Oct
2022

At One-ment

May be an image of 2 people, tree and natureSeptember 22 was the autumnal equinox, and sundown Sunday, September 25 Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  I have always resonated with beginning the year in the fall–since for most of my life I have been in school, as a student and as a teacher, September rather than January has always been my time of new beginnings!  Now that I am retired, it still feels a bit strange to be able to vacation and travel in this time, as Wendy and I did again this year.  As I write this, the ten Days of Awe following Rosh Hashanah have just ended, culminating yesterday in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

In Judaism, Yom Kippur is a fast day, on which one reflects upon the sins of the past year, repents before God, and resolves to live differently in the year to come.  In Scripture, both the rite for Yom Kippur and its significance are quite different from the day as it developed in Jewish life and practice.  But those ancient rites, and what they might mean for how we think about God, have a great deal to teach us about the ways that we read, and sometimes misread, Scripture.

First, take that word “atonement.”  Look it up in any dictionary, and the first definition you will find will be something like, “reparation for a wrong or injury.”  I recently encountered just that meaning in a word puzzle.

Growing up as a young Christian, that was certainly the way that I saw Christ’s atoning death on Calvary: as Jesus making reparation to God for my wrong.  The only way of understanding the cross I then knew was that Jesus had taken on himself God’s wrath, and the deserved punishment for my sin, so that I could be forgiven–an understanding of the atonement called “penal substitution.”  I grew up singing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and “Jesus Paid It All.”

However, like many believers, I have grown concerned about what this language says about God.  Do I really believe that God’s wrath can only be assuaged by blood, even the blood of his innocent Son?   Further, if it is solely the death of Jesus that atones for our sins, doesn’t that make his life and teaching irrelevant?

The history of our English word “atonement” suggests a different original meaning for this term, which may broaden our understanding of God, Christ, and the cross–as well as our reading of Yom Kippur.  The Oxford Dictionary dates “atonement” to the early 16th century, when it was coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin word adunamentum  (“unity”), and an older word, “onement:” from the obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite.”  The word was particularly used to talk about the reconciliation of God and humanity accomplished by Christ.

The King James Bible

When the King James Version of the Bible was translated in 1611, the relatively new expression “make atonement” was used for the Hebrew verb kipperparticularly in connection with Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16).  That word apparently had the original meaning “cover.”  However, kipper came to be used specifically for rites of cleansing and purification.

In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the day when all lingering defilement from the previous year, either accidental or deliberate, was expunged, making full access to and communion with God possible in the new year.  The Common English Bible, which translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Reconciliation,” captures both the meaning of this ancient rite and the older meaning of the word “atonement” as dealing, not with reparation or punishment, but with communion restored.

The centerpiece of the ancient ritual for this day involved two goats.  One was selected by lot as the goat to be offered as the sin offering (the most familiar translation of the Hebrew khattat; the CEB reads “purification offering,” which better catches the significance of this sacrifice in ancient Israel).  The second goat was given to Azazel.  We have no idea what this means; perhaps Azazel was a monster or demon believed to live in waste places, or perhaps Azazel is an old word for “wilderness.”  The KJV read “scapegoat,” which has entered our language as a person or group blamed for wrongs done by others.

In Leviticus, the goat for Azazel is not a sacrifice, nor is it killed.  It is driven out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the defilement of the people.  The other goat, selected by lot as belonging to the LORD, is sacrificed.  Its blood is taken by the high priest into the inner room of the shrine, called the Most Holy Place, where God was believed to be specially present.  This inner chamber held a golden box, called the Ark (the Hebrew word for the Ark, ‘aron, simply means “box,” or “chest”).

File:Benjamin West - Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant - Google Art Project.jpgThe lid of the Ark was a slab of gold, molded in the image of two cherubim: terrible semi-divine heavenly beings like winged sphinxes.The cherubim‘s inner wings overlapped to form a throne: the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (for example, 1 Sam 4:4Ps 80:1) recalls this connection.  The Ark itself served as the LORD’s footstool, making this golden box the intersection of divine and human worlds.  In the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, Moses and Aaron encountered the LORD at the Ark (for example, Exod 25:22).

On Yom Kippur, the blood from the people’s purification offerings was applied to the lid of the Ark (kapporet in Hebrew; translated as “mercy seat” in the KJV and the NRSV, but best rendered, as the CEB has it, simply as “cover” or “lid”).  This meant that, once a year, the blood of the purification offering was brought to the very feet of God.

In Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV), Paul seems to use the rite of Yom Kippur as a way to understand the work of Christ on the cross:

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

The Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  But this Greek word is used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, not for either the sin offering or the scapegoat but for the lid of the Ark: the kapporet.  The CEB translation “place of sacrifice” is a little better, though still misleading.  Paul’s point appears to be that the cross where Jesus’ blood was spilled has become the kapporet: the point where divine and human worlds intersect, and so the place where reconciliation–atonement–happens.

