Thursday, December 11, 2014

WHAT - YOU'RE PREGNANT?

Whenever and in whatever manner the Christmas story is told, there's a character of whom we don't hear a lot.  Oh, he's there, but he usually doesn't seem to have an important role.  In the nativity scene he's seen bowing piously before the manger; in the pageants he's seen leading the donkey on which Mary sits, or he's knocking at the door of the inn.
 
No, Joseph doesn't seem that important.  In the Gospels, he's not around much after the Christmas story, except for a few disparaging remarks about "the carpenter." And yet he is the main character in Matthew's version of the Christmas story. The first 17 verses of the New Testament give the royal genealogy of Jesus through Joseph - even though Joseph was not Jesus' biological father.
 
After the genealogy Matthew begins his story with a brief account of Joseph's dilemma:  "Now the birth story of Jesus Christ was like this:  when His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph - before they came together - she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wishing to put her to public shame, decided to divorce her privately" (Matthew 1:18, 19).

Joseph and Mary were not simply "engaged" as many modern translations tell us.  Betrothal under the Mosaic Law meant that they were actually legally married; the bride price had been paid and vows had been exchanged.  Only one thing remained undone during this period - the actual consummation of the marriage through sexual union. (This was different of course from our modern "enlightened" custom, where sex comes first.
 
There's a lot packed into these two verses.  I've tried to put myself in Joseph's place and imagine his emotional reaction to the discovery that his beloved was pregnant and he wasn't the father.  Perhaps the discovery occurred when Mary returned from her three-month visit with her cousin Elizabeth as related in Luke's Gospel.  Perhaps she was beginning to show.  I can imagine the dialogue as she approaches.
 
Joseph:  "It's my pure precious Mary, returning at last.  It's so wonderful to see you again.  I've missed you so.  You look so good.  But Mary, you've changed!  You seem to have - uh - gained a little weight."
Mary:  "I'm pregnant Joseph."
Joseph:  "You're pregnant?  You're kidding right?"
Mary:  "No, I'm pregnant ..."
Joseph:  "Mary!  No!  How can this be?  How could this happen?  You've always been so pure!  What have you done?  You've broken your vows!  Who...?  What...?  Why ...?"
Mary:  "Joseph, please calm down.  I'm still a virgin."
Joseph:  "Mary, that's nonsense!  How can you be pregnant and still a virgin?"
Mary:  "The Holy Spirit came upon me and the power of the Most High overshadowed me.  And the Child within me is holy.  He's the Son of God!"

I can feel the confusion and the conflicting emotions in Joseph and can hear his voice rising with every word he speaks.

Joseph:  "Mary, stop saying crazy things.  That's impossible!"
Mary:  "Nothing is impossible with God!"
Joseph:  "I know that!  Of course, I know that!  I've said it myself many times.  But God doesn't work this way!  Not since Adam has a man come into this world without a human father!       But what am I doing arguing theology with you?"
Mary:  "Please Joseph, let me tell you how this happened.  You see the angel Gabriel came to me and ..."
Joseph:  "An angel?  Mary, you know angels don't speak to us anymore!  That only happened in the Bible!"
Mary:  "Please, let me explain ..."
Joseph:  "Mary, you know that I love you!  But it's clear that you have sinned horribly - against God and against me.  Your adultery is bad enough.  Don't make matters worse by making up this lie.  Don't blaspheme God by blaming Him for your sin!"
Mary:  "Joseph ..."
Joseph:  "Mary, Mary - please stop talking.  I'll have to divorce you.  I could have you stoned for adultery but I can't do that.  Just go away.  You've ruined our lives!”

Matthew continues his narrative, telling us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and explained matters.  Joseph does take Mary as his wife but the marriage is not consummated until after the birth of Jesus.

Most of the rest of the story is familiar and can be found in the following verses.  But one thing about the angel's speech may tell us a bit more about Joseph.  The angel told him, "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife ..." (verse 20).

Why did the angel tell him this?  Was fear a factor in Joseph's reaction to Mary's condition?  Undoubtedly he felt the pressure on himself from different directions.  We're told that he was "righteous".  Not self-righteous, but genuinely righteous in the sense of walking with God and following God's laws.  He clearly had a love for Mary.  We may suppose that, knowing that both he and Mary were of the line of David, he had hoped that one day their son might turn out to be the Messiah.

And yet if he took Mary as his wife the shame of their first son's being illegitimate would haunt them.  Hopes for the future would be dashed.

