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).]

Monday, September 15, 2014

ISRAEL OR THE CHURCH?

A recent action by a Republican senator from Texas has stirred up comments in both the secular and the religious media.  Ted Cruz of Texas was booed off the stage while addressing representatives of the suffering and persecuted Christians in the Middle East.  From the bits of his speech that I heard, it sounded like he was attempting to turn the rally he was addressing into a pro-Israel rally.  While he was speaking of persecution of both Christians and Jews, he received what sounded like a reasonable amount of supportive applause.  But as he continued speaking, his theme kept moving toward the idea of the nation of Israel being the Christians' best hope and the applause became more and more interspersed with and finally replaced by boos.  He ended up walking off the stage with the statement,  "If you will not stand with Israel then I will not stand with you!"


So how do we explain this?  And with whom should we side?  Before attempting to answer the second question, I felt that I needed to attempt to seek Senator Cruz' motives for seemingly shooting himself in the foot, and to figure out why there were those who agreed with him and even condemned his hearers. Many thoughts were given by various bloggers and pundits.

Some attempted to blame his audience by simply accusing them of anti-Semitism.  But a look at what's happening in the Middle East gives the lie to this thinking.  The church there is undergoing horrible suffering under militant Islam.  They suffer for their faith in Christ and not for their political allegiance even though they are mostly Arab peoples.  They are caught in the middle - between Sunnis and Shiites, between Israelis and Palestinian Muslims.  This explanation seems to be simply another case of blaming the victim.

Another more plausible explanation is that these Christians are different.  Cruz is an American and reputed to be from an Evangelical background.  The Christians he was addressing and their brand of Christianity have always seemed a bit suspect to American Evangelicals (of whom I am one).  They have strange rituals and customs and dress.  Their faith doesn't seem compatible with our born-again Bible thumping.  It's too "spooky" for us.  So it is easier to question the reality of their faith.

Another possible way of explaining Cruz' actions - though admittedly more cynical - is to "follow the money."  The pro-Israel lobby is undoubtedly much more powerful than this group of suffering Christians and can do much more for the Senator.  Perhaps both of these last two motives were involved in Cruz' behavior.

I'll suggest another possible motivating factor which occurred to me as soon as I read about this.  I confess that I don't know that much about Cruz' religious/theological background, but I do know a bit about the theological thinking of many in the Evangelical world, a way of interpreting the Scriptures that I believe has led many to agree with Mr. Cruz.

A large number of Evangelical Christians hold to a theological system known as Dispensationalism, even though many who hold this position may never have heard the word.  Dispensationalists take pride in "rightly dividing the Word of Truth," in noting the distinctions made in the Scriptures.  To some extent this is an excellent way to interpret the Scriptures.  But sometimes Dispensationalists make distinctions where the Bible is not that clear.  And they also at times carry those distinctions to illogical conclusions.

Dispensationalists distinguish (as do many Christians) between God's Old Covenant people and His New Covenant people, between the nation of Israel of the Old Testament and the Church of the New, between Judaism and Christianity.  They do not see the Church (Christianity) as a continuation of God's promises, expanded to include both Jews and non Jews who believe in Christ.  "So then, know this; that those who are of faith, these are sons of Abraham" (Galatians 3:7).

Dispensationalists see Israel as a people set aside until the end times when God will again deal with them.  "And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written, 'The Deliverer will come from Zion to turn away ungodliness from Jacob'" (Romans 11:26; Isaiah 59:20).  And many see the present (secular) nation of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  According to Dispensationalist eschatology (the doctrine of last things) the nation of Israel, scattered for millennia, must be back in their land and undergo seven years of "great tribulation" before Jesus returns.

And this eschatology has led some (not all) Dispensationalists to a strange devotion and commitment to a foreign nation.  Many American Dispensationalists appear to place their loyalty to Israel above their loyalty to their own country.  The nation of Israel is regarded not simply as an American ally in the Middle East, nor even as the homeland of a people who have been homeless for 2,000 years.  Israel in the land is regarded by them as the fulfillment of prophecy.  To disregard Israel is considered to be akin to heresy.

And so we find many followers of Christ ignoring the cries of their persecuted brothers and sisters in favor of a foreign political unit.  And agreeing with Ted Cruz' statements.  Brothers and sisters it ought not to be so.

