teachers, I suppose I should do the same for ignorance of the Scriptures.  For the greater share of my life I have taught the Bible - as a pastor, as a college professor, as a Sunday school teacher, as a counselor.  Have I been a contributor to the ignorance of many?  If so, in what way?  What have I and others done to discourage people from reading the Bible?

Some observations and questions we teachers need to ask ourselves:
  • Do we come across as authorities and discourage people from thinking through biblical concepts on their own?
  • Do we use the Bible as a loose collection of stories and sermon topics that are often ripped out of context?
  • Do we bring out the great themes of the Bible and demonstrate its unity?
  • Do we demonstrate the relevance of biblical principles to every area of life?
  • Do we make an effort to teach our people how to study on their own, to observe, interpret and apply?
  • Do we moralize?  While much of the Scripture is concerned with ethics and ethical behavior, not all of it is.
  • Do we ourselves have a passion for the Word that is contagious?

According to Haddon Robinson, my prof of Homiletics (preaching) at seminary, "It's a sin to bore people with the Word of God!"

Do we?  Do I?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

HISTORY LESSONS

As a schoolboy, I both loved and hated history.  I loved to read the lengthy historical novels that were popular in the 40's and 50's.  I read and loved westerns, especially those that were informative about the great Indian chiefs, the soldiers and the gunfighters.  I read historical articles in my parents' Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia.  My head was full of stories about the men and women who made history.

But history as taught in school was usually a bore, both to me and (it seemed) to those who taught it.  My elementary school teachers seemed to be teaching the subject simply because they were required to.  Their main concerns were dates and names and it seems, with stifling any interest we might have.

High school was no better.  Mrs. E., my World History teacher managed to completely shut us off while she rambled through moralistic lessons.  Mr. Mc____, affectionately known as Chrome-dome, taught American History to supplement his job as assistant coach.  We were never allowed to open our books in his class, or to dispute - even question - his "facts".  I got my first C grade from him.  (I, Uni, on the other hand, never opened my book and took notes on all Mr. Chrome-dome said and got A's in the class.)

All of these teachers painted rosy pictures of America.  They required us to accept all they said as true and simply regurgitate their "facts" on our exams.  To one who read and studied history out of love for it, this was disgusting.

I strongly suspect that the disinterest and even distain that many have for history goes back to experiences similar to mine.  I agree with Walter Cronkite's words in his biography, A Reporter's Life:

          "Most depressing was the way history was taught.  I was not lucky enough in either high school or college to have a teacher who seemed willing, or perhaps able, to portray the conflict of fascinating personalities that underlies nearly all the critical moments of human experience.  Reducing this great drama to the rote of names, dates and places ought to be treated as a punishable crime.  Let the tens of thousands of students who get their diplomas thinking that history was the dullest subject of their high school years be called as witnesses as we put the offending teachers in the dock."  (page 28)

My bookshelves are lined with volumes and volumes of history and biography.  I would rather curl up with one of these than a novel or any of those self-help, "spiritual life" books.  I believe that a knowledge of history is a necessity for navigating and thinking through issues that confront us in our present world.

And yet there are tendencies - even political movements - all over America to maintain the present status quo.  The purpose for teaching American (and other) history is felt by many to be the inculcation of patriotism by stressing the good accomplishments of America and ignoring or de-emphasizing those areas of our history that could bring us into disrepute.

According to a recent Reuters report, October 2, 2014, "The question of how U.S. teens learn history in public schools is the latest flash point in a liberal - conservative fight over national curricula ..."  The article (along with many others) points out that critics of "the revised guidelines for the Advanced Placement history course" claim that these guidelines "cast the United States in a harsh light."

It seems that critical thinking is anathema to these conservative critics!  They apparently never understood the sarcasm in Bob Dylan's words, "Oh the history books tell it; they tell it so well ... "

Our nation is a long standing democracy and we have enjoyed freedoms here that are rare in this fallen world.  Yet we are a nation of fallen people and our history shows it when faced honestly.  The slavery and degradation of African peoples, the near genocide of the Native American peoples, our land-grabbing from Mexico, to name a few.  And our mistreatment of these same peoples right up to the present day.

Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann has claimed that, "Once we were here we were all the same" (We never were!) "... We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began ... We also know that the ... founders ... worked tirelessly until slavery was no more."  Uni and I discussed this statement.  Uni was of the opinion that Bachmann was just an out and out liar, while I could not be that judgmental.  No one who really wanted to deceive the American people would make statements that any 6th grader should be able to refute.  I felt Bachmann was just incredibly ignorant of history as are many Americans.  The problem however is that her audience is quite probably just as ignorant!