We don't know what became of Joseph beyond the first few chapters of Matthew's and Luke's Gospels.  Apparently he died and left Mary a widow by the time Jesus entered His public ministry.  But if Joseph feared shame, the shame would follow his step-Son until Jesus' death.  We read that years later, some of those who opposed Jesus would say to Him, "We weren't born of fornication ..." (John 8:41).  Perhaps that question about Jesus, "Isn't this the carpenter's son?" (Matthew 13:55) was more than simply a reference to Jesus' lowly birth.  There may have been more to it than that.  Perhaps the implication was, "Isn't this the illegitimate child, who that carpenter took for his own.  What a disgrace!"

There are many places in this world, even in this country, where followers of the carpenter's Son may experience fear, shame and disgrace.  There are even places where Christ's followers fear for their lives.  Joseph overcame his fears by simply surrendering himself to the will of God.

Monday, November 17, 2014

DOES COMING OUT MATTER?


Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, recently publicly admitted he is gay, according to an article in The Week Magazine (11/14/2014, page 18).  In a Bloomberg Businessweek essay, he said, "While I have never denied my sexuality I haven't publicly acknowledged it either ...  Let it be clear:  I'm proud to be gay, and I consider being gay one of the greatest gifts God has given me."

The comments were varied:
·       "Cook send an important signal to young gay Americans still living in fear and demonstrated how far our country has traveled on gay rights in recent years."
·       His announcement "was blissfully mundane."
·       "No one cares ... liberals act as if its 1950 and the townsfolk are ready to grab their pitchforks and torches."
·       "If anything, the Apple CEO should have spoken earlier, rather than stay in the closet until He'd made his millions."
·       "Don't expect more Fortune 500 CEOs to follow suit."
·       "Coming out in ... Silicon Valley is one thing ... Corporate America is still dominated by long standing stereotypes of gay men being weak, passive or inferior."
·       And so on - there were many more.

Sports stars, movie stars, celebs of every sort, newsmen, even politicians, have been coming out as gay for quite a while.  Each time they are met with similar reactions.  And, of course, there are other reactions - often more negative - that don't get published.  They can be heard in any office, bar, coffee shop or even church parlor.

As I read these various comments, the question that came to mind was, what if Cook had "come out" as a follower of Christ?  What would be the comments be?  So I re-read the article aloud to Uni, substituting the word "Christian" or some appropriately related word wherever "gay" was used.  We had a few chuckles.

I suppose the reactions would be quite similar, some negative and some positive and some ho-hum.  In some locations in America, the coming out would be expected; isn't everybody a Christian?  Elsewhere in America, he would be the object of mockery and derision.  If he were in some other profession his position would be threatened.

Of course, in some nations of the world, coming out as gay or Christian would invite the death penalty.

Gays want acceptance and in many ways and places they are accepted, though they're not there yet.  They merely want what they feel various ethnic groups have found.  Isn't that what Christians want for ourselves?  And we have it, though there appears to be a rising resentment of us here in America.

Why are Christians accepted in America?  Well, for one thing, Christianity dominates our culture.  Most Americans still consider themselves Christians, so it's no big deal, is it?

But there are many who would object to any public figure who openly professed Christianity.  To many, "Christian" has become a dirty word.  It is equated with ignorance, superstition, bigotry, right wing politics, etc.  So we're either bland - who cares? - or we're hypocrites.

Shouldn't our profession of being a follower of Christ make a radical difference?  We're told in Acts 11:26 that "the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."  Note that they "were called Christians."  It doesn't say that they called themselves Christians.  Apparently it was outsiders who gave them this label.

And it was the ”disciples" who were labeled thus.  There's no reason to think that Luke changed his definition of disciple from that found in his gospel (see:  Luke 14:26, 27, 33).  Being a Christian does not mean being part of an ethnic or cultural group or a philosophical school or a religious sect.  Being a Christian means being a disciple - a radically committed person who has placed his loyalty to Christ above all else.  It means being a person who actively loves every one of his or her fellow human beings.

What would happen to the public figure who would come out of the closet as one of those people?

Of course, it's possible that if a person was truly living such a radical lifestyle, he wouldn't have to come out of the closet.  Everyone would already know what he was.

"Let your light so shine before men
that they'd see your good works
 and glorify your Father who is in the Heavens."
(Matthew 5:16)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME!

When I teach or preach from the New Testament, I usually read and translate directly from my Greek text.  I don't do this to show off or to impress people; most who hear me don't even realize I'm doing so, other than those who ask the occasional question as to what translation I use.  (I usually tell them I use the BLT.  If that doesn't satisfy I explain that BLT stands for Bill's Literal Translation).  Of course some actually notice and make the comment mentioned above.