Reading the Bible in English, we are likely to miss all of this.  We may assume that, in Leviticus, Yom Kippur is the day of atonement in our relatively modern sense: referring to a reparation for sins, made in blood to an angry, judging God.  We may assume that the death of Jesus too must be read it this same way: as Jesus taking the punishment, or paying the price, for our guilt.  The meaning of the Hebrew words  kipper and kapporet, the Greek hilasterion, and even the history of the English word “atonement,” may well pass us by.

This is, of course, an argument for learning the biblical languages, so that subtleties and nuances often lost in translation can be recognized.  Even for those of us without access to the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of Scripture, it means learning to read the Bible carefully and prayerfully, making use of commentaries , study Bibles, and other resources that will “complexify” our plain reading of the text.  For all of us, it means remembering that the Bible was not written in English.  We need always to be aware of the bones beneath the flesh of the translation, and to resist the temptation to see our own surface reading as what the Bible “plainly” says.

Sep
2022

Mammon

Image result for Jesus teaching painting

FOREWORD:  I am reposting this blog from three years ago, when this difficult parable last appeared in the lectionary.  My former D.S. and ministry mentor Paul Smith used to say, “Money is spelled P-O-W-E-R.”  The message of this unpopular word of Jesus has never mattered more.

 

This week’s Gospel is a parable of Jesus unique to Luke, much like those perennial favorites the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.   But unlike those stories of Jesus, this one is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite:

Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’ The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg.  I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses. One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’  He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’ (Luke 16:1-7)

Why does Jesus tell this strange story?  His point seems, if anything, stranger still:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes (Luke 16:8-9, NRSV).

Yup.  That’s what it says.  Jesus said “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  What are we to do with that?

When I was a brand-new pastor, fresh out of seminary, I came into a Bible study at one of my churches, looking at the parables of Jesus.  Some of the folk in that study were using the Living Bible–a popular paraphrase of Scripture into everyday language that had been my own favorite Bible as a young Christian.  But to my astonishment, here is what the Living Bible did with this saying of Jesus:

But shall I tell you to act that way, to buy friendship through cheating? Will this ensure your entry into an everlasting home in heaven?  No! For unless you are honest in small matters, you won’t be in large ones. If you cheat even a little, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.

That “NO!” was not in my Bible–nor, I quickly discovered, was it in the Greek text of Luke.  Kenneth Taylor, who authored this paraphrase, justifies this extraordinary reading in a footnote:

Luke 16:9 [reads] . . . literally, and probably ironically, “Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when it shall fail you, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.” Some commentators would interpret this to mean: “Use your money for good, so that it will be waiting to befriend you when you get to heaven.” But this would imply the end justifies the means, an unbiblical idea.

In other words, I don’t believe that Jesus would have said this, therefore he didn’t.  But surely, that is no way to read Scripture!

I found no more help in Eugene Petersen’s popular contemporary paraphrase, The Message.  Petersen reframes Luke 16:8-9 as follows:

Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

This is interesting–and certainly, less offensive!  But to me it seems too clever by half–particularly since this paraphrase makes no mention at all of the “dishonest wealth” that is the most troubling part of this saying, and that seems after all to have been the point of the parable.

If like me you grew up with the King James version, you may be aware that in that Bible translation, a strange old word appears:

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.  And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

The word mammon was never an English word.  Rather, it has been carried over untranslated from the Greek text, just as it was left, untranslated, in the Latin Vulgate.

But mammon isn’t a Greek word, either.  It comes from Aramaic, the language of first-century Palestinian Jews, and so the language that Jesus spoke.  Matthew, Mark, and John preserved numerous words and phrases in Aramaic—but Luke typically did not!  For example, in Luke the place Jesus is crucified is not called Golgotha (Aramaic for “skull;” see Matt 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17), but Kranion (Greek for “skull;” see Lk 23:33); traditionally rendered, following the Latin Vulgate, as “Calvary” (Latin for “skull”).

The Aramaic word “mammon” means, as we can guess from its context in today’s passage, “wealth”—but generally, it was used in a negative sense.  It is found only four times in the Bible: once in Matthew 6:24, and, curiously,  three times in today’s reading from Luke: 16:9, 11, and 13 (//Matt 6:24). Why should Luke, who generally avoids Aramaic terms, uncharacteristically use this word, in this place?  To answer that question, we need to know a bit more about Luke.

