Jun
2022

Juneteenth

Title: Lift Every Voice and Sing, or, The Harp [Click for larger image view]

FOREWORD: I am re-sharing this post from last year regarding what Juneteenth means, and why it matters to us all.  Pray, friends, for peace with justice, and for the willingness to let God send us forth, giving those prayers hands and feet and a public voice.

 

June 19th has long been a famous day in the African-American community, where it is remembered and celebrated as “Juneteenth.” In recent days, more and more white Americans have been brought to realize the significance of this day, as tragic events have brought forcefully and painfully to our national attention America’s original sin of racism and injustice. Juneteenth recalls June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war was over, and that the enslaved were now free. This was over two months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, and two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, delivered on January 1, 1863. Yet Black Americans in Galveston remained enslaved until the arrival of General Granger’s regiment overcame local resistance to the idea of liberation.

General Granger issued General Order Number 3, which began:

 

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

 

Perhaps we should not be surprised that freedom came so late to Galveston. After all, while the decades following the Civil War saw the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, promising freedom and equality, they also saw the betrayal of that promise, as with at best the indifference, and at worst the connivance of the federal government, the rights that the Constitution conveyed to all Americans were denied.

Corridor in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Whatever the Constitution said, the social norms of white supremacy were codified in Jim Crow laws, and enforced by horrific violence. The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama honors the memory of more than 4,400 black people lynched in the United States–hanged, burned, murdered, tortured to death– between 1877 and 1950.

 

That legacy of violence is not past. In this past year alone, the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the police killings of Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, and most of all, the horrific videos of George Floyd‘s public murder by a Minneapolis police officer, prompted not only a national, but a world-wide outcry against racial injustice and police brutality.  Yet sadly, even as justice has prevailed in some of these cases, it remains deferred in others–while new acts of racist violence continue to arise.

 

Some readers of this blog may be wondering what any of this has to do with the Bible, which is after all the subject of this blog. That, as it happens, is a very good question. It is no accident that nineteenth-century abolitionists did not base their arguments on Scripture. The bulk of the biblical witness seemed to be on the opposite side of the issue–indeed, African slavery was justified then on biblical grounds.  After all, both testaments assume the existence of slavery, and the New Testament repeatedly urges slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18).

 

While I was studying for my doctorate at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, my library carrel was for a time near a tall shelf of books written by Bible scholars teaching and writing at that distinguished Southern school in the years prior to the Civil War. Their books noted, rightly, that the Bible never challenges the institution of slavery. Indeed, some argued that slavery had been a boon for the African people, civilizing these savages and introducing them to the Christian gospel.

 

What those white antebellum Bible scholars could not see, but new African American Christians could, were texts such as Paul’s statement, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Somehow those distinguished Bible scholars could not see that the heart of the Hebrew Bible–called by philosopher Emil Fackenheim the “root experience” of the Jewish people–was the exodus out of Egypt: God’s action to set slaves free.  Sadly, it still remains possible for us to read the Bible from cover to cover and somehow miss the passion for justice that runs like a river from Genesis to Revelation. Similarly, in white America, racism remains invisible to those who, thanks to white privilege, do not–or cannot–see it, over 150 years after that first Juneteenth.

 

Community and equality, cooperation and justice, mutual respect and mutual regard are biblical principles. Far from being unreachable ideals, they are the only way that the world truly works, reflecting the identity of the Creator, who is in Godself a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When any culture elevates one person, class, or race over another, and exalts taking and having over giving and sharing, life itself breaks down. No wonder our economy, our world, and our church are in trouble!

Joe Biden

Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, Making Juneteenth at last federal holiday.  This Juneteenth, may we Christians embrace the message of freedom which is at the core of the gospel. As Jesus Christ himself has said,” you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you really will be free” (John 8:31-36).

AFTERWORD:

The photograph at the head of this blog is from “Art in the Christian Tradition,” an on-line gallery linked to the lectionary, managed by The Vanderbilt Divinity School Library. The image comes from The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, April 1939. The sculpture by Augusta Savage (1892-1962) appeared in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It is called “Lift Every Voice and Sing, or, The Harp,” and was inspired by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s hymn, “Lift Every Voice:” sometimes called the African American national anthem.

Jun
2022

The Words, and the Word

2,690 Scribe Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStockThis past Sunday was Trinity Sunday.  The lectionary  readings for the day were apt expressions of the mystery of the Divine life.  But I can imagine some readers wondering why 1 John 5:6-8, which in the King James Version clearly confesses the Trinity, was not chosen:

This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.  For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

The reference to the Trinity in the KJV, which I have placed in bold-faced type, does not appear in the CEB, or indeed in any modern English translation of 1 John.  But that is not because of some conspiracy among Bible translators who do not believe in the Trinity!  While this verse is included in Erasmus’ Textus receptus (“the received [and therefore presumably authoritative] text,” 1516), it is not found in the oldest and best texts of this book.  Indeed, it does not appear in any Greek text of 1 John before the 14th century, and appears only in late texts of the Latin Vulgate (see the detailed discussion in A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, Bruce M. Metzger [London: United Bible Societies, 1975], 715-17).  Simply put, this neat Trinitarian confession does not belong to 1 John, but rather reflects later Christian reflection on that text.  Modern translators are right to exclude it.