See:  CONFESSIONS OF A (FORMER) DISPENSATIONALIST
(http://billball.blogspot.com/2013/07/confessions-of-former-dispensationalist.html)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

PREACHERS AND PRIDE

News of what's happening in the Christian community usually passes under the radar of the secular news media - unless, of course, there's a good juicy scandal.  And there have been enough of those to bring us into the public eye regularly.  Usually these have something to do with the sexual (mis)behavior of some well-known preacher or televangelist, but occasionally there will be one or two involving financial indiscretions.

Recently there has been a scandal involving a mega-church pastor who is also a founder and leader of a large network of churches.  This scandal, however, does not as far as I know, involve sex, and only involves financial impropriety in a secondary way.  It appears to involve plagiarism and padding of sales of the pastor's books.  The pastor was removed from his office by his board.  His pride was named as a problem.  The secular media had little to say about this, of course.

As I read of these goings-on in the religious media I kept thinking about that word - "pride".  Isn't that possibly the main problem behind all of these scandals?

I have been associated with Christian ministry in one way or another for nearly 60 years.  I graduated from seminary and was ordained 37 years ago.  I have served as a pastor of a number of churches and have served on boards of others.  When I taught at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, many of my students were people involved in the ministry.  I count many pastors and full-time Christian workers among my friends and acquaintances.  And I have known some who have "fallen".  I've had to deal with a few of these ministers and I've also had to deal with many people who were pieces of the wreckage that they and others had left behind.

When I entered my first pastorate at the age of 40, I felt that I had enough maturity to handle most crises.  I thought I'd seen it all and was unshockable.  But such was not the case.  In the first year that I served at that church I had to deal with a situation that tried me to the limits.

It was a small church - a hundred or so people.  In the church was a minister along with  his wife and family - children, parents and in-laws.  He served as director of a Christian ministry not directly related to the church.  He was about my age, but with more experience in the ministry, so Uni and I cultivated their friendship.  Uni even went to work in his office part-time.  Well, it wasn't long before she discovered his briefcase full of porn and then we found that he was having multiple affairs and had been for years.  It ended in a messy divorce and with his being removed from his position.

Uni and I were left to pick up the pieces - disillusioned church members, prominent townspeople, one of the women, his family of three generations.  And church leadership that didn't know what to do, but somehow felt that my way of handling the situation was not the best.  And this was just the beginning of a number of similar experiences.

Though at the time I felt stretched nearly to the breaking point, I later came to realize that I had gone through an education experience that I could never have gotten in seminary and that my four years in seminary had not prepared me for.

And it forced me to rethink my motives for being in the ministry.  The man I had to deal with was clearly a man with an excess of pride; this came out during the conflict.  And yet I soon realized that I too was suffering from the same affliction.

Why do people go into the public ministry?  Why did I?  Oh sure, most of us have felt some sort of "call" or at least have felt the Lord's leading in some way or another, or we've felt gifted as teachers, exhorters or leaders.  But are there also underlying motives that we don't like to admit?  Is it possible that the same motives or personality traits that lead some to enter the ministry could also be contributing factors in their fall?

I believe that we are more complex than we recognize or want to recognize.  We may have entered the ministry for what seem the best of motives.  We love the Lord; we love His church; we love people; we want to yield totally to Christ.  We don't do this for our own benefit.  And yet --

Let's face it, most of us in public ministry have egos that need feeding - pride.  Of course, we need feedback and need to know what impact our ministry is having.  Those "amens!" - the responses to our sermons, to our counseling - tell us they're listening and growing.  But they also make us feel good!  It's easy to take them as responses to us rather than the Lord; and sometimes they are.

Those who fall into sexual or financial indiscretions are crossing a line that we all face.  I suspect that it's not only or even primarily the sex or the money - it's the bump to our egos that they bring.  Most of us - at least the men in the ministry I know - have at times come too close to that line and some have crossed it.  Though I've not been in a situation where money has been much of a temptation, I can assure my readers that I've been in situations with women where I've had to - to use Paul's word - flee!  (Sometimes I've had to warn him of the danger! - Uni)

Harry Truman  once said:  "When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the 21-gun salutes, all those things.  You have to remember it isn't for you.  It's for the Presidency."

And we in the ministry need to remember this as well.  It's not about us.  We have a higher calling than even the Presidency.  We must submit our pride to the One we serve.  So when we receive those honors, they are not to build up our ego.  We need to point them to Jesus.