Image result for Saint luke icon

The gospel of Luke is the first volume of a two-volume work–part two is our book of Acts.  Luke writes in excellent Greek, for an educated, Greek-speaking audience.  Clearly, Luke was well educated, which cost money.  Both Luke and Acts open with greetings to Luke’s patron, Theophilus.  Evidently, Theophilus was funding Luke’s travels and research as he wrote his account of the life of Jesus and the growth of the early church.  In sum: Luke comes from money; his project is funded by a patron with money, and he addresses himself primarily to an audience with money.

Yet, a major theme of Luke’s gospel is the community’s responsibility to the poor.  His gospel begins with a song sung by Mary when she learns that she has been chosen to bear the Christ:

[God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed (Lk 1:52-53).

So too, in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, we read, “Happy are you who are poor, [rather than, as in Matthew 5:3, “poor in spirit”] because God’s kingdom is yours” (Lk 6:20 ), counterbalanced by “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Lk 6:24).  Indeed, next week’s gospel is another parable  unique to Luke, the story of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31).

It is hard to avoid the conclusion, then, that the point of today’s parable is money, and what we are to do with it.  Luke was writing to a well-off community—much like the church in the US today.  To address the issue of wealth, he deliberately uses the unfamiliar Aramaic word “mammon:” a strange, but authoritative word–a Jesus word, from Jesus’ own native tongue. Luke assumes that his community is smart enough to deduce from context, as we can, that “mammon” means “wealth,” but he adds the Greek adjective adikias (rendered “dishonest” in the NRSV; “unrighteous” in the KJV) to let his community know that wealth is used here in a negative way: both the CEB and NIV have “worldly wealth,” which I think captures Luke’s point quite nicely.

By telling this parable, Jesus certainly isn’t commending the manager’s dishonesty—he doesn’t say that we should get worldly wealth the way that this man does. Rather, Jesus says, here is what we are to do with our wealth!

Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much.  If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?  If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? (Lk 16:10-12).

If  we are not faithful with worldly wealth, how can we expect to be trusted with heavenly?

Jesus stands here in the prophetic tradition of Amos:

Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy
        the poor of the land, saying,
    “When will the new moon
        be over so that we may sell grain,
        and the Sabbath
        so that we may offer wheat for sale,
        make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel,
        and deceive with false balances,
         in order to buy the needy for silver
        and the helpless for sandals,
        and sell garbage as grain?”

   The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
        Surely I will never forget what they have done (Amos 8:4-7).

Those Amos condemns cheat the poor so as to multiply their own riches, as though wealth were an end in itself.  For them, the purpose of money is to make more money, by any and every means possible.  With Amos, Jesus condemns this attitude: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:24//Lk 16:13).

 

The dishonest manager in Jesus’ story may be a scoundrel, but at least he knows what money is for!  In Jesus’ parable, the manager spends his wealth (well, actually, his master’s [!]) to reduce others’ debts, to ease their burdens–to “make friends.” Only if we spend our money in that way, Jesus affirms, will our wealth make any difference in this world–and certainly, only in that way will our wealth make any difference to us in the world to come, as we cannot take it with us!

Image result for john wesley

John Wesley preached his famous sermon, “On the Use of Money,” based on this very difficult text.  His conclusion was very simple: first, “Christian prudence” means to “Gain all you can” and “Save all you can.”  However, this is scarcely the beginning:

But let not any man imagine that he has done anything, barely by going thus far, by “gaining and saving all he can,” if he were to stop here. All this is nothing, if a man go not forward, if he does not point all this at a farther end. Nor, indeed, can a man properly be said to save anything, if he only lays it up. You may as well throw your money into the sea, as bury it in the earth. And you may as well bury it in the earth, as in your chest, or in the Bank of England. Not to use, is effectually to throw it away. If, therefore, you would indeed “make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness,” add the Third rule to the two preceding. Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then “give all you can.”

Here, I think, Wesley has grasped very neatly the point of this difficult parable.  Wealth is not an end to itself.  Mammon is not to be our master, but our servant: it is meant to be used, to ease another’s burden, to heal another’s pain.  We get it so that we can give it away.  That’s what it’s for.

Aug
2022

Blessing, Not Commandment

How To Write a Book - The Beginner's Guide | Wealth of Geeks

When I first began shopping my current book around, some prospective editors urged me to eliminate the Hebrew references: “You’ll just confuse your readers,” I was told.  However, I remain convinced that serious Bible students are well aware that the Bible was not written in English, and know that some subtleties in the original languages may not be captured in translation.

Further, I am persuaded that questions I have relating to translation and interpretation will occur to other readers too, whether they know the original languages or not.  So, in my teaching and preaching, as in my writing, I refuse to insult the intelligence of my audience, and when the text calls for it, I endeavor to guide them through the linguistic thickets–although I also try to avoid overly-technical language that will indeed frustrate and confuse rather than enlighten.