Our knowledge or ignorance of history affects how we think and act in other areas.  I know that not everyone has the love for history that I do.  But I do believe that as Christians and as Americans we are obligated to have a working knowledge of the past so that we can avoid its sins and mistakes and so that we can evaluate our present situation in its historical context.

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
- attributed to George Santayana (and others)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

GRAMMAR AND THE GREAT COMMISSION

"All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to Me.  So go, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all things that I've commanded you, and see,
I am with you always until the end of the age!"
Matthew 28:19, 20

This familiar passage, given by Jesus to His disciples at some time in between His resurrection and His ascension, is known to most of His followers as "The Great Commission."  It is repeated in a number of different forms in all four Gospels and the Book of Acts.  It is recognized by most as the imperative for the Christian mission and seems to be recognized as having a sense of urgency, even though it's been nagging us for nearly 2,000 years.
 
Every so often, however, we hear its urgent tone softened by the translation of the word "Go" as "As you go" or as "Going."  While those who claim these to be accurate translations of the Greek text may mean well, I fear it can bring a relief to our slowness to obey. We can easily understand the new rendering as "When you get around to it,"  so it fits well with our 21st century Christianity, but I cannot find this wording in any English translations; it is merely something that some teachers and/or preachers say, sometimes off the cuff and occasionally with apparent authority.
 
So then, what exactly was Jesus' command?  While Jesus undoubtedly spoke in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew, our New Testament texts are written in Greek.  So we are obligated to seek out as precisely as possible, the meaning of the Greek text.
 
There are four verb forms:  "Go," "disciple," "baptizing" and "teaching."
 
The main verb, usually translated "disciple" or "make disciples of" is matheteuo; the form given in the text is the aorist imperative plural, matheteusate.  It is an imperative, i.e., a command, and the aorist tense gives it immediacy:  "just do it"  or "start to do it."  This is the only finite verb form.  The other three are participles.
 
"Baptizing" (baptizontes) and "teaching" (didaskontes) are both present participles and speak of continuing action.  They describe the means to be used or the manner in making disciples.
 
The word we are especially concerned with is the word "Go."  Can it, or should it, be translated by "As you go"?  While it is usually best to be cautious in matters of grammar and syntax, I'll be dogmatic here and give a definite NO!
 
The word "go" translates the Greek verb form poreuthentes.  This is the aorist masculine plural participle form of the word poreuomai.  Unlike the words "baptizing" and "teaching," it precedes the main verb.
 
The word is used as a participle of attendant circumstance.  It is in the same tense (aorist) as the main verb and so picks up the mood of the verb and is thus to be understood as itself an imperative.  (See:  Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics by Dan Wallace, pages 640-645.)  It is not to be understood as the other two participles and used adjectivally.  It actually lends even more urgency to the command.
 
If we look at its other uses in the Gospels this becomes obvious.
 
Matthew 2:8:  Herod tells the Magi, "Go (poreuthentes) and search diligently (exetasate - aorist imperative) for the Child."
 
Matthew 9:13:  "Go and learn what this means ... "
 
Matthew 11:4:  "Jesus said to them, 'Go and report to John ...'"
 
Matthew 17:27:  "Go (poreutheis - aorist masculine singular participle) to the lake and cast in your hook ...'
 
Matthew 28:7:  "Quickly, go (poreutheisai - aorist feminine plural participle) and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead ..."
 
See also:  Mark 16:15; Luke 7:22; 13:32; 14:10; 17:14; 22:8.
 
The only place I can find "as you go" or "going" with an imperative is Matthew 10:6, 7, but there both the participle and the verb are in the present tense.  "Go (poreuesthe, present plural imperative) rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, and as you go (poreuomenoi, present masculine participle)  preach (kerussete, present plural imperative) ... "
 
In all of the commands cited, the "go" in the aorist participle form adds urgency or haste to the command.  There is no sense of "whenever."  As Dan Wallace says in his Grammar cited above, "To turn poreuthentes into an adverbial participle is to turn the Great Commission into the Great Suggestion!"  (page 645)
 
Unfortunately, whether or not we do this with our grammar we may be guilty of doing it with our behavior.
 
Or to quote (out of context) the great American philosopher, Larry the Cable Guy, we need to just, "Git er done!"