Since we do not have the single, pristine, “original” text of ANY biblical book, New Testament or Old, responsible Bible scholars encounter this sort of problem all the time.   For every passage of Scripture, we have multiple witnesses, among which we must choose. This study is called text criticism.  May be art of one or more people and text that says 'EDITED BY JULIA M. O'BRIEN The Oxford Handbook of THE MINOR PROPHETS'The best concise statement I know of why text criticism matters comes from Julia O’Brien: “Knowing what words are in the text is often as complex as understanding what those words mean” (The Oxford Handbook of the Minor Prophets, ed. Julia M. O’Brien [Oxford: University Press, 2021], xxii).  Before deciding how best and most faithfully to render the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek text into clear and understandable English, we need first to determine what the best text is: which words to translate. Heavenly Jerusalem | Fol. 140v | The Morgan Library & Museum

For example, consider the climax of John’s vision of the world to come in Revelation 21.  Here, the New Jerusalem is a massive golden cube, 1,500 miles long, wide, and high (Rev 21:16)!  The most likely parallel for John’s image is the inner room of the temple, called the Most Holy Place: a perfect cube, with walls were covered in gold (1 Kgs 6:20; Ezek 41:4; see Craig Koester, Revelation, AB 38A [New Haven: Yale, 2014], 816] and Mathias Rissi, The Future of the World: An Exegetical Study of Revelation 19.11-22.15, Studies in Biblical Theology, Second Series 23 [Napierville, IL: Allenson, 1972], 62-63).  John tells us, “I didn’t see a temple in the city, because its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22). But indeed, the entire city is the holy dwelling place of God, where all God’s people are invited to live.

As in Ezekiel’s vision of the ideal city, John’s new Jerusalem has twelve gates, named with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (see Ezek 48:30-35). But in John’s vision, these gates are never shut (Rev 21:25)–which, since the whole reason for gates is to control access to the city, subverts their purpose entirely!  The light of God’s glory streams its invitation out of the open gates into the world outside, and John says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. . . . People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev 21:24-26, emphasis mine).  Who are these people, outside the city, but now invited to enter it?  As the nations and their kings have just been thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15), what are we to make of this extraordinary claim?

If you read this passage in the KJV, that question never emerges.  There, Revelation 21:24  reads “And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it” (emphasis mine). Holbein-erasmus.jpg As with 1 John 5:7, this translation is not based on any ancient Greek text of Revelation, but on Erasmus’ sixteenth-century Textus receptus.  Erasmus inserts ton sozomenon (“the ones who are saved”) after ta ethne (“the nations”) in Revelation 21:24. Neither the Latin Vulgate nor the majority Byzantine Greek text have this addition.  Nestle-Aland’s critical edition of the Greek New Testament Novum Testamentum Graece doesn’t mention this insertion, even as a minor variant to be considered, and Metzger’s Textual Commentary doesn’t even discuss it.

So why did Erasmus add these words to the text of Revelation?  Likely because he believed that John must have intended something like this.  Otherwise Revelation  21:24 contradicts the last chapter regarding the fate of the nations. Erasmus may have been right to resolve this conflict–but what if he wasn’t?  What if the text actually is contradictory, and ambiguous?  The evidence of the best text of Revelation forces us to confront that apparent contradiction, and ask what it may mean.  What if, in the end, God in God’s sovereign freedom includes even those once thought excluded? Why Does Small Group Bible Study Matter? - Topical Studies So, what does text criticism mean to Bible students who do not know the original languages, and so lack access to the many texts behind the text on the page?  First, the King James should not be your go-to study Bible.  The language of the King James is beautiful and poetic: more often than not, the passages I have committed to memory are from its pages!  For its day, the King James was an excellent translation.  However, quite apart from the fact that we no longer speak in King James English, the translators in 1611 simply lacked access to the many ancient texts now available.  Indeed, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts extant, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran, were unknown before the mid-twentieth century.

So, what should be your go-to study Bible?  I recommend the Common English Bible for ease of reading (it is my go-to reference for Bible quotes in this blog), and the New Revised Standard Version for serious study.  Comparing multiple translations is a good policy–but only if you are careful not simply to select from among them the reading we like the best!  Instead, ask why the translations differ?  What could account for the choices the translators have made? Some guidance to answering that question may come from the introduction in the front matter of your Bible, which discusses the translation team’s intentions and philosophy.

Any responsible translation will also include text notes on each page, marked like footnotes.  For example, on 1 John 5:7, a text note in the NRSV reads, “Other ancient authorities read (with variations) There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth:”.  In the NIV, the note is more detailed: ” Late manuscripts of the Vulgate testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the (not found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century).”  Always make certain to check the text notes, to see what other options the translators had to consider.  I should note, by the way, that neither the NRSV, the NIV, nor the CEB has a text note on Rev 21:24, but that in itself tells us something: none of these teams of translators believed the added words in the KJV to be worthy of comment.

Finally, a good study Bible, with detailed footnotes, will discuss in greater depth the issues involved, including text-critical questions. I recommend the HarperCollins Study Bibleprepared under the auspices of the Society of Biblical Literature. This edition of the NRSV has lots of maps, charts, and other helps, but the best parts are the extended introduction to each book of the Bible, and the footnotes: a third or more of every page, providing cross-references, further information pertaining to the history back of the text, and in many cases, additional insight into the translation.  In some cases, the author of the introduction and notes on a book is the person primarily responsible for the translation of that book in the NRSV (for example, my late mentor S. Dean McBride in Deuteronomy), so that you can get straight from the horse’s mouth the reasons behind the choices made.

Determining, in O’Brien’s words, “what words are in the text” requires expert knowledge–and even experts may disagree as to their resolution. However, every reader of Scripture needs to be aware that these issues exist.  Believers come to the Bible in order to hear God’s Word for us.  But in order to hear the Word in Scripture, we must first be clear on the words of Scripture.

AFTERWORD:

For my jiffy summary evaluation of a number of Bible translations and paraphrases, enter “Which Bible?” in the search window above, or follow these links: “Which Bible?“;  “Which Bible? Part Two“; “Which Bible? Part Three“; “Which Bible? Part Four.”