All of which is to say that today’s blog does indeed go pretty deep into the weeds of Hebrew grammar.  But I am persuaded that the exegetical and theological payoff is worth the effort.  To put it very simply, friends– this’ll preach.

Creation Day 5-Fish and Birds - The Breakthrough Lifestyle

On Day Five of the first biblical creation account (Gen 1:20-23), God addresses God’s creations for the first time: “Then God blessed them: ‘Be fertile and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth’” (Gen 1:22). The CEB translation rightly recognizes that the verbs in this verse are imperatives. But in Hebrew, the imperative doesn’t always indicate a command.

Semitic grammarians Paul Jouon and T. Muraoka note that “The imperative is the volitive mood of the second person;” it “is essentially a form for expressing the speaker’s will, wish, or desire” (A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Part Three: Syntax [Rome: Ponifical Biblical Institute, 1996], 378-79).  The context of these imperative forms, within a blessing, suggests that they should not be rendered as commands, but rather as expressing God’s desire and intention for God’s creatures: as David Carr observes, “within a blessing, the imperative stands as a modal wish” (Genesis 1—11. International Exegetical Commentary of the Old Testament [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2021], 43).  Better would be, “May you be fruitful and multiply.”

That distinction becomes even more important when we examine Gen 1:28, which this verse foreshadows. Here, God blesses human men and women:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it.”

Unfortunately, some have tried to construct a sexual ethic out of this verse. Since, as the early Christian theologian and scholar St. Jerome (340-420) observed, “God’s first command” is, “‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth’” (Against Jovinianus, 1.3; cf. Gen 1:28), any sexual act that could not produce a child is contrary to God’s design and intent.

In the Mishnah (the Jewish compendium of traditional interpretations of the Torah, to which the Talmud serves as commentary) as well, this verse is construed as a commandment: but for the man, not for the woman (b. Yebamot 65b)! As the broader context of this discussion is a debate regarding the divorce of a woman who is barren or miscarries, the point would appear to be that, while men are obligated to father children if they can, women are not necessarily obligated to bear them.

Mr. Spock and the Aaronic Benediction

However, it is essential to remember, as in Gen 1:22, that—despite its (mis)use in Christian and Jewish traditions—Gen 1:28 is a blessing, not a commandment! Grammarians Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi note that the imperative can express a promise: “The speaker assures that the recipient of the imperative will take the action in the future, although he action itself is normally outside the power of the person receiving the order” (A Guide to Biblica Hebrew Syntax [Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2003], 64).  Likely, that is the case here. As Carr observes regarding this passage,

The blessing here, as in 1:22, is formulated in Hebrew with an imperative form. This corresponds to the rule, wherein the contents of blessings, insofar as they are formulated in verbal form, are expressed with modal verb forms. . . . There is, therefore, no implication of a command to multiply or rule the earth in the imperative forms of v. 28. Instead, there is the promise of powers/capabilities (Carr 2021, 84).

When we read these opening chapters of Genesis, it is important to remember that they are neither history, nor science, nor law.  They are confessions, made by communities of faith—grounded not only in universal, timeless ideas but also in the particular circumstances of their authors.  Therefore, when we hear something from the priests in Gen 1:1—2:4a that we would not expect to hear, it carries particular weight.

Unprotected Texts – Prayer & Politiks

The affirmation in Gen 1:27 that maleness and femaleness alike reflect the image of God hits like a thunderbolt: it can scarcely be ascribed to the typical attitudes of its patriarchal culture!  This extraordinary valuation of the feminine need not be read, however, as restricting God’s intention for humanity to the union of male and female.  Certainly Jerome, with his eloquent defense of celibacy (Against Jovinianus, 1.3), did not regard singleness as condemned by this passage!

Further, there may be a hint here about how God might be viewed. While admittedly, male images of God predominate in Scripture, female images as well can be identified. Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is certainly a feminine aspect of God. In the Psalms, God appears a midwife (Ps 22:9-10), while in Hosea 11:3-4, God speaks as a mother:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
        I took them up in my arms,
        but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them
        with bands of human kindness,
        with cords of love.
    I treated them like those
        who lift infants to their cheeks;
        I bent down to them and fed them.

Similarly, Jesus cries out to Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Matt 23:37//Lk 13:34).

God is neither male nor female, for neither masculinity nor femininity can fully capture the Divine. Attempts, then, to derive from Genesis 1 a rebuke of transgender persons, or the affirmation of a sexual binary as the God-imposed norm, are seriously misplaced. Indeed, both masculinity and femininity reflect aspects of God, who makes all humankind, of every gender, race, and nation, “in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26).