I have been reading and studying my Greek Testament regularly for nearly 40 years.  One requirement for my Master's Degree in New Testament, besides grammatical and exegetical studies was to read through the entire Greek New Testament at least once (though most of it was read more than that).  I was hooked and since then I have read it through at least once a year.  I actually feel more at home in it than in my English New Testament.  I have also read and continue to read in my Hebrew Old Testament (with difficulty) as well as in the Septuagint.  I have never formally taught Greek other than a one hour credit class at the College of Biblical Studies - Houston, entitled:  "The Greek New Testament for English Readers."  I have occasionally tutored or mentored a few persons in the study as well.

So when a friend posted an article on facebook entitled "3 Ways Not To Use Greek in Bible Study" it got my attention.

Though the author of the article concedes that "there is nothing wrong with wanting to know some things about the language that God gave us for the New Testament," he warns us that "there are also dangers involved."  While after my first reading I found myself in essential agreement with the article and even hit "like" on the post, I felt a bit uncomfortable and felt that even though the author asserts that he is "not trying to discourage anyone from studying Greek," he was doing just that.  I also felt that it could become an excuse for those who are teachers and preachers, for neglecting the original languages.

I agree with most of what the article states.  I feel along with this writer that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and I agree with his three points - to a point.  I'd like to add my thoughts to the points made there which I see as actually two.

Point 1:  "Usage Trumps Etymology:  Avoiding the Root Fallacy" and Point 3:  "Context is King:  Avoiding the Overload Fallacy" seem to be saying much the same thing. "... a word's meaning is not determined by its etymology, but by its usage."  "Most words don't have a 'literal meaning' at all - rather, they have a range of possible meanings (the technical term is 'semantic range.'"  "Context usually narrows the possible meanings to one (an exception would be ... puns)."
Point 2:  "Scholars are Necessary:  Avoiding the Cult of the Amateur" seems clear except that it is used simply to reinforce Points 1 and 3.

The article appears to assume that word study is a major aspect in doing Greek exegesis.  Actually the sort of studies described requires little knowledge of the original languages, just some skill in the use of a concordance, which is available to the English reader.

One does not have to be skilled in the original languages to be a gifted Bible teacher.  I myself studied and taught the Bible with a reasonable amount of proficiency for many years before my formal education.  Many of those from whom I learned had no proficiency in the languages; some didn't even have that good a command of our native English!

But I contend that a familiarity with the language in which our Bible was originally written is an asset which the use of helps can only partially provide.  I write this at the desk in my study with volumes of helps - concordances, lexicons and commentaries on the shelves behind me.

As far as the use of words, I agree that usage trumps etymology and that context is king.  But knowledge of the "original" or "root" meanings of words brings a color to the book that simple context definitions cannot.  As in any language, words have many meanings, even in the same context.  Much of language is metaphorical and the careful reader or listener understands that words do have more than one meaning and that though a word may have a single specific meaning in a particular context, it often carries with it its other meanings.  Puns, double entendres, sarcasm and subtle nuances are much more common than a literalistic reader might suppose.

Some examples:
·       Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with His disciples on the night before His betrayal.  He is burdened down and leaves them to go off alone to pray.  He tells them:  meinate hode kai gregoreite (Mark 14:34).  Most translations, even modern ones translate this something like "stay here and watch," which is probably what was meant.  But gregoreo has the "original" meaning of "stay awake."  To translate it simply as "watch" would be accurate, but the reader would miss the irony of the fact that they fell asleep.
·       Paul exhorts his readers many times, peripateite (Ephesians 4:1, 17; 5:1, 15, etc.).  Some modern versions (though not all) translate this word simply as "live," referring to Christian behavior or conduct.  But the "root" meaning of pateo is "walk" and the prefix peri has the meaning of "around."  The Christian is not exhorted to passively "live" but to have an active life - a life in motion.

And while word meanings do change over time, some retain their meanings over centuries, even millennia.  When Paul tells his readers that the Holy Spirit is our arrabon (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13, 14), he is using a word that already in his day was 2,000 years old; it was actually an ancient Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic) word.  Its first biblical usage is in the Hebrew Old Testament, Genesis 38:17, 18, 20 in the spicy story of Tamar and Judah.  Judah contracts for sex with his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar who has disguised herself as a prostitute.  He promises her "a kid from the flock" for her favors (the going rate?) and gives her his seal, cord and staff as an arrabon.  The word in Paul is translated variously as "earnest," "pledge," "down payment," but I suspect that his astute readers may have recalled the earlier context.  (The word is still found today in modern Greek and is used of an engagement ring.)