Thursday, September 25, 2014

BIBLE TRANSLATIONS

“Translations are like wives; the more beautiful they are, the less apt they are to be faithful; the more faithful they are, the less apt they are to be beautiful.”
Attributed to Edward Fitzgerald, translator of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

I know the above quote sounds sexist to our 21st century ears, but I believe it gets the point across.  (Of course, my wife Uni is an exception, both beautiful and faithful.)

Uni became a believer at an early age, and at the age of 11 she began reading through her Bible once a year and has ever since. When I came to faith in Christ at 18, she purchased me a Bible. It was a King James Version with all the “thees” and “thous.” I began reading it immediately and finished in about 3 months. I’ve been at it ever since and wore out that first Bible and a few more since.

I now have many Bibles (in Greek, Hebrew and English) which I read and study. My favorite is my Greek New Testament. It’s a large print Nestle-Aland critical text. The margins are marked with cross references and notes. The words have been colored by pencils according to a code known only to me. The edges are dirty. Some pages are torn and taped. The original cover is gone and replaced with a simple glued on piece of leather. It has tire tracks on a few pages. (I had left it on top of my car one morning after having coffee with a friend. I had just pulled on to the highway and got up to speed when I heard a thump, looked in the mirror and saw my New Testament being run over by a pickup truck following. I retrieved it still in mostly one piece.)
 
I love this book, as well as my other Bibles. They are my friends. Through the years I believe the Bible has been the major factor in my growth as a Christian. (I’m not there yet!) Though I have read many books that have added to my knowledge and growth, this is the one by which all others are judged.

I have received many questions regarding Bible translations, so I feel I need to give a few thoughts on the topic.

The Bible which we Christians believe is the Word of God was originally written in three languages.  The part we refer to as the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the language of ancient Israel.  Modern Hebrew is spoken and read today by Israelis and many other Jews.  Some small portions of the Old Testament were also written in Aramaic, a related language.

Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus and His disciples.  By His day it had become the common language of the Middle East.  It is still spoken today by a small number of people.

The portion we refer to as the New Testament was written in Greek, the language of the eastern Mediterranean world of its day, the language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire.  New Testament Greek is often referred to as koine (common) Greek.  It was the language spoken and written by Paul, Luke and most of those in the early church as it spread westward.

It seems that nowadays we are flooded with a plethora of new Bible translations, as well as updated older ones.  Add to these the specialty Bibles – Bibles with notes which relate to a particular theological or social or occupational perspective.  And no Bible teacher or preacher who is of any worth can get along without publishing a “study” Bible with his or her notes to guide the reader.  And, of course, each of these specialty Bibles is published in a number of translations.

It’s confusing and, I fear, discouraging to many readers.  So what do we do?  Where do we begin?  How do we know which translations are best?  Which ones can we trust?  And what about my dear old KJV?

The Septuagint

Well, first of all, we should note that translation is not a new phenomenon.  The Bible was being translated even before it was completed.

To my knowledge, the earliest translation of the Hebrew Old Testament is the one known as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX).  This was a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek.  There are different theories and accounts of it origin, but we do know that it was completed by the second century B.C.  That’s 200 years earlier than the events of the New Testament and its writing.  The LXX is important to us for a number of reasons.
n  We have manuscripts of the LXX that, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in 1947, were hundreds of years older than any existing Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament (known as the Masoretic Text or MT).
n  The LXX sometimes agrees with, sometimes disagrees with the MT.  In some of those areas of disagreement it agrees with the DSS.
n  The LXX was frequently the text quoted by the writers of the New Testament which was written in Greek, although they occasionally translated or paraphrased the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.
n  The theological terms, even the names of God, used in the New Testament, are the terms and names used in the LXX.
n  While we cannot claim that the text of the LXX is inspired, I believe that its use by the writers of the New Testament gives legitimacy to the use of translations.

The King James Version 

As far as our dear old KJV, this is the Bible I first read.  I read it at least a dozen times and have quite a few portions of it committed to memory.  But I no longer use it except for occasional reference (I have a copy of the original 1611 edition on my desk) for the following reasons.
n  It is one among many translations and was so even in its own day.  Though many refer to it as “the Authorized Version,” it was authorized by an English King, not directly by God.
n  The language, though it may sound majestic, is simply archaic.  The Bible was originally written in the language of the people who could read it at that time.  The New Testament especially, was written in koine or common Greek, the language that ordinary people spoke.  And the KJV was written in the language spoken by the English speaking people of its day.
n  It was translated from later Hebrew and Greek texts, the texts that were available in its day.  Since then many older manuscripts have been discovered.  These are the texts from which most of our modern translations are made.
n  The KJV translators, while scholars of ancient Greek, had little knowledge of koine.  Since their time, thousands of papyri and potsherds have been discovered, throwing much light on the language.
n  Many of our English word meanings have changed since 1611.