Chagal Stock Photos, Royalty Free Chagal Images | Depositphotos

On the other hand, the call to “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it” (Gen 1:28) is no surprise: it fits neatly into the flow of the narrative from Genesis through Joshua. As God’s people endure threat after threat, seeming always on the edge of extinction, fertility is essential for their survival.  In particular, Gen 1:28 prefigures the growth of the people into a great nation, despite Egyptian persecution (see Exod 1:6-7, 20) and despite the faithlessness of the wilderness generation (see Num 22:3-4),  in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (see Gen 15:5-6).  We may question, then, whether this “first commandment” is intended as a universal imperative, or as promise to a beleaguered community.

 

 

 

 

Aug
2022

Where the Ball Will Be

 

Troy Polamalu overcame college injuries to become an All-America and NFL injuries to become a Hall of Famer - Sports Illustrated Talk Of Fame Network

I am thinking as I read this week’s lectionary passages (Jeremiah 23:23-29, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56) about Troy Polamalu.  Polamalu is partly famous for his full head of long, flowing hair (indeed, he STILL does Head and Shoulders commercials!), but mainly, of course, as strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2003-2015. During his tenure leading the Steelers defense, the team made seven playoff appearances, won five division titles, and won two of their three Super Bowl appearances. Polamalu is a member of the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s and the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.

My wife Wendy is a huge Troy Polamalu fan. She admires the classy way he shows love and respect for his wife, and his understated but firm confession as an Orthodox Christian—not to mention, of course, my own uncanny physical resemblance to Troy Polamalu:

Mostly, though, it was fun to watch Troy Polamalu play football!  He started 142 of 158 career games; made 32 interceptions for 398 yards and three touchdowns; successfully defended against 107 passes; forced 14 fumbles; recovered seven fumbles for 120 yards and two TDs; made 12 sacks; and recorded 783 tackles – 583 of which were solo.  So, how did he do it?

If you ever watched Polamalu play, you already know! Although he is from American Samoa, Polamalu was called the Flyin’ Hawaiian (!) and the Tasmanian Devil, because he hurled himself into the game, seeming to be everywhere at once. While other defenders try, with greater or lesser success, to follow where the ball is, Polamalu read the line, intuited where the ball would be—and then did whatever it took to put himself in that spot, to break up the pass, get the tackle, or make the interception.

To use a theological expression, Polamalu played proleptically. Prolepsis means anticipation, but also something more: Webster defines it as “the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.” That is the way the Bible speaks about the future.

This week’s lectionary passages all speak of God’s future: which, to Christian believers, means Christ’s future coming, and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. But we miss the point if we think this is all about the future. Far too much ink has been spilled and time wasted in the fruitless attempt to predict the future with the symbols and visions of Scripture, as though the Bible was a horoscope or Tarot deck rather than word of God for people of God.

The prophet Jeremiah had little patience for idle dreamers—particularly when their dreams are lies, which make no difference in people’s lives, and so cause them to forget God’s name:

I have heard the prophets prophesying lies in my name. They claim, “I’ve had a dream; I’ve had a dream!” How long will deceitful prophecies dominate the minds of the prophets? Those prophets are treacherous. They scheme to make my people forget me by their dreams that people tell each other (Jer 23:25-27).

According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), only 10% of those ages 18–29 in America identified as “religiously unaffiliated” in 1986. By 2016, that number had increased to 38%.  It declined slightly in 2020, to 36%, but still–over a third of a generation of young people want nothing to do with the church: not because they reject the gospel, I am certain, but because they have never heard it.  They associate the church with the dark, empty dreams and “deceitful prophecies” of prominent preachers, and want nothing to do with their racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric–which is what many young people think “Christianity” represents.

In contrast, Jeremiah says, God’s word is real!  The word of the LORD is “like fire and like a hammer that shatters rock.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Prophet's Prophet | My Jewish Learning

Jewish philosopher and Bible scholar Abraham Heschel saw this coming in 1966, and called for a prophethood of all believers:

In biblical days prophets were astir while the world was asleep; today the world is astir while church and synagogue are busy with trivialities.

Jesus, too, says that his words are like fire: “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!” (Luke 12:49).  He recognizes the dangerous power of the kingdom of God that he announces, which will sadly bring strife and division between those who follow, and those who will not (Luke 12:51-53).

Jesus’ word about the kingdom is not a word for someday, in the distant future: “You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56).  So, to follow Jesus is to live the way Troy Polamalu played: proleptically, as though the promised future was already a reality.  As the author of Hebrews writes,

So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne (Heb 12:1-2).

God calls and empowers us to live by the principles of God’s kingdom not someday, but here and now!

The problems we face are great—far too great for us to solve! There are too many lonely, too many hurting, too many sick and hungry and homeless—we cannot help them all.  It is easy, then, to succumb to despair, and yield to this world’s standards and expectations.