And then there are synonyms.  No two words have precisely the same meaning.  While synonyms have an overlap in meaning and in many contexts seem to be used simply for variety, there are many instances where their differences in meaning are quite clear.
·       The words allos and heteros can simply be translated interchangeably in many contexts as "other" or "another."  In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul uses allos six times and heteros twice with no clear difference.  Most English translations translate both words consistently as "another."  But in his letter to the Galatians, while he uses both words in one context, their subtle differences in meaning are clear.  "I am amazed that so quickly you have moved away from the One who called you in the grace of Christ to another (heteros) gospel - which is not another (allos) ..."  Most modern translations translate heteros here as "a different ..." (Galatians 1:6, 7) bringing out the difference in meaning.
·       The author of the article states, "Turns out that agape and philos (I believe that he meant to say philia) aren't really different kinds of love after all ..."  Apparently this is something that he learned from "scholars" in his "first couple of weeks of class."  However, while the words are synonyms and in many instances may simply be translated as "love," a careful study of all the New Testament usages will demonstrate that there are clear differences.  See:  I LOVE YOU LORD and WHAT IS LOVE?

And of course, language studies are much more than studies of word meanings.  Grammar is an important part.  Greek verb tenses differ from our English tenses.  For instance, while in English we have a simple past tense, Greek has two,  the aorist and the imperfect, which give much more color to the action.  To oversimplify (always dangerous) the aorist presents a snapshot:  "he ran," while the imperfect presents a motion picture:  "he was running."  English often has to use "helper words" to get the same color.

One example:  in John 11:35 we read edakrusen ho lesous.  Normally this is translated "Jesus wept."  But the verb dakruo here is not the normal word for weeping but is related to the word dakruon, "tear."  It is also in the aorist tense.  This, the shortest verse in the Bible, is thus packed with meaning.  It could be translated "Jesus burst into tears!"  The Greek reader could catch this.  Also see:  GRAMMAR AND THE GREAT COMMISSION.

I agree with Point 2  on the value of scholarship.  However, scholars quite often disagree with one another.  If we simply compare Bible translations we will frequently find conflicts.  We all - scholars or lay persons or those in between - fail to distinguish degrees of certainty and can be dogmatic where we have little or no right to be.  This is where some knowledge of the original languages can be of great help - not to arrive at new interpretations but to check on existing ones.  In regard to the experts, we should "trust but verify!"

So, while I would encourage the English reader that we have some excellent translations and excellent commentaries that can be trusted, I would also encourage the student - especially if you teach - to dig a little deeper using a good concordance and lexicon.  Get the feel for the Bible. Remember it's a lifetime process.

And do watch out.  A little learning can be a dangerous thing!

Monday, November 3, 2014

DEATH OF A KING

I recently finished reading the book, Death of a King:  The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King's Final Year, by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz.
 
This is a powerful book but not one to read when you're down.  Though it is brief and well-written, I found I had to chew on it in small bites and I was thankful that it was composed in brief chapters.  There are other, fuller biographies of Dr. King, which I would recommend, such as David Garrow's Bearing the Cross or Taylor Branch's 3-volume set subtitled America in the King Years.  These books will fill in much of what we need to know about Dr. King's life and the Civil Rights' movement in which he was involved.

But this book is different; it is as the title tells us, only concerned with the year preceding Dr. King's assassination.  It does not delve into the details of the movement and its surrounding politics.  It tells little about the rival factions in the movement.  It tells us nothing about Dr. King's assassin.

Smiley is concerned rather with Dr. King himself (whom he refers to as "Doc"), as much as possible getting inside his head.  He uses memoirs and personal interviews with Dr. King's associates and friends.  He delves into his speeches and writings which reveal much about the man.  Smiley does an excellent job; the reader can feel the author's empathy.  Clearly, Dr. King is his hero, yet he is not afraid to portray him warts and all.

The story begins on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before the assassination, with King's "dramatic and controversial speech in impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War" (page 5 - Smiley quotes portions of this and other speeches throughout the book.)

Though Dr. King had spoken against the war before his April 4th speech, it was this speech that marked his final break with the Johnson administration.  One of the great tragedies of our time was the break between these two men.  Lyndon Johnson and Martin King had both previously worked tirelessly together on Civil Rights' legislation.  Lyndon Johnson was and probably still should be regarded as the President who did the most for Civil Rights since Abraham Lincoln.  But his involvement in and escalation of what is perceived by many as a senseless war, drew a shadow over what he had accomplished.