Modern Translations and Paraphrases

Even though I do most of my study in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, I also use English translations.  My favorite has been the New American Standard Bible (NASB) which I first met over forty years ago.  I still believe it is one of the most accurate translations available.  It is getting a bit old and has been updated, though many still find it stiff.  It was the Bible used in the Bible Study Method classes I taught at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, because of its accuracy and because we wanted every student to be reading from the same text.

I also use the Jewish Publication Society’s edition of the Tanakh.  My knowledge of Hebrew is not that good, so I use a double column edition - Hebrew/English.

I believe that much of the frustration felt by many is the question, “Which translation(s) can I believe?”  If I can be a voice of hope, I can confidently say that when it comes to the basic truths of the Gospel, no translation will lead us astray.  There are, as far as I know, no “conspiracies” to deceive us as some die-hard King Jamesers would have us worry about.

One of the most important considerations to note is that translations could be placed along a continuum from the extremely accurate to the extremely paraphrastic.  For purposes of study, I believe that we should look to the more literal translations, even though they may not be easy reading.

Use the paraphrases for rapid reading as well as for clarification.  Many read like novels.  I would cautiously recommend them for first-time readers.  Paraphrases often attempt to replace ancient Hebrew or Greek idioms with the idioms that are more easily understood by the modern English reader, and we should remember that while this may aid in our understanding of obscure ideas, it can also introduce ideas that are foreign to the context.  We should be careful not to quote paraphrases as authoritative.  (I have occasionally been frustrated by students who insist, "My Bible says ..." when quoting a paraphrase.)

Here are a few of the translations I am familiar with, from the most literal to the most paraphrastic.
n  The New American Standard Bible (NASB).  This is the English Bible most familiar to me.  It is still, I believe, one of the most accurate, though it’s growing old and weary.  One of its best features is that it attempts to consistently translate each Greek or Hebrew word by the same English word.
n  The English Standard Version (ESV).  This is the English Bible Uni and I now use the most often in Bible Study.  It is a word-for-word translation following more in the tradition of the RSV and is more readable than the NASB.
n  The Holman Christian Standard Bible (CSB).  I have not read all of this one, but my wife Uni has.  We have had many discussions on its merits and it seems in most areas to be as accurate as the NASB, but with a bit more updated language.
n  The Revised Standard Version.  The RSV never received acceptance with evangelicals, because of a perceived “liberal bias” though it is quite accurate.  However it too is dated, though the New RSV has brought it up to date.
n  The New King James Version (NKJV).  This one has its own unique problems. Though a quite accurate translation, it uses the same texts that the original KJV was translated from, and sometimes sacrifices readability simply to keep the “feel” of the KJV.
n  The New International Version.  The NIV is extremely popular, reads well and is reasonably literal, though its smoothing out of rough texts can cause some misunderstandings.
n  The Tanakh.  This is the accepted Jewish version, issued by the Jewish Publication Society.  It reads quite smoothly and I'd compare it to the NIV.  It of course only contains the scriptures accepted in Judaism - our Old Testament. The Christian reader should not be surprised to find differences of interpretation in some areas.
n  The New Living Translation (NLT) seems to be an attempt at bridging the gap between a paraphrase and a translation.  It is easy reading though and has clarified a few matters for me.
n  The Good News Bible (GNB) also known as Today's English Version (TEV) was popular back in the 70’s, but seems to have disappeared.  It was translated using the concept of “Dynamic Equivalence,” the use of modern English idioms for ancient Greek or Hebrew ones, sometimes with humorous results.  I love it.
n  The Living Bible is a one man paraphrase and, as far as I know, makes no claims at being a translation.
n  The Message is a popular paraphrase and is easy reading, but the reader should beware and compare it with more literal translations.  One complaint:  In every other English translation the Hebrew name YHWH is translated LORD (all caps).  For some reason the Message translates it GOD (all caps).  This can cause great confusion when reading aloud.

The above comments are not meant to be scholarly, but come from my own experience reading, translating and comparing, as well as attempting to be of help to those who read.  I believe I have a fair knowledge of both the Hebrew and Greek texts and have been reading and studying the Word for well over half a century.

[Most of the above material was taken from and revised from earlier posts:  TRANSLATIONS (7/23/2011) and MY BIBLE (1/8/2009).]