A gift to all humanity': Remembering Desmond Tutu | ShareAmerica

But the certain triumph of God’s coming reign gives us hope, so that we can live confidently in the present. Archbishop Desmond Tutu affirms,

The texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail. In the end, the perpetrators of injustice or oppression, the ones who strut the stage of the world often seemingly unbeatable – there is no doubt at all that they will bite the dust.

We need not cynically conform to this world’s standards and expectations, because we know what God’s future holds. Like Troy Polamalu, we know where the ball will be! Now, are we willing to do whatever it takes to put ourselves there, at the point of God’s in-breaking reign? God wants to empower us today to do just that—to place ourselves, not where the world says the ball is, but where God says the ball will be.

AFTERWORD:

I have been blessed these two weeks to worship with the congregation at St. John’s Lutheran in North Versailles, PA–this blog is based on my sermon for Sunday.  Thanks to that vibrant community for their gracious hospitality, and to their pastor and my good friend the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Greway, for inviting me.

Jul
2022

“When God began to create . . .”

May be an illustration

FOREWORD: As many of you know, I have been working for some time on a book dealing with creation in Scripture.  I am planning to finish that book in December, and to see it in print next year.  Many of you have been praying for this project, and through your questions, comments, and discussion in classes and retreats have helped shaped my thinking.  Thank you!  This is a bit of my work in progress, dealing with the translation of the Bible’s first words.

 

Translation questions emerge with the very first word of the first creation story in Scripture. We are accustomed to reading Genesis 1:1 as a sentence, introducing the account that follows: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1 KJV, RSV, NIV, ESV). But in many recent translations, this verse is rendered not as a sentence, but as a dependent temporal clause: “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void” (Gen 1:1-2 NJPS; compare  NRSVUE and CEB).

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At issue is the first word in the MT, bereshit: reshit, “beginning,” with the prefixed preposition b, typically “in” or “with.” The problem is the absence of the article: as any beginning Hebrew student knows, were this word to be read unambiguously as “in the beginning,” it would be vocalized as bareshit. Without the article, the b should be read as “when” rather than “in,” making Gen 1:1 a clause providing “the temporal setting for the description of pre-creation elements in Gen 1:2” (David M. Carr, Genesis 1—11, International Exegetical Commentary of the Old Testament [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2021], 47). It is true that Hebrew sometimes omits the article, particularly in poetry, so either translation is possible. But this unit is not poetry, and nowhere else in this first chapter has the article been omitted. With medieval Jewish commentators Rashi and ibn Ezra, we should render this first verse “When God began to create the heavens and the earth. . .”.

Apostle's Creed - Finding Forever

Robert Jensen decries this shift in translation on theological grounds:

On the other hand, if we follow the creed’s unmitigated confession of God the Creator, we will read, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ Therewith we will do an intellectually and spiritually tremendous thing, for there can hardly be a proposition more upsetting to our inherited metaphysical assumptions . . . Christianity’s doctrine of creation presents a drastically revisionary metaphysics, a construal of reality that affirms an encompassing creaturely contingency: we and all our universe might not have been (Canon and Creed. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010], 91).

Surely, whether we translate Gen 1:1 as an independent sentence or a temporal clause, the radical contingency of the world is the point of this first creation account—apart from God’s sovereign creative will and word, our ordered world would not be. But while creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) is an important theological claim, to Muslims and Jews as well as to Christians, that is not what Genesis 1:1—2:4a is about. Quite apart from grammatical concerns, if our aim is to preserve creatio ex nihilo, translating Genesis 1:1 as a sentence is no real help. Genesis 1:2, with its description of uncreated watery chaos, already defeats that purpose, as the rabbis long ago realized. In Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 1:5, R. Huna says, “If it were not written, it would be impossible to say it. ‘In the beginning God created’ from what? ‘And the earth was empty [Hebrew tohu wabohu].’”  Creation begins with chaos.

The question posed by the beginning of the Bible is not, after all, “How, or from what, did God create the world?” Ancient people likely did not worry much about such abstract questions.  What they wanted, and needed, to know was more immediate and pressing: Will the sun rise again in the morning? Will the winter pass, and the spring come again? In short: is there a meaningful order to reality? The first creation account affirms that the world does make sense. God has established order, not chaos.