Dr. King saw the war as most wars are, a rich man's war fought by poor men.  The draft took a disproportionate number of those same African-Americans for whom Dr. King - and President Johnson - had fought hard to bring into full rights in the mainstream of America.

And so the man who was recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize was now perceived by many Americans as a traitor, along with others in the Peace Movement.  As Dr. King said, speaking of the nation's attitude toward Muhammad Ali, "There is a very dangerous development in the nation to equate dissent with disloyalty" (page 50).  There were many in the Civil Rights' movement at this time, though who were still supportive of the war, so Dr. King found himself out of step with many of his fellow workers.

Add to this the fact that Dr. King's non-violent path of civil disobedience was perceived by many younger people in the Civil Rights' movement, as being too slow and ineffective.  The more radical Black Power movement was coming to the fore.  And so his following was being shrunk from many directions. All of this on top of the white racism and hatred that he continually experienced.

Dr. King was becoming more concerned not simply with matters of race but also of poverty.  He spent much of this final year attempting to organize a "Poor Peoples' March" on Washington.  And there was the Sanitation Workers' strike in Memphis which he was working in support of.

King seemed to be sliding deep into depression and like many, this drove him into greater activity.  We find him flying from city to city, speaking and organizing.  He appeared exhausted emotionally and physically when he arrived in Memphis.

The story ends with tragic simplicity:
          "Then a shot rings out.
          The bullet finds its mark,
          Doc falls.
          At age thirty-nine, his life on earth ends."

The epilogue contains a eulogy that had been delivered earlier by Dr. King for Joseph Reeb, a murdered white civil rights' worker.  Smiley apparently feels it is a fit tribute to the man who gave it.  And we the readers do so as well.

Tavis Smiley is a well-known host of both PBS and Public Radio programs, as well as a prolific author.  His empathy, even love, for the man who is his subject is clear throughout the book.  He was less than four years old when Dr. King was murdered and so his knowledge is all second hand, yet it feels as though he has known him personally.

I am ashamed to confess that as a white evangelical Christian living in the north, I had little interest in or sympathy with Dr. King and all he was accomplishing during his brief life and ministry.  It was only after I moved south to Houston, TX in 1966 that I even began to understand.

At the time of Dr. King's assassination I was working in the engineering department of a large oil tool company.  As I recall, there were well over 100 men in one huge room (all white, of course).  When news of the assassination was heard, there was celebration.  No work was done for much of the day.  I had not witnessed such "joy" since Japan surrendered after WWII!  Dr. King's death was regarded by all - at least those who were vocal - as some sort of victory.  Of course, this was mixed with "righteous indignation" at those "n____s" who rioted afterward.

Though I didn't speak up, I realized that as a follower of Jesus, I was on a different side than my co-workers, even though many of them also claimed to be Christians.  This was not my first epiphany, but it surely was the strongest.  I believe that many white evangelicals of my day, while we may not have seen ourselves as racists, were simply indifferent as to how racism - even our passive racism - is in total contradiction to the life and teachings of Christ.  I fear this is still a lingering problem.

I strongly recommend this book.  Read it with a copy nearby of A Testament of Hope - the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington.  I'd also recommend one or both of the biographies mentioned above.

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.  The one I use now is the English Standard Version (ESV). For years my favorite was the New American Standard Bible (NASB) which I first met over forty-five 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.
  • The English Standard Version (ESV).  This is the English Bible Uni and I now use the most often in our daily Bible reading and study.  It is a word-for-word translation following more in the tradition of the RSV and is more readable than the NASB.
  • 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.
  • 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 and ESV, but with a bit more updated language.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Contemporary English Version (CEV) is a translation designed for those with limited reading skills, especially for reading aloud.  Though usually quite literal it uses a limited vocabulary and simpler sentence structure.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Living Bible is a one man paraphrase and, as far as I know, makes no claims at being a translation.
  • 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 especially when reading aloud.
  • The NET Bible - New English Translation - is in a class by itself and does not fit neatly into the above continuum. Though available in paper it was originally designed as an electronic translation for use on the internet.  It is quite literal, but its striking feature is the extensive notes on translation - well over 1/2 of every printed page.  It is an excellent study Bible and can be used as one would use a commentary.  I use it often to check on my own exegesis.
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.

Revised and expanded, 3/8/2017.