Artwork by Jackson Pollock, ORGANIZED CHAOS, Made of ACRYLIC ON CANVAS

The expression tohu wabohu (“formless void” in the NRSV) presents translation challenges of its own. The first term, tohu, occurs twenty times in Scripture, just over half of these in Isaiah alone (eleven times: Isa 24:10; 29:21; 34:11; 40:17, 23; 41:29; 44:9; 45:18-19; 49:4; 59:4). As used in these Old Testament contexts, tohu appears broadly to mean emptiness or nothingness: whether an empty, and so worthless, action (“I have spent my strength for nothing [Hebrew letohu], and vanity,” Isa 49:4 NRSV; cf. Isa 29:21; 40:7, 23); empty, vain idols (“Don’t turn aside to follow useless idols [Hebrew hattohu] that can’t help you or save you. They’re absolutely useless [Hebrew tohu]!,” 1 Sam 12:21 CEB; cf. Isa 41:29; 44:9); or an empty land (“God found Israel in a wild land—in a howling desert wasteland [Hebrew betohu],” Deut 32:10; cf. Ps 107:40; Job 6:18; 12:24). Apart from Gen 1:2, tohu is used three times in a context that refers to creation: Job 26:7; Isa 45:18-19, and Jer 4:23. Job 26:7 says of the Almighty, “He stretched the North [Hebrew Zaphon; evidently, God’s dwelling place; cf. Ps 48:1-2] over chaos [Hebrew tohu], hung earth over nothing.” From the anonymous prophet of the Babylonian exile called Second Isaiah, Isaiah 45:18-19 appears to relate not only to creation, but specifically to Genesis 1:

For this is what the Lord said, who created the heavens,
    who is God,
    who formed the earth and made it,
    who established it,
    who didn’t create it a wasteland [Hebrew tohu] but formed it as a habitation:
    I, the Lord, and none other!
I didn’t speak in secret
    or in some land of darkness;
I didn’t say to the offspring of Jacob,
    “Seek me in chaos [Hebrew tohu].”
I am the Lord, the one who speaks truth,
who announces what is correct (Isaiah 45:18-19 CEB).

Not only do the word tohu and God’s creation of the heavens and the earth (cf. Gen 1:1) connect these passages, but also the verb translated “create” in Isa 45:18 is bara’, the same verb used in Gen 1:1, 21; 2:3-4a. Here, as in the Job passage, tohu has cosmological implications: the NRSV translation “chaos” in Isa 45:18-19 seems apt.

The word bohu is found only three times in the Hebrew Bible, always following tohu: Genesis 1:2, Isaiah 34:11, and Jeremiah 4:23. Isaiah 34:11 comes from a bitter oracle against Edom (Isa 34:5-17), declaring its destruction as punishment for participating in Zion’s fall (for example, Ezek 35:1-15; Obad 10-16; Ps 137:7-9):

Screech owls and crows will possess it;
    owls and ravens will live there.
God will stretch over it the measuring line of chaos [tohu]
and the plummet stone of emptiness [bohu] over its officials.

Throughout this poem, wild animals and plants have taken over lands formerly inhabited by people, making clear that tohu and bohu refer to wilderness here.

Jeremiah 4:23-26 reads,

I looked at the earth,
and it was without shape or form [tohu wabohu];
        at the heavens
        and there was no light.
I looked at the mountains
    and they were quaking;
    all the hills were rocking back and forth.
 I looked and there was no one left;
    every bird in the sky had taken flight.
I looked and the fertile land was a desert;
    all its towns were in ruins
        before the Lord,
        before his fury.

Here as in the Isa 34:11, the context is a judgment oracle—indeed, a vision of judgment exacted not against a foreign enemy, but against Judah. Although there is no mention of creation in Jer 4:23, the allusions to Gen 1:1-3 are compelling: not only does this passage mention “heavens,” “earth,” and “light” (or rather, its absence), it is the only place in Scripture other than Gen 1:2 where the exact phrase tohu wabohu appears. As John Bright proposes in his classic commentary on Jeremiah,

in this poem, which is one of the most powerful descriptions of the Day of Yahweh in all prophetic literature, one might say that the story of Genesis i has been reversed: men, beasts, and growing things are gone, the dry land itself totters, the heavens cease to give their light, and primeval chaos returns. It is as if the earth had been ‘uncreated’; it is, if one cares to put it so, a ruin of ‘atomic’ proportions (Jeremiah, AB 21 [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965], 32-33)

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Intriguingly, the judgment oracle that opens the book of Zephaniah also speaks of “uncreation,” in terms that also appear to allude to Genesis 1:

I will wipe out everything from the earth, says the LORD.
         I will destroy humanity and the beasts;
        I will destroy the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea.
        I will make the wicked into a heap of ruins;
        I will eliminate humanity from the earth, says the LORD (Zeph 1:2-3).

Zephaniah 1:3 lists the living creatures created by God on the fifth (birds and fish) and sixth (land animals, and humans) days of creation (Gen 1:20-31). However, as Michael De Roche has observed, they are listed in reverse order, moving backwards through the list from humanity (“Zephaniah 1:2-3: The ‘Sweeping’ of Creation.” VT 30 [1980]:106–107), so that creation is undone. The psalms bracketing Nahum and Habakkuk (Nah 1:2-11; Hab 3), which come right before Zephaniah, are poems celebrating the Divine Warrior, evoking the theme of creation by combat.  The divine warrior who defeated chaos and brought an ordered world into being (Nah 1:3-4; Hab 3:8) can also undo that order and return the world to the chaos from which it came. In Zeph 1:2-3, as in Jer 4:23, Divine judgment is described as unmaking, the very opposite of creation: God’s ordered world returned to chaos.

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How, then, should we render tohu wabohu in Gen 1:2?   From his etymological research into tohu and bohu (The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation, JSOTSupp 8 [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1989], 17-22), David Tsumura concludes “Hebrew tohu is based on a Semitic root *thw and means ‘desert’; the term bohu is also a Semitic term based on the root *bhw, ‘to be empty’” (Tsumura 1989, 155). Therefore, Tsumura insists “the phrase. . . has nothing to do with ‘chaos’ and simply means ‘emptiness’ and refers to the earth as an empty place, i.e., ‘an unproductive and uninhabited place’” (Tsumura 1989, 156). So too Claus Westermann insists tohu wabohu “is not a mythological idea but means desert, waste, devastation, nothingness” (Genesis 1—11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion, S.J. [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984; from Biblischer Kommentar, Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1974], 103).

1,243,183 Wilderness Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

The Vulgate, which in Gen 1:2 reads vacua erat et nihili, “it was empty and worthless,” could support this reading: the pre-creation earth was desolate and lifeless—a desert hostile to life. Similarly, in both Gen 1:2 and Jer 4:23, the Aramaic Targums render tohu wabohu as tsadya’ waroqanya’, “desolate and empty.” The Greek Septuagint, intriguingly, has aoratos kai akarskeuatos, “unseen and unready” (Brenton’s delightful 1870 translation reads, “unsightly and unfurnished”!) in Gen 1:2, and the single word outhen, “nothing,” in Jer 4:23.  The Septuagint translators of Jeremiah treated tohu wabohu as a hendiadys: two words expressing a single idea. Indeed, Westermann proposed that bohu “is added only by way of alliteration” (Westermann 1984, 103). Accordingly, Robert Alter translates tohu wabohu in Gen 1:2 as “welter and waste” (The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Volume 1 [New York: W. W. Norton, 2019], 11), while William Brown proposes “void and vacuum” (The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder [New York: Oxford, 2010], 34).

On the other hand, in its context in Genesis 1, tohu wabohu is immediately followed by a description of dark, restless, unruly water (Gen 1:2), which is most naturally read as a depiction of tohu wabohu. Together with the numerous clear parallels between Genesis 1:1—2:4a and the Enuma elish, this makes it difficult to hold, with Tsumura and Westermann, that tohu wabohu is not mythological, and has nothing to do with chaos. The “uncreation” texts in Jeremiah and Zephaniah support reading this phrase as chaos: the opposite of the ordered world, but out of which (as Bereshit Rabbah 1:5 reminds us) God’s creation has been established. The translation tradition going back to the KJV “without form, and void” seems valid (NRSV, “formless void,” CEB, “without shape or form,” JPSV, “unformed and void,” NIV “formless and empty,” NRSVUE, “without shape or form”). The point of Gen 1:1-2 is that the pre-creation world was chaos, upon which God’s word imposed order.

the-spirit-of-god-hovers-over-the-face-of-the-waters.jpeg | Local News | clevelandjewishnews.com

Yet, in this priestly vision of beginnings, not even chaos was devoid of Divine presence! For “God’s wind [Hebrew ruakh ‘elohim] swept over the waters” (Gen 1:2). The Hebrew ruakh is a marvelously multifaceted word. Its base meaning is “breath,” but by extension it can mean “wind,” or the enlivening and empowering agency within a person, hence “spirit” (as in the KJV and NIV; compare the use of the similarly mutifaceted Greek noun pneuma in John 3:5-6, 8). In Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, all three meanings of the word appear. Ezekiel prophesies to the four rukhot (the east, west, north, and south winds; Ezek 37:9), which blow over and into the corpses in the valley, filling them with ruakh (breath), so that “they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company” (Ezek 37:10). In the interpretation of this vision, the LORD promises the exiles, “‘I will put my breath [Hebrew rukhi]  in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the LORD. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the LORD says” (Ezek 37:14).

In Genesis 1:2 as well, we need not choose one meaning over the others: it is likely that all three meanings are present at once. The wind has mythic resonances with the Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish, where Marduk wields the winds as a weapon against the sea monster Tiamat. However, it is also appropriate to see this breeze as breathed by God onto the waters, and to understand ruakh as expressive of God’s spirit—God’s presence and person—even here.

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.”